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Words Words Words

Language comes to those who wait.

For me, one of the most frustrating things about newborns is not knowing what they want. They cry, and you go through the checklist: are they wet? (No.) Are they hungry? (No.) Are they tired? (No.) Therefore the crying must be something else I cannot identify. I had numerous "If only she could tell me what she wants..." outbursts in Muffin and Squeaker's early days.

At just about 14 months, Squeaker said her first word, followed a week later by Muffin saying her first word. In a development I found fascinating (as I mentioned last month, I'm a linguist by training), they both had the same first word: banana. Bananas play a prominent role in the girls' lives, as every morning about half an hour after breakfast they have banana time. And from there the floodgates opened. By 18 months, the girls had close to 30 words, and now, just a month later, they've almost doubled that number. Their vocabularies include numerous two-syllable words and at least one three-syllable word ("Opposites," the title of one of their favorite books). Muffin has even said her first two-word sentences, alternating "It tickles" with "That tickles."

That does not mean that the frustration has stopped, on their part or on mine. In fact, I believe Muffin and Squeaker have sometimes gotten more frustrated as they get more words, because I don't always understand what they're asking for. This past Tuesday morning, Muffin was finishing up breakfast and said a word. "You want a kiss?" I asked her. "No," she responded, shaking her head, "kih." (The h was almost like the ch in "loch.") It took a couple more tries, and Muffin getting more agitated and pointing at her sister's breakfast, for me to realize she wanted more Kix on her tray, as Squeaker was continuing to eat her own cereal.

Some words have taken on multiple meanings. The girls know very well what a dog is and what a cow is. However, if you ask them what a cow says, they'll say "Mmmm" and if you ask them what a dog says, they will also say "Mmmm." I don't believe that they think a dog and a cow are the same animal, but they haven't yet figured out how to say "woof," though they've heard us say it plenty of times.

Muffin seems to enjoy our reactions to new words as much as we enjoy hearing her say new words. Once she has discovered that her saying a new word makes us smile, she'll say that word over and over. "Catch" appears regularly in her conversation, and not only, I believe, because tossing balls is one of her favorite games. I think she enjoys our reaction when she brings a ball to us and says "catch!" She hasn't at all mastered actually catching the ball, though we're trying to teach her.

Squeaker's favorite word right now is "more." It doesn't matter what it is, Squeaker wants more. More tomatoes, more bouncing, more "wheeee!" with Daddy, it doesn't matter. When we try to stop the activity, she says "more?" with such a plaintive expression that it's hard to refuse.

As the girls continue to expand their vocabularies, Michael and I have become more aware of the words that we use with the girls. We try to limit the amount of "baby talk" we use with them, though there are some baby-talk words that have become part of our family lexicon ("baba" for bottle and "bongabong," as Squeaker calls it, for ball). But we are not limiting the number of multi-syllabic words we use in conversation with the girls. It is not uncommon for me to tell Squeaker she has become redolent or to inform Muffin that she is being recalcitrant. Michael and I figure that if we use these words in our regular conversation, which we did even before we had the girls, there's no reason that the girls should not learn them as well.

This week’s column is written by Nomi S. Burstein.

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