First, let us do away with the folklore that parents teach their children language. No one supposes that parents provide explicit grammar lessons, of course, but many parents (and some child psychologists who should know better) think that mothers provide children with implicit lessons. These lessons take the form of a special speech variety called Motherese (or, as the French call it, Mamanaise): intensive sessions of conversational give-and-take, with repetitive drills and simplified grammar. ("Look a the doggie! See the doggie? There's a doggie"). In contemporary middle-class American culture, parenting is seen as an awesome responsibility, an unforgiving vigil to keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life. The belief that Motherese is essential to language development is part of the same mentality that sends yuppies to "learning centers" to buy little mittens with bull's-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner.

One gets some perspective by examining the folk theories about parenting in other cultures. The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa believe that children must be drilled to sit, stand, and walk. They carefully pile sand around their infants to prop them upright, and sure enough, every one of these infants soon sits up on its own. We find this amusing because we have observed the results of the experiment that the San are unwilling to chance: we don't teach our children to sit, stand, and walk and they do it anyway, on their own schedule. But other groups enjoy the same condescension toward us. In many communities of the world, parents do not indulge their children in Motherese. In fact, they do not speak to their prelinguistic children at all, except for occasional demands and rebukes. This is not unreasonable. After all, young children plainly can't understand a word you say. So why waste your breath in soliloquies? Any sensible person would surely wait until a child has developed speech and more gratifying two-way conversations become possible. As Aunt Mae, a woman living in the South Carolina Piedmont, explained to the anthropologist Shirely Brice Heath: "Now just how crazy is dat? White folks uh hear dey kids say sump'n, dey say it back to 'em, dey aks 'em 'gain and 'gain 'bout things, like they 'posed to be born knowin'." Needless to say, the children in these communities, overhearing adults and other children, learn to talk, as we see in Aunt Mae's fully grammatical BEV {Black English Vernacular}. pp. 39-.40


Pinker, Steven. (1994). The language instinct. New York: Wm. Morrow.