Sunday, January 21, 2007

His Words (Redux)

Bub had his first telephone conversation yesterday. He has long been a fan of the telephones, holding them upside-down to his ear and saying, "Hello? Hello? I called you up to say hello!" (at which point I may or may not chime in with, "I said hello. Can you hear me Joe?"). He prefers, however, to use a disconnected phone, one he can carry around without dealing with all that distracting noise in his ear. When confronted with an actual caller, he has steadfastly refused all our pleas to say, "Hello Grandma!" confining himself instead to smiling shyly before handing back the receiver.

So it was a bit of a breakthrough yesterday when he had the following conversation with my mother:

Grandma: Hello [Bub]! How are you today?
Bub: It’s a telephone!
Grandma: It’s snowy outside. Do you like the snow?
Bub: [pause, looking around for inspiration] Kitty. Computer. Book.
Grandma: Are you going to play outside?
Bub: A flower.
Grandma: That sounds like fun, playing outside with a flower!
Bub: I’m fine. How are you?
Grandma: Fine, thank you!
Bub: [hesitates] It’s a telephone!

Note the lack of responsiveness on both sides of the conversation. While not actually answering any of my mother’s questions, Bub clearly understood that a response was expected, and so cast about for a random noun to throw into the conversational mix. (Sadly, this strategy is not all that far from the way I attempt to make small talk.) Labelling objects and reciting memorized dialogue are the safest, easiest recourses for him: he seems all too aware that conversation is a kind of test that he might fail, so he falls back on these familiar strategies for comfort.

Nevertheless, this telephone conversation is a step forward, and one of many. I am most often reminded of Bub’s language development when we return to a favourite book after a few months’ hiatus. Last night we read Go, Dog. Go!, a book that had been set aside for awhile, by mutual consent, in favour of more plot-based stories like George Shrinks and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. When we first introduced Bub to Go, Dog. Go! last June, he approached it the same way he approached all books: as a memorization task, enlivened in this case by the presence of his two favourite things, dogs and cars. Once he had the text fully memorized, he lost interest, and when we returned to the book in the fall, I was delighted to note that he was responding to it on a new level: he now understood the words – down, up, over, under: these were familiar concepts now and I could sense his excitement in solving the puzzle of this book in a new way.

When we read the book last night, he had, once again, reached a new level of response. "What is he doing?" Bub asked, pointing to the dogs on the boat in the water.

"Playing a banjo," I responded, "and playing a game of checkers!"

Bub pointed again, to the dog with the lollipop. "What is he doing?"

"Oh! He has a lollipop!"

Bub nodded sagely. "A lawipop," he murmured, filing the word away for future use. "What" questions are not entirely new for him, but there is a new naturalness to the way he uses them. And his curiosity is new – for so long, it seemed that he viewed the world in black and white, a kind of indistinguishable blur marked only by a few vividly coloured objects that corresonded to words he knew: Doggy! Ball! Hamendocker! Bub could have been the poster child for the post-structuralist linguistic theory that language is what allows us to perceive the world: it seemed as if he could see only those objects that he could name, evincing no recognition of, much less curiosity about, objects or experiences that slipped through the gaping holes in his linguistic filter.

In a period of months, the grid has tightened up enough that lollipops and banjos are no longer slipping through. And he’s starting to place these objects in a motivational context. When we got to the page where the dogs hop out of bed to race to their cars, Bub commented editorially, "They’re going to the party – the big dog party!" He has never yet asked or answered a "Why?" question, but he is able to interpret actions in terms of their outcomes and even, it seems, to impute motivations. He can remember the end of the story and use it to interpret events at the beginning. And as I remember the beginning of his story of language acquisition, I project forward to the end: We’re on our way to the party – the big words party.

19 comments:

Mouse said...

Scooter remains a reluctant phone user, though he can often be coaxed to exchange a few pleasantries with Trillian's parents. He likes that we now have a webcam and can talk to Grandma and Grandpa that way. He definitely has my reliance on visual cues.

Of course, today he talked to me on the phone when I was coming back from some errands--he had to tell me that he fell at gymnastics. And then, Trillian told me, he nodded his head emphatically at all of my questions. So the conversation fell apart at that point.

Christina said...

That's great! It's so amazing to see the breakthroughs in language, and see a child grasping the next step along the way.

Cordy is still stuck in repetition mode. She can recite half an episode of Dora that she hasn't seen in weeks, but can't answer many simple questions. I occasionally worry that her way of speaking only in TV and book dialogue might be a problem, but I probably won't ask the doctor about it unless she's still doing it at 3 years old.

Mary-LUE said...

I think these posts about Bub's language acquisition are going to be so fascinating as you add to them. Your understanding of what is happening and how you convey Bub's process is so interesting to me. I can't wait to hear about the next steps on the way to the big words party.

MOM-NOS said...

Hooray, hooray! That's such fantastic progress! Go, Bub!

Christy said...

This reminds me of my daughter on the phone when she was 3. Talking to my parents, she would look around the room telling them what she saw. Random nouns like couch, table, dolls, door, etc. Just nouns. Now, at six, she has a lot more to say. It really is amazing to watch them grow.

Jaelithe said...

My son, who is verbally a little advanced for his age of two-and-a-half, is nevertheless made nervous enough by telephone conversations that he rarely makes sense on the phone. He also often makes one-word noun responses to questions over the phone, describing what he sees in the room. One of his great-grandmothers, who rarely sees him in person but talks to him often on the phone, seemed utterly astounded to hear him talking in perfectly intelligible full sentences when we spend a day at her house a couple of months ago. We'd told her he was talking well, but I guess his hesitancy on the phone had convinced her otherwise!

I think kids under five may just generally have a hard time grasping the fact that the person on the other end of the line cannot see the things they are seeing. And really, who can blame them for having a hard time understanding? The telephone is a highly unnatural experience, when you think about it.

I am glad to hear that Bub is still making steady language progress :)

Lady M said...

It's wonderful to hear about Bub's language skills growing.

Q loves to pretend to blab on the phone, but as soon as Grandma is actually on the other end, he reverts to nods and smiles and waves. We've been doing video calls, which helps a lot with this. ;)

NoodleMonkey said...

It's amazing how these kids leap and bound through developmental achievements...way to go, Bub!

Karen said...

it's such a fun party and the ride over is pretty amazing too!

Mimi said...

It must be both a blessing and a curse to you that you are able to locate Bub's behaviours in developmental context. A blessing in this instance, surely. And the conversation with Gramma had me laughing out loud.

When he was two, my oldest nephew could easily work the telephone, to the point where, when receiving an automated-operator collect call, he pressed '1' when prompted to do so, a skill my own mother has not yet mastere (she randomly shouts 'yes ... Yes ... yes?' before the prompt, then hangs up in disgust)

something blue said...

I love random nouns!

I don't doubt that Bub is going to be asking for lollipops. If you say no I'm sure he'll be asking why in no time.

I believe my girls might believe that the telephone is a microphone. We have been coaxing them to sing nursery rhymes to Grandma their entire lives.

metro mama said...

Great progress. Party on Bub!

mamatulip said...

That's really excellent progress! Go, Bub, go!

NotSoSage said...

Go, Bub, Go!

Mme LaBrune (I'm still feeling my way around the name) holds amazingly elaborate phone conversations when no one is actually on the phone -- with so many "Uh huh. Uh huh. Mmmm"s, that I start to worry that that's what I sound like -- but clams up when there's actually someone there. She's starting to open up a bit, but only if she's been really worked up ahead of time: "Guess who's going to call us tonight?"

I'm starting to feel like I've got a lot of homework to do when I read your posts.

Aliki2006 said...

Great post and I'm happy Bub is making strides. Just think about how weird the concept of a phone conversation must be to a small child! No human contact, just a disembodied voice (sometimes recognizable) on the other end...

Haley-O said...

And, what an adorable breakthrough it is!!! The monkey LOVES her phones. The less realistic they are, for some reason, the better. Her red plastic one is her fave....She has full conversations on it in baby talk -- complete with mmmhmmms and yuhs! ;)

Mad Hatter said...

The phone call is such an odd construct for a child to understand. Like many of your commenter's children, Miss M prattles on her toy cell (came with the kitchen): "Hi. How are you, Mike? (always Mike) I am too fine." When I put her on the phone to talk to my sisters she giggles sheepishly and clams up. Afterwards she'll talk non-stop about wanting to get back on the airplane to visit Autie Nelly and her Nan.

I find that often when you talk about Bub's verbal delays, he ends up sounding right on target to my ears. Random nouns? I'm all for random nouns. Memorizing books and then coming back a few months later to interact with them? That sounds like Miss M all over.

Em said...

"...he seems all too aware that conversation is a kind of test that he might fail, so he falls back on these familiar strategies for comfort."

This is my daughter in a nutshell... she is all too aware when she can't do something so she won't even try... which I completely understand, because at times life must seem like one big "test" to her.

Anonymous said...

Amazing !
The same here with Danny !
Comming back through language ...
Still no WHY question/answer.
The same phone conversation.
But he is commenting ... just like that.
Danny is an ex-autism now PDD-NOS ... or whatever .... ASD .

Lili