One of the great joys I have as a linguist is to see the development of my children’s language skills. My daughter is four, and a precocious talker. She had full sentences (with interesting pronunciations) before eighteen months, and her joy with sounds and words was infectious. Now my son is having his turn. He is almost two and has several developmental delays, including in speech. These delays mean that his progress in most areas of development is slow. As a result, he is hitting each milestone in a very linear and slow fashion. He’s like a textbook baby, going painstakingly from rolling to sitting to crawling to standing to cruising to walking in tiny increments. Where most children will skip this or that step, or whizz through one so fast you barely notice, he takes his time, almost as if he’s working through a mental checklist.
It’s endearing, made more so by the fact that he is making progress and he has been beautifully supported by professionals.
When it comes to language, it is a treat to watch him work. He’s a little older and his comprehension is a little better than many children learning their first words. So he can listen and understand when you teach him.
He has about thirty words and signs now (baby sign has been a great tool for us, and my son is proving the research which shows that learning baby sign helps to improve spoken language, rather than delays it), and he tries new words frequently.
‘Duck’ was an early one, pronounced ‘ca.’ Several of his first words have had the final consonant transferred to the beginning of the word. And recently I have witnessed him trying to refine the sounds for that word. The result is ‘basss,’ a step backward, you might say. But I see that he is hearing and trying to replicate the start and end sounds – the word has a clear beginning and ending consonant and that’s what he wants to say. The fact that he only has a couple of consonants in his repertoire limits him, but he does his best.
And I couldn’t be prouder.
I am reminded that at one point my daughter did something similar with one or two words. They went through various incarnations and the similarity to the correct pronunciation varied in a non-linear way. But for her, the process was lightning quick, whereas for my son I can savour these moments a little more slowly.
My daughter remains a source of fascination too. Her experimentation with tenses is continuous. She will try several options until she settles on one that sounds right at the time. ‘You’re wonning, Mummy,’ she’ll say. ‘He bite – bited – bitted me!’
Her vocabulary is fun too. New words appear almost out of thin air and it’s an eye opening experience to hear words I am using to her without thinking coming back to me. My parenting style is reflected in the language she learns and uses with devastating effect. And I must admit, she’s teaching me a thing or two!
My children’s development reminds me of the great joy in language that first interested me in linguistics as a field. Now I get to see in action the language development and acquisition stages I studied about years ago and it has reawakened my fascination with this incredible skill we have.