I had never thought much about how one developed language skills. You simply did. It never occured to me there was a process - almost by osmosis - in which an infant grows into conversationalist.
Then I had children.
My son was an early talker. His first word, "duck", came at 6 months old. By the time he was 13-months old he spoke in phrases with nouns and verbs, he knew his letters on sight and he could count to 10. Today, creeping closer to four, he tells us things like "Mommy, you don't give [the accountant] your taxes, you have to mail them to the Government" or the more endearing, "Mommy, I'm sorry you hurt your knee. I'm sure that really hurt." And the heart-string tugging, "Promise we'll be friends forever, ok."
When we learned a second child was on her way we wondered what she'd be like. We wondered if she'd learn as quickly as her brother has seemed to or if she'd set her own pace. We read some on milestones. We tried to ground ourselves in forgetting when he'd done what. She was to have a clean slate.
Only perhaps she didn't need it.
She began talking around the same time. She wasn't as clear in her ennunciation as her brother was at a year old, but she certainly knew as many words. When her teeth finally came in, so did her ability to pronounce things so that most people could understand them. She's moved into bigger phrases and sentences. It still sounds odd to me. This little girl voice coming from the not yet 19-month-old body - "Mommy help me. Peez put Legos on. Mommy do. Build."
Yet what has intrigued me more than hearing her communicate is hearing how her mind works. Things that seem so very simply and almost silly at face-value have such deeper meaning when you stop and examine it. I can see the wheels turning in her little head. I see her making connections - the understanding of language falling into place.
Recently she shed some basic baby-talk. I'm no longer Mama. I am Mommy. Dada is gone. Daddy reigns. She sat one day and began to rattle off our names. It's something my son used to do too - roll call. She got to herself. She used to refer to herself as baby, but in an attempt to help move her towards certain behaviors (like going to sleep on her own and giving up bottles) we've convinced her she's no longer a baby. We offered up "little girl." Brother said "big girl" and that one stuck.
She started with that. "Mommy. Daddy. Buh Girl. . ."
Then she stopped.
She, working hard to grasp pronouns but not quite getting it right, will also use "Me" in reference to herself, as in "Me go too." We also call her "Meggie" as one of her many nicknames. When she's feeling feisty she'll mimic the moniker as "Mimi."
She began roll call again. "Mommy. Daddy. Mimi. . . "
She stared at her brother. She knows his name. She can say his name. She still won't. She calls him "Brabah" - brother. She began her drill again.
"Mommy. Daddy. Mimi. Brabee."
It clicked. I saw it happen. Word endings. Right there. We, all of us except her adored sibling, had the long 'E' sound. She was determined to right that wrong.
He hates the nickname. I got yelled at for using it. He tried to ignore her when she called him repeatedly. I got down to eye level and told him he ought to be happy she's calling him that because it's her special name just for him because she does love him. He bought it. She's the only one permitted to use it. And use it she does -All. The. Time.
This morning she came over to me and smiled brightly. She pointed to herself. She tried to cross her arms over her chest but she rushes it so she gets one arm up and the other already moving to the last sign - she points at me. The only sign any of us ever really worked to teach her and she knows it "I love you." She says it as she does it but she can't really get the word "love" out. Instead she does her gesturing and she says "I. You. Mommy!"
I know what she means though. I hug her and I tell her "I love you too, sweetheart."
She's proud of herself for telling me. She starts her signing again. "I. You. Daddy!" she yells even though Daddy is in other end of the house and not hearing her. I tell her Daddy loves her too.
"I. You. Brabee," she says as she signs and it's clear she does with all her heart. I assure her it's mutual.
She smiles one last time before running off to play. "I. You. Choo choo trains." She heads down the hallway, still loving things - her dolls, her Dora collection, her sippy cup. At least we were first though. And at least she can tell us.