First Words: The Language of Babies

What do the phrases "time cop," "chimney cub," and "ten o'clock" all have in common? Each of them might be what my two year old just said.

If you've had occasion to muddle through the early stages of speech development with a child of your own, or even a niece, cousin, or friend's child, you're very familiar with that frustrating moment when you know that they are earnestly talking to you, but you have no idea what they are saying. "Throw me a bone, here, kid. At least give me one word clearly!"

It's all very cute, of course; how else would we ever get to have "hawk-dahs" and "noonoos" for lunch, or end up with nicknames like "Cashy?" The grinding of the gears occurs when we are working with these little people in genuine partnership but the rope-bridge they're extending across the chasm of communication just doesn't quite reach our side.

Haven't you made eye contact with a toddler who sincerely tells you, "Goby junkinow mizhou" and then expects you to respond, or to do something?

"Uh, get the cabinet tissue?"

The worst is when they nod, emphatically, when you repeat back something ridiculous. "Go buy junk, now I miss you?"

"Mm-Hmm!" You figured it out . . . great!

The important thing to remember is that like every other learning process, repetition is paramount in language acquisition. Trying though it may be, especially when emotions are running high or time is of the essence, we have to slow ourselves down and encourage our smallest children to express themselves verbally. It comes in stages -- from vocalization of sounds to words to sentences to treatises on your parental inadequacies. Throughout, we must affirm their attempts to communicate and try to understand what is being said. When we succeed (albeit infrequently at first), we can model it back correctly.

No matter what, we can reinforce the value of what they are offering. That way, they learn to speak and develop a voice. When you respond to your little cherub like what he is saying matters, he not only learns to speak, but also to speak up and be heard. Now that's a lesson worth repeating.

Tags: language acquisition, speech development, Relating To Your Child
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