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.