Adventures in making and raising our test-tube babies

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Body Language

I had a dream recently where someone told me that if you didn't speak the language in a country, you could not communicate with the people there at all. To that, in the dream and in real life, I say, "HA!" I think that travels across the tongues pretty well. HA!

I love languages. That is not to be disputed. This morning when I was talking to Amanda about a butterfly toy, I said the word "butterfly" in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian before I got stumped on French. The other Italian words that the girls will learn from me are precious few, but at least we do like to keep up a good banter in Spanish so they'll grow up bilingual. At the very least. As Napoleon Dynamite would say, "Gah!" We think language is THAT important.

Once, when I was a single girl, I found myself sitting at a table of Bulgarians. Some spoke English and those were the ones that I spoke to. Dmitri Dmitrov was one of them. He was like a Saturday Night Live character in real life, an Eastern European who had learned English -- and recited it accordingly -- from CNN news anchors. Imagine experiencing life with a nightly news inflection. Yeah. Anyway, I could talk to the would-be news anchor. But the people at the table that I couldn't speak with almost didn't exist. They were props to be smiled at and turned away from.

And then one of them said, "Habla espanol?" My head perked up, my eyes opened wide, and I saw a new person at the table. He had been there before as a languageless lump. And now he was a whole new interlocutor with opinions and experiences and personality. The Communist connection had brought his Eastern Bloc parents to Cuba in the 1960s, and they had all learned Spanish there. Someone -- maybe it was Dmitri Dmitrov -- pointed out later that I seemed to like speaking Spanish better than speaking English. Maybe it was that I liked talking to the Spanish speaker better than I like Dmitri Dmitrov. No offense, Dmitri Dmitrov.

So regardless of who you're talking to, or writing to, language allows you to bring details and stories of other times into the conversation. It lets you refer to things that aren't right there in front of you. But talk-language is by no means the only language. A "tongue" may be a set of words and structures, but it is also just one of the many body parts.

One time I was in Serbia, speaking about 10 words of Serbian, and I was assured that half of all Serbians speak English. I got on the bus to go downtown, missed my stop, and found that none of that half of the Serbian population was on the bus. "Ruski?" they asked me hopefully? Nope, I didn't speak Russian. "Portugues?" I offered bleakly, as a last resort. Of course nobody spoke Portuguese in Belgrade.

But you know what? Once I made it clear that I was looking for downtown, and I feared we had passed it -- because we were leaving civilization -- the whole bus got involved in helping get me back. Practically a group pantomime arose about getting off the bus and crossing the road to the other bus stop. Someone wrote down the numbers of the busses that would take me where I wanted to go, and wrote the word for "downtown" (whatever it was) using the Cyrillic alphabet for the next bus driver. They collectively wished me luck, I think, and I ended up perfectly fine. And richer for the detour.

This all comes to mind because, as you might have guessed, the girls don't use a lot of language. They are seven months and several days old, and despite a dirth of words, we know them EXTREMELY well. Their personalities stand out a mile -- so far that I doubt I would have missed them from any bus. Their tongues, the body parts, are active as hell. There is never a time that they aren't using them to eat, taste, explore, and lubricate anything within licking distance. Sometimes when their tongues are not otherwise engaged, Amanda grabs hers with all ten fingers. It may be uncomfortable, but it's clearly worth it to her.

Though their language is unformed, they aren't mutes either. (And don't think of calling them "dumb"). I hear Amanda right now, supposedly in a nap, talking to herself in her crib. It's a mix of noisy inhales and exhales, laughs, and squeals. Elisa went through a growling phase about two months ago. In one gravelly stream she would expell all the air in her lungs like a baby bear. Nothing ferocious, but nothing human either.

I can't imagine what they could possibly have to say that they don't already convey with facial expressions and wiggling. There's fear, frustration, incredulity, amusement, sleepiness, boredom, glee, contentment, ambivalence, and, of course, pooping. We know with 100% certainty when they are happy (usually) and when they aren't (right before naptime or bottles).

Some of my peer moms have taken a sign language for babies class, and I'd love to have been able to go. We have several books that show the signs for household nouns and verbs. My friend Katie told me that, in teaching the babies to sign, you start with baby-side things that they are interested in. That could be the fan, light, toy, cat. When you see them engrossed in one of those things, you show them the sign for it. When they get the concept that a sign stands for something else, you can bring in parent-side words, like bottle, diaper change, hungry, and so on. They are slower to adopt the signs for those words because they already have a perfectly fine system for communicating about those concepts: crying. Not to mention their facial repertoire. Still, when they are comfortable with a set of about twelve baby- and parent-side words, they're ready to start learning the signs for everything. And then, get ready, you start to get some specificity. And maybe you can branch out from "hungry" and "annoyed."

From what I hear, they will start talking in a while. They'll start by saying all the cute things that people recount about at the water cooler. "Now that you're a big girl [on your third birthday], what are you going to do?"/"I'm going to drink coffee." ha ha ha ha ha! And then they become teenagers and their body language takes back over and reverts to "hungry" and "annoyed." That's when they exercise their linguistic option of surly silence.

Language acquisition is one of the bazillion aspects that we find so interesting about parenting. Given all the variables that produce so many other variables in forming these new people, I wonder what on earth would happen if we weren't the greatest parents in the world (hypothetically). Here, as always, I'm surprised at how few controls there are for weeding out bad parents. Seems like everyone except my infertility crowd is allowed to have a child, just by, well, you know. Then just anyone gets to shape little brains, become their babies' communication sounding boards, guide the creation of vocabularies and -- by extension -- their thoughts?

Now I'm thinking of the pressures of parenting. If we get it wrong, we've fucked up a life or two. I mean, screwed up. I mean, messed up.

I mean, never mind, Sweetie. Have a cookie and let's see what's on TV.


Carin said...


Laughing4Heir said...

Like you, I LOVE language, it all its varieties and manifestations. I have an affliction such that when I'm in another country where English is not the native tongue I delude myself into believing that if I just listen closely enough for about 15 minutes, I'll be fluent. It never works. Usually, I just prep ahead of time with a phrase book, pronunciation guides and, if necessary, alphabet/character guides. EXCELLENT story about the Serbian bus trip. What a lovely cross-cultural moment!

Basic child cognitive development is intriguing to me, but I, too, am completely enamoured of language acquisition and infant language development. Your girls are seriously lucky to have a mother like you who is so dedicated to their verbal growth.

BTW: the French word for "butterfly" is "papillon." Among those other languages you listed, the only other translation I know is Spanish. :)