Language Before Language - From Dad's Point of View
by Jim Zola
My mother says she has memory back to a time when she was so young, that she couldn't speak. She says she remembers babbling, a knowing babble which to her was communication, but to others was nothing more than babytalk. It is actually a singular memory of sitting on the top of some apartment steps and talking to people passing by and the frustration of having no one understand her. This memory has always amazed me considering the fact that I can't remember anything before my teen years.
My 3 year-old girl is a talker. A regular chatty Cathy. She talks at the dinner table, in the morning, at night, while in the tub, while on the potty. She talks to adults, children, dogs, and inanimate objects. She was able to understand a little boy at the park who spoke Russian. She knew what he was saying even if we didn't. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a talkative child. It is a joy, most of the time. But the problem evolves when this talkathon child happens to have a younger brother. Word -in-edgewise is just a vague concept around here.
Not that the two year-old has any real need to talk. His sister does his talking for him. If you ask him a question "Ethan, what color is the car in the picture?" big sister chimes in with the answer "red" even before brother has a chance to translate the question, let alone actually attempt an answer. Eventually, big sister has become little brothers "agent". Now, when we ask him any kind of question that requires an answer beyond "yes or no", he actually turns to his sister to see what his answer is going to be.
The problem I have is that when I do have a chance to "chat" with Ethan, when his sister is away with Mom or in another room, I have trouble understanding what he is saying. He says "I want juice" and I say, "You want to take off your shoes?" He repeats and I run through the gamut of everyday requests to try and hit on the right one. If there is a pacifier poking out of his mouth, I have no hope of going forward with the conversation.
This hit-and-miss communication can be frustrating to both child and parent. One way we attempted to decrease the level of communication frustration with our two youngest ones is that we taught them some simple sign language at a very early age, well before actual speech had begun. Children are able to handle manual signs much easier than all that verbal stuff. So we taught them some useful words want, eat, drink, more, yes and no.
It helps that my wife and I have both worked with deaf children and have had deaf adults as friends. Our oldest son knows some sign language. As he was growing up, we starting spelling words that we didn't want "innocent ears" to hear. But as he became an accomplished speller, my wife and I resorted to signing our private conversations.
With our two-year old son, my wife is somewhat better at interpreting his speech since she tends to be around him more hours than I am. I heard a story on NPR a few months ago about this new technology that someone had invented. It was a device that you could program and put on a dog. The device would interpret the dog's barks and whines and translate them into human language. Not meaning to sound cruel, there are times when I wish I had this device for my son. Then maybe I would stop taking off his shoes every time he wants a cup of juice.
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