Electronic Design

What's All This Amelia Stuff, Anyhow?

I suppose I could've called this, "What's All This Baby Stuff?" But in this case, I think it's fair to particularize, not generalize. Last year, our younger son and his wife had a nice healthy baby. At the time, my wife and I were hiking up at Pangpema in eastern Nepal, at 16,400-ft. elevation, 90 miles from the nearest road, and 10 days hike from the nearest airport. We didn't know if the baby was a boy or a girl.

I went to the nearest phone booth and put my dime in the machine. Actually, there was a British medical expedition and they had a satellite phone. I called home and found out that our new granddaughter was named Amelia. Not a bad price: $42 for 2.7 minutes. A good investment.

Like most babies, Amelia is beautiful in many ways (and ordinary in others). But we sure like her. We think she's pretty bright and agreeable. And she has a long attention span, which I think is great.

(What's All this Zarf Stuff, Anyhow?) When Amelia was just big enough to sit up (at about 6 months), we sat her in a high chair and she joined us at the dinner table. I took a red plastic zarf, which is the sort of funnel that you use to filter your coffee. It's good for kids to play with because it has a handle and no sharp edges. I took her favorite red plastic ducky, put it under the zarf, and slid it over toward Amelia. She tried to grab the zarf quite awkwardly at first. After a while, she figured out how to pick it up, and there was the ducky. Okay!

After a minute, I put the ducky under the zarf again and offered it to her. Again, she figured out how to uncover her ducky. We played this game 11 times in a row with the same positive result.

The twelfth time, she just ignored the zarf. Later, I tried it a few more times. She continued to ignore this test. Smart kid. Independent! (I got this on videotape.)

A few months later, when Amelia was about 10 months old, we were playing with blocks and little colored rings that went on a central spindle. At the end of the evening, I mused, "I wonder if she knows about colors." I held out two blocks to her and asked, "Hey, Amelia, which one of these is red?"

Amelia's eyes snapped to the red one. Then she slowly held out her hand and pointed at it.

Amelia's mother said, "Oh, that's just a lucky coincidence. I can't believe she really knows red." Well, we asked the same question—"Which one of these is red?"—about four more times using DIFFERENT toys with red and other colors. She was right five times in a row. So we were impressed. First of all, Amelia is not colorblind. She also isn't deaf. And she understands red. Not bad!

It wasn't until a week later that I realized that Amelia also understands, "Which one of these is ___?" That's pretty good, too, for a little kid.

My wife has always observed that kids may not know how to talk, but they do know a lot about words. A small person might know how to respond to a word quite well, even if he or she could not speak it.

One time we had a drought. Our older son was not talking much at that time. He spoke just a very small number of words. Then one morning I went down with him, opened the kitchen door, and it was raining. He looked at this and said, "Hmm, rain..." We thought about this. We were quite sure he had never spoken the word "rain" to us (though maybe to himself). Anyhow, he knew what he was talking about.

We bought the new book by Alison Gopnik, The Scientist in the Crib.1 It's pretty thoughtful. It's NOT necessarily anything you wouldn't have guessed or figured out by yourself, but it's nice to see it confirmed. It points out that babies really do start learning their language skills at the age of zero and even earlier. Talking to a baby really does work. Singing, too. This is essential for a baby to learn to talk. Babies in a bad old orphanage, where nobody ever talks to them, are in DEEP trouble for language skills. Conversely, babies who are fed two different languages can assimilate them easily. Wonderful!

The book starts out by proving that an infant who's just an hour old can respond to the sight of a person sticking out a tongue by sticking out his or her tongue. Hmmm...how does a baby know to do that? You may not need to BUY this book, but it's definitely a good book for any parent to get his or her librarian to purchase. You should get in the HABIT of recommending good books that your librarian ought to buy.

Several years ago, in a football locker room, a woman reporter was accosted by a football player because she was allegedly looking at part of a football player's body. Some people might have thought of this as the kind of racist or sexist happening that just occurs when a woman reporter is allowed to go into a locker room.

But I realized that this is ENTIRELY related to what a defensive back does in his job. He looks at the quarterback's eyes and tries to guess where the ball will be going. A good cornerback can look in the eyes of a mediocre quarterback and go right to the place where the ball is going to be thrown. On the other hand, a skillful quarterback can look here, and then suddenly throw the ball there, and the defensive back can't guess where the ball is going. So of course the football player was watching the reporter's eyes to see where they were looking.

We watched where Amelia was focusing her eyes. It was very educational. Sometimes we watched her watch a certain corner of a mural as we carried her around the room. Every time we came around a corner, her eyes would be locked on a certain section of the mural. We never did figure out exactly what was so interesting there.

What else are we learning? The usual. How to make a baby happy. How to learn from the baby, and how to teach the appropriate little skills. I love to see a child's "wheels going around"—see how his/her head is learning to learn. On a good day, it is MOST fun and rather hard and exhausting work.

Amelia might be characterized by some people as a "baby." But she often acts as a small but thoughtful and independent person—and as a very good little learning machine.

One of Amelia's favorite recent discoveries is doors with hinges. She was standing there, a week ago, in front of two small cabinet doors. She was carefully opening and closing them. Then she went over and stood right by the doors. She put her hand in the doors and carefully pinched it. She practiced at pinching her hand just a little, not too much. Pretty smart kid! (I must admit, I failed to ask her to pinch my hand a little. Maybe next Sunday.)

One of my favorite kinds of story is about a kid who (apparently) doesn't learn how to speak, but then starts talking in sentences. For example, a boy was over three years old, yet didn't talk at all. One day, driving through the woods, he saw that part of the forest was on fire. He said, "Mommy, Mommy, the forest is on fire!" Later, they asked him why he hadn't talked before. He said, "Well, there was never anything important to talk about." Another kid who had never talked said, "Mother, my toast is burned." When asked why she'd never spoken, she said, "The toast was always okay before." Another line, for a kid's first words, is the sentence, "Did you know?! Squirrels go to sleep in trees!"

Of course, the parent of a child who refuses to talk until he or she decides to talk in sentences must go crazy wondering why the kid doesn't talk. If you have any true stories of kids who didn't talk until they were ready to speak IN SENTENCES, I would like to hear about them. What did they say?

(This column is NOT about kids or babies. Don't complain to me that I am wasting trees on irrelevant topics. It is about the kind of learning done by people and kids. We all have different things to learn. Right?)

I'm going back to trek in Nepal this fall. I was looking in a Nepali phrasebook. I'd been discussing with a friend that Thailand is a wonderful place, except the language is quite difficult and hard for us to learn, as it depends a lot on tones and nuances. So—by comparison—maybe Nepali is easy?

Looking in that Nepali phrasebook,2 I realized that some of the words in Nepali that have the same sounds are written with the same symbols: the Devanagari symbols. In about 5 min., I figured out that the "alphabet" of Nepali symbols is really very simple and neat. Why, even I could learn that! I looked up a couple dozen words that I knew and puzzled out the "codes" for b, i, a, o p, s, t, m, n, and r. And l and p and j. Hey, this is fun and almost EASY! So I'm spending a few minutes every day studying and decoding Nepali words and symbols.

There are still a few puzzling things in Nepali. The diphthongs are sometimes tricky. In English, "ph" sounds different from p and different from h. So in Nepali, the symbols for diphthongs are puzzling as I have not seen them so often. But Nepali doesn't have a lot of different ways that a symbol sounds. It always sounds the same. That's a big help. Also, Nepali doesn't have upper and lower cases, nor different printed and written letters. So the number of alphabets one has to learn is simpler than in English, even if there are 58 symbols.

The Nepali word for big sister is didi. I have known that for 10 years. But when written in the Nepali symbols, the symbols are arranged iddi. That's okay, but I haven't yet learned why. Likewise, sisi is written as issi.

In fairness to me, I went back and checked several of my other Nepali phrasebooks. They listed the English and Nepali words, but not the spelling in Nepali. They just had the sounds an American would say. So it's not entirely my fault that I never figured this out before until the right book came along. If Thai is difficult, Nepali is easy. And India uses MANY of the same words, alphabets, and symbols. I'm learning much about Hindi, the language of India, too. Two for the price of one!

Hey, I'm in the education business, too—educating not just Amelia, but myself. I'm going to ask Peter Owens what signs one expects to see in the streets of Nepal. Then I can see, read, understand, and write some old friends (that is, words) when I get there.

When I went back to Japan for the first time in 26 years, I'd spent some more time reading Len Walsh's excellent book, Read Japanese Today.3 It is, of course, true that speaking and understanding all of the Japanese language is rather challenging. But you really can look at signs and see friends, symbols that you learned this morning and understand this afternoon. If you're going to Japan, this is a great little book.

I was able to ride all around Tokyo on the subways, read the maps, hike the streets for miles, and read many of the Japanese signs (although most of the signs ARE in English, too).

All for now. / Comments invited!
RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer
[email protected]—or:

Mail Stop D2597A
National Semiconductor
P.O. Box 58090
Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090


  1. Gopnik, Alison et al., The Scientist in the Crib, William Morrow, 1999, ISBN 0688159885. About $24.
  2. O'Rourke, Mary-Jo, and Shrestha, Bimal, Lonely Planet Nepali Phrasebook, Lonely Planet, 1996, ISBN 0864423454. About $6.
  3. Walsh, Len, Read Japanese Today, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1969, ISBN 0804804966. About $9.
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