Friday, January 05, 2007

I’ve just realized something about infant speech development

I’m a mother of a few kids. I probably should know a lot about the speech development of children by now, but I’ve just realized that all these years I’ve apparently been harbouring a major misunderstanding about the speech development of babies. I always thought the important thing about speaking and speech was the correct use of words (from the language that one is raised in) and the appropriate use of these words to transfer meaning from one person to another, and back again. I always thought speech was about accuracy and the transfer of meaning, but apparently the earliest speech development of babies has nothing at all to do with meaning or content.

The first hint that I’ve been making an apparently incorrect assumption came during discussions with an infant health nurse during our baby’s standard developmental checks. She kept insisting that it is of huge importance that the baby be making lots and lots of babbling and “jargoning” noises, which are strings of utterly meaningless sounds in a pattern that at a distance might sound to the ear like enthusiastic and expressive speech, but when analysed, is pure nonsense, just a random string of phonemes (English language phonemes). I thought it was more important that our baby had already appeared to say a few meaningful words to refer to things and people in baby’s environment, but the nurse remained fixated on the question of whether baby was coming up with enough excited gibberish.

I picked up an old edition of a baby manual that I may have read years ago, I don’t remember. I was sceptical about the advice and predictions in this baby manual when it was new, and with the wisdom of hindsight I’m all the more sceptical. It describes all manner of good and undesirable toddler behaviours that I’m sure our older kids never did (such as lying in toddlerhood), and it describes many practices and problems that we never experienced. In the text I found confirmation of the things that the baby nurse had been saying. According to Penelope Leach “There is no particular point in trying hard to identify your baby’s first words. It does not matter whether he uses any or not at this stage. His expressive, fluent varied jargon is an absolute assurance that he is going to speak when he is ready.” Leach goes on to explain that babies typically get the idea of using a particular word to refer to a particular object later in their speech development. So according to the experts, being able to speak fluent nonsense, (or baloney or bulldust, whatever you wish to call it) in a social, expressive manner, as though you want to be a part of the social world of speech but have nothing to say that is meaningful or makes sense, is the precursor to the development of what is generally considered speech. Might this explain why so many autistics are so late in their speech development?


Bonnie Ventura said...

I have seen some babies who chatted happily away in tone-perfect gibberish when the adults around them were having a conversation, but as you say, not all babies are interested in doing that.

My daughter, who is not autistic (but has a few traits), made no attempt to speak for the first six months. She got the idea of speech around the time that I first tried to feed her Gerber baby food, which she didn't like at all. Her first word was "no." Soon after that, she started pointing to other people's food and saying "Get." (I started to cut regular food in small pieces for her, as it was obvious she had no intention of eating baby food from a jar.)

Clearly, she understood at a very early age that speech was about content and meaning. She also spoke in sentences quite early. When she was about 18 months old, she tried to start a conversation with a gibberish-speaking toddler and came back to me with the frustrated complaint, "That baby just makes noise."

Julia said...

Interesting observation. I think you may have something there! If only some adults would stop speaking fluent nonsense.