CNFIssue 3

Speech and Language Milestones

pink background with speech bubble

Kathryn Aldridge-Morris

Between 0-6 months babies should coo, begin babbling and mimic sounds                       

Heart rate dipping, something about the umbilical cord around your neck twice, a canula’s pumping pitocin into my hand to restart contractions, but all that’s contracting is my calf with a cramp Manuel says he’s seen grown footballers cry with. When you’re born, you’re taken straight from me and scrubbed in a red washing up bowl. You look like a little turtle and you cry through the night and I can’t get you to latch on and you continue crying into the next morning then afternoon, and I just want some crazy lady from a movie to think you’re hers and for her to snatch you, but just for a few hours, just for some sleep. Just for a bit of silence.

Between 6 to 11 months your child should say their first word

Everyone is moving to East London, on the cusp of gentrification. We don’t know our basement flat will be worth a quarter of million in just over two years and nor does our landlord. He offers to sell it for sixty thousand, but we’re set on bringing you up bilingually, so we pack everything we have into a twelve-year old Citroen. On the back seat, a blue inflatable sofa and you. ‘We’re driving to Spain,’ I coo, ‘Spain. Can you say Spain?’ You babble and smile, but you don’t say Spain. You won’t say anything for another six years. 

Between 12 and 17 months your child should have a vocabulary of 4 to 6 words

Your scream carries in the Atlantic wind. All the children are wailing on their first day of nursery. Other mothers can use words to build rope bridges between now and lunchtime: they’ll be back: their children understand this, settle. But you scream. 

Your teachers will call you the philosopher, on account of you gazing into space. Contemplating. I ask them if you should be speaking yet. Mañana, they say. They actually do say mañana.

Between 2 and 3 years your child should be using three-word sentences

By now you are mute. You play in silence. No traffic jam makes your cars sound their horns. You open your mouth. But no sound. Not even the nee-naw as we form a human ambulance to rescue teddies. We take you to an Argentinian doctor who claps in your face. You jump and start crying. ‘He’s not deaf,’ we’re told. We take you to a speech therapist who says what do we expect, with three languages going on at once. Three? we ask. Spanish, English and Castilian, she replies. But Spanish is Castilian? We decide to move back.

By 5 years your child should be able to engage in conversation

At the school gates on the outskirts of Bristol, my migraine aura splits the playground in two. You come out with your teacher wiping her eyes with her sleeve. You’ve a picture to show me, she says, dramatic in that primary school way. You unfold it and reveal a hundred stick people, each with a light sabre, and on every face, each small as your thumbnail, a smile in steady pencil. I don’t know if it’s the strobing migraine or love which contracts the bones in my head, but I grab your hands and we dance round the playground, both keeping time to the silent discos in our heads.

At 7 years your child should be able to pronounce words correctly

They fit electrodes to your soft, small scalp. These show us that when you sleep, the words which are spun between your synapses at night are smashed by volts of electrical activity. Landau-Kleffner syndrome, we’re told. A rare form of epilepsy. It’s literally like starting from scratch, day after day after day. You’ll need to hear the same word at least two hundred and fifty times before it sticks. 

There are six hundred thousand words in the English language and as I unstick each electrode, careful not to pull your hair, I promise I will say every one of those six hundred thousand words two hundred and fifty times for you. If that’s what it takes.