Who Needs Words?


I saw Brady change from a baby into a little boy. If I’d blinked, I would have missed it. It happened when he discovered his shadow. One moment, he was blissfully unaware of the world. The next, he was watching the boy on the wall imitate his every move. It made me feel old. I wanted to discover something that wonderful, something that fascinating and new. I wanted to be astounded and enthralled. Then I realized that my opportunity to feel those things was right in front of me, offering his shadow a toy to play with.

Brady’s growth has always amazed me but never so much as in the past two months. He was just simply going through predictable stages of development. Now he’s experiencing milestones of perception. And it’s more than just noticing the stars in the sky, or recognizing colors. He’s doing calculus, or at least its equivalent. He’s making connections. He’s pulling together random impressions and images scattered in his brain. He’s forming concepts. He’s thinking.

But thinking brings understanding and a realization of limitations. Before Christmas, Brady started hitting himself on the head and making angry faces. He was frustrated by his failure to communicate verbally. He never hears baby talk so his comprehension of complex sentences far surpasses his ability to participate in the discussions. He’s had a solid grasp of the “if…then” concept for some time but when confronted by “if you eat some broccoli, then you can have dessert,” he could voice his displeasure only by whining. So, his mom started teaching him sign language. The result was spectacular. Last night at dinner, I told him, “If you eat some chicken, then you can have some M&Ms”. Instead of whining, he bargained. He signed that he would eat more cheese and a French fry in exchange for the M&Ms. We had a deal. If he’s negotiating like this at 20 months, he’ll be a heck of a lawyer when he’s five.

Sign language is an excellent form of communication. It even works for exchanging information that should be classified. Brady has learned signs that are not part of the American Sign Language repertoire, signs that go with being a boy. His Mom taught him to cover his mouth after he belches. Her friend taught him to wave his hand in front of his nose after he passes gas. Both signs are executed with a grandiose air and are accompanied by a devilish grin. He’s even invented a sign – a thumb hooked backwards - for “there’s something in my diaper that you might like to see.”

He picks up new signs very quickly but his vocal range plugs along at a normal rate. He learned words for the things he needed first, “Mama” and “bottle” were favorites. Now that he’s thinking, he’s adding words that have meaning. “Stop” and “Go” are fun. There’s not much a toddler likes more than control. Last week, I spent thirty minutes pushing a grocery cart from the store’s entrance to the milk aisle because I was following his instructions. “No” is another good one. Repeating the word helps achieve the desired goal, as in “No, no, no, no, no”. “Up” and “Down” get him places that he can’t go on his own.

But he still prefers to use a more primitive form of communication, sound effects. When I put him to bed at night, we discuss our day’s activities. I narrate while he improvises. A typical day involves playing with the cat (meow) before driving to the store (vroom vroom) with Ripley in the back seat (woof woof). Sometimes we pass a police car or fire engine (imitates a siren). Then we eat dinner (chomping noises) and watch Finding Nemo (fish face with fish-breathing-air noises).

I know that all those squeaks and grunts and giggles are paving the way for more words and whole sentences. Soon enough, we won’t be able to shut him up. I can’t wait to hear what he’s thinking, and how he’s thinking. I can’t wait to discover the world again through his eyes.

In the meantime, I’ll settle for the visual communication. It’s a simple form that’s rarely misunderstood. When his Mom tells him she loves him, he answers by signing, “I love you” and then spreading his arms all the way out to the sides for “this much”.

So who needs words?


Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.
She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com





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