BY CHRISTOPHER IACONO
Speaking in Tongues
About two months before my son, Julian, was born, Franco Battiato inadvertently showed me how delightful it is to hear children speak.
"Energia," the fourth song from Battiato’s 1972 debut album Fetus begins not with music but with Italian children either learning to speak or speaking. At first, we only hear an infant crying before it cuts to another infant making "buh-bah" sounds that really aren’t words. Older children enter the mix, and the voices begin to overlap. Meanwhile, a spacey synthesizer motif, which also appears in the album’s title track, fades in while the voices fade out.
Despite being the son of a father who speaks fluent Italian, I never learned the language, so I didn’t know what these kids were saying. But it didn’t matter. Hearing the children’s voices brought joy because pretty soon, my wife, Lori, and I would be witnessing Julian making the same sounds as he learned to speak.
Make no mistake, though: Battiato wasn’t (and still isn’t) Raffi, and Fetus was an odd album for an expectant father. Musically, it made sense for me: the strange mix of wistful acoustics and psychedelic synths was in line with the type of progressive rock I normally liked to listen to. But as you would expect from an album subtitled "Return to the New World" and "entirely dedicated to the life and work of Aldous Huxley," the lyrics (translated from the Italian in the CD booklet) are pretty bleak. And I didn’t want to feel as if I was bringing a child into the type of world Battiato was describing in his lyrics.
However, I’ve never been one to really pay attention to the words in a song (unless they were really offensive or offensively bad). If someone sang entries from a phonebook, I wouldn’t be bothered by it. Songs in foreign languages made it even easier to not pay attention to the lyrics, so that’s why I was able to enjoy Battiato on a musical level.
I listened to it a lot: at work (in the days before I became a full-time proofreader), in car rides to meet parents, while writing fiction. Each time, I looked forward to hearing the first minute-and-a-half of that fourth track. To me, it was a preview of the child who would soon be entering my life.
When Julian did come into the world on April 29, 2007, at 12:10 in the afternoon, he began learning how to communicate right away. By screaming and crying. And like all babies, he screamed and cried a lot over the next few months because that’s all he could do. Soon, though, he started adding new ways to express himself (cooing, gurgling). Then he said his first sort-of-word, "buh-bah"—just as the infant had done in the Battiato recording.
During his toddler years, I used to imagine him saying something that would make me proud—for example, he would know how to say "apple" in several languages or would identify the different trains used in Thomas the Tank Engine—to which I would respond with "That’s my boy!" But at that time, Julian struggled with language.
When Julian was around twenty months old, his pediatrician told us she was concerned that his vocabulary was extremely limited. Even though he was able to say "car" and "school bus" with the clarity of a bell, he couldn’t (or didn’t want to) say more than that. And instead of using the correct words for food, drink, and fish, he made up his own word (pronounced "mah-nuh-meh-nuhm") to mean all three. Lori and I waited a few months, but when we saw his vocabulary hadn’t expanded, we finally decided to seek therapy for him.
For the next year, speech and physical therapists (they believed weak muscles may have been one of the reasons for his speech delay) came over our house several times a week and put him through exercises that would help improve his ability to communicate. However, since each of the therapists’ visits were only about a half-hour or so, it was really up to Lori and I to work with Julian throughout the rest of the week. We did everything from having him use sign language (the sign for "more" was, of course, his favorite) to walking over pillows and having him jump from railroad ties to build the strength in his legs. The therapists also encouraged us to have him ask for things he wanted, which was tough, since he was used to relatives always waiting on him. Despite all this work, though, he showed very little progress.
Finally, just before he turned three in April 2010, he said the word "nine." Of course, the next day, when the therapist came over, I asked him to say it in front of her and he didn’t. Perhaps even at that age, he didn’t like being under pressure as the rest of us all waited for the big, thrilling moment. He did eventually say "nine" during the session, but ultimately, it didn’t matter anyway: he had turned a corner in his speech.
From there, he was adding new words to his vocabulary so quickly it seemed he was making up for lost time. We wondered if he’d ever really had a problem.
Regardless, he became the little chatterbox I’d always imagined him to be, just like the children in "Energia."
These days, he not only loves to talk, but he sings a lot too. Recently, while singing along to the theme song of Power Rangers: Zeo, Lori joked, "He could be a prog-rock singer."
And I couldn’t help but think, "That’s my boy!"
Christopher Iacono lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son. You can learn more about him and his works at http://cuckoobirds.org.