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Small Talk

"Duck!"

This was Page's favorite word at 12 months. It meant "waddling, quacking bird," of course, but also "cow," "dog," "cat," "horse," or any creature not a baby (Dada) or a fish (Shhhh). Duck meant "book," too. When you only speak five words, they tend to work overtime.

On the other hand, when Page's older sister, Eleanor, was the same age, she had an impressive 22-word vocabulary, including the phrases "what's that?" "thank you," and "my teddy." But their middle sister, Margaret, didn't utter anything recognizable until exactly on her first birthday. (And it was a doozy: "Art!")

I know all this because I obsessively wrote down the earliest words of all four of my children and continued recording their funny phrases through their preschool years. I did so as a keepsake, but in the process I wound up learning a lot about the fascinating ways babies and toddlers learn to talk.

Indeed, researchers confirm, when it comes to how language develops, there are many surprises in store.

Baby's first words aren't always what we think
Ask most parents what their baby's first word was, and the answer is usually "Dada" or "Mama." Whether these sounds actually mean "Dad" or "Mom," however, is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Babies tend to babble first certain easy-to-make sounds, including p, b, t, d, m, n, and w, says Julie Masterson, Ph.D., a communication sciences and disorders professor at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield and coauthor of Beyond Baby Talk: A Parent's Complete Guide to Language Development. In most languages, in fact, the words for parents feature these early sounds. "When your baby says 'Ma Ma,' you respond to that," she says. "Whether it was meaningful or not, your reaction encourages your baby to keep going and say it more."

In babbling, which begins at 6 to 8 months with vowel sounds, babies practice making different sound combinations and tones. Within months they often start experimenting with the sounds they hear you making when you speak, and the results can seem excitingly like real words. Tamara Jeffries of Philadelphia swears she heard her daughter, Mali, 10 months, say "hat." "I just can't get her to repeat it," she says.

Your role: Go ahead and get excited about your baby's first "Mama," "Dada," and other possible early words, even if you're not sure they mean anything. You'll encourage more language-building babbles. First words can spring forth anytime between 9 months and 18 months, with 12 months about average.

Parenting contributing editor Paula Spencer is working on a book for moms about trusting your gut, to be published by Crown Books next summer.

Conversation comes before words

In talking to my babies, I sometimes felt like I was a tour guide to a visitor from another planet. "Okay, bunny! Now we eat. Here's your spoon. Here's your sippy cup. Cuppy, cuppy! Mmmm! Do you like your cuppy?" (For full effect, reread in a high-pitched, singsong, peppy way.) Speech experts call this way of talking "child-directed speech," or "parentese."

Most parents of young children can't help it  -- a higher tone and shorter utterances, with an emphasis on key words, just comes out instinctively. Turns out it's not only engaging, but it helps your little one learn new words faster.

Another key feature of parentese is pauses, as if we're waiting for the baby to take his turn in the dialogue. You say, "Hey, boo boo! How are you?" And then your baby goes, "Goo goo goo!" back.

Your role: Talk to your baby long before you think he can understand you. Leave pauses for your baby to "reply." These are the first steps in the amazing dance of conversation. Don't worry that you sound silly or are "talking down" to your baby. In fact, you're talking in a way that's age-appropriate.

Newbie talkers have different styles

Two of my children's playlists of first words were heavy on the nouns: They caught on quickly to words like "ball," "dog," "cat," "book." The other two mixed in more active words, like "hi," "bye-bye," "no," "more," "gone-gone." In fact, speech-development researchers say there are two types of toddlers: noun lovers and noun leavers.

Those who use a lot of nouns have a "referential" style, using language to label their world. Often girls and firstborns, these noun lovers tend to have a more cautious verbal style and acquire speech earlier, says Masterson. They love games that involve naming, such as What's This? or Name the Body Part.

Noun leavers (who have an "expressive" style) use words to engage with people and things. They tend to jump into sentences sooner and are less cautious in their speech  -- they try new words without caring much about getting the pronunciation right. They enjoy games where they get to contribute, like saying "peekaboo!" or "wee wee wee" in "This Little Piggy."

Your role: Don't get too hung up on comparing your new talker's vocabulary with that of other babies you meet. Different first words simply indicate different routes to the same fluency. Will a social speaker grow up to be a social butterfly? No studies have correlated early speaking style to later personality. When a child's vocabulary hits 100 to 200 words (around 24 to 30 months), the style difference disappears.

So much is said with so few words
Even once a child seems to clearly call her father "Dada" or "Daddy," she may also call the mailman, the meter reader, and the guy next door "Daddy," too. The multi-purpose word is simply an ordinary stage of language development (called overextension) and usually shows up when toddlers are between 12 and 24 months. Your child does understand the difference between Daddy and Mailman Pete but doesn't yet possess all the words to verbalize those distinctions.

Toddlers work their limited vocabulary hard. Basically, your child's early words describe things and events in their immediate world, says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The same few words refer to existence (this), disappearance (gone), recurrence (more), action (go), location (here), possession (mine), and attribution (big). Take the words "Mommy go." Said when Mom's away, they can mean, "She's gone." When she's close by, "Mommy go" may mean "Go away" or "Let's go outside, Mom."

Your role: Pay attention to inflection and gestures to help decipher what your child wants. Offer up more words ("You want to go outside with Mommy"), but don't insist your toddler repeat them. Gradually he'll fill in more precise words. In fact, around 18 months, a toddler starts to learn as many as ten words a day.

Mispronunciations are often physical

It started with "be-nember." This was my son Henry's word for "remember" when he was 2. By 3½, he was also saying "be-tend," "be-stroy," "be-scape," "be-splore," and "be-scuse me." Since r sounds are harder to make than b's, Henry shifted into the pronunciation that was easier for him. Then he fell into using this form for random other words that started with d, p, es, and ex as well, before eventually outgrowing the habit.

Children often learn new words before they have the motor dexterity to say them. That's why "elephant," for example, often gets truncated to "ef-ant," which are easier sounds for the mouth to make. In San Rafael, California, Mary VanClay's son, Andrew, 3½, likes his vitamins  -- or as he calls them, "vitawimps."

Your role: Have patience  -- and keep a notebook handy, if you're so inclined. How else would I have remembered "wangy-tangys" (orangutans), "squish-squash" (washcloth), "la goat" (yogurt), and "destructions" (instructions)? Not only is this a mighty cute phase, but some tongue twisters might become household favorites.

They have sponges for ears
"How are you today, class?" Ryan Minniear's teacher asked her 18- to 36-month-old charges at daycare in Mason, Ohio. "Water in the pool!" Ryan replied cheerfully. "It wasn't long before the whole class was saying it, too," says mom Laura. "After days of trying to interpret, we figured it must be what he heard when someone said, 'Wonderful!'"

Blame kids' explosive vocabulary growth, especially around ages 3 and 4. Try to learn a language as an adult, and you'll find it takes many exposures before you can call up a new word and use it comfortably in your speech. Not so with preschoolers. You only need to label an object once and they've absorbed it. What's more, they can use it correctly later. "Grandma will protect you," Diane Paul told her grandson, Gabriel. Later in the day, he told his dad, "Ma-mom will protect me from monsters."

Of course, your child won't always hear the new word exactly the right way, and sometimes the source doesn't enunciate well. "It's like the game of telephone, where the words change with each new listener," says Paul. One evening my kids were having Chef Boyardee for dinner. "Uh-oh, geh-geh-o," said Margaret, then 15 months. "Did you hear that? She heard us say, 'Uh-oh, pisghettios!'" exclaimed Eleanor, 3½. Sometimes kids pick up the sounds without the context, leading to funny mistakes  -- as we've all heard the alphabet song sung: "H, I, J, K, ella-mennow P."

Your role: Know that occasional misses are to be expected. If misunderstandings are frequent, or your child only echoes everything that is said to him, however, have him checked out by a speech-language pathologist. These can be signs of a problem.

"Wrong" words are kind of right

English is a notoriously tough language to learn. "Children sometimes use the incorrect form of a word even after they've used it correctly," Paul says. "For example, they may say 'goed' and 'wented,' rather than 'went.' This shows they have internalized the rule for past tense, so it's actually a good sign."

Mary VanClay's preschool daughter, Emily, had learned that five comes after four. So when counting by tens she'd go from forty to, naturally, "fivety." "I'm still not sure how she managed to get twenty and thirty correct most of the time!" VanClay says.

Your role: Be properly impressed that they're trying. After all, many adults still flub the fine points of grammar. Repeat the correct word but don't make a big deal out of it.

Two languages is easy
Parents sometimes worry about their little one spending time with a caregiver or family member who either doesn't speak English or is bilingual: Will it slow the child's own English? In fact, young brains are remarkably flexible and most receptive during early childhood to learning more than one language.

If you acquire a second language before age 3, it's not even considered "second"; it's simultaneous, says Masterson, who asked her own Spanish-speaking nanny not to use English around her two children.

But don't bother with Japanese tapes and Italian Made Easy computer games. Infants pick up another language more easily from human beings than from audiovisual exposure to the same material.

Your role: To avoid confusing your child, stick to certain boundaries about when each language is used. Masterson's kids spoke Spanish to the nanny but English to her. Another family she knows uses French upstairs but English downstairs.

Funny sayings belie serious thinking
Olivia Saber of Orinda, California, proudly told her first joke recently: "Knock, knock." Her surprised mom, Janine, dutifully answered, "Who's there?" "Me!" grinned Olivia, 22 months. As toddlers and preschoolers advance from first nouns to strings of sentences, you gain a picture window into their growing brains  -- and you see that the wheels are indeed turning  -- fast!

Eventually your child will use language to draw connections between what he knows already and his new insights. While my youngest, Page, was just figuring out the ABCs, her older siblings were wrestling with arithmetic. So she asked, "What is P plus P?"

Preschoolers, who have more words at their disposal (up to 800 by age 4), can make amazing  -- even perfectly logical  -- associations. When Henry, at 4, was given half a cracker, he told me, "I want one that's full grown." And Eleanor, at 3, asked, "If I eat all these carrots, will my eyes be sharp as pencils?"

And then there's this favorite, which happened when we were driving in the country. It's also an accurate description of how I feel about parenting sometimes  -- that is, that there are two ways to look at it:

Henry, almost 5: "Are we in the middle of nowhere?"
Eleanor, almost 3: "We are in the middle of yes-where."

Your role: Write it down! Who'd want to forget these?

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