By Frederic Friedel

Martin, our firstborn, was a bright and alert toddler, and interested in everything around him. His understanding of words before he turned one was phenomenal, and in his second year, when he started to speak, he had a vocabulary of hundreds of words. Some were slightly mispronounced — like “tutu” for the German word “Flugzeug” (aeroplane — at the time he uttered a famous sentence, when the TV showed images of a plane crash: “Tutu iss patut” — “Flugzeug ist kaput”).

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After he started talking Martin, like all children, would point at objects and name them: Haus, Blume, Mond (house, flower, moon). The ones that were mispronounced, like tutu, we had to figure out. But one word mystified us: atee. What could he mean? Picture? Bus? Telephone? He kept pointing at different objects. After trying to guess for a few weeks I suddenly caught him touching the letters on a Grundig TV set and saying: atee, atee, atee… So he means letter!

After a while, when he was almost a year and a half, we discovered that Martin was giving individual letters different names. No, wait, they have real names! We got him a magnetic alphabet set and soon he knew and recognized most of the letters.

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Martin was a small, somewhat delicate child, and in his second winter — he was one year and eight months old — I was out browsing some shops with him. He was dressed in a cute winter jacket, and I was carrying him on my arm. We were looking at some toys when a shopkeeper came up to us. She was completely enthralled. “Oh my god! Soooo cute! You know, one forgets how small they are. Can he talk? No, of course not yet. You should bring him over to that department. We have lovely cuddly toys.” (We were in a section which had boxes and sets).

At that moment Martin pointed to a box on the shelf. It read AUTO (German for “car”) across the top. He pointed at each letter and read out loud: “A, U, T, O — Auto!” The shopkeeper stared at us in complete disbelief: “He just read that box! That baby can read??” I couldn’t resist (I never can): “Yeah, sure.” “How old is he?” “One year,” I said truthfully.

Of course Martin could not read. I tested it: gave him combinations of letters he knew, like “MA” and “PA”, or “ALDI”. He could name the letters but not put them together into words. In the shop he had simply read the letters on the box, happily the right way around — he often did it from right to left. And below the word was a big picture of a car, which he dutifully identified: Auto!

“But how can a one-year-old read??” The shopkeeper was almost shrieking. Of course, I should have explained it to her, but I didn’t. The opportunity was too good. “I don’t know, he just can.” “You taught him to read?” “No, somehow he picked it up himself.” On the lady’s face I could see horror and bewilderment — should she be calling the police, or some scientific institution? Until today she is probably telling her friends about the miracle she had witnessed in the shop that day.

In Germany children learn to read in school, at the age of six, or sometimes even seven. Both our sons could not wait that long. Martin learned to read and in fact to write at four.

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In the above picture he has drawn a man, below him a face with slits in the eyes, which he has labeled “EKATZ” (cat in German is KATZE — he knew there was an “E” in there somewhere) and a locomotive, in German “LOK”.

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In the meantime Martin has given us two wonderful, wonderful grandchildren, both of whom are linguistically very talented — using complex tenses and subjunctive clauses at the age of three. They haven’t started reading yet, and we have been warned by pedagogues not to teach them — “because then when they start school they will be bored to death.” So bore them to death for the next three years, so that they can start learning with the others? I assure the teachers that by the time Enders and Hennes go to school, they and at least 30% of their classmates will probably be running blogs. The world has changed and the good ol’ days are not coming back.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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