As they get older, I find myself increasingly fascinated by my girls’ language. As growing babies, I never thought they’d speak. It just seemed such a distance from the simple cries and laughs and screams to form words. Some claim words are the keys to personality; like personalities are cars or houses that need to be unlocked, but I don’t know about that. Perhaps there is an influence of language over thought, but I don’t think language determines thought or behaviour to that extent.
Our two had no problem expressing their personalities long before they could speak. Beyond expression, they thrust their personalities onto the world around them. And – with various bumps and knocks and tastes and sounds, as well as the odd “No” and “Yes” from us, the world thrust itself onto them.
For a while, we were worried about Sunshine’s ability to speak. She couldn’t verbalise very well and words just weren’t coming out. She had found (and we accepted) other ways of communicating – an old lady behind a schoolroom desk in a big, square building told us this. She then told us this would not do. Sunshine, she told us, may not quite understand things (which was her polite method of explaining she may have an intellectual disability). Alternatively (because options are what you want at a time like this), she may be deaf, or have only partial hearing, which was affecting her ability to listen, thus engage and thus understand what was going on around her. As she was young, it would take time to figure out exactly what the problem was. This old lady, who’d put so much time down herself said this without a trace of irony.
Then, she gave us homework. We were to narrate every action as we undertook it. Changing nappies, cooking dinners, cleaning the house, opening doors, getting dressed: whether it was us or her, everything that happened was described. It was like the longest bus trip sitting beside the dullest person you could imagine – for months!
When we took her back, the old lady spoke under her breath, asking Sunshine to pass across toys, which Sunshine duly did until she decided to keep some toys for herself. After a few minutes, the old lady said “She understands. And she can hear. Why isn’t she speaking?” Isn’t that why we’re here? I thought. “She may be shy, or she may still not need to speak” She cut us a look that would take turf from a bog and burn it right there in front of her eyes. “Her speech is behind, but also, her pronunciation is not so good.” With a father who prefers metaphors such as the preceding one, we never expected her pronunciation to be good. Elocution was always on the cards or hijacking an accent from another county (as her father had done before her). Such are the cosmopolitan dreams of those with a Kildare accent.
Sometime later, we were back again. “Yes, she seems OK” said the old lady, who was relieved that we had managed to fix our child. “But,” she said (as all the old ladies say) “you should still put her name down for speech therapy. The waiting lists are quite long. So you should put her name down now. She might not need it, but if she does, you wouldn’t want to be waiting to get it. This is a crucial time in her development; there is not a moment to waste!”
This scene from 2 years ago flashed through my mind the other day when we received a letter from the HSE telling us Sunshine was “approaching” the top of the waiting list, and should have an appointment confirmed. Luckily, her language skills have come on leaps and bounds; her accent, sadly is stuck in the mud of the flatlands in which she is living, but that is a concern for another day.
Nowadays, she talks at us. I would say “to”, but that has passed now. We are no longer the recipients of meaningful communication; we are targets at which words are fired. “…and then the princess has to go to bed because she can’t sleep on the floor because it’s hard and if the prince comes to kiss her he won’t find her because she won’t be there like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty she’ll be on the floor instead and…” Somewhere in this house, Finnegan is being waked.
Starlight’s talking is another matter altogether. For quite a while she has been warbling sounds that intone like – and rhyme with – human speech; but she had no actual words. My wife and I see now what we were missing with Sunshine; there was none of this preparatory sound generation, laying the foundations to a tower of Babel proportions. She stands warbling her sounds, broken up as words would be, with an attitude in her stance and a tone to her voice. It’s like someone talking to you in a foreign language that you don’t understand (complete with that uneasy feeling that the person thinks you are obviously intellectually compromised because you cannot understand what they are saying so clearly). She is an alien to our language that we have been trying to naturalise.
She has her first words now. She has quite a few, and they number increases exponentially every week. Strangely, while her conversational warblings continue, they are much less frequent. As she picks up real words, she is abandoning her ersatz communication. When I started writing this post (some 3 weeks prior to finishing it), she was without nouns. There were no things in her world; only relationships. Her first words were “No” and “It‘s all gone”. They say we are all the children of our times, but she can’t possibly be that cognisant of the news, no matter how often her parents torture themselves with it.
For a while, she accidentally managed a “dada” and every so often moaned out a “maaamaaaaaa”. We weren’t convinced these were words. They were guttural calls for something. We feared the day her shadow would fall in the doorway and she would be combing her hair. Somewhere, Darby O’Gill would be in a carriage and four; perhaps lamenting his postmodern existence along with Joyce; invoked like this in a blog.
Starlight’s shriekey vowels and clunky consonants prompted frantic grab-and-shows from us “This? You want the bottle?” “dada” “This? You want the teddy bear?” “dada” “This? You want the dolly?” “maaaamaaaaaa” when we heard this, we were on the road to screams and cries. Often a hug and a move into the other room would defuse it; but sometimes, it was simply diffused. Cries calling from room to room, because words had failed her. She spent some time using “Over there”, “under” and “up” as well as “no” and “it’s all gone”.
She has more words now and some nouns too. Like her sister, she generally sticks to the roads of which she is sure; but every so often swings out to take some nouns for a test drive. She has this weird warble accent with a questioning intonation. A strange concoction of Scooby Doo, a Justin Bieber fan and an Australian tourist ordering something at a bar, but twice as incomprehensible. Her thin falsetto can make it hard to understand the sounds she is making, but every so often we get a definite word and congratulate her. Rarer, but increasingly common, we get a phrase. In those cases, we congratulate ourselves for following all the words and managing to keep up with the ramblings of an 18 month old. We feel quite grown up and ever so clever when that happens.
We could sit on our laurels with our two functioning children and their words, but now they are starting to use those words against each other and as time passes, I’m sure they’ll use them more often against us. Coming across the trenches of speech, we find ourselves preparing for the battle of arguments…