Sunday, June 16, 2013

Being verbal

A friend just said to me yesterday, "I can't wait until our baby starts speaking!" I can relate to this sentiment, though I did respond by saying speech is a blessing and a curse. It's great to know what my child needs; it's difficult when something she needs, like milk, isn't something she can have that second because we're stuck in traffic and have run out of milk for that trip. Still, I will take a verbal child over a crying baby any day.

Some friends have asked what we've "done" to "make" Natalie so verbal. I'll say the following:

1) She's female. That gives her a leg up on boys. Boys and girls really shouldn't be compared when it comes to verbal ability just like boys and girls shouldn't be compared on growth charts. It's really an apples to oranges situation.

2) I'm not convinced our child is any more verbal than any other 17-month old. Maybe she is, maybe she isn't. She's probably at least average, though, as at the present moment she does not demonstrate any speech delays.

3) She was born to two reasonably verbal parents who teach humanities in high school, so if she's more verbal than the rest there's probably a genetic factor there.

But, for the sake of sharing, I thought I'd address some environmental factors and routines that may impact her verbal ability.

1) Extremely limited TV viewing. Matt and I love us some TV. We spend many evenings after Natalie is asleep pushing through many TV series (most recently Homeland seasons 1 and 2). During the day, though, the TV is hardly ever on. I will sometimes have on the Today show for about 15 minutes in the morning while Natalie is drinking her milk. She only pays attention if there's something on screen she loves, such as a dog. I tried recording an episode of Sesame Street for Natalie to watch as an experiment, but it only held her attention for about three minutes. It really seems like Sesame Street, at least, is geared toward older kids. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children two and under, we have not specifically avoided all screen time for our daughter; she's just genuinely not interested right now.

2) Lots of reading time. I remember after Natalie was home from the hospital when she was about eight days old we read Guess How Much I Love You, her very first story. When I think back to all milestones, this one holds a special place in my heart. I kind of teared up reading to her then, I think because I knew it was the beginning of a long road. (On a side note, this is why I still tear up every single time I hear "Pomp and Circumstance," signaling the end of a long road.) In those early few months when she spent almost all her days and nights sleeping, I had a goal of reading three books a day to her. I think we almost always met that goal. As her schedule became more consistent with three, two, and now one nap per day, we've tried to keep a routine of reading as a wind down activity before every nap and before bedtime. Some days are better than others and we might read five books before a nap or bedtime; other days, we're lucky to get through one book before bed. I figure there's no point in forcing the issue when she's clearly ready for bed, but fortunately, we've been able to have some nice consistency most of the time. Having books available throughout the house is also key to keeping reading at the forefront. Most books are in her nursery, but we also keep a basket of books on top of the toy box. This makes the books almost like toys, and so during playtime Nat will come sit on top of me while we read a couple books.

3) Lots of family time. Teaching is a job quite conducive to family togetherness, a big reason my husband and I chose to go into this field. Natalie is really fortunate to spend her hours with Matt or me or both of us, and once a week or so with her Nana and Pa. I think there is something to be said for family time and one-on-one interaction with a baby/toddler/child to stimulate language development. She's also probably lucky to be the first born because anecdotal experience suggests firstborn children thrive under that highly individualized attention.

4) Naming things. I fear I am probably at fault for being one of those obnoxious parents who narrates her child's life to her child. I will own up to it. I haven't tried to do this, but as Natalie talks more and more and points to things I just find myself telling her about every object in our house. Obnoxiousness aside, I think it's another environmental influence on linguistic development. Having your child know the names of the things she wants is better than the alternative guesswork. Her ability to name objects and people started around 10 months with the obvious (dog, mama, dada, bottle) and moved on around her first birthday to other objects important to her (bird, cat, shoes, socks, head, nose [my favorite of her words], toes, hat, fork, cup, ball, car, slide, diaper, shirt, flower, tree, bag) and then in the last couple months started to get a lot more specific (clock, straw, top/cap, chalk, pool, truck, Max [dog 1], horse, snake, duck, door, carrot, mac ['n cheese], pizza, pretzel, cracker, cookie, corn, plane, trash, floor, star, heart, camera, fan, neck, back, purse) and even include a couple verbs (sit, close, fly, share, clean [YES!]). We also get berry (for strawberry) and cone (for pine cone).

One fun aspect of watching emerging language development has been noticing how Natalie makes sense of new objects. For example, she learned "chalk" before "crayon," so up until this week any writing instrument has been chalk. Now she's starting to understand how crayons are for paper (and how the mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, her current favorite, draws his picture with crayons). Additionally, any large body of water is a pool. Not a beach, not a river. All circles are balls. We've been helping her distinguish these things, but I know that's something we'll be working on for years.

At this moment I'm not convinced baby signing, in our experience, did anything to help with language development. Of course, we did an extremely light version of baby signing, really only using signs for "more," "all done," "please" and "thank you." Right now the only one of those words Natalie can say out loud is "please," but she'd much rather sign it than say it. Sometimes I even wonder when she'll say "thank you" out loud. I know it'll happen, but I wonder if it will happen later than it would naturally because she knows and uses the sign. And she really uses that sign. This week every time a plane flies overhead while we're outside she signs "more." We just look at her and tell her we can't help. This isn't a satisfactory answer.

I know this is just the beginning of fun mixed with a little frustration, but this is one aspect of watching a little person grow that I've been excited to watch. So far the experience has not disappointed.

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