The borders of language

I realize I haven’t blogged much about El Guapo since he was born. He’s really a delightful baby—he loves his family, he’s a great eater and sleeper (well, most of the time he’s a good sleeper), he is just happy and smiley much of the time, and it takes quite a lot to make him outright cry. We love having him around.

One thing he does has really gotten me thinking about language acquisition. I find the whole process of children learning their first language fascinating, almost magical. There must be a point at which a baby realizes, “Wait, these sounds must mean something.” And another point where the baby thinks, “I keep hearing the same sound over and over when they give me food/when they smile at me.” And then, “I wonder what sounds I can make,” and finally, “I can make sounds like the big people’s and get what I want!”

El Guapo has kind of taken a different route. From about six weeks of age, he’s made a “Mmmuh!” sound when he cries, and since he mostly only cries when he’s hungry, I would feed him. Gradually, he’s begun making that sound more intentionally to signify hunger. I swear I’m not crazy, but for the last month or so, I have not heard him say “muh” except when he was hungry and very glad to eat afterward. In fact, sometimes when he’s hungry, he tries saying “muh” before he begins to cry. Keep in mind that El Guapo is six months old. I would guess that he doesn’t understand the word “milk” and is not trying to mimic it the way an older, actually talking baby would do. He’s just learned by positive reinforcement that when he says “muh,” he gets food. It’s probably a lot like a dog learning a trick, if that’s not too offensive of an analogy.

It makes me wonder whether I’ll notice if and when he stops saying “muh” because he gets food when he does and starts saying it because it sounds like “milk.” Because both Lego and Duplo said “muh” for “milk” as their first word, both at around 12 months of age.

The point of this post is not to point at my child and say, “Look! He’s a genius!” It’s more to say, “Look, my child is developing in a strange way, and it makes me wonder what’s going on in babies’ strange, crazy, brilliant little brains.”

What weird things have your babies done, developmentally speaking?



  1. Lukas has said MAMA for a long time, but it doesn’t mean Mama necessarily. Well, I guess it kind of does. He says it when he wants me to pick him up. Sometimes it’s more like MAMA MA, but it’s always basically the same. I don’t remember my other kids doing anything like that at all. the other kids were kind of late talkers, so its fun to see he has associated a sound with a result so “early”. He’s 11 months.

  2. Edison started smiling more or less from the beginning. I know people pass it off as other things, but he would consistently smile when he heard Evelyn’s voice, whether she was talking to him or just around him.

  3. I find childhood language acquisition fascinating, too. OK, that’s probably obvious since I became a speech pathologist, but I’ve been even more amazed as I watch each of my children and how they develop and use language so differently. Adriana actually learned how to sign some words (and use them intentionally) before she was six months old, and then she started talking (saying words consistently with the same meaning) at 7 1/2 months and using sentences at 12 months. Miriam used sign language a lot more than my other kids because saying some sounds were difficult for her, and she didn’t start talking until she was one. Even now she often likes to let Adriana do the talking for her. Darren (20 months) does say words, but he really prefers to sing lines from songs or make funny sound effects. What I really find amazing is how well these kids communicate what they want (RIGHT NOW!), in their own ways, and how we as mothers learn to clue in to their cues. Way to go on picking up on El Guapo’s muh sound to mean he’s hungry. There are some interesting studies that have been done on how different sounds in and types of cries mean different things, and an “m” sound for hunger is the most universal. Sorry to write you a book here, but I too find this all really interesting. 🙂

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