Baby's first word? Forget it. There were several gray overlapping factors. In the end, there was no first word. Neither there was a clear line between a babble, protoword, and a word in signing.
Cooing emerge at about weeks four to six. Canonical babbling (repeated syllables) appear at about 6-7 months. Infants usually produce their few or so first words when they approach their first birthday.
Between babbling at 6-7 months and referential words at around 10 months, infants tend to overgenerize their first words to objects or people. For example, like many infants, Juli not only vocally called me "mama" but also called her father "mama". In sign language, Juli called both dogs and cats as "dog" until late 9 months old.
All these months since the day Juli was born I had been wondering at times what Juli's first word might be. "Milk"? "Mother"? "More"? It was one of exciting milestones I looked forward to.
But, now the idea of the "first word" was then somehow discarded. I learned a few things:
During the late syllabic babbling stage, a manual production was quite ambiguous to identify whether it was a babble, a protoword, or a recognizable word, especially during the transition process between a babble and the protoword and between a protoword and the recognizable signed word.
The first recognizable signed word could be itself not the first word. It could be that one overlooked the previous actually first word. Or, it could be the other actual "first" word in the form of protoword that was unclear (e.g. difficult phonological construction) to a parent.
Some signed words are easy to produce (equivalent to "pronounce") but some others are more difficult. Juli's first word could be "dog" (patting on thigh), but Deaf ASL-speaking adults don't generally use this production but still use it with infants and toddlers. Or, it could be that Juli referred to a cat when she patted on thigh (overcategorized word).
Or, Juli's first signed word could be "more" that I might often dismiss because her production was in the form of clap-like. She patted on her thigh before she "clapped".
The video clip above (at 8 months old, week 2) is one example of how I might simply assume that Juli's manual movement was just touching her ear, but on a closer look, did Juli try to produce or imitate father?
Even if she was producing father, did she understand the meaning of it or attach it to her father? It was difficult to identify whether it was a referential word or non-referential imitation.
It wasn't that easy till the day Juli could finger point at a person or object and produce the name that link the signed word to something.
The baby Juli had been signing from first obscure, referential babbles at 6-7 months and now begining to grow into a bit more translucent words.
For example, the baby Juli before her first birthday had tapped on her chest herself with the "5" handshape sometimes before. But, I couldn't confirm that. Because, she pointed to herself with an open (5) handshape that was more ambiguous to interpret a few possible meanings: "me", "bath", "bear", or something else or nothing.
Baby overcategorizing concepts: One Monday morning a week before (age 0;9) , as a frequently visiting neighbor cat passed by the low window, at the precise time Juli made some noise. The cat suddently freezed and looked up through the window.
Quickly I grabbed Juli and showed her the cat. As I pointed to the cat, the cat walked away. Coincidentally, the animal book lying nearby showed an image of the cat. I pointed at it and uttered the ASL word cat, cat, cat.
Juli looked and thought for a moment. She tapped on her lap. She associated this older ASL word with both dogs and cats.
I turned the pages, pointed to the image of a dog, and uttered #dog, then tapping on my lap. I pointed to the cat and uttered cat. I added vocal gestures to both of them: "woof" and "meow" along with the ASL words. Juli smiled and giggled at the "woof" sounds (or maybe my facial expression).
At one point this week Juli looked at the purple stuffed giraffe and tapped on her lap. Okay, a concept of "animal" in her overcategorized world.
Juli (0;8,0) reached out her arms and vocalized "mom" to her father who corrected, "No, it's dada, DA-DA.". Again at another time, Juli vocalized "mom" when father approached her.
Her father turned to me, "Hey, Juli called me 'mom'?" I asked, "Really? It's #m-o-m? He nodded. I replied, "It's normal." He looked at me, "It's normal?! I'm not a mom."
Baby at this age say "mama" (or "dada") indiscriminately. Google it and find it's very common.
The other day I was holding Juli in my left arm while I arranged the baby seat belt with my other hand. Grandma Z observed that Juli took a good look at me and said "mama", but I was absorbed with the task.
One night, I came home, opening the door. Juli looked up at me with eyes lit up, vocalized "mamama", and crawled toward me. I greeted mother repeatedly and reached out my arms.
Another thing (age 9;3) I noticed this week is that Juli seems to associate things together or separate things according to their categories.
Juli and I interacted during a play time. I uttered ball and pointed to the small ball and the big ball whenever I held or she held, whoever had it. Then Juli turned to look at another small ball sitting quietly and she pointed to it.
Juli (9;3) constantly pointed, pointed, and pointed. A new babble had emerged -- twisting or rotating wrist repeatedly.
Juli still waved bye-bye sometimes in response to an adult waving bye and leaving. She continued to clap hands, fingerpoint, and produced th-razzies in reference to driving a firetruck.
She stood on her own for a few seconds to several seconds.
More cheese and wine, err, grape.
This week (9;3) a new syllabic babble began to emerge -- twisting wrist, hand upward. This new skill can be used in "done/finish". Remember my last week's post about the earliest emergence that I intuitively sensed? Sure enough.
Juli often used this syllabic babble when she finger-pointed while I carried her, when she sat on the floor and interacted with me or her father, and when she sat in highchair at meals.
One day Juli became grumpy at a meal time. I sensed she might be full. Time to end the meal. I uttered finsih/done. She responded -- raised her hand, twisted her hand -- that is, finish/done.
Overgeneralization of words gradually diminished. First words became more categorized.
On several occasions, as I held Juli (0;10) in my arms, she pointed toward the DVD player and produced a recognizable ASL word music that I clearly noticed. Context helped.
Prior to this, I had signed music in the past weeks, especially every time I turned on the vinyl record player. And, every time I started the vinyl record player, Juli often pointed toward the DVD player on the shelf. That is, she categorized the vinyl record player with the DVD player under the category of music.
The phonological movement of the ASL word music was well identified, which was distinct from the movement prime of done/finish.
One day, Juli looked at the artworks on the wall. She produced the "sae" babbling syllable (the same movement from the past in reference to "art") and then she turned around and pointed toward the DVD player and produced music (usually left-handed).
During the first week at 10 months old, I described how I first noticed the emerging referential ASL word music that Juli had produced. Sure enough, in the second week it had became a clearer reference in different contexts. Signing music was the rage that week.
Every time I turned on the record player, Juli produced one-handed music without using the base (arm). Likewise, Juli pointed toward the DVD player and produced music herself.
In a new context, when we entered a gallery room at the city's gallery one day, Juli repeatedly produced music. There was music in the gallery room.
Toward the third week (m11w3), I paid attention to Juli's babbles and emerging words more closely but often found myself dismissing Juli's clap-like or clapping babble.
At mealtimes I found Juli often produce a "more" babble lately and I began to realize that I often dismissed it but then I began to pay attention to determine the contexts.
Each time I gave Juli a few cut pieces of the grape, she ate them all and then produced more. I saw this somehow in a more linguistic light more than just clapping.
That early week the moment I put Juli in the highchair, out of the corner of my eye, I caught her uttering eat -- 5 handshape onto the mouth a few times. It was a distinct production in the right context.
It was not the first time she produced it. I didn't take the first seriously until she produced something more than a second time. And I was also busy to take the first production seriously.
From there, Juli produced eat a few times, usually around in the kitchen.
By the end of that 11th month, Juli still produced the ASL word music which remained to be highly consistent with the referents in different contexts -- the portable DVD player, the record player, the playstation's music center, and other referents.
An usage of the ASL word finish/done had become clearer both in its reference to contexts.
Juli was seen producing eat (open 5-handshape tapping onto the mouth a few times), open 5-handshape tapping on the cheek (new, recently noticed), and a few other distinct, non-referential expressions or imitations.
Videoclip: Juli produced eat (beginning of the video). I introduced the numbers into daily life to Juli. Juli appeared to produce finish/done (end of the video).
Video clip: Juli seemed to be looking for a specific image, turning the pages and pages. She probably missed a page of what she was looking for. She then tried again and finally found a page of the cat.
At age 0;10, Juli's father reported that he signed cat along with the vocalized "meow". Then the chain reaction began as follows:
Juli picked up the book and opened to the page where an image of a cat depicted. Then she went on to another book and turned the pages till an image of another cat appeared. And, next one she opened another page that contained an image of yet another cat.
It showed Juli's ability in categorizing a group of the cats, despite that she sometimes tapped her hand on her leg (which means "dog") when referring to a cat.
Juli had a conversation moment with her Grandma Z and Grandpa K (who had a Movember moustache).
In a particular part of the video, Juli pointed (presumbly toward the record player). Z nodded, "mother will go there." Juli "danced" and produced the ASL word music.
Juli (0;11,0) used the ASL word finish/done in the right contexts last week. It became a bit clearer this week when Grandma Z came to look after Juli for a few hours and observed the same.
When I came back home, Z reported that she noticed Juli signing done/finish within the right context -- even just in a few hours of babysitting.
Z suggested "Look closely from now on." I told her that it actually had happened for quite a while.
The video clip above shows a literacy activity with the baby Juli.
Juli (0;10,4) sometimes read by herself. She pointed to the images in a book. She turned the pages one by one (if the pages were not hard to separate).
One day when Juli was reading the book My Dad! by Charles Fuge, she was signing, probably trying to recall my storytelling that I narrated in ASL many times in the past weeks.
Juli tried to imitate the family members and relatives in signlan. She also participated in a birthday song in ASL.
Juli (m12w2) often produced three different ASL words that the parameters (handshape, movement, and palm orientation) of these words happened to be somehow similar: tree, finish, and music.
With the similar productions (e.g. twisting "5" handshape) for these ASL words, it appeared to be a little difficult to distinct one from the others, but they usually were easily determined within the contexts.
The ASL word music that Juli produced was easy to recognize. Another word finish/done was also not hard to identify. As for the word tree, it was sometimes uncertain, sometimes clear.
On the other hand, Grandmother Z had her own way. She said that Juli pointed and produced tree on several occasions when they looked out the kitchen window where they could see trees in the backyard.
(m12w3) One Sunday Juli uttered done/finish herself as soon as Dude turned off the vacuum and was about to unplug it. I didn't sign anything prior to that while I held her in my arms.
Juli regularly utters finish/done when she is full or doesn't want to eat more. Then her meal is over. I no longer can guess by her behaviors such as cleaning up the tray, dropping food on the floor or such.
Juli imitated (if not referred to a referent) some ASL words, such as snow (open hand moving down from up).
More signed words emerged. Juli (age 1;0,1), sitting in a highchair, pointed to the orange pieces on a countertop and produced orange.
She produced the same handshape, location and movement for strawberry and orange, which was the closest to what she could produce. But, a context helped me identify.
Enter the one-word stage on the first birthday. From there, Juli produced the signed words more clearly. In addition, pointing and naming made the contexts clearer.
At age 1;2,4 (late 14 months old), Juli's father was about to leave for work. I told Juli in ASL that Dad was going to work now. Juli responded in a perfect ASL production work, right-handed.
Long way back at the end of 6 months (at the babbling stage), Juli had been exposed to the ASL word work often prior to her first syllabic babbles ("5" handshape). Her first babble was recognized as work especially with the dominance rule (see "dominance rule" for more information).
At the one-word stage, Juli formed from the "5" handshape into the "A" handshape. She produced work with the "A" handshape with the "clap-like" movement. It was clearer and more identifiable.
Now Juli produced work with the dominance rule, that was her left hand remained stationary while the right hand moved.
Fast forward, the 17-month-old Juli's signing had become smoother and clearer. For example, when she articulated camera. Not only the production was now well-formed, it was crystal clear and fluent.
As for some other ASL signs/words, naturally, the phonological primes were still developing at this stage. But, the movement and articulation were clearer.
Even when Juli mumbled in ASL (e.g. "bee eat" in video), I could recognize her utterance.
Another example of how I could perceive her signing clearly. For example, the four ASL productions video and drawing both had the identical handshapes ("B" with open thumb and "A") but the movement was different (video = tapping; drawing = downward++).
The other two ASL productions outside and hiding (both "A" handshapes) had a different handshape from the two above even though their respective movements were the same.
Juli had a unique production for the alphabetical letter "R" (see video). I showed her the letter at different times and her production had been consistent.
Juli made a clear reference to an orange. She pointed to it and produced orange. She has made this request twice. In other word, "I want that/this orange."
Juli produced bread many times in the last days but I had a benefit of doubt. But, she also produced pop-up-toast and I was sure of this reference.
Then there was a time Juli has beautifully and clearly articulated bread pop-up-toast (two ASL words) when Dude put a couple of bread in the toaster. I realized that her production bread in the previous days was indeed a reference.
Juli has produced work (two fists clapping) when referring to my work bag and when seeing me work in my office, and when touching my work binders.
She also uttered cold when opening a door to the outside on several occasions.
She sometimes talked with herself about drive-car.
During reading, I pointed to an image of the turtle and articulated turtle. Juli turned her gaze and finger pointed to a nightlight turtle sitting on the top of the dresser.
There were some other productions that I couldn't figure out their connection to meanings. So they remained to be "babbles." But, eventually contexts would help me discover a link of Juli's productions to meanings.
For example, Juli produced which resembled to sweet in adult production. Later, I realized its meaning when a context came. She referred it to a light.
If she were using an index finger instead of the "B" handshape for light, I'd likely have recognized. That's what I recalled my younger brother producing light with the "1" handshape. But every child is different.
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This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.