Beginning in childhood, we transform our experience according to our conscious projects, and in spite of them. When we talk, what interrupts our theme is as interesting as the theme itself….Our mistakes can incite curiosity rather than merely invite punishment; our efficiency can be a refuge.
But in order to make a mistake, of course, one has to know the rules. Error is a function of competence. Or to put it another way, in what sense do young children make mistakes? Because, in a sense, becoming acculturated is learning what it is to make a mistake. Children around nursery age – between two and three years old – are both just learning to speak and just making the momentous transition from family to the first version of school. And one thing this entails, among many others, is a paradoxical form of renunciation for the child. At the time when her curiosity is becoming increasingly sophisticated, it is as though she has to give up what she can never in fact relinquish, her inarticulate self, the self before language (what Seamus Heaney refers to as “pre-reflective lived experience”). As the child embarks upon her own elaborate theory-making…she has in the background, as a kind of taproot, her passionate life without words. At this point in her life the child leaves more than one home, something she will do every time she speaks, which is always out of her own previous silence. That noisy silence, before language joined in, is a lengthy part of her own history. Words are not merely a substitute for wordlessness; they are something else entirely…what exactly must be given up in order to speak?