‘What is this?’ ‘That’s a charger / crumb / pirate / apple seed / (insert noun here)’. ‘That’s a penguin, it does look like a duck, they are a bit similar’. These are the conversations on repeat in my house, as we label every single item over and over. This, I have discovered, is how children learn language. One word at a time. Imagine, learning the whole English language this way. We all did. Yet, now I get to observe this, I get to be the teacher, I get to see that learning language is actually a full time occupation. My daughter never takes a break. It amazes me the way she stores these words up. Day by day, her vocabulary expanding exponentially.
We never taught her the sentence ‘what is this?’, we don’t know where she learnt it, but what a useful sentence it is! She can use this sentence to learn and learn and learn! Apparently, the average 20 month old can learn 10 or more words a day.
Now, at this age, I can see the magic of books. I can see just how much my daughter learns from looking at books and pointing to each item on the page and either labeling it or asking ‘what is this?’. The stories are not important right now. It is all about the pictures and their names.
“Harry, Harry, Harry”, she says as she points to the red frog on the playmat. She is remembering the frog called Harry, who looks nothing like the frog on the playmat, in the book Hungry Harry. A book that we haven’t read for a while. Her memory astounds me.
I have a newborn who makes a few gurgles and sounds and I realise how far my first born has come, how over time her sounds have slowly developed, first into her own language and now into words we can understand.
As her language develops I am getting a better insight into the depth of thought in my daughter’s head.
A few weeks ago, out of nowhere, she said to me ‘where is Gogo (granny)?’ This question might seem simple enough, but it amazed me and saddened me in equal measure. She hadn’t seen her Gogo since we left South Africa four months before. It occurred to me that she’s probably been wondering this the whole time but just didn’t have the words to ask. How wonderful language is, that she can finally be heard and express some of the things inside her head. How much this question made me realise that I must explain things to her over and over, even if she doesn’t ask. Every time she sees a mobile phone she picks it up and says ‘Gogo’ because she knows we talk to Gogo on the phone. How wonderful that now, finally, she can talk back to Gogo. How cute it is to hear her say enthusiastically, ‘hello, hello, hello’. How smart she seems when she looks at her baby sister and says ‘ra-ra (Zara) shleeps (sleeps)’, or when she sees me making dinner and she says ‘cook, cook’. It shows me she knows exactly what is going on.
To me, few things are as adorable as her voice, her mispronounced words, her insistence, the effort she puts in to being understood. She is trying so hard. She is learning that some words get her what she wants and some don’t. She runs around the house saying, ‘Katie, Katie, Katie’, because she hears others calling me that. And, after a while when I haven’t responded, in her loudest possible voice, ‘M U M M Y’.