Doolittle's Mystery

How do kids know that animals can't talk?

My daughters are almost 4 and 2 now. Thus far, 90 percent of their exposure to animals has come through books, television, movies, or playing. In each of these contexts animals speak. Sometimes there's a bit of an accent. Many dogs retained the slurred guttural "argh" of the bark, and most cats still display a slight list. But it's extremely rare that they see any depiction of an animal that is unable to communicate to humans or its animal brethren in perfect English (or Spanish in the case of Dora's friend Tico) .

We don't live on a farm. It is 2006. The only live animals my daughters see are squirrels and birds who rarely stick around long enough to reveal their inability to speak. Plus, their exposure to these squirrels and birds pales in comparison to their exposure to the tea-sipping beavers, babbling clown-fish, and singing hyenas of storybooks and animated films. For every mute squirrel they see, they are bombarded by portrayals of more than two dozen loquacious lions, tigers, and bears by the TV or me.

Yet never once has either of them seriously attempted to talk to a live animal. Sure, they might say, "Hi," but when the squirrel scampers off or the bird darts away into the sky, my daughters never express the slightest frustration over their rudeness (which is odd considering that Sophia, my oldest, has twice threatened to knock the sun's head off because it was shining in her face on long car trips).

In fact, once, when a squirrel perched on a fence in our backyard long enough for us to inspect it closely, and I acted like he was talking to me, providing his voice myself in a performance that I thought rivaled Mel Blanc's best, Sophia turned to me and rolled her eyes. "Dad," she said, sighing. "Squirrels can't talk. That's just pretend."

Where did this knowledge come from? Surely it must be hard-wired. I have done everything I can to teach them that animals talk, and yet they know it's not true.

I think I'm going to interview my oldest daughter on this subject and see if I can get to the bottom of this. I'll post an audio file of the interview before the end of the weekend.
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