Thursday, March 24, 2011

Speak to Me!

Like most new parents, I carefully tracked my first born's initial attempts at communication.  Around 10 months Elana began addressing our cat, Neko, as "Nene" and bananas as "nana".  Obviously her speech wasn't so comprehensible, and often when she was hungry I would help her search for the cat.
My mom and Maisy having an intense conversation.
Wanting to be the best (read hyper-vigilant) mother possible, I religiously followed the advice of parenting experts on how to help develop your baby's speech.  Thanks to my weekly bulletins from, I dutifully assumed the following tasks:
  • Speak to the baby.  Even when Elana was just six-weeks old, sleeping in an Ergo carrier on my chest, I would utter ridiculous statements to her while shopping for groceries.  "This is an apple."  "Mommy needs to buy deodorant."  The passing glances of strangers concerned about my mental health never swayed me from my goal.
  • Read to the baby.  Before she was out of her preemie clothing, she was hearing at least two bedtime stories a night.   Her gaze may not have reached beyond six inches from the tip of her nose, but I was resolute.
  • Listen to the baby.  Elana would babble "ba ba da da nu na." I would respond "Oh, yes Elana.  I love you too!"
  • Limit screen time.  Once Elana was beyond the newborn stage, I established a compulsory no TV while the baby is awake rule. This regulation was met by deep opposition and frequent rule-breaking from my husband.
In the months that followed her first attempt at speech, Elana picked up various other words: ball, duck, up, down, mama, dada, and the all encompassing "NO!".  Seeing as she was an only child at this point, Elana had my undivided attention and I painstakingly deciphered each syllable to meet her immediate needs and keep the toddler tantrums at bay.

When the second, Maisy, was born, I forfeited all the careful strategies I practiced with my first.  After two plus years of trying to be super-mommy I decided that I needed to relax, not only for my own sanity, but also for the welfare of my family.  I did, occasionally, speak to the new baby, however, most of the words she heard were directed toward older sister. 

Similarly, as an infant Maisy was read to, but only while I was concurrently reading to her sister.  She had her first interaction with toddler oriented television before she could sit up.  During the times I was alone with the baby and Elana was at preschool, I treasured the moments of quiet, relishing in the child that could yet not talk.  As Phyllis Diller so eloquently put "We spend the first twelve months of our children's lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve telling them to sit down and shut up."  With Maisy I thought that I would just bypass the first twelve months of teaching. 

Nevertheless, Maisy's speech developed nearly parallel to Elana's.  Even though I didn't remember to record her milestones, I'm pretty certain her first word was spoken around ten months of age.   Probably as a consequence of her big sister's infatuation with all things princess, two of Maisy's first five words were "Babi" (Barbie) and "Arel" (Ariel).  Now at nearly two, she can sing at least one song from over six different Disney movies, and can identify each princess on sight.  Ted is especially proud.  

So how does speech develop?  The MIT Media Lab's Human Speechome Project recorded almost every hour of a child's first two years and noted each new word and the frequency of each word uttered by both the child and his caregiver.  They then plotted the words comparing the child's age to the words learned each month.   If you click on a word another graph is shown depicting when and how often the word was used by both the child and the caregiver.  Speechnome Interactive Visualization. 

Not surprisingly, the more frequently a word was used by the caregiver, the sooner the word was picked up by the child.  The child's peak gain of words is accomplished at 20 months of age.  After that time, the child learns fewer words per month, but begins combining his existing vocabulary into more complex statements.    Using this data the researchers hope to gain an greater understanding of why children learn the words in the order they do, and how they form their first multiple word statements.

When it comes to how boys and girls develop language skills, it's not just a theory that there are differences.  On average, baby girls develop the cognitive skills to acquire language nearly six months before boys.  Recently, researches at Northwestern University measured the brain activity of 31 boys and 31 girls and found that different genders use different areas of their brains when performing language tasks.  The girls used greater portions, and several portions simultaneously, of the brain, while the boys used one portion at a time making the tasks more difficult to process.

Whether these gender differences are due to nature or nurture, it is nearly impossible to determine.  The language portion of the brain may develop earlier in girls because parents are more likely to communicate with girl babies while being more active and playful with boy babies.  On the other hand, it could be biological.

At the end of the day, I have two girls that won't stop talking.  A part of me is eagerly awaiting the day they start ignoring their mother.

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