02/08/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Harnessing the Passion for Learning That Births a Child's First Word

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In Deb Roy's TEDTalk, The Birth of a Word, we are allowed to eavesdrop in on a time-lapse audio of his baby boy learning to pronounce his very first word. As I listened with delight, it occurred to me that a child's acquisition of language happens almost entirely without our interference or instruction. We don't demand or cajole a child to speak, nor do we punish or bribe him; rather, we provide a steady stream of enthusiasm for each attempt, recognizing that every child learns to talk at his or her own rate, and that our role is simply to provide a loving and stimulating environment in which mastery can take place.

Children are born with a ferocious appetite for learning. Everything a baby does, from tasting food out of the dog's dish to attempting acrobatic feats off the back of the couch is done to satisfy his passion to explore and master his world. We have lost faith in the fact that children genuinely want to learn. It is only when we make it stressful or unsafe that this drive is thwarted. Fortunately, babies are shielded from the pressures of our judgments or arbitrary deadlines; while we may expect all children in the fourth grade to learn long division within a week or two of one another, we accept that babies master talking and walking true to their particular developmental unfolding. Oblivious of being compared to others or disappointing parents because of their "slow" development, they simply plod on.

Early in my career, I was a governess for a traveling family's children as they circled the globe. It was a dream job for a young teacher; as the plane descended for a landing in Sri Lanka, I might be conducting a geography lesson, comparing the actual coastline below to the one in our textbook. Learning was joyful and engaging; at five or six, they were making crystals from copper sulfate solutions, or creating balsa wood models of a falcon in flight. I was able to use each child's individual strengths to help them make progress academically in areas that they found more challenging.

When I finally returned to a traditional classroom, it was a bit of a shock. I had seen what could happen to a child when his passion for learning was supported, and I was simply incapable of motivating my children in ways they had become accustomed to -- praise and shame, rewards and punishments. Just as Roy's son didn't need bribes to fuel his effort to progress from "ga-ga" to the word "water", I understood that children didn't need gold stars or happy faces to motivate them to learn. They simply needed caregivers who accepted their pace, encouraged them with love, and celebrated their triumphs. It took some time to wean my students from needing constant prodding or threats to get them excited about learning in ways they had been before they had been absorbed into the school culture but over time, they rediscovered the joy of learning for learning's sake.

Not long ago, I embarked on a personal adventure in expanding my horizons by taking up the banjo. As a full-fledged beginner, it's been fascinating to watch myself manage the conversation between the self-talk from my early years and that of today. The voices of teachers from my childhood admonish me to "try harder" or point out how quickly some of the other students in my class are getting the hang of that lick in Old Cluck Hen. But the voice of the present -- thankfully, now the dominant voice in my head -- approaches my banjo practice the way Deb Roy and millions of other parents respond to their toddler's efforts to master the spoken word. I have fun with it. I laugh. I ask for help. I take breaks. I acknowledge my progress and am kind to myself as I fumble along.

If you consider the thousands of mental and physical adjustments we must finesse to engage in a conversation or walk across a room, it could be said that delivering our first words or taking our first steps are the most difficult skills we will ever master. And yet, driven by our innate desire to be all that we can be, we soldier through every challenge to succeed.

How wonderful it is when we acknowledge the progress our children make without spoiling the experience -- cheering them on as they try, fail, and try again. Learning is one of the greatest joys of life. What a world it would be if we each had the confidence to plow through whatever hurdles might stand in the way of shining our unique light fearlessly and brilliantly, without voices in our head suggesting we weren't quite getting it right.

Imagine a world like that, with children who wouldn't dream of giving up until they find a way to say water when they're thirsty, or to express all the words yet to be spoken as they share with us their wants and wishes, hopes and dreams.

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