Daily Archives: 30 October 2009

One Child’s Language: at 18 months

Her attention span is getting longer and longer. She can concentrate for 10 or 15 minutes on taking things apart and putting them back together, on putting all 10 or 20 shapes through the matching holes in one of her puzzle toys, on reading books with one or the other of us. She can spend even longer listening to her tapes of children’s songs, although sometimes she spends more time pushing the play and stop buttons than listening to her songs. She is especially fond of the Finger Band song, during which she imitates the clarinet, piano, and trombone motions; the Buzzing Bees song, during which she imitates the buzzing sound by blowing a ‘raspberry’ (or ‘Bronx cheer’); the Teddy Bear song, during which she holds her big teddy bear up by the ears and dances back and forth; and, of course, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, during which she ‘twinkles’ her hands.

She has finally started to take a real interest in language. Her earliest words several months ago were mostly imitations of sounds. (The first sound she ever imitated was—incredibly—the hooting of an owl, something she has never seen nor heard in real life.) For persons, places, and things, she has followed the Universal Language strategy recommended by the scientifically minded inhabitants of Lagardo that Gulliver met in his travels: just make sure you have available (by carrying them around if you have to) a sample of every object you care to refer to. That way, you can just point to what you want to say, without having to translate from one language to another. For actions, rather than objects, she usually performs the motions herself. This reduces a lot of our own conversation with her to one-word utterances. But now she is starting to produce some of her own.

The first consonants she tackled were [t] and [d]. She has them under relatively good control now and has definitely mastered [dadi] (the word as well as the person). Next, she began to work on words starting with [p] and [b]. Sometime last month, she suddenly realized that her counting word [tuti] had two components and started saying just [tu]. It wasn’t long before she was counting [tu] for one step and [ti] for the next. Then one day she counted out [pai] as well. Now she can repeat [tu], [ti], [po], [pai], but she hasn’t mastered the meaning of any except [tu]. Another [p]/[b] word she has added recently is [bow] ‘go’ (versus [taa] or [paa] ‘stop’). The [oh] vowel is also new, and she stretches it—and her lips—to great lengths pronouncing it. Another lip sound she has added is [w]. Her first [w] word was a strangely produced [weyl]. Her tongue tip shot all the way out of her mouth during the [l] (ell) part of it. It used to be one of her babbling sounds, but we attached it to the picture of a ‘whale’ in one of her books, and she has since used it to label ‘wheels’, ‘nails’, and ‘mail’. The other new vowel is [eh], which appears in [wey] ‘away’, another favorite word. It also appears in [tu-tu tey] ‘choo-choo train’. She seems to make no attempt to repeat a word unless it contains sounds close to those she is working on at any particular moment.

When she mastered [w], she promptly added [wow] to her verbal expressions. But she has never attempted [m], [n], or [ng].

UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in Boston Public Schools.

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One Child’s Language: at 16 months

Her passive language ability still far exceeds her active speaking ability, but she has added a few words to her repertoire. During our Christmas trip, she attached the meaning ‘all gone, all done, finished’ to a high-pitched [datii], with a high-pitch first vowel and a mid-pitch, long second vowel, accompanied by appropriate upturned empty hands. This contrasts with her lower-pitched (mid + low) and shorter [dati], meaning ‘thank you.’ (She doesn’t seem to distinguish [t] and [d].) Finally, there is a low-plus-high-pitched [dati] that she uses to call whichever one of us she can’t find. There is also a [daa], with long rising-falling tone, which seems to mean something like ‘wow, look at that’; and a steady high-tone [daa], meaning ‘stop’ or ‘stoplight’. The former contrasts somehow with [iyati], meaning roughly ‘voici, voilà, here it is, there it is’. She has recently added another word: [daau(b)], meaning ‘(fallen or dropped) down’ (or ‘dirty, no longer edible’ in the case of food). She also seems to be in the process of extending the meaning of [dudu] to cover any fundamental contribution to the ecology of her diaper. She must be about ready to start toilet-training.

At this point, her total inventory of significant sounds doesn’t amount to much: one consonant /d/ (or /t/), and three vowels /a/, /i/, and /u/. The consonant sounds like both a [b] (or [p]) and a [d] (or [t]) except when it precedes the open vowel /a/. She seems to leave her lips closed before a closed vowel like /i/ or /u/ and to let the air through them only after she releases the /d/ to let the vowel sound come out. Besides [dudu], the other case where this is very noticeable is in her word for counting: [du]-[di] (‘two-three’?).

She elicits words as labels all the time, and wants us to supply running commentary on her actions, but most of her use of spoken language is exclamatory rather than descriptive. When she wants to refer to actual events and objects, she points—relentlessly. Here is a very common languageless dialog, with translation:

Action: Taps on mommy’s wrist until mommy acknowledges.
Meaning: ‘Excuse me, I notice you’re wearing a wristwatch.’
[Establishing topic to be ‘wristwatches’]

Mommy says, “Mommy’s watch,” meaning “Yes, I am.”

Action: She immediately taps her own wrist
Meaning: “I seem to be missing mine.”
[Making her observation about the topic]

Mommy says, “Where’s your watch?”

Action: She either points in the direction of her watch or goes off to find it.

UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in Boston Public Schools.

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Filed under family, Hawai'i, language, U.S.