Monday, January 30, 2012


Little Bug is coming up on his 18 month birthday, and his Mama Laura has been driving him crazy about whether he shouldn't be saying more words. This weekend, when I started my "What's your word for...?" game, he put a block in his mouth and looked at me, somewhere between cross and amused. He may not be able to say, "Can you please chill out about that," in words, but he can sure convey it clearly.

And I know better. One of my favorite things that I've read about toddler's language acquisition is Kenn Apel and Julie Masterson's Beyond Baby Talk, where Apel confesses to having the following conversation with his son Nick when Nick was about Bug's age.

Nick, like Little Bug, was what language specialists call a "noun-leaver," a baby who emphasizes actions over things. So when Bug, for example, sees my coat--even when it's hanging up--he says "bye bye," because when you put on your coat, you leave. Similarly, in the following passage, Nick is using dada to mean juice, to refer to the action of carrying the juice over to him.

"Nick used the word dada to say juice, regardless of who happened to have juice or where the juice was. In other words, it was true word, even though it did not seem to be close at all to the actual adult pronunciation.
Nick (pointing at juice): "Dada."
Dad: "Juice? Say Juice."
Nick: "Dada."
Dad: (emphasizing the pronunciation more): Juuuuice."
Nick: "Dada."
Dad: (becoming a little impatient and forceful): Juuuuiiccee!"
Nick: "Daaaa daaaa!"

When I read it, this story left me howling with laughter. It is perfect. It reminds me of two things. First, toddlers are not imitating. Babies imitate; toddlers are learning language. And they are putting it together with their own incredible intelligence and logic. Nick is not interested in his Dad's word for juice; he has his own. The second is that what the development people mean when they say that a little one should have 20 words by 18 months is loose; bye-bye can count for coat, da-da for juice. Those outside your immediate circle might understand about 25% of what you say.

So being the slightly insane parent that I am, I set out to count Bug's words (and signs, just for fun: 37 reliable signs with clear meanings. But this is a post about words; signs don't count for the 18 month race for 20 words). So listening carefully to Apel, I am letting him have his own words for things.

Me: Do you have a word for sheep?
Bug: Baa.
Me: Do you have a word for go?
Bug: Gogogo!
Me: Do you have a word for something fell on the floor?
Bug: Uh-oh.

and so on. Through 10 or 15 words. So I'm relating all this to Jennifer, with my pen and list in hand, and Bug is standing beside me.  Zoe the cat jumps up on the radiator. "Oh!" I say. "I forgot cat! He says meow for cat," and I go to write it on my intense-mama list.

A little hand pats my thigh. I look down. 'Mona, he says, 'Mona.

I've forgotten that he switched from saying meow to (Ra)mona for the kitties, and he reminds me.

Did I mention that my sweet little guy doesn't miss anything? And that whether my list gets from 18 to 20 words in the next two weeks, when he turns 18 months, he is doing just fine.

It's his mama we need to worry about.

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