On the verge of speaking

Posted by rosanne on Jun 26, 2010 in Developmental Milestones |

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.

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Beth W.
Jun 27, 2010 at 10:36 am

It’s so amazing to watch all this develop, isn’t it? Laurel spends so much of her days pointing at objects and asking, “that?” or “this?” — Tell me what it’s called? She does it over and over, practicing, making sure we always call the same objects by the same names.

I’m also a little tickled to hear that “sh” (and I assume “ch”) is apparently a more advanced sound — Laurel’s first words were “shoes” and “cheese.” 🙂

Jun 27, 2010 at 4:03 pm

(Don’t forget I have a new email -you organised it) The strange cat thing is a substitute cat made of ‘acceptable’ coir because Doug is allergic to cat fur. You’ll learn to love it….

Thnaks for the ‘this’ clue. Harper’s cousin Perry (23 mths) has been saying ‘this’ for ages with no upward end inflection, but perhaps he is asking for the object to be named. A very interesting blog.

Jun 30, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Interesting post, especially the Bhabha quote. Agatha is seeing a speech pathologist because one of the effects of her hemiplegia is delayed speech. Her comprehension is excellent but she struggles with making words, and she’s just a quiet person, too, we think. It has been interesting, and sometimes difficult, engaging with these issues from the point of view of someone for whom speech is not natural.

Jul 1, 2010 at 3:04 am

I can only imagine. Did you see the documentary on language acquisition on SBS the other night? There are some interesting bits in there about what muscles and brain areas are needed for speech development.

Have you been signing with her?

Jul 1, 2010 at 4:46 pm

We’ve done some signing but some of it’s two-handed nature isn’t easy. But Agatha also is pretty centred and won’t be rushed, so like walking, when she’s good and ready she’ll talk more. Because her comprehension is totally normal, we’re not too worried, as comprehension rather than language production is the biggest issue in terms of long-term indicators.


[…] funny to look back and read that last post from only four months ago… I kept waiting for that next moment when we would hear sentences […]



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