At the beginning, your child is a moist blob that can only communicate in cries and wails. Then, before you know it, they’re speaking to you in complete sentences. Wha’ happen?
“I was climbing to the sky! And then the moon said, ‘Go down!’ And then I fell and then I bumped my head! And then the moon kissed it better!”—my son Emile, age two-and-a-half
My toddler is talking. Like real talk. Not just nouns and imperatives—that he started doing a year or so ago—but over the summer he’s achieved full-blown conversation. Asking and answering questions. Explaining what he did at daycare and who his best friends are. Cracking basic jokes. Telling stories with plot twists. Saying “please” and “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” Emile even makes up his own lyrics to songs. (Seriously, if you own a punk label and need a song about cats and doggies, hit me up.)
You spend a lot of time with a child before you can actually communicate with them. Initially babies are just loud, moist blobs. They get their point across, but loudly and moistly. Babies understand body language and tone of voice, but not words and so you get used to having what you say not matter so much as how you say it.
It’s a fact of parenting life that Conan O’Brien used to mock people by saying horrifying things in a soothing lullaby voice. “It’s a funny thing, you know,” Conan would coo, “you’re comprehension’s very low. Doesn’t matter what I say, as long as it’s this gentle way.”
Basically, your kid is a monkey at this stage. Their eyes glimmer with intelligence, they start to suss out that opposable-thumb business and some—as ours did, thanks to an ambitious daycare provider—even figure out rudimentary sign language. But they’re still essentially simian. (I’m not even kidding: a study in the journal Science found two-and-a-half-year-olds had better “social learning” skills than apes, but were either at par or outperformed in other areas like math.)
At some point, they’ll start babbling gibberish and then spitting out a “dada” or “mama” or “milk.” You will love this, of course, but it’s not talking. Not really. But much like how their first standalone standing position rapidly evolves into running, language will progress to a tipping point and then all of a sudden explode. At two, an average child knows between 20 and 200 words, a year later that will have increased to around 1,000.
Much of this has to do with memory capacity, which seems to increase exponentially with their ability to translate their experiences into words. This is something they do in real time. The background work that our adult brains do subconsciously as we go about our business is brought to the fore with little kids who tend to deliver play-by-play. “I have a Superman shirt on and a Superman cape on and I have a granola bar in my hand,” my son will inform me with all seriousness.
The English language, of course, is wildly complicated. And so while E can now happily explain that “I’m a boy, and a guy, and also people” he was initially quite confused when I called him my son. “No,” he said, appalled at my idiocy as he pointed skyward. “That’s the sun!” (He was similarly gobsmacked when I asked if he wanted to wear his Animal pajamas: “That’s not a animal,” he replied, “that’s a Muppet!”)
Linguistic development also reveals just how genius toddlers are—they may not know as much as we do, but they are arguably smarter. There’s a reason why language is so easily picked up by little kids compared to adults—their brains are simply firing at a much higher level. By three years old, a kid’s “superdense” brain has formed around 1,000 trillion connections, or twice as many as we adults have.
When Emile had a fever-induced febrile seizure at around 18 months, the doctor explained that these only happen at a young age because their brains are hyper-electrical and, as such, they’re absorbing so much data. So a sudden increase in body temperature can cause the young brain’s high-voltage circuitry to overload.
It’s quite awesome, in the literal sense, to see those cognitive abilities at play once your child can finally verbalize them, whether it’s concern that the dinosaurs in the Royal Ontario Museum “have no clothes,” making the silly-yet-sensible connection that a mural is “a tattoo for the wall,” or wondering, since daddy was “growed already,” if I was now growing smaller. (Answer: eventually.)
We do our best to assist his linguistic development, largely by reading stories, singing songs, asking open-ended questions, and generally talking to him like a grown-up. But he’s doing the heavy lifting on his own, repeating words that he doesn’t know and asking for explanations of unfamiliar concepts so that he can add them to his repertoire.
Sooner rather than later, he’ll be talking well enough that language will be an afterthought until we decide about schooling him in a second one. But for the time being, a simple request for what he wants to do on the weekend is often enough to melt us: ”I wanna go into space tomorrow. And I wanna go in a airplane. And I wanna go in a helicopter tomorrow, too. I wanna fly. Let’s do that, OK?”