Archive for August, 2007

First words

There comes a point in your child’s development when they utter their first comprehensible words. It might be ‘dada’ or ‘mama’ or something they’ve heard often which resembles their basic ‘baby vocabulary’ like ‘bye bye’, but when they start uttering it more than a few times the proud parents beam with excitement!

My son Luka has been gabbling away since his first birthday, sometimes stringing along whole sentences of his own undecipherable language, complete with cadence and lilt. Sometimes it even sounds like he is singing to himself. But none of it makes sense to us but I’m quite sure he is trying to articulate his thoughts. Only lately (since 15 months) has he definitely been coming out with ‘dada’ – which like his buddy Kai (born two weeks ahead of him) refers to all sorts of things, such as dogs and food. He can reliably also say bye bye, along with with a hand wave, when you are leaving.

I think it’s probably difficult to say exactly when a baby starts to talk, no doubt it’s a gradual process, but there isn’t a single parent in the world who doesn’t proudly announce that their baby has begun uttering its first few words. In terms of development it’s one of those great milestones – the fact that we’re the only species to develop a communicable language. But certainly we don’t suddenly wake up one morning and start speaking a few proper words.

Like all babies I imagine my son’s use of words comes from endless repetitive words and phrases like ‘bath time’, ‘eat your food’, ‘don’t do that’ and ‘sleepy time’. And I make a point of trying to talk to him the whole time we are together – a kind of running commentary of what’s going on around us, usually repeating the nouns, so he can put images to words. ‘We’re rolling on the grass, on the grass, grass’. ‘Lets go and see that tree, wow this is a big tree, nice tree’ (he loves the garden). He usually has that attentive look of curiousity about him.

Well, these are things I read in several child development books, and it makes sense, but it does require effort and patience to talk ‘baby speak’ and repeat yourself with boring simple phrases. I also ask a lot of questions to get him interested in things. ‘Where are we going Luka?’. ‘Why are the dogs barking’. I try to make it educational rather than cute ‘gagga-speak’ that others tend to use when they come into contact with him.

Then there are the words he’s invented. Every kid has them. My sister came up with the word ‘diggy’ and has been nicknamed that ever since. For Luka it’s ‘inja’ and ‘bigum’. Soon you realise he uses them in specific situations. The other day he saw Oliver (one of the canine family members) crawl under the car, so he lent under it and rattled off a unhesitated and slick commentary that sounded exactly like ‘Oliver what on earth are you doing under there, I command you to come out immediately!’.

When you have your own child and the numerous opportunities to study their behavioural use of language (before you share a common vocabulary) you soon notice the small nuances, such as the tone, diction, pace and confidence that they rattle off ‘utterances’. It could be some thought that comes to mind and needs to be expressed – even when nothing happened (for instance leaning out the window into a still garden).

Now, in Luka’s case he’s learning two languages at the same time, English and Thai.
And herein lies a challenge, since the potential for confusion is increased. But there are millions of babies around the world that grow up successively learning two languages simultaneously. I read somewhere that they tend to develop slower at each language but ultimately end up bilingual. I also think they probably can recognise the subtle differences in tone, syntax and sound of the two, in much the same way as we can recognise French and German apart without actually speaking them.

To help Luka with his learning, his mum always speaks to him in Thai and I speak to him in English. But most his day is spent with this grandmother who only speaks Thai (and confuses the matter by speaking to him in the Northern dialect). Sometimes when I speak to him in front of his grandmother I have to use Thai so she understands what we’re going to do ‘ja pai dern pai maa’ (we’re going to walk the dogs now) or ‘welaa up-naam’ (it’s bath time). Usually I will then repeat it in English for him.  This is important I think, and I make extra effort to do things with him and talk about it as we go, so that he gets sufficient exposure to English at this early age.

Before long they’ll be gabbling away and we’ll wish they would just shut up!



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