uring music lessons, when other fourth-graders sit cross-legged on the floor, Fredrick sits apart. Sometimes he slides beneath an empty desk in the back of the room and watches the lesson from there. If I call his name, he tenses like a cornered animal, shifting warily, fixing his dark eyes on my face, ready to bolt.
I’ve never heard his voice, except in whispers. He understands English, listed as his mother tongue, but rarely speaks. He doesn’t sing. He holds the recorder to his mouth but doesn’t blow. When we listen to a Bach cantata, he daydreams, his expression sad.
Once, on a class trip, he sat alone at the back of the bus. He refused to move nearer to the other children but, when I invited him to play a game with me, he surprised me by saying yes. I sat beside him and we searched road signs, buildings and passing vehicles for a word beginning with A. When he turned away from me, to look outside, he cowered down, shoulders hunched, head pulled in.
“There’s an A,” I said. “Auto. One point for me. Now we need a B word.”
He pointed a finger and whispered, “brambilla.”
Several C words went by that he didn’t notice. I wondered if he was still in the game and decided to call the next one, “casalinghi.” I hadn’t even finished saying the word, when he whispered, “destra.”
“Oops, I missed that one.” He smiled. After that he got entità, fanelli and gigante. When other children joined the game, however, he tensed into silence.
Fredrick doesn’t really have a mother tongue. Not understanding each other’s native languages, Fredrick’s parents speak together in French, to honor of their first meeting in Paris.
They speak to American-born Fredrick in English, a second, or even third, language for themselves. As they’ve moved around the world for his father’s work, Fredrick has been cared for by a series of baby sitters speaking who speak halting English.
When my children were born, I was frequently urged to speak to them in Italian. My second language, however, seemed an artificial framework, inadequate for expressing my feelings. No language but my own could convey the long-forgotten songs and stories that emerged while I rocked my children to sleep.
By now psychologists, linguists and educators agree on the importance of using one’s mother tongue. It’s so important that, in 1993, the United Nations established the basic human right to use one’s own language.
A mother must speak to her child in the language in which she expresses herself best. Using complex grammatical forms teaches logical sequencing and complex relationships in thought. Metaphor, subtlety, humor, terms of endearment, innuendo — these are better expressed in native speech.
Children begin to learn the tones and rhythms of language already in the womb. During the first years of life, language, both verbal and non-verbal, nurtures the parent-child bond. Culture is transmitted first of all within family structure. It has been amply shown that a child’s level of development in the mother tongue predicts his success in second language acquisition and in cognitive and social learning.
Michael Newton’s fascinating book, “Savage Girls and Wild Boys,” examines extreme examples of language deprivation. He examines children raised for a time without human contact, either as a result of abuse or because they were nurtured by animals. Unlike children deprived later, those deprived in the first years of life never learned to speak or to behave in civilized ways; they remained wild.
What emerges from these haunting case studies is that language, in its various forms of sensory communication, is necessary not only for thought but even for human identity.
Fredrick, who belongs to a loving family, still struggles in every subject and suffers from low self-esteem. When his class composed an opera on the Orpheus myth, he chose the scene in which the god, Apollo, teaches Orpheus to play the lyre.
Apollo: “No, Orpheus. Try harder. It’s not right.”
Orpheus: “I’m trying my best.”
Apollo: “No. It’s not good.”
Orpheus: “It’s my best.”
Apollo: “Do it better.”
This heartbreaking dialogue continued for a full page and Orpheus never got it right.
Now as more children moved to sit near us on the bus, Fredrick shifted in his seat. He didn’t look for words.
I asked if he’d rather sit somewhere else. When I stood up, he escaped across the aisle and, for the next two hours, sat alone, staring out the window.
Back at school, his mother was waiting to take him home. As they left, he turned and looked at me. When I waved goodbye, he waved back.