From baby bird to the cowboy mumble

I’ve been waiting for this since he was born. When will the talking start, I wondered, looking at his wrinkly newborn face frozen mid-screech, not unlike a baby bird.

Our pediatrician didn’t help my quiet distress over this pre-verbal phase when she reminded me that in those first six months he was as different from a developed human as a butterfly.

As my husband and closest friends will attest, I’m a "relater". I was raised in the American south and schooled in the sarcastic northeast before settling into "let’s talk it out" San Francisco. I suffer from a hybrid need to tell stories the long way, think out loud, tease people and "exchaaange", as one friend refers to my style. Living abroad has certainly crystallized the longing for conversation and encouraged, finally, some fearlessness when connecting with others in Turkish.

As it turns out, my kid is a desperate relater like me, bless his heart. And a late talker. His father speaks Turkish with him and I speak English.They are coming, the words, little manifestations of brain synapses and a relationship to the world. He works so hard to tell us things in breathless streams or with words, repeating them with insistence, offering few clues as to what on earth they mean: Kadife, moab, ghanaybey.

My husband often crawls into bed with a sad face after checking on Max before bed, saying, "poor bug", southern for "poor guy", neither of which translates in Turkish. Exhausted, sometimes I ask "Why?" "He’s so little," Inan always replies. "He needs us for everything. He can’t explain anything yet." But I’ve seen him scare bullies off with a single glare. I’m only impatient to know him better, hear what he thinks. Plus, someone else speaking my language in our neighborhood increases conversation potential by 100 percent. Some of Max’s first phrases mimic my attempts: "Oh yeaaah" and "I know, I know," he says.

This morning his dad showed him fire, or ateş, on a ring of colorful flashcards that I thought might jumpstart vocabulary. Max rushed the image over to me pointing and shouting, "haht, haht" in mock urgency. Not much of a risk taker, he loves expressing and hearing about danger. Real words be damned; he’s talking on phones, with strangers on buses, via Skype with our parents. He starts asking to call my mom during breakfast.

I know when he’s speaking American English. Loaded with heavy ahrr sounds, I call it the cowboy mumble. Americans don’t move their mouths much. He uses it when he speaks to anneanne, my mom, but switches the sound with his Turkish grandparents. Last weekend, Max sidled up to a couple of serious-looking men on a bench fingering prayer beads in an Istanbul park. He began pointing to the sky and the trees in a tenor befitting their somber demeanor. No cowboy-talk there either.

Little linguists

Max goes into fits of laughter when his babaanne, my mother-in-law, says anything in English. Recently he started saying "oh-my-godt" with a Turkish accent. While I’m no saint with language, I don’t use that phrase often enough to spread the word, so to speak. Then I heard his Turkish babysitter Naciye saying it. "It cracks him up," she told me.

I wanted to know how he seems to know they’re not speaking their native language. Recent research, reported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shows that babies use the pattern of sounds within words to distinguish the ends of words, and can distinguish languages by nine months. This supports the argument that parents should stick to their native tongue when addressing their kids. Little ears are tough language critics.

I don’t even care that the new two-word combos are in Turkish. He wants to relate so he does. I suppose the Turkish beginnings also represent life with a bilingual toddler in his homeland, not mine.

Poor bug, he is not. Nor is he a butterfly, or buh-buh-buh, as he says. Wednesday night watching Turkey play Spain, languages united. Gooooooal, he shouts whenever he sees action on a green pitch. His father and I spent much our youth on those fields. But he learned to shout "goal", one of his first words, from his Greek godmother in a Turkish street watching Iraqi refugee boys play the world’s game.
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