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.

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