Helen now had the key to language, and was eager to learn how to use it. She had had to trap each word “by a slow and often painful process” as opposed to children who can hear and acquire language without any tremendous effort, but she writes that no matter how one must struggle to acquire language, the result is always “wonderful.”
Helen found acquiring language a slow process at times, but nonetheless delighted in finding more and more ways to express herself and engage with the world around her after so long spent in the dark.
As Helen learned more and more about language, she began to ask Miss Sullivan more and more questions about the world. One morning, before Helen knew many words, she asked her teacher what “love” meant. Miss Sullivan tried to explain, signing “I love Helen” into Helen’s palm and attempting to kiss her on the head. Helen still could not understand, and asked if “love” was the sweetness of flowers or the heat of the sun.
As Helen’s horizons expanded, she found herself thinking hard about abstract concepts and struggling to understand the more ineffable aspects of the human experience. It makes sense that Helen would struggle assigning words to her feelings after so long without any way of expressing herself. The desire to pin down these words pushed Helen forward.
A few days later, when Helen made a mistake while stringing beads of different sizes into groups, she found herself struggling to concentrate and figure out what she had done wrong. Miss Sullivan pointed to Helen’s forehead and signed the word “think” into her palm, and suddenly Helen had a name for the process which was going on in her head. Excited by the new connection, Helen asked if this feeling was love—again, Annie tried to explain the ineffable nature of love, and suddenly Helen understood “the invisible lines stretched between [her own] spirit and the spirits of others.”
As Helen acquired a deeper understanding of abstract concepts and began to learn words to describe how she was feeling inside, and what was happening within herself, she made more and deeper connections and began to understand the nature of community, humanity, and communion between friends and strangers alike.
Helen explains that Miss Sullivan always spoke to Helen with the eloquence she would use to speak to any speaking child, only she signed everything into Helen’s hands. In this way, Helen slowly, over the course of a process which took several years, picked up the countless idioms and expressions used in daily conversation. Miss Sullivan repeated conversations to Helen verbatim in an attempt to give her the tools to engage in the art of conversation, but Helen writes that it took her many years to work up the confidence to take initiative in this way, barred as she was from distinguishing tone of voice and facial expressions, the things which make up the “very soul” of what one is saying at any given time.
Miss Sullivan never treated Helen condescendingly or spoke down to her, and it is because of this that Helen was able to acquire language and a sense of what words expressed so skillfully. Though the process took many years, Helen delighted in the work of piecing together the different parts of the world, and soon gathered up the self-confidence to express herself to those around her.