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Do You Understand The Words That Are Coming Out Of My Mouth?

As I prepared to become a mother for the
first time, I read over and over again in books that you’re
supposed to talk constantly to your baby, even though they
don’t really understand you. When Maddie was first born and
we’d go for walks, I was very self-conscious about the whole
thing, walking down the street in New York City and talking like a
crazy lady. “Over here we have a fine example of prewar
architecture, and I understand they’ve got a 24-hour doorman
as well. And now we’re passing a bodega – that’s
where you’ll go to get milk and bread for mommy when
you’re older.”

It didn’t help that I didn’t really know how to talk to

Now, though, I jabber away constantly, pretty much completely
unaware of what I’m doing, with that refined Professional
Mommy patter down cold: “Can you stand up now like a big
girl? Look at who’s a big girl! What a great job! - Maddie,
put that down or you’re going to lose a book for naptime
– Did you see the pretty birdie outside the window?
That’s called a cardinal, and maybe it will come back so we
can see its coat! - Maddie, ok, I see, that’s fine, but keep
the water in the kitchen – Yes, Cora, a cardinal is red! What
else is red?” You get the picture.

Anyway, I’ve been talking away for over a year now to Cora,
and half of it is simply asking questions and answering them for
her. Except that over the past few weeks, something frightening has

Cora is showing signs of intelligent life.

About three weeks ago, it was as if a
switch was suddenly clicked on in Cora’s brain, and she quite
suddenly made it very clear she understood what we were saying. And
worse – she had OPINIONS about what we were saying.

“Would you like some water, Cora?” I’ll absently
ask as I’m already reaching for her straw cup during lunch.
Glancing at her just to aim the straw into her mouth, I’ll
see her head shaking an emphatic “no” at me. “Oh,
uh, ok then. Just let me know when you do,” I’ll say
uncertainly, and sure enough, a few moments later, Cora will say,
“Mama! A gah!” and point at the water.

Did you ever see (bear with me here) the Star Trek movie where Kirk
is on trial with the Klingons and everyone around him is shouting
in Klingon-ese (or whatever their language is – don’t
geek out on me) and Kirk is handed this nifty box that he holds to
his ear and suddenly it sounds as if everyone’s shouting in
English and he can understand them? Well the look of relief on
Kirk’s face is uncannily similar to the expression on
Cora’s these days.

And I’ll say it goes further than relief- there’s a
look of downright triumph and satisfaction on her face at making
herself understood, and being able to follow what’s being
said. Mention the pool and Cora’s halfway out the door before
the words “after dinner” have caught up with her. If
she’s tired, she’ll beg to go upstairs, and if you let
her, she’ll stand and try to climb on Maddie’s bathroom
stepstool. “Cora, do you want to brush your teeth?”
– the first step in our bedtime routine- She’ll nod
vigorously. “Cora, are you tired? Do you want to go
nap-nap?” Another vigorous nod, this one tinged unmistakably
with relief.

Or if we’re playing on the steps in the pool and I move to
pick Cora up, she might tense up in my arms anticipating a move to
deeper waters. “Cora, do you want to stay here on the
steps?” A wholehearted nod yes. “You don’t want
to go to the deep end?” An impassioned monologue, complete
with pointing and gestures that make it clear that no, indeed she
does not want to go into the deep end.

Truth be told, I love this phase and plan to thoroughly enjoy it.
Right now we’re at a point where Cora understands me and
communicates with sign language or gestures, with the occasional
gibberish monologue thrown in simultaneously. Very soon
Cora’s monologues will become marginally understandable (if
only to those who are constantly around her) and I find that very
cool. I watch back videos of Maddie at around 15 months, earnestly
discoursing with me and me apparently understanding what
she’s saying (though two years later, I hear it and have no
idea what she said). And from there’s it’s a short hop
skip and jump to expanding her vocabulary (now limited to Ma Ma, Da
Da, Mah Mah (Maddie), and Amma (Gamma)) and hearing
honest-to-goodness words come out of her. Even now, I’ll say
something and she’ll try to repeat it back, working to match
the inflections and pitches and even vowels. As Cora plays by
herself while I work in the kitchen, she happily chatters away to
me, and as long as I keep up my end of the conversation –
“Oh, really? Ok, uh huh, I see – and then what?”-
she’s happy with the back-and-forth. If there’s
something she really needs understood, she pads into the room until
she’s right in front of me and speaks, staring into my eyes
as if to will the comprehension into me. And for the most part, if
I concentrate and ask simple questions she can answer,
comprehension comes. Usually involving snack time.

So we’ve broken through – the aliens (us) are at last
understood by the frustrated anthropologist (Cora) and all is going

Guess now, though, I can’t pretend I didn’t understand
when she answers my question, “Do you want some broccoli for


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