As ardent a behaviorist as I am, watching Owl’s speech develop has really demonstrated to me the limitations of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. I am not a Noam Chomsky fan, but I have to say that his idea of an innate language mechanism has some real evidence behind it.
I learned this stuff in Psycholinguistics, but it’s fascinating watching it develop in a human right in front of me.
For one thing, it’s clear that Owl’s language is not simply imitative. Personal preference is a major factor.
For example, Perfect Husband and I always call trains “trains” and Owl uses the word correctly. However, he prefers to call his own toy trains “choo-choos”, a term he picked up at daycare and clearly has a personal preference for.
PH and I have never rewarded his use of the term, and he knows that his “choo-choos” are trains. He just likes saying “choo-choos”.
Owl has several words like that;Words that he has latched on to and chooses to use even though they aren’t terms that PH and I use.
Like, we always call his daycare “school” but he refers to it exclusively with a made-up name which is a combination of his Daycare Lady’s name and his favourite Helper’s name.
And his language structure is clearly not imitative.
He understands our sentences but his own constructs are unique and don’t follow English grammar rules.
The most obvious example is also the most common: the way he says that he likes things. He likes to tell us what he likes, often announcing it happily quite out of the blue.
He always says “my like it,” and then names the thing he likes.
“My like it! Milk.”
“My like it! Food.”
“My like it! Music.”
Perfect Husband and I have never said a sentence that way, and I am sure that the ladies at his daycare don’t phrase things that way either. It’s just HIS way.
Speaking of odd phrasings, his use of pronouns is interesting to observe, too.
He understands “me” vs “you”.
If I refer to “you” he knows that I mean him, but he doesn’t use “you” productively in speech yet, except in canned expressions like “thank you.” Nor does he use “he” or “she”. He still uses name labels.
“Dat Mommy’s water”
“Dat boy’s car.”
But he does use “me” and “mine” correctly.
“Daddy, help me, please!”
Instead of “I”, though, he also uses “my”.
“My do it myself.”
“My no like it, dat one.”
I don’t know if he has simply made a port manteau of “me” and “I” or if he mishears us when we say “I”.
In the meantime it’s really darn cute.
They say that a toddler’s favourite word is “No”, so we trained Owl to say “Yes” instead.
It was fairly easy. We just made a point of only offering a choice for things we KNEW he wanted, like strawberries or going to the park or getting down from his high chair. Preferably something he had been begging for already.
“You want down/strawberries/to go for a walk?”
When he replied “No!” we took him for his word. “Okay, then.”
We’d then hum to ourselves for a few seconds while his little baby brain would nearly burst with frustration. Then we’d offer it again, prompting with “Yes?”
He caught on fast. He basically knows that all of our questions are trick questions. If we are offering him a choice, it must be something he wants, because otherwise we’d just be saying “We’re going inside now, not a choice.”
So now he says “yes” to just about everything.
Me: “Do you want me to sell you to the gypsies?”
Sometimes he just agrees with us randomly when we’re talking just in case we’re talking about something HE MIGHT WANT.
Me: “Why did we decide to have a child?”
The only pocket of resistance that we get is when he has to do something he doesn’t want in order to get something he does want. Then it’s pretty funny to watch.
PH: “You want down from the stroller?”
PH: “Okay, but you have to hold my hand.”
Owl: “No! No hand!”
PH: “Okay, then you’re going back in the stroller.”
PH: “Oh, you want to hold my hand after all?”
When we’re feeling really cruel, we deny him what he wants even when he puts a comma after the word “No.”
Me: “If you don’t put on your shoes, we can’t go for a walk.”
Owl: “NO, WALK!”
Me: “No walk? Okay. Owl doesn’t want a walk.”
Owl: “No! Walk. Walk!”
Me: “Wait, so do you want a walk?”
Me: “Okay, then put on your shoes.”
It’s easy for him to answer yes/no questions when he knows the correct answer is almost always yes (unless we’re genuinely offering him a choice, which happens sometimes).
Either/Or questions aren’t going so well, though.
PH: “Do you want to hold Daddy’s hand or go in the stroller?”
PH: “Yes to what? Holding Daddy’s hand or going in the stroller?”
PH: “Owl – do you want to hold Daddy’s hand or do you want to go in the stroller?”
Owl and I are taking our evening bath. He’s a little overtired, on account of taking an unusually early nap that day. In order to calm him down I hold him on my arms and lay him on his back, with my chin resting gently on his head and my arms around his scrawny little chest. We breathe deeply together for a while, and Owl seems to become fascinated with this new view of the shower head and the shower caddy above us.
Owl: Deesh? *points upwards*
Me: What do you see?
Owl: Deesh. O? P? Q? Deesh!
Me: I don’t know what deesh is. I see the shower head, and the caddy, and the soap bottles, and my razor, and the loofah, and the wall, and the shower curtain…
Owl: Deesh! DEESH! Up? A… B… C… I… J… Deesh? *points again*
Me: Tell me more.
Owl: O… P… Q… Esh… Deesh? WOW! Yeah. Deesh? Up? UP! Deesh!
Me: What’s “deesh?” Do you mean “this”?
Me: Do you mean “what’s this?”
Me: You don’t mean “what’s this?”
Me: Just “this?” Only “this?”
Owl: Yeah. Yeah. Deesh.
Me: Only this.
He heaves a contended sigh and we lay there snuggled together, staring upwards, and thinking about Only This.
Language is important to me.
Aside: Before I posted this, I skimmed it and discovered that I had written:
“Lanugage is important to me”. I’m pretty sure there’s some irony in there.
In case it isn’t obvious that I, THE BLOGGER, love language, let me assure you that
I REALLY REALLY REALLY LOVE LANGUAGE.
It amazes and astounds and amuses me daily. I’ll listen to a random stranger say something to another stranger and totally geek out on how intelligent they are, conveying thoughts with words, and then translating the words of others into thoughts.
Then there are days when “your dog got mites at the pet shop, you should take this vet bill to them” seems too complicated a sentence for people, and I despair for humanity.
But mostly, language delights me.
So I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting for Owl to get into language. Long before I got pregnant I was watching videos on teaching babies to read, and I totally wanted to teach my baby to read.
Not because I’m a pushy mom, who thinks it’ll help her kids get into a better college. I doubt it’ll give any real head start.
Just because IT’D BE REALLY COOL.
My friend who I’m starting a dog training biz with actually worked under this lady, so she’s going to show me how to teach Beloved Dog to read. I figure we can do Owl at the same time because he is FINALLY ready for language.
It took long enough.
He started pointing at 8 months, and so I started sign language then, but the only word he picked up was “milk”, and that was a behaviour that I captured with positive reinforcement, not something he picked up through imitation and a desire to communicate.
He did pick up the sign for “ball” shortly before his first birthday, but that was it. Not even a “mama” until after 13 months.
It wasn’t until daycare that he picked up another sign – “more” – (and sadly, it’s the wrong version – the sign for “again” instead of the real sign for “more”, but whatever) and even then, language didn’t start.
My mother assurred me a month or two ago that as soon as Owl began to walk, the talking would start.
BOY was she right.
“Mama” appeared less than a week after he started walking, and now he is learning a sign every couple of days and really TRYING (and failing) to approximate the word sounds.
His sign vocabulary includes: “milk”, “ball”, “more/again”, “dog”, “cat”, “duck”, “frog”, “book”, and “bear” (sort of).
His spoken vocabulary consists of: “mama?” “dada?” “baaaaaa”, “daw?”, “daa”, and “duh”.
Only truly doting parents would understand most of these, but then, we’ve always been eager to interpret his sounds.
Language has begun and I’m SO STOKED.
Some of you will read this and roll their eyes. For those of you who do, please understand: I HAVE AN ANXIETY DISORDER. I worry unnecessarily about things. I’m working on it, really, I am.
Babby is ten and a half months old now.
I haven’t done a full update, because besides the biting, nothing really amazing has happened since the nine month mark. He was still pointing at everything, pulling himself up, signing for milk constantly, handing me objects, making me bleed and so on.
He is pointing at pictures in books now, and if possible is even more obsessed with them. As soon as I put the book down he is practically throwing it at me with impatient “Ah! Buh!” noises.
So really, I shouldn’t be at all concerned about anything.
But I’m me, so I am.
Here’s the thing: Babby has learned how to wave, which is fun.
But the sign for milk disappeared.
This baby was signing for milk CONSTANTLY. It wasn’t always to get milk. I think he knew it would get my attention.
While we think that to him “milk” and “mommy” were the same thing (since I am just a big booba to him, clearly), he did know what it meant because if I said “milk?” he’d start signing away, and if I signed it back he’d get all excited and start pulling at my shirt.
Then he picked up waving, and now he doesn’t sign for milk at all.
He doesn’t react if I say the word, he doesn’t react if I sign it at him. If I try to withhold the breast until he signs it (which he was doing with alacrity a week ago) he just stares at me. He is getting very frustrated and starting to scream a lot, because I no longer know what he wants when he gets thirsty.
PH says that regressions happen and the sign will come back. But of course I’m catastrophizing all over the place.
Especially since both signs, the milk and the waving, were captured behaviours. I mean that he happened to make them on his own, and we made a big fuss over it, so he did it again.
They weren’t imitated behaviours.
He doesn’t imitate us if we wave at him, or do other hand motions. He likes the waving thing, but it’s hard to get him to initiate it, because he does it randomly, not when we demonstrate waving or tell him to “say hi!” or “say bye!”
Should he be imitating us by now? He doesn’t imitate facial expressions, or try to mimic the words that we say, either. Meanwhile, an acquaintance on facebook has posted an adorable video of her three month old girl imitating sounds.
He enjoys watching itsy bitsy spider, but he doesn’t try make the motions himself.
He does SOME imitations. Sometimes, if I clap, he’ll clap too. He also watches how we interact with objects and then tries to do it himself.
We just had a fun little session today where I was showing him how to put his block IN a cup, and he was trying to do it too.
He also enjoys the “it’s on Babby’s head!” game, invented by PH which involves (cleverly enough) putting stuff on Babby’s head. When it falls off, he’ll try to put it back on.
So that in itself tells me that I’m being a little crazy.
But seriously. Where did “milk” go??
Okay, following yesterday’s meme, here’s the video of me saying the words, followed by the answer key. Now, because I already knew the answers (PH tested me on these when we were geeking out over the weekend), I cheat a little bit and discuss the correct pronunciations in the video. So if you haven’t done it yet, be warned!
Click the links to go to Dictionary.com and hear the pronunciation, as well as to see notes on it. I put my screw-ups in red for you to admire!
- Correct: arK-tic, Ant-arK-tica. Incorrect: aRtic, AntaRtica.
- Correct: Mauve should rhyme with cove, FO-lee-age. Mispronunciation: mawv, FOIL-age.
- Correct: eLEC-toral, CAND-idate. Incorrect:elecTORal/electorial, CANNidate.
- Correct: diF-theria. Incorrect:diPtheria
- Correct: eSSpecially, eSSpresso. Incorrect: eXspecially, eXpresso.
- Correct: Film, Feb-Ru-ary. Incorrect: fil-im, febYuary (becoming accepted).
- Correct: LibRary, lie-able. Incorrect: libArry, libel.
- Correct: moot should rhyme with hoot and toot. Incorrect: moot rhyming with mute and cute.
- Correct: Off-en, MIS-chiv-ous, just like “mischief” with an ous at the end. Incorrect: off-ten (becoming accepted),Mis-CHEE-VEE-ous.
- Correct: probaBly, pRe-scription. Incorrect: Prolly, pEr-scription
- Correct: Real-tor, REL-e-vant. Incorrect: Ree-la-tor, REV-e-lant
- Correct: RES-pit. Incorrect: res-PITE.
- Correct: UT-most, vol-UP-tuous. Incorrect: UP-most, vol-UMP-tuous.
- Correct: Suppose-edly, ZO-ology. Incorrect: Suppose-ably, ZOO-ology.
- Correct: mEEm, pro-NUN-ci-ation. Incorrect: Mee-mee/may-may, pro-NOUN-ci-ation.
The original link is here.
It’s worth reading because there are some fun misunderstandings of common phrases, too. I couldn’t do that in a written meme, however, because writing it gives it away!
Many of the words this guy lists tend to be regional variations on pronouncing/slurring vowels, especially schwas (how’s that for a word that starts with four consonants?!). This is where Perfect Husband and I tended to differ. While he says things like “mannaise” and “fed-ral”, I say may-on-naise and fed-er-al, because I was raised to do so. Ditto with pronouncing “wh” words differently from “w” words, particularly words like “whet” or “which” that have a different meaning if pronounced “wet” or “witch”.
I tried to avoid many words like that, because I don’t think that’s mispronunciation so much as accent or quick speech.You’ll notice I didn’t pick on whether you said “clothes” or “close” in number 3. Bonus points if you actually pronounce the TH, though, especially if you’re a fast talker.
Also, I out-and-out disagree with some of his claims. He mentions “Tijuana” as a commonly mispronounced word, along with “forte” but Dictionary.com would disagree with him, and if we can’t trust Dictionary.com, who can we turn to in times of trial such as this?? I think that saying people mispronounce “Tijuana” is like complaining that we mispronounce “Paris”: even if it’s not how the French say it, it’s the English word for that city, you know? Besides, “Tijuana” is a slurring of Tia Juana (Aunt Jane) to begin with, even in Spanish.
Some of these “mispronunciations” are becoming accepted (as noted) but are still under debate, so I let them in – let the debate rage! Sadly, my mispronunciations are not under debate.
So… how did you guys do? Someone join me in educated embarrassment, and encourage your own readers to join you in shame as well! If there are lots of us, we could form a group of people who fight for the right to pronounce it res-pite!
And I thought I was good with words…