Language acquisition is one of those major milestones that marks a transition from babyhood to toddlerhood but it is not as clearcut as a first step. In our case, communication and understanding move in leaps and bounds. We started baby sign language at eight months and now we are seeing the benefits: a calmer, more confident child who can express her needs. At 17 months, she also now comprehends a huge range of words and uses a few words in place of signs — like her favourite, car, over and over, when she wants to go out, when she sees one in a book and even as they flash by us on the road.
Language, its acquisition and its effects are of particular interest to me. Both my undergraduate degree and my Masters are in Communications. I have to confess that I watched my little 8-month-old girl in front of the mirror with avid interest, marking the day she began to identify the image in the glass as herself, and joking to her that she now had access to the Symbolic and would master the idea of language any day now. (See Lacan’s mirror stage theory.) It’s hard to measure whether that was indeed the moment when she started to “get” what we were trying to do with the signs…
Certainly, by February, when she was a little over one, I noticed she had representation down pat — she’d worked out that a picture of a cat was also a cat. Utterly fascinating. She’d been signing “cat” for a little while now whenever she saw our moggy but had started doing it for representations of cats in books and for the strange cat-thing my mother bought us (sorry, Mum, but it is a bit odd).
Then, she started signing “dog” too, which I find amazing because a) we don’t have one, b) the first time she saw the sign was early January at a friend’s place and she was terrified of the dog and c) her Dad hadn’t been doing the sign, only me, so it’s been weekends only. Even more impressive, she did the sign when a dog she couldn’t even see *barked*. I checked it a few times and she definitely knew what it was. And apparently, her greater use of signs at this age will have a direct correlation to the variety in her lexicon when she’s older.
Some words get accompanying vocalisation — daddy, always. For some, the vocalisation was there for a while (“ah da” for all done, for example) but it’s disappeared again in favour of the sign on its own. She’s got all the consonants she’s “supposed” to have at this age: m n p b t d w plus k and g which aren’t supposed to be common until two years. (She’s definitely got ‘k’ — did I mention the incessant use of ‘car’?). I’ve seen other info that suggests ‘sh’ comes even later and yet our daughter is using ‘shoe’ (sometimes pronounced ‘sha’) as her second favourite word.
She knows many words — she will point to most of her body parts now when you name them, she will take your hand when asked, will take an item and put it in the bin or give it to daddy when asked — two very different ideas that she doesn’t mix up, she can answer the question “who am I?” by signing “mama” back to me. Apparently, she’s learning 10–15 words a day and apparently only one of those words is accounted for by direct instruction (see all the theories of how language acquisition works). The rest are picked up by context… She’s been running around the house saying takatakataka for a couple of weeks now and I couldn’t for the life of me work out what it was she was trying to say. Then we realised that when daddy tries to teach her how to drum on the edge of the table, he uses tabla language to keep time — “dun-taka-taka, dun-taka-taka”. Today’s babble was “dubbabuddadubbabudda”. Effectively, she’s just singing to herself…
What’s absolutely fascinating me is that she invents signs and words as she needs them. We didn’t teach her a sign for tickle — she’s invented it. Today, she signed something that looked like the “love” sign we say to her at night but also rocked side to side as she did it. I took it to mean “cuddle” because it was similar to how she cuddles her bunny. This kind of need for communication resulting in emergent signing gives us a window into how language arises at all (and is most amazingly documented in Nicaraguan Sign Language, which was invented organically by a generation of Deaf kids in the 1970s).
And then that leads to the next part of this: apart from the technical basics of how the child acquires the building blocks of this language, the consonants, vowels, plosives, fricatives, the grammar, syntax, vocabulary… apart from all that, language shapes our ability to understand our world and ourselves. It structures subjectivity. Here’s Homi Bhabha on the topic:
“The demand of identification — that is, to be for an Other — entails the representation of the subject in the differentiating order of otherness. Identification … is always the return of an image of identity that bears the mark of splitting in the Other place from which it comes. For Fanon, like Lacan, the primary moments of such a repetition of the self lie in the desire of the look and the limits of language.”
And so this is where I hesitate at my demands to repeat after me, to say “mama” “properly”, to be for me. I am aware of the responsibility of how language frames possibility every time someone says “good girl” to her. But that’s another post and I can hear her babbling to herself when she should be asleep.