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An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

Learning To Speak

Title:     Learning To Speak
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

With what breathless interest we listen for the baby's first word! What a new bond is at once and for ever established between its soul and ours by this mysterious, inexplicable, almost incredible fact! That is the use of the word. That is its only use, so far as mere gratification of the ear goes. Many other sounds are more pleasurable,--the baby's laugh, for instance, or its inarticulate murmurs of content or sleepiness.

But the word is a revelation, a sacred sign. Now we shall know what our beloved one wants; now we shall know when and why the dear heart sorrows or is glad. How reassured we feel, how confident! Now we cannot make mistakes; we shall do all for the best; we can give happiness; we can communicate wisdom; relation is established; the perplexing gulf of silence is bridged. The baby speaks!

But it is not of the baby's learning to speak that we propose to write here. All babies learn to speak; or, if they do not, we know that it means a terrible visitation,--a calamity rare, thank God! but bitter almost beyond parents' strength to bear.

But why, having once learned to speak, does the baby leave off speaking when it becomes a man or a woman? Many of our men and women to-day need, almost as much as when they were twenty-four months old, to learn to speak. We do not mean learning to speak in public. We do not mean even learning to speak well,--to pronounce words clearly and accurately; though there is need enough of that in this land! But that is not the need at which we are aiming now. We mean something so much simpler, so much further back, that we hardly know how to say it in words which shall be simple enough and also sufficiently strong. We mean learning to speak at all! In spite of all which satirical writers have said and say of the loquacious egotism, the questioning curiosity of our people, it is true to-day that the average American is a reticent, taciturn, speechless creature, who, for his own sake, and still more for the sake of all who love him, needs, more than he needs any thing else under heaven, to learn to speak.

Look at our silent railway and horse-cars, steamboat-cabins, hotel-tables, in short, all our public places where people are thrown together incidentally, and where good-will and the habit of speaking combined would create an atmosphere of human vitality, quite unlike what we see now. But it is not of so much consequence, after all, whether people speak in these public places or not. If they did, one very unpleasant phase of our national life would be greatly changed for the better. But it is in our homes that this speechlessness tells most fearfully,--on the breakfast and dinner and tea-tables, at which a silent father and mother sit down in haste and gloom to feed their depressed children. This is especially true of men and women in the rural districts. They are tired; they have more work to do in a year than it is easy to do. Their lives are monotonous,--too much so for the best health of either mind or body. If they dreamed how much this monotony could be broken and cheered by the constant habit of talking with each other, they would grasp at the slightest chance of a conversation. Sometimes it almost seems as if complaints and antagonism were better than such stagnant quiet. But there need not be complaint and antagonism; there is no home so poor, so remote from affairs, that each day does not bring and set ready, for family welcome and discussion, beautiful sights and sounds, occasions for helpfulness and gratitude, questions for decision, hopes, fears, regrets! The elements of human life are the same for ever; any one heart holds in itself the whole, can give all things to another, can bear all things for another; but no giving, no bearing, no, not even if it is the giving up of a life, if it is done without free, full, loving interchange of speech, is half the blessing it might be.

Many a wife goes down to her grave a dulled and dispirited woman simply because her good and faithful husband has lived by her side without talking to her! There have been days when one word of praise, or one word even of simple good cheer, would have girded her up with new strength. She did not know, very likely, what she needed, or that she needed any thing; but she drooped.

Many a child grows up a hard, unimpressionable, unloving man or woman simply from the uncheered silence in which the first ten years of life were passed. Very few fathers and mothers, even those who are fluent, perhaps, in society, habitually _talk_ with their children.

It is certain that this is one of the worst shortcomings of our homes. Perhaps no other single change would do so much to make them happier, and, therefore, to make our communities better, as for men and women to learn to speak.

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Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: Learning To Speak