Being special

Keeping a diary of your child learning to talk

You are special to your child, and your child is special to you. The most important single thing that you can do to help your child learn to talk is just to enjoy his or her company in conversation, using whatever language you feel most comfortable using.

A diary provides a uniquely useful record of language-development. If your child needs help, your diary will help to show this. But it is also a fun thing to keep. An interesting job.

Four important things

When people can’t understand what your child is saying there are four important things to do:

• Enjoy your child’s company, and never mind any defects in his or her speech;

• Make a record of what your child CAN say;

• Keep track of all the new things you hear;

• Get to see a specialist in children’s speech and language.

New and interesting

Pick and choose what you write down. Perhaps once a day, perhaps more often, perhaps less often, you hear your child say something that sounds new and interesting. Write it down as soon as possible. If you possibly can, make a note about what was happening at the time. And always remember the date.

  • 25 December
    • “Big sock
      • (On seeing Christmas stocking)

Many words may not come out quite right.

The most important things to get down are the words and bits of words that make a difference to the meaning. And you’re the best judge of what these are. Try not to put in any extra bits. Notice whether there are any words or bits of words being left out or said in the wrong order. It is important to record both what a child gets wrong and what he or she gets right.

Keeping a diary should not get in the way of fun conversation. It can increase the fun, like taking pictures when you’re out with friends. But as with anything else, if you’re enjoying your diary, you’ll keep it that much better.

Step by step and on the spot

Your diary should be as accurate as possible. It is always best to write things down immediately. You may find that the easiest way to do this is to keep a pocket notebook with you while you’re with your child.

It’s your privilege to be in the right place at the right time to hear your child talking about whatever is for him or for her, the most interesting thing in the world. This can be anything at all – teddy, a treat, or something on television. What you’re doing is describing a process which naturally happens in stages. One important stage is putting two words together – like “Big sock”.

Answers to questions

Some of the most interesting things a child says are in answers to questions.

Someone asks where the child is, or what the child is doing. And the child answers with a single appropriate word. Write down the conversation. Show who is saying what.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Child’s name: “Paint”

Such answers are important because they show that the child has correctly understood the question.

Surprises

Sometimes someone says something or asks a question which you wouldn’t expect your child to understand. But your child answers in a way which seems to show that he or she has understood.

Suppose your child has a brother called John, and your mother asks what he is doing. John is playing a guitar. But your child has never previously commented on what John is doing. Record the words you think you hear.

Grandma: “What’s John doing?”

Child’s name: “Play guitar”

Here your child seems to have both understood the question and given an appropriate two-word answer.

Two-word sentences and answers of one or two words to simple questions are typical of children learning English as they approach two years of age.

Fast forward a few months, suppose you’ve been talking about your plans to make some bread. You hear a sentence, but beginning with a word you can’t quite make out. Use a capital letter X. You might write down the utterance as:

“X going make bread oven today”

You’re better than anyone else at guessing what your child means, working out which words are missing, etc.. But later it can be hard to remember. So add:

(After getting some special flour)

Questions by a child

If your child asks a question, record, not just the question, but the answer which seems to satisfy the child’s curiosity. Make this clear by adding a note about what seems like the end of the conversation.

Child’s name: “Why birdies fly?”

Me: “To get to their nests.”

Child’s name: “Why, Mummy?”

Me: “By flapping their wings.”

(child seemed satisfied)

Your child is probably confusing why and how. Your note helps to show how far your child has got in the process of learning what words like how and why mean.

Other questions, of course, ask just what the words say. When these questions are new they are especially interesting.

Fine details

There is much more to speech and language than configuring the oral tract to produce what we take to be meaningful and appropriate sounds. Birds can imitate speech. But they don’t know what they doing. It is not language. 

In English we have eye and I. On there own, they sound the same. But they aren’t the same. If the word I is followed by either of the words am or would, they can be said together as I’m or I’d. But there are many compounds of eye and other words, eye glass, eye ball, eye drop. But glass, ball, drop, never get shortened and stuck together with eye to form what sounds like a single word. Eye and I are different sorts of word. 

Only I can be stuck together with another word to join into one. And children normally know this. 

It is rare for words like am and would or their shortened forms as ’M and ’D to be part of children’s errors, adult speech errors, or stammers. Seemingly from day one in the process of learning to talk the special status of am and would and 100 or so similar forms in English is recognised.

The difference between these two sorts of words, one known as ‘functors’, the other as ‘content words’ or ‘lexical items’ or ‘encyclopedic entries’, seems to be part of the way they are represented in the brain, to be called up and used in speech.   

A very small proportion of children, maybe one or two in a thousand, do have an enduring difficulty sorting out these two different sorts of word. Such difficulties are best addressed by specialists. But information from detailed and careful observation by parents is very useful in this regard. Here the important thing is to make notes STRAIGHTAWAY and as EXACTLY and as CONSISTENTLY as POSSIBLE. If, for instance, you think you might have heard “In mumble bah” as child is getting undressed and you are running the water for the bath, “bah” probably means bath. The mumble possibly means something like the. But the relation between the spoken forms and the meaning is probably changing – from day to day, week to week, or month to month. So perfect consistency is impossible.

Specialists may want to try to do this using the International Phonetic Alphabet. I do. But it’s hard to learn, and even harder to apply it in practice.

The important thing is to have a go, using whatever system seems best to you.

Have fun!