Wednesday, November 7, 2007

We have three penguins living in our fridge

We have three penguins living in our fridge. They're named Captain Cook and Greta and "Baby Penguin", after the characters in Mr. Popper's Penguins. And they mark an important milestone in literacy. Mr. Popper's Penguins is the first chapter book that we've read aloud.

Since starting first grade, Tommy has to read for 20 minutes a night. He's a relatively fluent, but reluctant reader. So, we're keeping the books that we ask him to read simple. We've been through the entire series of insipid alphabet books: My Little 'a', My Little 'b', etc. The stories all begin the same way: "Little b (or a, or c, or d) had a box. Little b found some buttons (or ants or coats or dogs). She put her buttons (or ants or coats or dogs) in her box..." The plot doesn't get any more interesting than that, and it definitely does not improve with reading and re-reading. We've also been through the whole Clifford phonics reader series, whose only redeeming qualities are that Tommy is interested in them and they are easy to read.

But there is only so much of early, simple phonics readers that a mother can take. Enter Mr. Popper's Penguins. We had received it as a gift this summer, and it had gotten buried upon return. When I unearthed it this fall, a sense of relief came over me. I realized that Tommy had finally matured to the point where he could sit still long enough to listen to a chapter book. I wasn't doomed to early readers for the next two years!

And so our adventure began. Slowly reading a chapter every night or every other night, we were introduced to Mr. Popper, Mrs. Popper, Janie and Bill. As the chapters went on, we met Captain Cook, the penguin sent by Admiral Drake to Mr. Popper in Stillwater, and Greta, the penguin sent by a zoo where she had been languishing. Together Captain Cook and Greta started on a family and adventures.

I'm still not sure how much Tommy got of the plot, but he was getting some of the details. One day while we were driving in the car, he unearthed a toy penguin, a remnant of a Happy Meal. "Gok!" he said. "Mom, this is Captain Cook." Soon Greta (another Happy Meal toy) was found, and a baby penguin. They took up residence in the fridge, just like Captain Cook and Greta had. They live in the fridge during the day, and sometimes come out at night to sleep in the 'nest' under Tommy's bed. They get a bath weekly.

I'm pleased because our foray into chapter books has increased my interest in reading to the kids and it seems to be opening up new worlds of ideas and play. And I know that by reading chapter books, we're increasing vocabulary and literary skills.

Even without these side benefits, Captain Cook and Greta are enlivening the house. The other night, Tommy was watching Dad play computer games before he went to bed. Dad began to play a game called "Penguins". Tommy raced down the stairs, flung open the fridge, grabbed Captain Cook and Greta and raced back upstairs. He placed them carefully in front of the computer where they could see, and said "They've just got to see this!"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"Hello, Emma? I'm calling about the birthday party?"

Maria has always loved to talk on the phone. Maybe it's because Dad works from home and did the majority of child care while she was little. She's heard him on the phone a lot. Her favorite 'toy' when she was a baby and toddler was her dad's phone. She'd carry the phone around the house and babble into it, having earnest conversations with herself. She got sophisticated enough with it that when she turned it on accidentally, she'd bring it back to Dad and let him turn it off for her. And she only called 911 once.

But we seem to have entered a completely new phase in terms of phone 'play'. She's begun to pretend to call her friends on the phone, and has amazingly sophisticated conversations, complete with appropriate pauses, intonation and hand gestures. (Yes, we all gesture while we talk on the phone.) I feel like time has been fast-forwarded and this is what she'll be doing in just a few short years, only with real friends. She's having amazingly sophisticated 'conversations' on the phone. (The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

"Hello, Emma? I'm calling about the birthday party? (Pause)
Are you coming to my party today? (Pause)
That's great. We're having a bear cake and ice cream. (Pause).
Well, you're coming from the other side of the river, so you'll have to go over the bridge and then take the highway. (Pause).
And have you talked to Colin? Is he coming too?"

And then she'll go off and wrap 'presents' inside her blanket and ask us to come 'blow out' the pretend candles. And then open her presents.

I'm both amused and amazed at her conversations and scripts. It's not social behavior she's seen modeled by us very often. I don't talk on the phone much, and Dad talks for business. And yet somewhere, she's learned the scripts for this kind of phone conversation.

And in learning this kind of script, she's making important developments in her language. We all have scripts for the things that we do frequently, such as ride the bus, order food in a restaurant, buy and pay for groceries, playing board games, or other frequent activities. Having a script helps organize the events in our minds. For children, learning scripts is important for both language development and social interaction. The script can help them practice responses and become familiar with the language expected in different situations. Using scripted language helps your listener know you're on the same page, and smooths interactions as you go through your daily life.

But scripts can do more than that. They also make it possible for a child to expand and extend their language in new directions or to new levels of complexity. By using a "script" and repeating the same play scenarios over and over (sometimes much to a parent's distress), a child can hold the context of the conversation constant. Knowing the context and the flow of the play can free up attention to listen to what other people are saying, to formulate new sentences and to keep the interaction flowing.

So, the next time your child plays the same game for the umpteenth time, listen hard to the language they are using. You may find yourself surprised that while the game stays the same, the language does not.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Look mom, I'm hanging out!

Maria uttered this phrase several months ago. She was hanging by her arms off the back of the couch, and said, Look Mom! I'm hanging out! I laughed, which of course has made her repeat this phrase every time she does it! But more than just being amusing, it points to how some children learn words first and concepts later. It gets back to the age-old question: Which comes first, the idea or the word? Maria seems to do it both ways.

Most of the time, it seems that concepts and words are acquired closely together. Certainly that's been true for my kids. But Maria also sometimes clearly learns the word and then the concept. That's the case for the phrase 'hanging out'. But also for other words. She recently told me "My birthday is going to come once a month. No, once a week." I'm pretty sure she understands neither the concept of "once a" nor the time phrases "month" or "week". She was just trying out the words.

Time words in general seem to be an area where words seem to come before concepts. Like many children, Maria is having a hard time with time words because their reference changes depending on the day. Last week we were talking about an upcoming birthday party, and I said, "We're going to the party tomorrow." The next day, we got into the car to go to the party, and I said, "We're going to the party." Maria responded "No, that's TOMORROW!" After starting off with mind bending phrases such as: "Today is tomorrow" I realized it was much simpler to say "Well, the party is on Saturday, and today is Saturday. The party is today now." It made me realize how useful the names of the days of the week are. But, the concept is still fuzzy for Maria. Every once in a while at dinner, she will ask "Is today tomorrow?"

Numbers and the alphabet are another area where production seems to precede comprehension. I'll confess to not being terribly impressed by parents who tell me that their 2 year olds can recite their ABCs or count to 10 (or 20). Oh, sure, it's a nice thing to do, and it's a good start. But, that doesn't mean that the child understands what these represent. That understanding takes a lot longer.

Maria is just getting that understanding for numbers, known as one-to-one correspondence. Three months ago, she'd just put her finger on the objects and rattle off "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10" when we asked her how many things there were. She didn't "get" the idea that the numbers represented a set of things. They were just a list of what you said when people asked you to count. Staring in the last month or so, she will place her finger on whatever she's counting and say "1", then move her finger, and say "2", etc. And, as long as the items to be counted are reasonably aligned (and not more than 14) so she doesn't get confused, she'll be able to accurately count them. She's learned that each number represents one thing, and that you 'add' by going up in numbers. That's a huge leap forward in mental development and understanding of symbols.

We've yet to achieve that leap for letters. She can sing her ABCs quite nicely, and has been doing so since she was about 2. But she still doesn't get the link between the letter and the sound. She has the language down, just not the concept. Oh, she'll say things like "M" is for "Maria", but it's clear from other contexts that she doesn't understand what the means. For example, we have a placemat with the alphabet on it - each letter has an animal next to it that starts with that letter. So, A has an alligator, C a camel, etc. Last night, Maria cheerfully pointed to the M and said "M is for Gorilla!" and then to the H and said "H is for Donkey!" Her perception of the animals is more accurate than her perception of the sounds. That monkey does look like a gorilla. And the old nag of a horse does look a lot like a donkey.

So, which comes first, the concept or the word? It all depends on the concept and the word!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Come Lord Jesus be our guest...

Every evening before dinner we say our dinner prayer. Or more accurately, the parents say it, Tommy sits silently and Maria says the first half and the last 2 words. "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest.. blessed. Amen." Recently, I began trying to teach her the second half of the prayer: "and let these gifts to us be blessed." But, no matter how many times I said it, no matter how slowly I did each word, it still came out "Come Lord Jesus be our guest, mm mmm blessed. Amen!"

It took me several days to realize that this was a futile task right now. Apparently, I had forgotten all my early graduate training! The reason she couldn't repeat the 2nd part of the prayer was because of the structure of the sentence. The second part of the prayer is a quite complex: it has a causative (let...) and a passive (be blessed). She might be able to do the causative, but Id' forgotten that she's far too young for the passive "these gifts be blessed".

One of the very useful discoveries about child language is that children are generally not able to imitate sentences or structures that are not yet part of their grammar. They make mistakes. They avoid the structure. While they can learn them by rote drilling, it's much more difficult than waiting until the child has the structure in their grammar. In 2 or 3 years, I have every faith that Maria will be rattling off the dinner prayer without a hitch.

Passive voice is acquired late in English, somewhere between 4 and 6 for most children. Perhaps even more importantly, it's rarely used, especially in conversation with children. It's the kind of construction that shows up mostly in academic or scientific writing, legal testimony and the like. We don't go around asking our children "Was the toast eaten?" "How was the lamp broken?" We prefer the active voice in English, "Did you eat your toast?" "How did you break the lamp?" We like to identify the actor.

But that doesn't hold true for other languages. Children acquiring some languages (Sesotho or Indonesian for example) appear to acquire passive early. Which goes to show that there's nothing cognitively difficult about the passive voice. Indeed, there is something useful about the passive. Saying: "The milk was spilled" would allow a child to get out of specifying who spilled the milk. Unfortunately for the young English speaking child, their best option is to deny being the actor. Not stating the actor just isn't part of their language. In other languages, the passive is acquired early, most likely is linguistically less complex (a single verb form, not this weird be + past participle), and it is used in every day conversation much more often.

All of this goes to show that language acquisition is a complex dance between what a child hears, what a child can do and the language around them. For Maria, our dinner prayer is probably the only place she hears the passive voice on a daily basis. So, for a while yet, it will be "Come Lord Jesus be our guest, blessed. Amen!" Amen indeed.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Line 9 Powell!

"Line 9 Powell!"
"Line 6 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard!"

We were standing at a bus stop, waiting for a bus, and as each bus passed by, Tommy would shout the number and the destination. This not what I had envisioned hearing as I thought about my son learning to read. The sentences I had envisioned were things like "The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play."or "I am a bunny." Nope, not for our son.

And yet, given that Tommy has never been terribly motivated to read story books, perhaps this is not surprising. He is, however, very motivated to glean information from things like the weather page or bus schedules. If it's information you want, he's the boy to know. We drove to a birthday party in another part of town this weekend. We exited on NE 122nd Ave. When Tommy saw the sign for the exit, he announced: "The 71 bus goes here." He was right, of course.

Tommy has long been interested in information. Nearly every morning since he was about 3, Tommy has read the weather page with breakfast. We started this tradition when we were trying to convince him to switch from long to short sleeves one spring. "It's supposed to be hot today, you might want to wear short sleeves." "Why?" "That's what it said on the weather page." "Let me see!" So we showed him. And with this, a whole new world opened up for Tommy. He'd always been a bit disturbed by the fact that the sun would mysteriously disappear behind the clouds. "When is it coming back?" he'd ask when he was 2. "I don't know," never really satisfied him. He has always liked to know what's coming next. The weather page helped him be able to predict where the sun was and what was coming next.

In addition, the weather page has been a great source of functional literacy skills for Tommy. He's learned the days of the week and to recognize them in print. He's learned to read the symbols on the page (sunny, rainy, cloudy). He's learned to read the city names. He's learned to locate Portland on the map. He's learned to locate other cities on the map as well. He can point to where Aunt Mary lives, or where Grandma & Grandpa S. live or where Grandma N. lives. He's learning to read bar graphs indicating the high and low temperatures or how much rainfall we've gotten compared to average. He's got a sense that 80 degrees Fahrenheit is warm and requires short sleeves and maybe even shorts!

And now he's entering a new phase of literacy, one step closer to reading. And that step has been brought about not by basal readers or phonics instruction but by bus schedules. Tommy's best friend at school rides the bus to school every day, and often brings bus schedules in for the other kids to see. That has created a collecting craze among the kindergarteners.

Bus schedules are all the rage – we have a collection of well over 50. Tommy and his friend bring them in to school. They carefully color the white letters with marker. Tommy traces the route on the inside - highlighting the major stops in yellow and the route in red. And through this all, he's somehow learned to read all of the names of the streets and routes that the buses go on. Last night we were talking about the Number 12 bus. He announced "It's the boulevard bus. It goes down Sandy Boulevard and Barbur Boulevard." He's even progressed to making jokes about the names - saying "Marthin Luter King Jr. Boulevard". He's proud of the fact that he knows the difference between "t" and "th" and highly amused by the reversal.

As with everything, it's good to remember that there's more than one route into literacy. Some kids go the traditional route through story books. Others take the bus.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Which station is not the busiest...not the...the not...busiest

One of the oldest questions in language learning is the question of whether the idea or the word comes first. It's a bit of a chicken-egg problem – can you express an idea if you don't have a word? Can you use a word if you don't understand the idea?

Sometimes in language learning, however, it's clear that the concept comes first. I distinctly remember when I was about 3, learning word 'tomorrow'. I was standing in our living room, and I said something about "the day after the day after today" to my mother. "Oh, the day after tomorrow?" she said. Aha! That was the word I was looking for, but didn't know existed. It's a very clear memory in my mind - the feeling of satisfaction that there was a word to express my idea. While I didn't shout "Eureka!" I do remember thinking "Oh, that's how you say that."

Something similar happened to Tommy about 2 weeks ago. He had concept, but needed the word to go with it.

About once a week, we drive by Fire Station 16 to see the fire trucks on our way home from school. It's a bit of a detour, but not a major one. When we go by, the trucks are almost always in the station. This is in contrast to Station 4 downtown. Tommy often sees those trucks go by school, and they are often out. One day, as we were driving by Station 16, Tommy asked why the trucks were always there. "Well, it's not a very busy station," I replied. (From our perusal of the Portland Fire Bureau's website , we've learned not only what equipment is located at each station (Station 4: One tiller (hook & ladder) and 2 pumpers; Station 16: one pumper and one rescue truck), but also how many calls they have a year. Station 4 had well over 4,000 calls in the last fiscal year, Station 16 under 1,000.)

"Which station is the busiest?" Tommy asked.
"Probably one of the ones downtown, I think."
"Well, Station 4 has over 4,000 calls a year, and I think Station 1 has over 6,000 - that's over 15 calls a day!
"How many does Station 16 have?"
"About 900 in a year, I think. That's about 3 a day."

"Which station isn't the busiest?" Tommy then asked.
"Any station other than Station 1, I suppose."
"No, which station is not the busiest?" "
"Any other station," I replied, wondering briefly about his language comprehension.
"No, which station is not the busiest?" he insisted.
"Ah," having a sudden burst of understanding, "which station is the least busy, do you mean?"
"Yes, which station is not the... is the not busiest?"
"I don't know, but I bet Station 16 is one of the least busy."
(For the record it's Station 15 with just 475 calls for the fiscal year.)

Ah, the struggle of trying to express the concept least without having the word! In this example, at least, it's clear that the concept ("not busiest") came before the word. Many words seem to follow a similar path. Often, the word and the concept are learned together, or at least very closely in time. Does the concept ever come before the word? Stay tuned....

Honey-Roo or Driving the Driver

Maria and I were reading a Winnie the Pooh book one day when she was about 22 months, and were talking about the characters. I pointed to Pooh and said

"Who's this?"
"And who's this?"
"And this?"
"Honey? Umm.. No dear that's Roo."

For several weeks, she adamantly insisted on called Roo "Honey". I guessed that Kanga had called Roo "honey" in one of our stories, and so that's what Maria heard.

I thought no more about the mystery until we were reading one of her favorite books – a collection of songs that had the words changed to be "Pooh" songs. This book was her favorite to 'read' as she fell asleep. It came complete with a "press the button" electronic keyboard that played that song, and she insisted that we sing along with it. (Surely there must be a hell somewhere where the manufacturers of these tinny, off-key singing books will be chained up and made to listen to their inane songs over and over and over again. But I digress.)

There, on the last page of the book was the answer to the Honey-Roo mystery. The song was "Where Oh Where Can My Honey Pot Be?" and there was a picture of Pooh, sitting disconsolately in a chair, missing his honey pot. "I've looked in the cupboard and under the stairs, oh where oh where can it be?" And behind Pooh is a picture of Roo, holding up a table cloth, and on the floor, under the table, is Pooh's honey pot!

I can just imagine a scene where we were reading this book and said "So, where is it?" and pointed in the direction of Roo and the honey pot. Maria, not knowing what a honey pot was, or maybe not knowing what we meant by "it", linked "honey" with the most interesting thing we were pointing toward: Roo. This is a common thing that children do - they will link a word with the most interesting plausible object (see "Nice Finger Mom") that someone is indicating.

So what was going on? A very simple and yet reportedly rare error in child word learning: a mismatch. Children, when they learn words, generally get within the ballpark for the meaning, even if they don't get the exact meaning. So, they may label a 'tomato' and 'apple' but they rarely call it a garden hose! But, every once in a while, a child simply gets the wrong word linked to the wrong object, and labels "Roo" "honey". Maria eventually learned Roo's name, but even now, close to a year later, she will sometimes slip and call him "Honey" again.

These errors can be mystifying. I suspect many go undetected, chalked up to a parent's or child's inability to make sense out of an interaction. Indeed, such was nearly the case for the only mismatch that I detected in Tommy's word learning. When Tommy was 2, his favorite 'game' to play was 'garbage truck'. He would pretend to drive the garbage truck, make brake sounds, stop the truck, climb out, pretend to dump the garbage into the truck, climb back in, and drive on to the next 'house'. This game could be played anywhere (beds, church pews, couches)- but one of his favorite things to do was to climb into our laps and pretend we were the seat and he was driving. One day, when Tommy climbed into my lap, he announced "I'm driving the driver!" "Where?" I asked. "Right here!" "No, where are you driving the driver?" "Here. I'm driving the driver." After several more go rounds, I gave up, figuring he couldn't understand 'where' questions yet.

Then, a week or so later, we were reading his favorite book: Garbage Trucks. On one page, it asks, "Would you like to see where the driver sits?" and I read this and asked Tommy - "where is the driver?" Tommy pointed to the steering wheel. Eureka! Mystery solved. When Tommy said "I'm driving the driver," he wasn't talking about a person or a location - he was saying that he was operating the steering wheel. Apparently, when we were pointing to the picture of the driver, the most interesting thing for Tommy was not the person but the steering wheel. Thus, another mismatch mystery solved.

As with malaprops, perhaps the most interesting thing is how rare this kind of error is. Tommy had one clear mismatch, and Maria has had one or two. One or two real mismatches out of the 500+ words they'd each learned by the time they were 2. Surely there were many more opportunities to get a meaning wrong, and they didn't. However children are going about the task of linking words to meaning, they are, in the end, remarkably good at it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Nice finger, Mom!"

When Maria was 5 or 6 months old, we were reading a book on my lap. I tried to direct her attention to a dog on a page by pointing at it. I didn't touch the page, but just held out my finger in front of it, pointing toward the dog. Maria looked at my finger, grabbed it with her hand and started chewing on it. "Nice finger, mom!" seemed to be her reaction to my pointing. Fast forward a year. Again, we were reading a book with a picture of a dog. This time the dog was hard to see (James Herriot's The Market Square Dog). I pointed toward the dog and said "Look! What's there?" Maria looked at the page and then announced gleefully "A doggie!"

So what changed in that year? Why did she notice only my finger at 6 months but the picture at 18 months? Joint attention. Joint attention is often discussed in the developmental literature, but rarely included in parenting books or magazines. This is a shame, because joint attention turns out to be a crucial, pivotal skill for both language and social development. It's what keeps you on the same page as everyone else when you are interacting with them.

Joint attention is just what it sounds like: two people paying attention to the same thing. It sounds remarkably simple. And yet, it turns out to be more complex than just paying attention. Joint attention requires the child to figure out what the adults (or other children) are paying attention to. It requires them to recognize that other people might be attending to something different than they are. It requires the child to realize that they too can get and direct someone's attention. These are concepts that develop slowly over the first year and half or two of life.

As with most things, joint attention begins with 'baby steps', or in this case baby looks. At 6 months Maria was just beginning to get the skills necessary for joint attention. By 18 months, she had become an old pro in that area.

Even children under 3 months will look into the eyes of someone who is looking at them, albeit if it's briefly in the beginning. As they get closer to 3 or 4 months, they will spend time looking in your eyes and gazing at you. And during this time, they also engage in what look like 'conversations' with you. If you talk to them, the baby will listen intently. When you pause, the baby will respond. Sometimes verbally, sometimes by smiling, sometimes by looking you in the eye, sometimes by waving a hand. This turn-taking is a baby-step in how to have a conversation and some aruge that it forms the the foundations for real conversations later.

Between 6 and 12 months is when the skills for joint attention really take off. At 6 months, infants are much better at looking you in the eye and interacting than they were even 3 months earlier. This is the age where they begin to really delight in peek-a-boo, patty cake and other games. And at 6 months, infants can sometimes figure out which direction an adult is looking toward by following how the adult turns their head. But, they aren't very good at figuring out what the adults are looking at. They will generally stop at the first interesting object they see. Hence Maria's grabbing my finger. She was orienting in the same direction that I was, but she stopped at the first cool thing she saw: my finger! At 9 months, infants are better at identifying where an adult is looking. They can follow not only the head, but another person's eye gaze to figure out where they are looking. But again, they tend to stop with the first interesting object, and aren't very reliable in figuring out what an adult is attending too. But by 12 months, infants are not only looking in the same direction, they're usually pretty good at figuring out what an adult is looking at. By 18 months, they've go it mastered. Instead of noticing just the finger, they follow the direction of the finger.

To be truly social communicators, infants also need to be able to do more than figure out what another person is interested in. They also need to be able to attract and direct someone else's attention. Thus, there's a second set of joint attention skills that a child needs to acquire. And, this set has two important functions, requesting something and commenting on something. Both are important for social development.

If an infant wants a toy, but cannot reach it, at 6 months, they will most likely just reach for it, and complain loudly if they can't get it. By 9 months or so, they will reach for it, but also look at the parent for help. By 12 months, they've often become masters at this - reaching for or pointing to something, looking at the parent, looking back at the object, and then checking in with the parent to make sure they're following their gaze. And they'll keep doing it until they get what they want or their parents move them! This is the level that indicates the child is truly trying to communicate an intention to the adult.

Just as important, though less recognized, are the gestures and vocalizations that are simply meant to draw a parents' attention to an object or event. This type of joint attention is more conversational. It has the same steps as the requests, but without the demand for the item. So, at 6 months, a child may reach toward an object and babble, but not really connect it with the parent. By 12 months however, a child may well point to something, like a picture in a book, a cool truck on the street or Mommy walking in the door, look at the other person, wait for the response and look back. They'll also keep 'commenting' until the adult responds. This kind of joint attention is the beginning step in a real conversation.

But why is joint attention so important?

If joint attention doesn't develop, a child often doesn't develop the language or social skills needed to interact with others. Language is a social act. It involves learning and understanding social interactions, and having social motivations. Joint attention cues a child into these social interactions and makes language learning possible. Without these, a child's language and social cognition cannot develop.

Indeed, one of the major symptoms of Autism is a lack of joint attention. Children with Autism are very often delayed in joint attention. They're delayed in following other people's gazes or pointing, and they're delayed in their own pointing and commenting. They often learn to request things, but they have difficulty just 'commenting' on things. Their communication is functional, but not conversational.

And it turns out that the ability to initiate or respond to this conversational kind of attention is what matters most for learning social interactions and language. The better children are able to use these behaviors, the more social and language skills they develop. Thus, joint attention is a milestone that all parents should know about and watch for. It's as important as those first steps and that first smile!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Why, why, oh why

Tommy first asked the question "why" 6 weeks before his 3rd birthday. He'd acquired "what?" and "where?" and "when?" –, and I knew "why" was "due", as it's a "3 year old" kind of question. When he first uttered "why?" I looked at the calendar and thought "Yep, coming up on three, there it is." The first few whys were a thrill. He's got the idea! He's asking why!

But, once why arrived, it never stopped. The summer he was 3, Tommy asked why after nearly every statement of mine. Driving home from school became an exercise in not just 20 questions, but 1000 questions, most of them "why?"

T: What they building?
M: It looks like they're building new houses.
T: Why?
M: Well, because people need a place to live.
T: Why people need a place to live?
M: They need a place to get out of the rain, or the sun or the cold, and to keep their stuff.
T: Why?
M: Because it's not very fun to get wet or cold.
T: Why?
M: Because it's not.
T: Why?

Many children ask why, and Tommy certainly wasn't the first. But, the sheer volume of whys was astounding. Family commented on it, neighbors commented on it, store clerks commented on it. Even his preschool teachers commented on how often he asked why. If preschool teachers are commenting, you know he's asking why a lot! Literally every statement was responded to with why? often to the puzzlement of the adult.

T: What's that?
M: That's the river.
T: Why?
M: Why what?
T: What that's the river?
M: Umm... it's not the land, it's water.

Particularly disturbing to me where why queries to locations (Portland is in Oregon. Why?), labels for things (that's a giraffe. Why?). How can you answer why something is located somewhere or why something is called something?

M: That's called a giraffe.
T: Why?
M: Why what?
T: Why that's a giraffe?
M: _____________________ (Because that's the name/because it's got a long neck/arbitrary convention.)

Sometimes why was simply a device to keep the conversation rolling. But often, he really did want to know. If I responded "Why do you think?" He would shoot back "I don't know. Why?"
"You tell me." was met with "No, you tell me!" Apparently, he needed to hear the answers over and over and over again in order to internalize it.

And why has continued well beyond age 3. It's still going strong to this day - age 5 ½ and counting. We get dozens of whys every day. So many that sometimes I answer why without it being asked, which leads to a conversation of the absurd:

T: Why are we going to the store?
M: To pick up a prescription for Maria.
T: Oh.
M; Because she's got a rash and the lotion will help it.
T: I didn't ask why! (very indignant!)
M: Oh, sorry, I thought you did because you ask why so often.
T: Why?
M: Why do you ask why so often?

Why is such a constant presence in our house that Maria picked up why a full year earlier than Tommy. So, now I'm getting it from both sides - double doses of why every day.

So, why why? What's so important about why that a child will repeat it over and over and over again. It keeps the conversation going - in fact, it may be a child's earliest device to send the conversation back at the parent. Early conversations with children (at least in US American households) often look like mini-interrogations, with the parent asking, the child responding and the conversation lurching to a halt any time the child quits answering or the parent quits asking. Why changes that dynamic. It elicits a response from the parent - a long and complicated response.

It's also been argued (Snow, 2001) that why questions can often be built from the utterances the parent has just given: Why that's called a giraffe? Can be uttered after a parent says "That's a giraffe" – just tack why on to the front and you've got new utterance, one that's guaranteed to get a response from the parent. So, it's possible that why is a good step into complex syntax – it builds off what the parent says and it keeps the conversation going and leads to more complex answers.

But why does more than this too. Why opens up a new world of information to a curious child. It allows them to promote their conversational agenda, rather than simply responding to the parents. Through why questions, parents get a glimpse of what their children are interested in. What intrigues my child? What fascinates him?

For me as a parent, it's also a chance to reflect on how much of the knowledge that I use every day is knowledge that I take for granted. My children's questions have made me think about many things that I don't usually question. Why do busses stop at bus stops? Why do people live in houses? Why do we need our seatbelts on? Why is my tea hot? Do fire trucks turn their lights on first or their sirens on first when they leave the station, and why? Why is red the signal for stop? Why not purple or orange or even green? Why does it rain?

And even more, when my answer to "Why does it rain?" is "Because the clouds have water in them." the responding "Why do clouds have rain in them?" makes me think more deeply about my knowledge and how to explain whole cycles of things. "Because the clouds have water in them" isn't really very explanatory, and yet that's the type of answer we're likely to give. What my children really want is to know how the water got there, how it stays up there, what makes it come down and why it's coming down in this place at this moment. It's enough to make a scientist out of everyone!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Gagaga and Wawawawa

Disclaimer: I'm talking about pronunciation in this essay, not spelling. So, for the purposes of reading this remember that pronunciation and spelling are not the same thing. Although garbage, for example, is spelled with an 'e' at the end, it does not end in an 'e' for pronunciation. That 'e' is 'silent' - thus for pronunciation purposes, the word ends with the 'dg' sound. Similarly, while the word 'friend' is spelled with two vowels 'ie', it's only pronounced with one. Due to font limitations of the web, I'm not able to give the real sounds - just an approximation.

Gagaga and Wawawawa

First words are a wonderful thing. That is, of course, if you can understand them. The following are words that Tommy used when he was about 20 months. Take a guess at what they could be:

wawawawa (my all time favorite!)

Stumped? So were most of our friends and relatives!

aing = orange
babo = backhoe
beh = bread
gagaga = garbage truck
gye-gye = bye-bye
haka = sock
han = hand
kishi = fishie
ma-ah = melon
maemae = banana
mih = mitten
shishi = lotion
wawawawa = helicopter

How on earth did he get so far from the adult pronunciation? Believe it or not, almost all of his pronunciations made sense, linguistically speaking. Tommy was very consistent, applying very regular rules to his pronunciation. The only problem is, by the time he got done applying all the rules, the words themselves bore very little resemblance to their adult counterparts. Our first born is lucky that his mom is a linguist, and was able to decode all things he was doing to words.

Really there were two things going on with his pronunciation. First, he had a set of sounds that he couldn't pronounce – typically late sounds like 's' and 'l' and 'f' were mispronounced. Instead of using those sounds, he substituted other sounds that he could do so 'k' for 'f', 'h' for 's' and so on. Despite these substitutions, the sounds he could pronounce were very typical for a two year old. He could pronounce all of the sounds that 2 year olds can typically use: /b, p, m, n, w and h/. He even had most of the sounds that are often acquired between the ages of 2 and 4 such as /d, t, k, g, "ng"/. True he had a hard time with most of the sounds that are generally acquired after age three – things like /f, y, r, l, s, z, "ch", "dg", v/ (although he did have "sh", which is often a later sound). But difficulties with these sounds is very typical and we're used to that in children's speech. After all we can all understand Tweety Bird's "I tawt I taw a puddy tat!" or Elmer Fudd's "wascally wabbit".

Tommy was so very difficult to understand not because of his sound substitutions but because he altered the sequences of sound, or the 'shape,' of his words. He preferred for his words to end in a vowel, so he omitted the consonants at the ends of syllables and words. Or, if they didn't end in a vowel, he added one ('kishie' is an example of this). He couldn't pronounce two consonants that occurred in a row, so he just deleted one; 'bread' became 'beh' and 'hand' became 'han'. He often didn't pronounce syllables that weren't stressed, especially if they occurred at the beginnings of words. So, those syllalbes just disappeared as the first syllable of 'banana' (maemae) or the second syllable of 'mitten' (mih).

But he did more than that just delete and add. He also preferred for the sounds in his words to 'match', so he'd replace one sound with another from the same word to make all the consonants the same. So, 'backhoe' with a 'b' and a 'k' became 'baboe'. For 'lotion' with it's difficult to pronounce initial 'l', he took 'sh' from the second syllable and used it instead, giving us 'shishi'.

The result of all of this was that his words had a very nice, regular structure for every syllable: Consonant-Vowel (CV), where often (but not always) the same consonants were used in 2 and 3 syllable words (CVCV).

Interestingly, the structure he created for words (CVCV) is one of the most common structures for words across the world's languages. Many language such as Spanish, Italian, Japanese or Hawaiian have very few (if any) words that end in consonants. English and the other Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, etc.) are more unusual in that our words tend to be short, but very complex. In Spanish, a 'friend' is amigo – where amigo has a vowel - consonant+vowel - consonant+vowel structure (VCVCV). Compare that with English friend - a short word with two consonants at the beginning and two more at the end (CCVCC)!

What Tommy did with his pronunciation was very typical for a child under 2. He created a template for words (CVCV primarily) that made the words easier to pronounce. This tendency to simplify is so common that a lot 'baby talk' or baby words reflect this tendency for children to simplify both sounds and word structure. Words such as 'wawa' for water, or 'bubba' or 'sissy' for brother and sister are examples of this. And it's probably not just chance that words for 'mother' and 'father' across the world's languages are usually CVCV with the early acquired consonants and vowels: mama, amma, ummah, anaana, dada, papa, ataata, tata, etc. We want our names to be things our kids can pronounce! And thus, even when we have a difficult to pronounce word such as 'mother' (the 'th' sound is learned quite late), we substitute other words such as mommy or momma that our children can pronounce.

So, in terms of pronunciation rules across languages, Tommy's pronunciations weren't all that weird. It was just the sheer volume of pronunciation changes that stymied most listeners. Can't pronounce garbage truck? Well, just delete the 'r's that you can pronounce(so 'garbage truck' would become 'gabage tuck'). Then delete the consonants at the end of 'truck' and 'garbage' since we don't like those either (yielding 'gaba tuh'). Then make all the consonants (and vowels) in the word the same, and voila: Garbage truck has become gagaga! It all makes perfect sense, in its own little world.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Firefighters and Police Officers

"Tommy, you want to play firefighter when we get home?"
"Of course!"

Do you remember a time when firefighter seemed awkward when compared to fireman? My kids don't. They happily play firefighter, police officer, letter carrier and ambulance driver. They've never met a stewardess, only flight attendants.

Does it matter that they're growing up with different words than I did? In some ways, no. Calling someone a police officer rather than a police man doesn't make him less male, if he is a male. But, calling someone a police officer does open up the possibility that they could be female if you haven't met them yet. In this way, the titles we use do matter. I grew up in a world with policemen, firemen and mailmen. I had a paper route and had to collect money from customers. How I hated it when I heard people say "Honey, the paperboy is here!" It denied part of me. Along with the words, there was a tacit understanding that those weren't jobs for girls or women. Only after women started to join the police force or the fire department, did the job titles change. When I had my paper route, I would happily have been a paper carrier, rather than a paperboy or even papergirl.

But, oh how these changes have been decried as they've taken place. Traditionalists have claimed that the new words are grating on the ears, or even absurd. How can we talk about a committee chair convening a meeting, as if an inanimate object could do such a thing! Others comment on the awkwardness of the construction he or she (or s/he) in writing, and note that no one ever says these things. But, the spoken language has a perfectly good alternative: they used for singular if you don’t know the gender. It’s what we’ve done since Old English, and while it’s decried by logicians (a plural pronoun shouldn’t refer to a singular thing), it’s an acceptable alternative.

Furthermore, these arguments miss the point that language changes. It always has and it always will. We no longer use the Old English word gnyrn (sadness, sorrow), we've added they (from Scandinavian), niece (from French) and sheriff (from Arabic). Did the Anglo-Saxons quibble about this new pronoun they or mourn the loss of gnyrn? Did Robin Hood complain that the word sheriff grated on his ears? The person certainly offended him. The word? Probably not.

More insidious are arguments such as those made by self-appointed pundits such as Christina Hoff Summers. She suggests gender neutral language is unnecessary because many languages mark gender. She suggests that to be gender neutral, we'd have to change the whole structure of French, as all French nouns are either masculine or feminine. Or, she argues, man can be specific to males or refer to humans in general, because words can have more than one meaning. But Hoff Summers' arguments are straw arguments. She confuses grammatical gender, used in French, with natural gender, used in English French speakers happily refer to tables as she and desks as he in a way that no English speaker can do with a straight face.

Furthermore, such arguments miss the fact that words retain their multiple meanings, despite the context. While man can have more than one meaning, that doesn't make the male meaning disappear. When we read words with more than one meaning, we call up not just the meaning given by the context, but all the possible meanings. Psycholinguistic experiments have shown that if I tell you that "The diplomat was shocked by the presence of bugs in the hotel room," you will briefly call up both the meaning insect and listening device when hearing 'bug'. Thus, using man when you mean people or humans, will call up the meaning male, even when it's not intended. Why not just say people and avoid the whole issue?

Finally, using fireman or mailman gives subtle indications of our culture and beliefs. Referring to firemen suggests that this is a male job. Girls need not apply. This is no longer the state of the world. My daughter is free now to choose a career other than teacher or nurse. She's already seeing herself in roles that even I, child of the feminist revolution, never could. As she said to her brother the other night: "Tommy, you be the nurse and I'll be the doctor!"

True, some of her dreams are still impossible:

Tommy: "Do you think I could be a firefighter when I grow up?"
Mom: "If you want to."
Maria: "And I'll be a Dalmatian when I grow up!"

While reality may keep her from becoming a Dalmatian, at least her language won't keep her from becoming a firefighter.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Red Light, Green Light

"What would happen if red means "go"?" Tommy asked me at age 3. We were stopped at a red stoplight, and he was pondering the issue. "Good question," I responded. "What would happen? Do you think everyone would run into each other?" "Maybe, if they didn't know that red means go."

While answering his question, what my mind was really thinking was "Aha! Arbitrariness of the sign!" He recognized that the fact that "red" means "stop" and "green" means "go" is an arbitrary convention, agreed upon by members of society. There's no real reason that red has to mean stop. We could indicate "stop" with purple, or orange, or brown. Red could mean "go" or "slow down" or "speed up". We've linked "red" with "stop" through convention. By asking what would happen if this were changed, Tommy was indicating that he recognized this as a convention, or as Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) phrased it he recognized the arbitrariness of the sign.

Depebo, arbre, baum, tree - what do these words have in common? Nothing other than the fact that they mean the same thing in different languages. Each language has chosen its own set of sounds to link to that meaning. Thus the 'sign' (in this case the word) is an arbitrary link to the meaning. This arbitrariness of the sign is a crucial design feature of human language. With a few exceptions (onomatopoeia and sound symbolism), there is no relationship between a word's meaning and its sound. It just is. And that lack of relationship has given us the freedom to link many meanings to sound -- our language need not be grounded in reality. We can talk about ideas, fantasy or even the impossible. The arbitrariness of the sign has also made it possible for many different languages to come into being, each with their own unique links to concept and meaning.

Yet, the concept of arbitrariness of the sign isn't self-evident. 2 year olds, when asked what happens if you call a 'cat' a 'dog' will often respond with 'it'll bark' or something similar, suggesting that they think the cat becomes a dog. For them, word and the thing appear to be one in the same. A 4 year old, however, will say "that'd be silly" or "no one would understand you." They've begun to learn that words and things are separate. A word is just a label. And if it's a label, you can manipulate it. You can change it. You can represent it with sound. Or with letters. Or with a sign. Tommy's recognition that this relationship between red light and the meaning 'stop' is just a convention of society was an indication of growing metalinguistic awareness. Metalinguistic awareness is the ability to recognize the arbitrary and systematic nature of language, to be able to reflect on language and manipulate it, rather than just use the parts to communicate. And metalinguistic awareness turns out to be a crucial component of sophisticated language use – from everything to the ability to make jokes and puns to using metaphorical language to learning to read.

None of this thinking about metalinguistic skills, however, helped me to answer the next questions:

T: "Why does red mean stop?"
M: Well, it just does. It's a rule that everyone agrees upon so we don't run into each other. (Trying to phrase 'arbitrariness of the sign in 3 year old terms).
T: Who made the rule?
M: Umm.. I don't know.
T: I think the stoplight guys made it.

Sounds good to me.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Bricklayer vs. Concrete Mixer

Parents with more than one child are drawn to compare, even if we know we shouldn't. "He's my introvert and she's my extrovert." "She's my mathematician and he's my poet." And we speculate on the source of the differences among our children. "She's got her father's eyes, and he's got mine." "Oh, she's just like her dad!" Learning language is no exception – different children seem to go about the task of learning language in different ways.

Tommy was what I'd like to call a "brick layer" – he started speaking word by word. He amassed a huge vocabulary (250 words or more) before he started to combine words. "Doggy ride" was his first word combination, at age 22 months, while pointing to a picture of Clifford the Big Red dog riding on top of a bus. But, having declared "doggy ride." he didn't combine words again for several more weeks. Just as he was turning two, he moved slowly from one word to two. Then three. He seemed to need to examine and place each word carefully before moving on.

Tommy's bricks (words) were placed long before the mortar came. The mortar, in this case, being the grammatical words and endings that tie things together. So, his first sentences were things like "Doggie ride" "Momma go." Only after he mastered 2-3 word sentences did we get "Doggie rides" and "The doggie rides" came even later. He used names (Tommy, Momma) to refer to people for a long time, "Where Momma going?" "Tommy climb up!" or just plain "climb up!" Apparently, he found pronouns such as you and I unnecessary. He took the big pieces of language and laid them together, brick by brick, then slowly added mortar to build up the language.

His learning of the sound rules of English worked the same way – slow and careful, making sure he'd gotten each part before moving on. When he was very small (20 months), nearly all of his words began with a consonant and ended with a vowel (CV). So, book was [bu], car was [ka] (as was clock), blanket was [baba], bounce was [ba]. Sometimes, stymied by complex words, he resorted to getting the right number of syllables and leaving it at that. So, helicopter was 'wawawawa' and garbage truck was "gagaga".

Given all the changes he made to words, it took a translator to decode a lot of his language. Many of our neighbors and acquaintances were amazed and bemused by my translations. When Tommy announced: 'wu. gagaga. da' and I responded "Oh look (wu), the garbage truck (gagaga) is there (da)," I think they thought I was making things up. But, as time went on, he slowly added consonants to the ends of words. First he added sounds to the ends of words and we got 'gaash' for garbage, and 'tuck' for 'truck.' Then he added sounds to the middle got 'gachidge' for garbage. And finally, well after age 3, he added several sounds to the beginnings of words, and we had 'garchdige twuck' with all the parts of the syllables in more or less a recognizable fashion. As with his sentences, he built his words sound by sound, slowly adding them together. And typical of bricklayers, when he learned a rule, it appeared all at once. So, when he discovered that he'd been missing a whole syllable at the beginning of words, that 'recycling' wasn't just 'cycling', he suddenly began to add 're-' to ALL the words that began with unstressed initial syllables. So, we talked about 'repellers' (propellers) and teacher 'Rechelle' (Michelle). And just for good measure, we added "re-" to some words that didn't need it. So, we talked about 'recycling retrucks' and 'rebatteries'.

Our bricklayer Tommy contrasts strongly with our second child, Maria. Maria is a "concrete mixer". Her language came out all at once, or so it seemed. I can remember her calling up the stairs at 16 months saying "Momma, where are you?" (OK, so it was 'mama wa aaa uuuu?' but the meaning was clear.). She did have individual words, but her progress from one to a several words was much more fluid. She learned both words and phrases all at the same time. I can't tell you exactly when she started doing two word phrases, and it's not just because she's the second child! It's because they appeared nearly at the same time as her words did. So, 'bye plane' and 'that's the eyes' occurred at the same time as book, Abby and no (17 months). Her 'mortar', pronouns such as you or I and the endings on verbs or nouns, appeared quickly too, mixed together with the words. Instead of laying down bricks, she built a whole wall! And we're never quite sure what's going to be in that wall. She looked at a picture of a boy yesterday and say "That boy reminds me of Tommy." Holy cow, what a phrase for a 33 month old.

Unlike her brother, master of the rule, she's much more fluid with her rules. Sometimes she'll add the endings – so sometimes she walks and sometimes she just plain walk, no ending. Sometimes she'll come close to the endings, but not quite – so she 'spelt' her name, sounding quite quaint and old fashioned, while her brother only ever spelled.

With pronunciation, again, her structures came out all at once. No slow building up from consonant-vowel, to consonant-vowel-consonant for her. She took a running leap and jumped into the whole word. Some of her leaps were spectacularly successful. "Garbage" a word which gave her brother fits for over a year, appeared at 22 months as a clear "garbish". On the other hand, "The Laurie Berkner Band" a phrase she attempted at 31 months came out as "wuba babna", a spectacular failure (missing several syllables and substituting lots of sounds) that took us nearly an hour to figure out! And that's the problem with being a concrete mixer – if your wall falls, you don't have any pieces to pick up, you just have to start all over again.

My children, much to my amusement, fit a lot of the generalizations in the literature about variations in style. First borns tend to be 'brick layers' (or referential or analytic learners). They start with words, and build up a large vocabulary before combining words. They apply rules across the board. They resist imitating words. They start by combining content words and add pronouns and grammatical words later. Later borns tend to be 'concrete mixers' (holistic or expressive learners). They start with more phrases (many social phrases), have a more gradual transition from single to many words. They're more variable in their application of rules. Their sentences contain more of the grammatical mortar and pronouns from the beginning.

So, where do these differences come from? Are they real? A good question. Is this another thing to chalk up to first vs. second born? Maybe not. While first borns tend to be bricklayers, girls also tend to be bricklayers (and first born girls even more so). Boys have more of a tendency toward concrete mixing. Gender thus seems to play a role. Or is it how parents react to children – talking differently to boys than girls? Or parenting – do parents of single/first children have more time to label, more time to wait for single phrases to be built up to sentences? Or is it personality? My first born bricklayer is an introvert. He's not going to lay anything out there until he's sure. He's also very interested in things. Labeling things, classifying them is important to him. When he was two, he commented Moon has no doors. Airplanes have doors. My second born concrete mixer, on the other hand, is an extrovert - getting out whole social phrases (where are you? what's your name?) was important to her. She's very interested in people. When she was two, her question about the moon was Where is the moon's families? Did her interest in people and relationships facilitate her language, or is she more interested in people and relationships because she's got the language to communicate about them? The research data is certainly mixed. It's hard to make generalizations, and even harder to find a 'cause' for the variability.

The fascinating thing is that these different approaches do not produce different results in the long run as far as we can tell. Each approach gets a child to language. Everyone has to learn words. Everyone has to learn to pronounce. Everyone has to learn the grammatical bits that hold the sentences together. Whether you acquire these parts as individual bricks and mortar or all in a mix, they do come together in the end. And once the wall is there, it's apparently irrelevant whether it was poured from concrete or built with bricks.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dora the Exploder meets Bob the Building

Starting at about age 2 ½ , my kids each went through a period where we watched popular TV shows, just not quite the ones the networks were broadcasting. Tommy always asked to see "Dora the Exploder" and Maria has a passion for "Bob the Building" and will sing loudly and confidently: "Bob the Building, can we fix it? Bob the Building, yes we can!"

But it's not just TV characters that suffer this fate. For a couple of years, malaprops have been sprinkled into my kids' vocabularies. The traditional kids' song Down by the Bay has become "Down by the Bed..." Baa baa black sheep has "one for my master, one for my game, and one for the little boy who lives down the plane." We've talked about "snowflags" (snowflakes) and "snow lizards" (blizzards). Some of these are simple sound substitutions. But others are clever combinations of sound similarities and analogies with other words they know. So, Maria was talking about "eyelips" the other day. If your mouth has lips, why not your eyes?

They mishear words too, coming up with their own mondegreens. For a long time, Tommy would announce that something was on "this eye" (this side) and point to his eye to indicate the side. Maria was wearing a 'princess hat' one day (a visor upside-down so it looked like a tiara). I said, "oh, you're wearing a tiara. A crown." "I'm not a cwown, I'm a pwincess!" She had misheard crown as clown. When my sister was learning to write, she asked my mom how to spell "smat". "There is no such word," replied my mother. "Yes, there is!" insisted my sister. "Well, can you use it in a sentence?" "Sure, I got crumbs on my play-smat." (placemat).

I love to collect these, not just because they're funny but because they show great things about learning words. Early vocabularies tend to be 'sparse'. Each word tends to be relatively unique – they don't overlap much either in sounds or meaning. In technical terms, they don't have many words in the same neighborhood. But, as more words are added, some of these new words come close to ones already in a child's lexicon. These errors signal a new complexity in how words are being stored and organized in the mind. Instead of keeping the neighbors at bay and learning words that are distinct from one another, children are filling in the neighborhood, and sometimes the boundaries between the 'lots' aren't clear. Thus these malaprops and mondegreens are a side effect, if you will, of rapid vocabulary growth.

These errors also reveal just how hard children are working to acquire language. We think of language acquisition as 'effortless', and yet it's not. Imagine being in a country where many of the words you encounter are new and unfamiliar. If you've ever experienced this, you know how exhausting it can be to try to make sense of what's happening around you. This is the situation children find themselves in day after day. They are not sitting passively by, waiting for words to come to them. Children are actively trying to segment and make sense out of the words they hear. As children learn new words, they try first to find sounds sequences that match the words they already know, and sometimes they miss.

But, the amazing thing is not the errors they make, but how many times they get words right. These errors are actually pretty rare. Estimates of word learning suggest that preschool children are learning 3-5 new words a day (a figure which increases during the school years), leading to a vocabulary of around 4,000-5,000 words by age 5. Learning 3-5 words a day should give rise to many opportunities to get the word wrong. Children hear a word once, maybe twice, and get enough to get the gist of it, but its representation is still pretty fuzzy. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Despite this incredibly rapid increase in vocabulary, I've managed to collect maybe 50 malaprops and mondegreens from my own kids. Even if I've underestimated the number by half, or a quarter, that's still a small fraction of the words in their vocabularies that they've gotten 'wrong'. But, even when they got it wrong, they were usually at least in the right neighborhood.


(Wikipedia defines mondegreen as follows "The American writer Sylvia Wright coined it in an essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen", which was published in Harper's Magazine in November 1954. She wrote:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques. One of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They have slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual line is "And laid him on the green", from the anonymous 17th century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O' Murray".)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The great book mystery

Books were a mystery to our son for nearly the first year and a half of his life. As a dutiful, academic parents, our house was filled with children's books. Some were gifts, others I'd purchased. I'd even subscribed to BabyBug at nearly $4 an issue. I loved BabyBug. Tommy's only opinion seemed to be that it didn't taste very good.

When we sat down to read, Tommy had about a 3 second attention span. I could sometimes increase it to several minutes by letting him turn the pages and chew on the corners. But the moment I opened up a book to read, he was squirming off my lap. I even resorted to reading "librarian style", holding up the book from the chair while he played, oblivious, on the floor.

For a while, between about 8 and 12 months of age, I mostly gave up reading books to him. I felt like a terrible mother. I was failing in my duty to raise a literate child. The importance of reading to your child is infused into every parenting book, magazine and conversation about child raising. Parents bring their infants to story hour, their babies to the library, read books every night before bedtime. And here was I, academic mother, studying child language development not reading to my son. But really, what's the point when he just didn't care?

I consoled myself for a while with the rationalization that it's not jut the number of children's books in the home that matters, but the number of books for parents and the parental involvement in literacy. How can we expect children to embrace books if the only books in the house are children's books? Who wants to do something that's only for kids? When the adults in the house read, that's when it's appealing to children. And Lord knows, we were constantly engaged in activities involving literacy – reading e-mail, reading books, reading student papers, reading the newspaper, answering e-mail, writing on the computer, reading e-mail. We were modeling reading and writing for most of Tommy's waking hours.

And yet, books remained an enigma to him. As he became more communicative, and I observed him more, it became clear that he just didn't "get" the illustrations in children's books. I'd point to an illustration of something I knew he knew the word for (dog, car), and he'd look at me with puzzlement. Or I'd say "oh, look at the sheep!" and he'd look at me like I had two heads. Admittedly, some of the illustrations in children's books are pretty far-fetched. A fuzzy blob representing a sheep, or is it a cloud? A dog standing on two legs eating with a spoon? Nope, that just didn't make sense to my literalist.

And then something in the back of my mind remembers a discussion while I was a post-doc, that children with certain disorders (Autism? Fragile X? Down Syndrome? I can't remember) perform better at vocabulary tests when presented with pictures of actual objects rather than illustrations. So, as an experiment, I got several books that had real pictures, My Very First Word Book and My First Truck Board Book.

Maybe it was his age (15-16 months). Maybe he'd developed enough vocabulary to care. Maybe it was the pictures. But suddenly, he "got" books. Not only did he understand the pictures, but he understood that the pictures in the book represented things in the real world. I remember reading the Truck Book one evening. When we came to the picture of the tractor, Tommy got off my lap, ran over to the toy bin, and picked up his toy tractor. He ran over to me and showed me the tractor, saying "tractor", then pointing to the picture in the book, "tractor". He was demonstrating, the best way a 16 month old could, that he got the similarity. "Look mom, they're the SAME thing." He was so excited about his discovery. He had discovered that pictures in books had meaning. And he had discovered that words can label many things – what's known as 'context-free' word learning. "Tractor" didn't just label his toy tractor, but all tractors.

From then on, books made sense. We read My First Truck Board Book so many times its binding fell apart. We still had to keep the stories short. We still had to let him direct the reading and page turning. To this day, he prefers non-fiction to fiction. But, I'm no longer a failure as a mother. My child reads books.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The first word

What better place to start than with the first word. Our son's first word was the sign "more". I remember clearly the day he signed it. He was 10 ½ months old. I had given him a graham cracker in the kitchen, and then gone to sit down in the living room to read. He crawled in, looked at me, and brought his fingers together for "more". I was thrilled! His first word! "You want more? More graham cracker? I'd be happy to get you more!!" I babbled away, barely remembering to actually get him the graham cracker before grabbing my notebook to record his first word.

Every parent eagerly awaits their child's first word. The first word is the milestone that marks the transition from infant (Latin: without language) into childhood. It marks a child's entrance into human society. Humans are driven to communicate. So much so that if we can't speak due to deafness or an inability to articulate, then language still finds a way to come out through our hands, machines or even by spelling words using our eyes.

When you're a linguist who studies child language acquisition, that first word may be even more eagerly awaited than in other families. I eagerly awaited not only the first word, but the precursors to those first words: the first social smile, eye contact, turn taking, babbling, pointing, gestures. Is my child meeting these milestones? Will he be an early talker? A late talker? First social smile: 4 weeks! That's early. Babbling: not babbling at 6 months as "predicted" by the milestones, more like 7 months, and then not becoming as varied as it's 'supposed' to be as he grows older. Maybe he'll be a late talker. Pointing? Hmm... doesn't really point yet. Does he get the idea of communication? Can he follow my attention? Does he need help? Learned to clap at 10 months – whew! gestures are a precursor to language, so he's on track. And then: the first sign: 10 ½ months. Maybe he WILL be an early talker. These are the sorts of things my mind tracked as I nursed, changed diapers and played.

I had been half-heartedly signing to our son for a few months. I knew the studies that exposure to signs might help early vocabulary development and that children who could sign were generally less whiney than ones who couldn't. I was a bit skeptical of the research studies and, not being fluent in sign, a bit reluctant to teach a language (sign language) that I didn't know myself. It didn't flow naturally from my fingers. When I could remember, I used a few signs that I thought might be important to him: "milk" (for nursing) and "down" (to get out of the high chair). "More" was an afterthought. It's a common sign used in day care centers and signing classes, and I gave it a try. So, our son's use of "more" as his first word was a surprise and a joy for me.

And for our son, the sign "more" turned out to be incredibly versatile. He could request "more" of an food. "More" of an action. He extended it to mean "I want" – crawl over to the door – sign "more" meaning "I want to go out". While nursing, tap mom with one hand in the "more" shape to say you're ready to switch sides. Crawl over to the bookshelf, sign "more" meaning "I want to read a book". It's an all purpose word. So, versatile was this word that I waited 53 days, pen and notebook in hand, for the next word to arrive.


This blog will contain essays on my children's journey into language - how they 'cracked the code' and began to communicate – in words, sentences and stories. As I document events from their language learning, I will also reflect on the things their language learning inspired in me as a linguist and as a mother. My documentation will be topical, not chronological. At some point in time, as these reflections become more fully fleshed out, I wish to reorganize it into a book, which would be chronological. Until then, you'll have to bear with my theme of the week. Some events will be large, some small. But all are part of the journey.

Watching my children learn language has been especially fascinating for me, because language development is my specialization within the field of (psyscho)linguistics. I've always been fascinated by language, and by the mind. Experiencing the development of language with my children has made what I've studied all the more personal. When a child learns language, it opens up a whole new realm of interaction with a parent. Language gives us a little insight into a child's mind - how it words, how they see the world, and how the world influences them. My children's language never ceases to amuse and amaze me. I hope you will enjoy this journey as much as I have.