Baby: Don’t know a language? Make one up!

Language can take many forms.

Our sixth month old baby, M, might not know any Spanish or English words yet but that’s not stopping her from developing a language of her own.

For the first few brief months it’s hard to know what baby wants. Food? A clean nappy? A hug? Entertainment? Papa’s bad guitar playing? From this age they start developing their own system of utterances, screams, grunts and sign language to at least get a few things across.

Some bits of ‘baby language’ are pretty obvious. Early on, M would be in Papa’s arms but would often wriggle in the direction of Mama to suggest she be handed over for a change of scenary or boob (and because Mama’s probably just better all-round). Now she just outstretches an arm in that direction, perhaps adding a few grunts for emphasis. Another signal is the one for ‘pick me up’. She’s used to being plucked off the floor by her armpits, so will adopt a ‘parachutist’ pose, with armpits raised when that’s what she wants.

So, babies will happily make up language any which way they can to make their point. We all do. When I reach the limit of my Spanish with a Spanish speaker, I may gesture or mime or imitate a sound and usually the message will be understood and communication can continue. Still, when a baby does it, it seems pretty clever. No one’s taught them how to do it. It’s innate.

With M increasingly mobile and able to commando crawl across the carpet like a pro, we’ve had to invest in her first playpen, which we’ve dubbed ‘baby gaol’. We’ve only given her short bursts of it as we don’t want her to turn against it (she still has a few problems with going to sleep in her cot, making a huge fuss, even if clearly exhausted). She quite quickly cottoned on to where the gate of the pen was located, pawing at the hinge and lower latch as if trying to figure out an escape before falling back on the ‘pick me up’ signal.

Her babbling is increasingly coherent in the sense it sounds more like proper talking than ever before. It’s easy to hear real words in there – I’m sure I got ‘Daddy’ the other day, although it was undoutedly a fluke. One day an obvious, bona fide real word will leap out, though. I wonder if it will be in Spanish or English?

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