My grandson, who is a year and a half old, likes to say uh-oh when something falls or when a toy doesn’t work. In fact, he enjoys saying uh-oh when nothing much is wrong or for reasons we don’t follow. Like anyone, he wants to comment on the happenings around him—with what words he knows. He is on the front end of an explosion in vocabulary. It is fascinating to watch him work at this important developmental task, one that each of us accomplished so early that we hardly recall a time when we could not talk.
With speech comes responsibility. When he fusses to get picked up, his father reminds him to say up. He does. He also says up when he wants to get down—though he says sit down when he sits to get his shoes on. He says thank you very sweetly when he presents his sippy cup for a juice refill, sure his grandmother will help him. When I open the refrigerator door, he comments, get juice.
Before he learned to talk, his mother showed him how to signal his wants. For example, when he is all done with a meal, he waves his arms sideways from the center in a gesture familiar to most of us, one that means no, enough, all done! Although he can now say all done he still uses this signal, especially when the message is urgent. Along with the signals, she talked to him a lot before he could talk, giving him her voice to study.
This week he speaks about 30 words and several phrases: all gone, balloon, ball, bubbles, up, mama, dada, bread, juice, shoes, mo-mo (more), done, baby, night-night, bye-bye, thank you, car, truck, no, uh-oh, see, hello, garbage, cup, cracker, off, nose, down. Balloon is pronounced with a lyrical rise on the second syllable. Much of his speech is almost sung. The purity of a child’s voice at this stage is holy—like the truth of his facial expressions. One morning he put several small items into an empty gallon container. Having forgotten to turn the container over and dump the pieces out, he tried to push his hand into the opening. Looking at me with grave concern, he said, stuck! Lucky I had my camera ready.
Probably he is saying more than we hear—he’s working on how to say it as well as what to say. Some of his vowels and consonants are not yet set as the English sounds they will become. Stuck and truck and clock are pronounced the same, beginning with a sound between g and k—much like the way a Spanish e is neither a short nor a long English e. The mouth is capable of making a much greater variety of sounds than those used in any one language. Each child must somehow get her mouth to form the sounds needed to pronounce the words of her caretakers. She slowly narrows the fluidity with which she begins, leaving out the many possible nuances not used in the language she must master. She begins early by cooing a range of vowels and, then, more and more the vowels she hears. Linguists can tell the difference between, for instance, the coos of a Japanese baby and those of a German infant. Realizing how early children begin practicing to talk makes me respectful of infant babble.
We veteran talkers don’t think about how we place our tongues or how much throat to put into a word, nor, for that matter, how much force is needed to execute each sound. Like many children, my grandson started saying ba for ball. His father demonstrated how to make the end of the word. He now says balla, over-pronouncing the l sound. Our English l at the end of a word like ball is pronounced so gently that a child can miss it at first and then have trouble getting just the right amount of force into it.
A person with a limited vocabulary must make every word count. Cracker also means cheerios. All gone applies equally to a tray from which he has eaten all the cheerios and to an empty clothes hamper. And bye-bye is uttered when one of his parents goes as far as the kitchen. For one of my children, broken was such a word. A torn blanket was broken. A ripped paper was broken. One morning when he was sick he said, I broken, Mommy.
The limits of vocabulary would frustrate you and me now, but we know we each tolerated not being able to talk, or not being able to express all that we wished. My grandson is rather placid, I think, considering the many things he says that we don’t yet get. For example, he speaks several phrases. The ones we have picked up on include where’d it go?, what’s this?, what’s that?, like that!, they’re there, get juice, sit down, and put it down. He sometimes utters a series of syllables we don’t catch. He’ll keep trying. It is this spirit of persistence that I admire. Toddlers have small bodies, certainly, but their courage and intentions are big as life. And who are toddlers but every one of us? Each of us made this journey. Judging by my grandson, our attitudes were awesome.