One day recently driving Owen to school he asked me for what sounded to me like SWEATER. He doesn't have any sweaters so even though I knew the answer to this question I asked anyways, "You want your sweater?" I was driving so I couldn't even turn to look at him and see what he might be reaching for on the floor of the van. Owen persisted and said "I want my insert-unknown-item-here." I again asked if it was a sweater and knew my attempt to understand with the exact same follow up question was futile. When Owen started to get frustrated I explained to him that I was trying my best to hear his word but it was hard for me to understand, then asked him to say it again, believing I could strain my ears enough to make out his word.
Instead Owen surprised me and fell back to a tool that he extrapulated from our use of baby sign language. See, he had been effective at being his own interpreter in many situations before where I did not know his words and he instead fell back to the sign or went to point out the object or on occassion we went through a series of questions to determine what the item he desired was. He began to describe what the word was, "gold, pirates find it" and then I got it! He had been saying "I want my treasure." Not in a million years would I have guessed that treasure would sound like sweater coming out of his mouth, but it did, it sounded just like sweater from the mouth of a 3 year old. I had never shown Owen the sign for TREASURE, in fact, I don't know it myself. But we have used such a plethora of signs in our family that even when the kids don't know a sign for it, their brain has figured out that there is another way to get their poin across.
A preschool teacher once informed me that about 50% of what 3 year olds say is understood by the general population, and it varies with each child. Of course moms understand a great deal more of what their own child is saying, I call that the mommy ear. But, still there are plenty of times well past toddlerhood where a child is still expanding their vocabulary at a rapid pace and their ability to enunciate the word exactly is still just shy for us to understand them 100% of the time.
I had to laugh when I figured out that Owen wanted his treasure and again thanked my lucky stars for the fact that I was born a CODA, Child Of Deaf Adult, so that ASL was my first language and it was a no brainer that I would teach my children to sign as we are still experiencing the benefits of it even though Owen is 3 1/2 years old.
Joann Woolley is owner and instructor of Sign4Baby in San Diego teaching parents how to communicate with their pre-verbal baby using American Sign Language. With her in depth knowledge of ASL as her first language she takes you beyond just the basics in signing, also filling your parenting tool belt with parenting tips and tricks coupled with signing as a great boundary teaching tool for toddlers. Want to know which signs most parents start with but gets them stuck in the mud? I'll send you that hundred dollar tip for FREE.