Baby talk, first language acquisition

Toddler responding/asking wh-questions

Toddler responding to wh-questions in ASL

In the beginning, the toddler Juli understood a question -- e.g. "Where is the [noun]?" -- by pointing to an image or object. Before the emergence of finger pointing, she showed her understanding by gazing at something.

Next Juli understood my requests and performed them well. These days I kind of could make any reasonable request and Juli fulfilled it.

For examples, the other day Juli wanted to go outside. I found only one shoe of mine and asked her, "Where is my other shoe?" She toddled quickly toward the spot where I found it. She responded to other requests such as "Please give it to Dad." "Throw it into the garbage."

This week I asked some simple wh-questions and she answered. At one point, I asked "Where is Dad?" Juli answered work. (See video)

One bedtime reading, Juli sat facing me on the floor. She opened the page where a cat was hiding behind the greenery. I asked "Who is hiding?" She answered cat.

Then Juli turned the next page where a dog was hiding behind the barrel or some sort. I asked "Who is hiding?" She answered dog (patting on her leg) and then produced #DOG.

Interesting, she was ready to try the next level of challenge by uttering the regular ASL word for "dog" which is an ASL fingerspelled loan.

The ASL word #DOG is not fingerspelled letter by letter. It's a lexicalized sign that Ameslan perceives this sign by its movement and shape. Juli has demonstrated her perceptual skills by producing a similar pattern of the movement and shape of #DOG.

Toddler asking questions in sign language

The types of questions that toddlers and preschoolers ask change as they develop. Below is a timeline for the ages at which one can typically expect children to ask the wh-questions such as what, where, when, who, and why. Children's verbal (whether spoken or signed) skills develop at different rates.

The following chart shows ages and types of questions that children ask in spoken language, according to Linder's information:

21-24 months: Asks, "What's that?" (Or simply, "Dat?")
25-28 months: Asks questions with rising intonation
26-32 months: Asks where questions
36-40 months: Asks who questions
37-42 months: Asks "Is…?" and "Do…?" questions
42-49 months: Asks when, why, and how questions

[Note: This table was developed using information from pages 269-272 of: Linder, T. (2008). Transdisciplinary play-based assessment, 2nd edition. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.]

Prior to using a wh-question, a (hearing or not) baby may ask a question by gazing at an object or person, reaching for an object or person, and/or pointing to or touching something.

The baby Juli did these -- e.g. pointing to something and looking at me with a subtle questioning facial expression. Looking at me didn't always come with a question facial expression as Juli and I understood each other and our ways too well.

With a bit of research what to expect with the timeline of emerging wh-questions, based on the information from the book (Linder 2008). Asking "where" questions occurs at 26-32 months. Prior to this, children ask "What's that" or "Dat?" and/or asking with rising intonation. Remember that toddlers develop at different rates.

The emergence of asking a wh-question

The toddler Juli continued to produce some more new one-word vocabulary and two-word utterances. This wasn't much new except for the emergence of asking a wh-question using the ASL word where. Juli also had become more a conversationalist.

It all started when Juli asked where in front of the alphabetical magnets. At first I thought she just wanted me to play by asking "where is the [letter]".

But, over the course of this week, I realized she was also using a wh-question where to ask a question.

For example, I caught her uttering boat where (see video) when she seemed to look for the boat in the transportation book.

Another thing was she uttered where kangaroo (Where is the kangaroo?). (see video) It was unclear whether she was asking me or herself. Regardless of this, she appeared to practice asking a question.

This "where" production didn't last long and it eventually faded out later.

Asking a question

Grandparents were catsitting the cat (Elliott) for the weekend and they wanted to show Juli (age 1;7) the cat on videophone.

They invited Juli to come over to play with the cat the next day. I told Juli, "We will drive to grandparents' tomorrow and you can see the cat." I didn't mention about another plan for grocery shopping.

Next morning we got up and the first thing we needed was to go shopping for food. I told Juli, "We will be driving to the food store soon." I didn't mention about going the grandparents' after grocery shopping.

Juli looked at me with a quizzical look and asked grandparent [what-happened gesture]?. The production "what-happened" was the open hands upward.

Toddler asking "where" in sign language

The toddler Juli (age 2;6,1) now used the ASL word where in a wh-question sentence.

But, the ASL word where didn't come with the question marker (burrowed eyebrows equivalent to vocal intotation for questions); nevertheless, it was clearer.

Asking "where" questions had been a robust evidence that week that I was able to capture some on video. Juli had uttered questions as follows: where violin-bow, where baby-bottle (new toy to explore), where (lady)bug, and so on.

Juli was so cute when she buried my home key under the grass and uttered where ix-key by pointing to the buried key instead of the ASL word "key" like she gave the answer in the question.

Toddler asking "What for?" in ASL

It had been a while since the toddler (age 2;8,1) Juli had been curious. She checked anything that was new to her or that she hadn't noticed before or hadn't thought of before.

Juli opened small drawers, boxes, chests, and cabinets inspecting every object. She inspected new objects around on the surfaces.

Whenever she came across a new object that she had no experience with, sometimes she would ask ix(object) for?. I'd explain what it's used for.

Over the past weeks, Juli pointed at the objects and asked ix(object) for? such as: eyelash shaper, belt, cloth tape, eye contact len containers, potato masher, etc.

The toddler asking "who"

If I recalled right, the toddler Juli had used "who" in ASL once or twice ever since. But, I didn't really note that until this week (age 3;0,1).

Juli actually in a very clear context used another wh-question was who. As I belt her up in the car, a couple of the children yelled outside behind Juli. Juli, who couldn't see the kids, asked me who there?.

Preschooler using more wh- questions in sign language

The bilingual preschooler Juli (age 3;7) began to ask "why" questions in American Sign Language.

First, I tossed something in the sink and Juli asked me why you throw ix-ref. Later that same week, I returned my candle holder to its original place after she fidgeted with it. She again asked why you put-it-there in ASL.

Two "whys" during that week suggested the emergence of asking a why question. Asking why questions is a normal developmental milestone for 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers.

In the next weeks, Juli asked questions using "why" increasingly. For examples. One day she noticed a different sarong covering the chair. She noted ix new. I nodded. She asked Why ix-ref.

Another time, she asked me, why you put remote-control up in-there, why?. No need to answer her question. She knew why.

In the meanwhile, she also used something/someone sometimes in parallel.

Asking "how" question in sign language

A few weeks later (age 3;7), Juli asked for a band-aid and struggled to open it. She asked how open ix(this) band-aid? I showed her. She replied, oh!

Wiggling question

Juli (3;2) had asked me a yes/no question many times, even though her questions are a statement because she hadn't developed facial grammar or facial intonation to indicate a question. I instinctively understood her.

But, one day I decided to encourage her to use a wiggling question, which is an ASL sign for a question marker which can be accompanied with a required facial grammar for question. Whenever Juli asked me a question, I asked her to use the ASL sign "question".

Shortly, Juli did use the wiggling question one day when she asked me a yes/no question.

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