It’s official. The boys have language delays. They are nearly 14 months old (10 ½ months adjusted) and they still don’t know any words. By 10 months, Chiara had already said her first word* and was started to sign regularly.
* “Bye-bye” to a very disgruntled airline passenger. When I told the woman that my daughter had just said her first word to her, the woman brightened and oohed and ahhed and cooed at Chiara.
I don’t mean that the boys don’t say any words; I meant that the boys don’t understand any words. They don’t turn to me when someone says, “Where’s Mama?” They don’t know who “Daddy” is. When you say, “Look!” and point, they don’t look. They don’t even know their own names, a milestone that is usually reached around six months of age.
What does this all mean? It means that the boys have significant speech delays, because, of course, before you can speak you must first understand. By 15 months most babies understand just about everything that is said to them (or at least, they can intuit fairly well what is expected of them). We are way off that mark.
Even the experts don’t fully understand how we acquire language. They just know that it happens. If you’re around it, it will come. When babies are born, they can attune to every phonological sound that happens in every language. This is a little difficult to explain without a remedial lesson in phonetics, but it’s like this: different languages have different sounds. For example, Japanese has one sound that for us can be either an “l” or an “r.” Spanish has a “b-ish/v-ish” sound that is written as “b” but is neither like an English “b” or “v,” as in the word “cabeza” or “calabacitas.” (To make things more confusing, Spanish also has a “b” sound that is written as “b” that does sound like an English “b.” Confused? Just wait til I get going!
This back story is just to say that there are about 200 different consonant and vowel sounds, but you only hear 45 of them unless you are completely fluent in another language (using native consonants when speaking a foreign language is part of what makes a foreign accent). Newborns hear all 200 of them. In other words, at birth, all American babies can hear both Spanish “b’s” just as all Japanese babies can hear the difference between “l” and “r.” Then, as babies acclimate to the language around them, their brains attune the sounds of what will be their native language. Around nine months, American babies will no longer hear the difference between the [b] in “bonita” and the [b] in “calabacitas” and Japanese babies will hear “lake” and “rake” as the same word.
As babies start to tease out the sounds of their soon-to-be native language, they also start to figure out that strings of speech sounds correlate to certain meanings. Around the six-month mark, most babies figure out that there is a string of sounds that correlates to them. You know this because around six months, you can call your baby’s name and she will turn her head to look at you. It is also true that your daughter will turn her head to look at you when you call her, “Potato Head,” but the difference is not only that (hopefully) you call her by her Christian name far more often than when you call her, “Potato Head,” but your reaction is (hopefully) very different when she turns her head in response to her name and when she turns her head in response to “Potato Head.” This is how she figures out her name.
This is important because once she learns her name, she can use those sounds as a “token.” We imagine that spoken words have pauses between them in the same way that we have spaces between written words. That is a figment of your imagination. (You might have experienced this phenomenon if you have ever tried to learn a foreign language).
So how do babies do it? How do they figure out where the beginnings and endings of words are? How do they figure out that sounds are words in the first place? How do they figure out that sounds are referential and not just exclamations of joy and/or poop?
Well, for one thing, we don’t talk to our babies in the same way that one would, for example, defend his dissertation. We modify the way we speak (experts call it “Motherese”) and we modify what we say. Motherese refers to the tendency of all people, in all (studied) cultures, and all languages, (even of all ages; Chiara speaks Motherese when she talks to the boys) to speak slower, higher pitched, and more exaggeratedly when speaking to babies.
Ooh!!! Are those your toes, Michael? Michael, those are your toes! Michael, look at your toes?
You know what I’m talking about—it’s that stupid way that people talk to babies that you vow you will never do. Then you have a baby or you see a baby or you think about a baby and you open your mouth and out tumbles Motherese, as if your were a native speaker. Good thing, too, because Motherese really helps babies learn language.