Before I had a kid of my own, I used to watch the interactions between my friends and their babies with utter bewilderment. I never understood how they managed to translate their little one's babble into discernible conversation. Baby would say something like, "blah, blah, goo goo gah!" and their delighted parents would exclaim, "yes, sweetie, Einstein's theories are perplexing to the uneducated mind, how perceptive you are!"
Now I know how that ability to translate seemingly meaningless babble is developed, because I do it myself every day. When J first started saying words other than Mama and Dada, we made a list of all of his "words", for posterity. There were only a handful of words on there, and we didn't add to it regularly like we should have, but since he seems to say a new word every day these days, we thought we'd make a new list. There were over 60 "words" on there. Granted, most of them are not recognisable to anyone but us, but it is still an attempt on his part to communicate. Watching him transform from a tiny, helpless baby to a confident, talkative and very cheeky toddler has been pure joy, and he amazes me every day. He still babbles incessantly and sometimes looks at us quite seriously, as if he believes he's saying something quite profound. But for most of the basics there is very clearly a series of sounds that signify specific objects or actions. "Car" and "Bath" are the more obvious ones, but a few words/sounds can have a variety of meanings depending on the tone and context. "Num Num" can mean dummy or dinner, while "Mi Mi" can be milk, Mummy, please, or excuse me, depending on the tone and where he puts the emphasis. Every time he says it, we know what he means by the way he says it - it's almost as if he's speaking Cantonese sometimes. When he can't express himself with words, he's very good at using gestures and body language. I was taking too long to get ready yesterday and while I was sitting down putting my shoes on, J grabbed me by the shirt and tried to pull me up - his way of saying "let's go!"
Even though I know what J is saying, most of the time, I still don't have a clue what my friend's kids are saying. It's like we've all developed these intimate mini-languages in our own homes, that are unique to us. I'm always really conscious of it when we're with friends who don't have kids, and I try not to make a fuss or translate for them what J is saying. Partly because some of them simply don't care, but also because I'm aware that they're convinced he's not saying anything at all and that we're just plain crazy. I know that for a fact, because I once thought the same thing!
The experts say that the best way to teach your kids to use words is to speak to them, all day, every day. We do talk to J a lot and we also read to him a few times a day. He often watches our mouths, fascinated, and you can almost hear his little mind ticking over as he processes the different words and the way we're forming them. My niece A, who is two and a half, has a very sophisticated vocabulary, and it's sometimes easy to forget how young she is. When I was looking after her she was asking me for something that I wasn't prepared to hand over. I tried to make a deal with her, eat your vegetables then you can watch TV. It didn't work, because she may have been able to pronounce the word "negotiate" but she couldn't yet understand the concept. Her parents have always spoken to her in a way that's very respectful of her intelligence, and it's paid off in her ability to clearly express herself.
I think all kids deserve to be spoken to as if they're on the same level as the grown ups around them. This doesn't mean being open and honest with them about things they're too young to understand, but there's no need to limit the words you use (unless you're prone to dropping the f-bomb) or "dumb it down." Our little guy is a parrot and will repeat everything he hears, which can be a very bad thing, but it can also be used to teach kids words that are bigger than they are. Yesterday I told J he was handsome, and wouldn't you know it, he said "handsome" straight back. My nephew went through a phase where he was using the F word in context, but he pronounced the F as a P (as in "puck you, Aunty B"). He stayed with us for a week when he was 4 and instead of telling us to puck off, by the end of it he was saying everything was "wonderful." It really showed me how important it is to give kids some credit and to speak to them as you would want to be spoken to. One thing that has always driven me crazy is baby talk - when parents put on a babyish voice to speak to their kids. You know what I mean; there's nothing worse, or more insulting to a child's intelligence than hearing a grown adult say something along the lines of, "Mummy wummy's gonna go get your binki, my widdle bubby, cos it's time for your nigh nighs..." Urgh! I once tutored an 8 year old who spoke like that all of the time and it drove me mad. She was the only child of older parents and I think it was her way of manipulating them. Her parents indulged her - they thought it was cute - but it turned my stomach so I simply refused to play along. Eventually she started speaking normally when I was around and proved herself to be quite a smart, sweet kid. There's definitely no baby talk in this house!
J has already proven to be quite the chatterbox, which is great, and while he's not yet speaking three languages or discussing quantum physics, I'm fairly confident that his language skills are on track. If he's still asking me for his "nhack" (snack) or a ride on the "hing" (swing) when he's 12 then I might start to worry. But for now I'm enjoying the little ways he has of talking to me, and the fact that his favourite word is "Mama".
If you're at all interested in what your kids should be saying and when, have a look at the following resources:
Baby Centre, Zero to Three, What To Expect, Speech Pathology Australia, Child Development Institute,
and Vocal Development