Let the talking begin!

For over a month now, Andrew has been saying his very first words. According to the NHS ‘Birth to Five’ book, which gives average ages that children tend to reach milestones of development, this is at the later end of average for starting to talk. But as Andrew was an early walker (just before his 1st birthday), I wasn’t expecting that he would talk particularly early, because it’s often the case that babies and toddlers are early at gaining some skills and later at gaining others compared to their typically-developing peers. It’s like their brains seem to concentrate on one big thing to the detriment of other big things, until the first thing is sorted and then other things get a look in. I’ll give you a run through of his first words, and add some notes to each of them, sometimes referring to ‘techie’ terms – ones that I’ve learned through studying phonetics/linguistics – but hopefully explaining them well enough in everyday words too.

His first word was ‘bye-bye’, which he says something more like ‘ba-ba’, with a short ‘a’ instead of the double vowel (or ‘diphthong’ in techie speak) that I and other British English speaking adults use. His vowel here is slowly becoming more like mine compared to when he first said the word. This is a very useful word that gets used every morning when he waves to Daddy and/or me as we go to work, plus on other occasions like when we leave a group.

His second recognisable word was ‘ball’, which he says something more like ‘buh’, with no ‘l’ and a short vowel instead of the long vowel that adults use. But it clearly refers to ‘ball’, one of his favourite toys to play with wherever he is (including in the park when older kids are trying to have a game of football…) – I can tell because he consistently points to balls and says ‘buh’. He generally likes the sound ‘b’, as his ‘buh’ has now extended to also mean ‘balloon’ (which to be fair is pretty similar to a ball in shape) and ‘bird’. Again he will consistently point to these things and say ‘buh’, as well as using the sign (as in sign language) when he points to bird.

A ball or 'buh' - one of Andrew's favourite toys to play with, even if it's not his! (This one is his though)

The next few words came about the same time; I can’t really say in which particular order. The word he now says the most on a daily basis must be ‘car’, which he says with a consonant produced slightly further back in the mouth than adults do – what I would call a ‘uvular plosive’ (instead of a ‘velar plosive’), so it sounds a bit like the ‘guttural’ sounds we associate with French ‘r’ sounds or Swiss German or Arabic. Over time this will become more English-sounding, and in the meantime I think it’s great that he can naturally use sounds that native English-speaking adults find hard to produce because they don’t use them in English. He points and says the word ‘car’ constantly as we walk anywhere next to roads, as he plays with his toy garage, and as we read books featuring cars. In fact he says car for pretty much any vehicle with wheels! Buses, lorries, vans – all cars in Andrew’s world. Bikes or motorbikes don’t seem to get this treatment, but he doesn’t consistently come out with anything else for these. Of course I encourage him when he says ‘car’, and then I go on to specify what it is if it’s not actually a car. One day he’ll figure this all out, but for now this ‘overextension’ (as is the techie term) is a normal part of language development. The classic example is when children use the word ‘dog’ to mean any four-legged, furry animal. This phenomenon happens across languages, not just in English, so it seems to be a general part of language acquisition, though researchers haven’t quite figured out exactly why it happens. It does show, however, that children initially categorise objects rather than simply label them, and then work towards being more specific in their initial categories.

Our car, which he points out every time we leave the flat.

Another word that he uses a lot is ‘shoes’. He says this as something like ‘shuhz’, so you hear mainly the two consonant ‘sh’ and ‘z’ sounds (what I would call ‘fricatives’) with a very short kind of non-descript vowel in the middle (a high central vowel that adults don’t use in English). This word is very useful for him, because he uses ‘shoes’ as a signal to let us know that he wants to go out – he brings them to us, repeating the word ‘shoes’ several times until we put them on, and then goes and stands by the front door to show that he wants to go out. Of course this isn’t always appropriate (like when I’m still in my pyjamas having got him sorted but not myself!), but he does love putting his shoes on and going out. In fact he also likes putting our shoes on and attempting to walk around constantly repeating the word ‘shoes’…. not always successfully in the case of my 2-inch-heeled mules!

Two little but powerful words he likes to use are ‘yeah’ and ‘no’. He seems to use ‘yeah’ for everything from everyday questions like ‘shall we get you dressed?’ (not his favourite activity) to questions about things he’s really excited about, like’ would you like to go to the park?’. Both his ‘yeah’ and his ‘no’ are now very adult-like, though ‘no’ started of as something more like ‘doh’, in which the vowel was pretty accurate, but the consonant wasn’t very nasal. I knew he meant ‘no’ though, because it was always accompanied by a shake of the head and usually happened just after I’ve said no to him!

One of his most recent additions was flower – he came out with this at my cousin’s wedding after several people were pointing the pretty flowers out to him, and ever since he’s been able to point them out himself. His version doesn’t sound exactly like flower, it’s more like ‘wa-wa’, but it’s obvious that this is what he means as he points to one.

Some lovely flowers or 'wa-wa' that I got for my birthday from my work friends. Andrew points this out when he's sat at the table eating lunch or tea and they are at the other end of the table 🙂

Although animal sounds aren’t technically words, I would like to quickly mention that his favourite animals to point out are ‘cow’, ‘dog’ and ‘duck’ – which he calls ‘moo’ (somewhere between ‘moo’ and ‘boo’ actually), ‘urh urh’ (trying to say ‘woof woof’ but actually sounding more like a real bark than ‘woof’!) and ‘quack’ (more like ‘kack’). His productions of cow and duck (‘moo/boo’ and ‘kack’) are always accompanied by the sign language for each, which interestingly are also quite approximate compared to those that I make with my hands. I must write a post specifically on babysigning one day (I keep saying that and never get around to it….) For some reason he seems less bothered about making the dog sign with his bark. Although he doesn’t seem to overextend the word dog (as in the example I gave above), he does seem to overextend the word ‘moo’ – generally it refers to cows (we see them quite often on the fields near us), but he’s also used it for horse (which I think he’s just about picking up the sign for now, so using ‘moo’ less often) and elephant! So it seems it can apply to any big mammal.

Ducks or 'kack, kack' swimming under the bridge where we walk across the river a few times a week to go to various groups.

I’m not quite sure why, but he often makes a sound like ‘ts’ when pointing at things that he can’t yet say the word for. As he points, I of course say the word of the object he’s pointing at, and one day he’ll have heard it enough times and be able to produce the right sounds to say it himself. Generally he likes making sounds like ‘sh’ and ‘ssss’ (what I’d call ‘fricatives’ in techie speak) all over the place, when I can’t always tell if there’s something specific he’s trying to refer to.

For anyone who remembers me writing about trilingual adventures before, here’s an update on where I’m at with introducing French and German as well as English. I’m still saying three words (one in each language) to him as we sit and read through books or point out things around the house or when we’re out and about. More recently I’ve decided to have two ‘French’ days and two ‘German’ days a week when I’m with him all day (I’m at work for the other 2.5 days), when I speak the relevant language to him when it’s just the two of us. So today is a ‘German’ day, and as we’ve walked to the shops and to groups, I’ve talked to him in German, pointing out things along the way, or making general small talk (as you do, talking to your toddler who can’t talk back, much!) Lunch was ‘Mittagessen’ and I’ve changed his ‘Windel’ instead of nappy etc. So far he’s only producing English words (or words that sound like English words). BUT, he clearly understands a lot in French and German, given how he reacts when I talk to him in either language. For example, when I ask him ‘Wo ist das Auto?’ or ‘Ou est-elle, la voiture?’ (‘Where’s the car?’), he’ll point and say ‘car’ in answer to my question. Amazing! He does this with various things, not just cars. It’s so fascinating to see the fact that he’s picking up more than one language without even thinking about it.

This leads on to an interesting point about language acquisition: the fact that he can understand a lot more (in English) than he can currently say. I’m finding that I can say some quite complicated sentences, for example give him instructions to do something like bring me his ball or put his sun hat back on, and he consistently does what I ask of him. If Tom and I are talking between us, not directly with him, and we happen to mention in passing something that he recognises, he’ll react to the word he’s heard in our speech, for example if we mentioned a dog, he’ll suddenly woof, even though we weren’t really aware he was listening to us. This has made me realise that I have to be careful now what I say. I hope that in general what I say is suitable for a toddler to hear and make sense of, but we all have days when we react and say something we wish we hadn’t – that’s the kind of thing I can just tell he’ll now pick up instantly!

I think I’ll leave this account of Andrew’s language acquisition journey here for now, but of course there’ll be much more to share over the coming months and years. You can probably tell, given my background in linguistics, that I find this all fascinating. Since Andrew was a baby, I’ve been recording him ‘talking’ – obviously this started of with baby sounds like gurgling and cooing, then babbling, and now some actual words (although capturing words on the recording is pretty difficult, because he’s aware of the recorder and then doesn’t produce them on cue like he would if it was just the two of us playing together – Observer’s Paradox, as Labov would say). These recordings are all waiting for me to sift through them and do anything specific with them – one day, if I ever get time to do that kind of thing. For now, just writing about what’s going on is interesting enough in my opinion.

Exciting times: first shoes

On Tuesday Andrew, my mum and I went shopping for a very special reason: Andrew needed his first pair of shoes.

He’d been cruising around any furniture or object that was stable enough (or not) for a few months, and we kept thinking that unaided walking must be just around the corner. The actual moment of what I would call proper walking (i.e. more than a few steps) came a couple of days before his first birthday. We’d just got home from the childminder’s. Andrew was standing by the washing machine, putting toys into it and closing the door, and I momentarily turned my head to open some post. A few seconds later I turned my head so he came back into view, and the next thing I knew he was walking towards me. I couldn’t quite believe it at first, but he carried on and I greeted him with a big hug when he reached me. His grin was as big as mine. After that, there was no stopping him. By his birthday he was toddling about everywhere, and handily Granny and Grandad’s present to him was just what he needed: a year’s worth of shoes! I was VERY grateful for this, having gulped after previously seeing the price tag on kids’ shoes. As Granny was coming over again in the week, we decided to make it a shoe-shopping date, and the three of us go into town to buy them together.

The day came and I was incredibly excited, much to Tom’s bemusement – ‘It’s only a pair of shoes, so why all the going on about it?’ he dared to utter after the umpteenth mention of the subject. ‘Ah but it’s his first pair of shoes, his FIRST pair of shoes, don’t you think that’s exciting?’ I replied. Granny arrived whilst I was at work in the morning, and she and Andrew came to meet me at lunchtime. After a yummy lunch of pasta at Carluccio’s, we headed to Clarks. On being lifted out of the buggy, Andrew was instantly showing off his walking to the sales assistant, and making a beeline for the snazzy electronic foot measuring machine. Ah that was a blast from the past; it reminded me of shoe shopping as a child. But for such little feet (and such a wriggly body) the manual foot measure was needed. The patient assistant had clearly measured little feet before, and knew that the reaction of scrunching his feet up rather than laying them flat on the measure was normal. After a little encouragement, we had the size sorted: 3 1/2 G.

Then came the choice of shoe. Clarks do a Cruiser range, designed as first shoes when babies are doing some crawling and some walking – supportive but still softer soles than older kids’ shoes. For our little messy pup I wanted to get a dark colour, otherwise they would just show the dirt that he’s bound to get on them. That narrowed the choice down somewhat, ruling out the funky but not very practical pastel blue and checked yellow models. I realised that here I was doing exactly what I used to wish my mum wouldn’t do – only allow practical shoes; it’s the kind of thing you only understand when you’re now the mum. I went for a brown leather shoe with a velcro strap and a dinosaur on the side and the strap. Andrew didn’t seem too fussed whichever he got, and was more interested in trying to defy Granny’s attempts to stop him climbing on the foot measuring machine (complete with a ‘Please do not let your child climb on this’ notice).

Just checking the fit
Trendy dino design

As part of the first shoes buying experience, Clarks take an instant photo of the proud new wearer of the shoes, and stick it on a pack with various goodies including a height chart and a shoe size card so parents can remember their toddler’s ever changing size. We were vary happy with the experience, and walked out with smiles all round. When we got home, Andrew had to practise walking with his new footwear on, because, as they had warned in the shop, it takes a bit of getting used to walking with shoes on when you’ve not done it before. It was interesting that he seemed to regress slightly and wobble lots, but then soon got the hang of it again, and even managed his first toddle outside to wave goodbye to Granny when she left.

My first shoes

Watching Andrew figure out how to walk, seeing his wobbly first attempts after he got his first shoes, reminded me of a couple of verses in the book of Psalms in the Bible. Psalm 37 says:

The Lord makes firm the steps
of the one who delights in him;
though he may stumble, he will not fall,
for the Lord upholds him with his hand

Just like I follow Andrew when he’s walking, and hold him up when he’s looking particularly wobbly and about to fall, so God does the same for me in a less physical sense. For me it’s more about God helping me through my daily tasks, and even though I often get things wrong, He’s with me all the time, helping me to cope and not fall down into a heap of despair. Psalm 121 also says something similar:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

I love this verse, and I often think about it through the modern song(s) based on it. Again it speaks of a God who always watches over me and doesn’t let my foot slip, like I try and protect Andrew’s foot from slipping by watching where he’s walking, but the difference is God is perfect, unlike me. It’s at times like this, when I see our baby making it to significant developmental milestones that I reflect on God’s awesome creation, and what an amazing thing this little life is that we are in charge of bringing up. As I watch over Andrew and do my best to make sure that he doesn’t fall, I stop and think about how God is doing even better for me (and Andrew), and that makes me smile 🙂 I guess not everyone reading this will know the God who I know and love. Please do get in touch if you’d like to ask me more questions about my faith as a Christian. I’d be very happy to let you know more about it.

Mummy was very excited, and Andrew sat still just about long enough for us to take this picture with his new shoes on!