How Does One Word Become Two?

toddler, language acquisition, shush

My daughter has hit the two-word stage.

According to the textbooks, this is supposed to happen at about 20 months, and so Dahlia is right on time—and I’ve been waiting for this for roughly, well, 20 months. I’m well aware of the warnings about how life gets harder rather than easier when your child can actually communicate, but I’m ready. We seem to be on our way. The first two-worder was “Meh Mommy?” for “Where’s Mommy?” I knew this was genuinely two words rather than just, in her head, a single chunk of stuff when, a few days later, she started saying “Mommy coming?” in the same situations. This indicates that she knows “Mommy” is the name for her mother, and then there’s other stuff, either “Meh” or “coming”—ha, two things! Hot on the heels of this, besides the occasional “Meh Daddy?”, was—wouldn’t you know—”Blocks mine!” There’s quite a bit about the two-word stage that isn’t what it seems. For one, Dahlia is not saying more sophisticated things. She’s saying the same things in more sophisticated ways. She’s been expressing a desire to know where Mommy is for several months already—just via the one-word version of “Mama?” or “Mommy?” Asking that, she wasn’t posing the existential question as to whether Mommy exists as an entity. She meant, but just couldn’t express, “Where’s Mommy?” Now she can fill in more of the specifics of what’s on her mind. One day soonish it will be the full “Where’s Mommy?” After that will come things like “Hey, where’s Mommy?” or “Where did Mommy go?” and “Where’s my Mommy?” She’s thinking all of those things now. Even her current approximation is a miracle in so many ways. For one thing, she has the proper intonation. She says “Mommy coming?” with a certain melody of plangency that would be different if she had grown up in Bucharest, New Guinea or Beijing. That is, she sounds like an English-speaking toddler, just as she sounded like an English-speaking babbling infant. Babies master the basics of what linguists call the prosody of a language very quickly; some think they internalize it while in the womb. A six-month-old in Tokyo sounds different from one in Minneapolis. Go figure. People raising children are familiar with the phase, which Dahlia is in, when toddlers walk around “talking” fluently but incomprehensibly. The joy of this “talking” is that it has the melody of the language the child will eventually be able to actually communicate in. There are times when Dahlia is so convincing with her earnest observations, accompanied sometimes with a Borscht Belt holding out of the hands with palms upturned (I have no idea where she got this), that for a minute I think “Ma qualer vebooschma taq!” actually means something. I suspect it does, but I’ll never know. Nor will I have much to do with her becoming more articulate, other than just keeping her bathed in words and language. It’s easy to think we teach kids how to talk, and to an extent we do—mostly a few nouns, verbs and exclamation points. But the socially successful human being must master more than being able to name rabbits and flowers and say, “Ouch,” “Hooray” and “Where’s Mommy?” Neither I nor my wife taught Dahlia the word “where.” I tried—but think about it, how do you impart such an abstract concept? You can’t point to something that means “in what location is …?” If you point, you’re teaching the name of an object, not how to find it. If any of you have done a Rosetta Stone set, recall how that learning-through-photographs method had to bend over backward to impart “where.” Or coming.” One day she’ll know that -ing is an ending and be able to use it the way adults do. I couldn’t teach that to her at gunpoint—think of all the uses: Mommy is coming (progressive), Coming early is rude (gerund), Tomorrow Mommy is coming (future—but then isn’t will supposed to be how we do future, and if so, how do we know when to use -ing?). Somehow kids just drink this kind of thing in, along with everything else around them. When you teach linguistics and you get to child language acquisition, it can be hard to make the lecture really “land” short of showing footage of a cute child and letting charm fill in for substance. And the reason is that one is to talk about the babbling stage and the first-word stage and the two-word one, and well, you can imagine what comes after the two-word stage—and after that, they’re just talking. There isn’t much suspense in that process—it’s like saying, “You put one foot in front of the other one, then put that other foot in front of the first one, and you’ve moved forward!” Just as with the intricacies of staying erect and walking, what we want to know is how a person can manage that thing—and with learning language, no one really knows. Not in the way that you really want to know. Oh, specialists in syntax theorize that babies are born with an innate mental specification to learn nouns, verbs, endings and ways that they can be moved around. But besides how controversial it is that these researchers are describing anything that could be programmed by DNA (you might sense where I fall on the matter), all of it is very broad. None of it explains just how it will be that sooner rather than later, Dahlia will be using -ing and its English-specific nuances as idiomatically as a 50-year-old—or how it is that humans learn the language around them in this way regardless of intelligence level, disposition, or the alignment of the planets. Chimpanzees, genetically different from us so slightly, do not and cannot, and no other creature has evolved such an ability despite how advantageous it has been in taking over (and ruining) the planet. So for now I’m just enjoying the miracle. Even the isolated words are fun. The other day I said “Dahlia, shake the bag” and she did. And I wasn’t pantomiming while I said it, either. We never taught her that—she must have picked it up in day care. And remembered it! And we won’t even get into her habit of imitating me saying “Umm,” right down to the lower pitch of my voice. I wonder what she thinks it means?

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