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!