(Photo via Iloveart, Flickr Creative Commons)
¡Besos! (or, more accurately transcribed “bei-joos”)
At 15 and a half months, little E. spoke her first word yesterday. Well, the first word we her parents could understand. ¡Qué emocionante que fue!
As she sat on D.’s lap last night, snuggled up against his warm chest, he read through one of her latest preferred books, Buenas Noches, Luna (“Good Night, Moon”). As D. neared the end, issuing good-nights and farewells to the mouse and the bears and the old grandmother knitting, he began to insert his own interpretation of the story, “Besos, ratoncito, y besos viejecita que tejes tan calladita, besos luna.” So as not to be left out of the story, E. began to chime in “Bei-joos” at the turn of each page.
I was in the kitchen doing the dishes, and when I first heard her, I froze. Could that really be what I think it is? I asked myself. I had only to look at D., who caught my gaze, for confirmation that E. had indeed said “kisses” (besos). So as not to interrupt her flow (in the split second that D. and I had made eye contact, she had followed up that first utterance with two more besos, besos), we refrained from exclaiming any sort of “good job!” (wow, that was hard!). As little E. continued to experiment with her newfound linguistic creation, “besos, besos, besos,” D. and I continued to stare at each other, mouthing, “¡No me lo puedo creer! ¡Ha dicho besos! ¡Qué fuerte!”
(Can you tell that we’re new parents?!)
I had an entirely different post planned for today, but last night’s unexpected event clearly took precedence. I just had to share with you all what I’ve been anxiously waiting for: to hear E.’s voice.
I’ve recently begun a wonderful book by American educational and social critic, John Holt, entitled How Children Learn. And, as coincidence would have it, I’m in the middle of the chapter “Talk.” As I reflect on what E. did last night, and as I think about all of the months leading up to this important milestone, I am reminded of some of Holt’s timely and appropriate observations on how and why children talk.
Besides stating what we already know (infants learn to speak by observing and listening to people speak around them), Holt reminds us of “…how difficult speech is only when we first try to make the sounds of a language very different from our own.”
So, how are children able to speak, be it in Chinese or English or Tagalog? Holt continues: “the answer seems to be by patient and persistent experiment; by truing thousands of times to make sounds, syllabus, and words; by comparing his own sounds to the sounds made by people around him; and by gradually brining his own sounds closer to the others; above all, by being willing to do things wrong even while trying his best to do them right” (84).
It’s true! As a linguist, yo siempre sabía eso (the verb saber in Spanish means “to know a fact”), but now as a mother lo he conocido en persona (the verb conocer means “to know by experience”). Since about eight or nine months, E. has been babbling and gurgling and uttering strange and funny sound combinations, each month bring them in closer approximation to the sound combinations of Spanish that D. and I use.
What most stands out to me in all of this is her choice of first word: besos. If you had asked me what I thought she would first say, I would have responded, “probably the typical “mamá” or “papá,” words that most infants start with. Those are some of the words that D. and I say the most.
I would have never guessed “besos” would be where she started, mostly because I hadn’t taught it to her. No, I’m not saying that I believe (because I don’t) that infants speak because we explicitly sit down and instruct them, but I did expect that E.’s first words would include some of those that D. and I most use (her input).
Back to John Holt. Citing Bill Hull, Holt writes, “‘If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.'” As a new mom still figuring out this whole parenting thing, and as a non-native speaker of Spanish (the language I use exclusively with E.), I am thankful for this reminder. Children know so much more than we give them credit for; and I am thankful for the ways that little Miss E. continues to teach me and surprise me each and every day.
What was your child’s first word? In what ways have your children surprised you, or taught you? I’d love to hear from you!