How I became the crazy Baby-Signs-woman (and how you could, too!)

When I was pregnant I heard about this quirky little thing called Baby Sign Language. Apparently – I was told – babies can learn how to use sign language before they can speak. Baby Sign Language is mostly advertised as being good to reduce toddler frustration (at not being able to tell you what they really, really want right now!). I googled it and found this super-cute (if a bit manic) video:

The whole thing sounded interesting and after all if monkeys can sign, I figured my little one could, too!… But watching the video I thought “This baby can do 30 signs! That is crazy. If I do it I’ll just teach my kid about 5 or 10 signs, the really important things she needs to communicate to me – sleep, toilet, food, water… that kind of thing. Surely the woman in the video is some kind of pushy-super-uber-mom with too much time on her hands. I’ll just keep it simple and help my kid express the key things that will keep her from wigging out.” Good plan. God laughed.

At 19 months my kid had over 200 signs. How the ‘eck did that happen?!

Gzzzzzzzzzzzz – rewind a bit, again.

This is how it went down. After hearing about it, still not entirely convinced, I got out the book Baby Signs by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn (albeit in its first edition – which is kind of sweet in its dated-ness). The book got me and I got really, really into this idea of teaching my kid to sign. I have since realised that I have a keen interest in language and watching and supporting my kid acquire hers, in general… but I didn’t know that then, this was just the start of the journey.

Through my research, I discovered sign language has a few (inter-related) advantages and I liked them all:

  1. It helps your baby communicate with you – telling you what is important to them and what they want you to focus on, with them
  2. It helps you know what is going on for them, opening a (super-interesting) window on your child’s mind and helping you get even closer to them
  3. It reduces the frustration, for your child, of knowing what they want but not being able to tell you
  4. It acts as a bridge to language, priming their brain to learn the to-and-fro of communication more easily and earlier
  5. It improves cognitive function and IQ – and research indicates the results are lasting
  6. It is good fun [honestly that is probably the main reason we went so far with it: because I was loving it, too]
  7. It is a great language to share as a family. You and your partner can have fun signing across a crowded room or over your kid’s head when they are not looking :p  And older siblings often love showing signs to their new little sibs :)

This book taught me many of my first signs. At this stage, though, I became convinced it would really help if both parents were on board, so I thought the easiest and most fun way to involve NinjaDad would be to go to a class – so he/we could learn in a social setting. As luck would have it, a friend decided to host a class at her house – so we joined that one. The instructor would come in and teach us, on a weekend – perfect! And so it was that NinjaDad started to get really excited by it, too.

We taught our kid her first sign when she was six months old. That sign was food and I repeated it every time she had a meal. She signed her first word when she was nine months old. That means there was a three month gap in which I was signing frantically to her and I was getting nothing back. I almost gave up. Her first sign was ‘fan’ – as in ceiling fan. Her next two signs were ‘duck’ and ‘light’. She didn’t sign ‘food’ until she was over a year old (and had well over 50 signs under her belt). That taught me my first lesson: she is going to be most enthusiastic and motivated to sign about the things that she finds interesting not about the things I think are important. Hahahah! I guess I should be flattered, as a mom, that she never felt she had an urgent need to ask for food…
Then we just kept going. I was forever wondering when we’d stop. Oh, I’ll only teach her 50 or so. But then we’d get to 50 and her thirst for knowing more and more would egg me on. She would point at things and look at me expectantly. So I bought a book, initially a simple ASL visual dictionary, so I could look up the signs she wanted to learn from me. Eventually that book stopped fulfilling all our needs (as it was not geared to kids, I guess) and I caughtened on to the fact that the easiest way to look up signs is online. And we were off. Her signed vocab kept growing and growing. And, alongside, her first words were coming in, too.
Then, at around 18 months there was a shift, and her interest in spoken words became much more acute than her interest in signs. At 19 months, as I said, she had just over 200 signs and coincidentally she had 200 spoken words, too (yes I kept lists). And that is where it stopped. She just started acquiring so many new spoken words and at such a speed that she seemed to have no need for signs any more. She was off.
And here is that other thing they say about signers: they sometimes use spoken words a little later, but they catch up quickly and often overtake the ‘average’ non-signing kid. Signing kids tend to have an aptitude for language, acquiring new words and moving on to complex sentences earlier than otherwise expected.
Honestly it is hard to tell for me. Most of my AP friends’ babies have stupidly large vocabs for their ages. And, of course, Anya (giving up on nicknames!!) is billingual, too, so goodness knows what that does to all this but I can say (with frank admiration) that at 21 months she speaks in five and six word sentences, with aplomb.
Yes, some of it is ‘nature’. Some kids are more interested in language than others, of course. But I am also convinced (and studies show) that there is more to it, too. There are things that help your kid develop language (and subsequently boost their IQ), such as:
  • speaking with them, describing the world and what you are doing, ‘narrating’ your day
  • developing ‘shared focus’ – speaking about what they are  looking at or interacting with in that moment, following their natural interest
  • getting down at eye level and letting them read your lips, literally (giving them valuable information about how to form their mouths around the words)
  • reading books, singing songs together, having fun with language and sounds
  • being supportive, positive and responsive when children attempt to communicate, in any form

and

  • teaching kids sign-language
So, if your baby is between say 4 and 14 months old and you want to teach them sign language, here are some tips for starting:
  1. get a book on baby sign language (from the library?) to get you into it and/or
  2. go online and read more about the history and benefits of it
  3. go to a local Baby Signs or baby ASL class or
  4. just jump right in: go straight to a sign language site and learn a few signs to teach your baby and then follow their lead on which to learn next
  5. involve your partner and other family members
  6. be consistent – keep repeating the sign every time the object or action appears in your shared field of view
  7. make sure you sign about what they are interested in or looking at at the time (try not to direct them to look at things, so much – it is more effective to ‘sports-cast’ the world from their eye’s view than to try to get them to look at what we think they should/would be interested in, all the time)
  8. be patient – depending on your kid’s age and how consistent you are with it, it could take many months before they produce their first sign back to you. The younger the child, the longer it takes
  9. check-out the Baby Sign books for kids for another cute way to show your kid some signs – and let them think they can ‘read’
  10. have fun with it, include lots of silly, playful signs. Does your child play with your kitty a lot? Learn the sign for cat. Does your kid love balloons? That is a super-sweet sign.

And remember ASL is a real language (sorry if that is too obvious to bear!) which means that your kid will be (at least) billingual if you teach them ASL. If you keep it up with them, which some families chose to do, it opens a world of opportunity up to them: ASL can be taken for credit in College, it can lead to a career or vocation in interpreting or teaching sign language (for the kids or the hearing impaired) and, perhaps most importantly, it can help communicate with a group of people, a community which otherwise can be so separate from this hearing community of ours. This could even be a small step in bringing these two worlds closer. But let’s keep it basic for now. After all, I am the ‘crazy baby signs woman’, my kid knows 200 signs which means I know considerably more than that and I still can’t really communicate with a true signer. I can’t keep up. But this is a step, a fun step in the right direction and a great leap for your kid’s language skills. Do it. I promise you’ll (eventually) have lots of fun with it!

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Did you teach your kid(s) signing? How was it for you? Did they take to it? Did you find you became the crazy-sign-language-parent, too?

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P.S. this post is littered with links – check ’em out for more tips, research and resources.
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It’s a sign that it is working: a baby’s language development is amazing

Doggy

Image via Wikipedia

You guys know I am a big baby sign language aficcionada. It started because I found out how good it was for little ones to be able to express themselves as soon as they are able to (which is way before they are able to form ‘words’) – it is proven to improve children’s IQs (statistically speaking) even measured years after signing has stopped. In the short-term it reduces toddler frustration and tantrums by, conversely, empowering them to communicate the things they love and ask for what they want.

That is how it started, because it was a ‘good thing to do’… I continued ‘cos I found myself having sooo much fun with it. I am a full-time mom. This is what I do and I really enjoyed getting into the challenge and the to-and-fro of learning sign language with my little girl. Now she has well over 100 signs and we can have little conversations. But the new development is this, today (at just shy of 15 months) she signed her first three-word ‘sentence’. Cognitively that is a huge landmark (which usually doesn’t come for non-singing babies until they are at least 18 months old and often older).

Two word sentences of Anya’s (often combining signs and ‘words’) include, among others:

  • More Music
  • Bird (in) Tree
  • Where’s Dada?
  • Mama (has a) Hat
  • Milk, Please!

Now her three word sentence was:

  • Doggy Outside Walking

How cool is that? We were at the dog park and she obviously thought she’d describe the scene.

She is still relying mostly on signs but a) let me remind you sign language is a real language and b) more importantly, she is communicating and getting her ideas, priorities, needs and wants across. And we get a real window of insight into the young toddler’s mind and just how very much she is grasping all the time.

Meanwhile she does have a few spoken words and her repertoire is slowly increasing. But, as you all know, by far my favourite word right now is: Mama!

Baby Sign Language: breakthroughs and bloopers

Highland cow

Image via Wikipedia

Anya has over 100 signs. She amazes me. On top of that she has ‘words’ (mostly sound effects) for another 20 or so things – most of those are for animals, food and things that go vrooom, really. Actual words are still few – four or five, perhaps, and those are all baby words, not full grown-up versions. Still that means that at 14 months she has a combined vocab of over 130 words. My favourite sound-word, at the moment, is ‘tata’ which is her attempt at bicicleta (bicycle in Portuguese).

My favourite sign? oh I have so many… I love that she has signed ‘Thank you’ when I gave her something and I think it is adorable when she signs ‘heart’ with added ‘thump, thump’ sound effect, but, I have got to say the sign for ‘balloon’ is sooo sweet, too, as she fills her little cheeks, blows and expands her hands out .

While I am proud of every one of her signs, I also laugh my head off when she gets them wrong. Recently it amused me no end that I gave her some humus and she did the sign for cow (yes, mama kind of said the word ‘moo’). I also like some of the word confusion like when I say sauce in Portuguese (molho) she points at my eye (olho – in Portuguese!)

Signs she does get right include not only the obvious like ‘airplane’, ‘sheep’ (complete with ‘baaah’) and ‘peas’ but also more abstract concepts like ‘open’, ‘more’ and ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ (and she mostly gets those right – she signs ‘hot’ when her food is steaming… or when we walk by a fridge – it is a work in progress, but she does get that it refers to a temperature change). The whole process of learning is incredible to watch and I am ever so grateful to Baby Signs (which is basically ASL which some smart alecs had the insight of applying to pre-verbal babies) for showing me how much my child understands at this age. I suppose she would understand roughly the same number of words and ideas if she wasn’t signing but she wouldn’t be able to show me that she got it (like someone laid up in bed who can hear and reason, but not talk or write – aaarrggh)… although in truth it is likely that signs are also a catalyst propelling her to learn more and more, buoyed by her early success in communicating and, most importantly, getting what she wants, whether it is to be picked up, to eat raisins (in particular) or to tell mama there is a squirrel over there, in the distance.  I swear I saw a light go on, over her head, when she realised she could get her needs met by expressing herself to those who love her.

I find myself particularly impressed by how patient Anya is with me when I misinterpret one of her signs – she’ll just point at the correct thing to help me figure it out or sign it again with sounds until I get it. She’ll also helpfully disambiguate signs that are similar. For example her sign for ‘all done’ (waving two hands) becomes ever so similar to her sign for ‘music’ (pretty much waving two hands). If we are at meal time and she starts waving her hands, I might say ‘you want music?’ and she’ll cleverly (if a bit frantically and desperately) start signing ‘wash hands’ and pulling at her bib. Oh, you are all done! The opposite is also true, if I guess ‘all done’ when she means ‘music’ she’ll helpfully point at the stereo while swaying her body side-to-side, so I get her meaning.

She is now doing two and even three word sentences – by combining signs and sounds. This milestone isn’t usually reached until the child is about 18 months, as I understand it, if they are not signing. Sentences, if you’ll allow me to call them that, include things like: ‘more’ ‘rice cakes’ (both signed); ‘where is’ (sign) ‘dada’ (sound); ‘book – baby – sleep’ (all signed) when describing the book with the sleeping baby on the cover; or ‘music’ (sign) ‘woof-woof’ (sound) when she wants me to put on the song about the doggy. She knows what she wants – and thanks to signs she can be very specific in asking for it.

How my daughter continues to blow my little mind with her little hands

Mommy’s swelling pride means the first thing I want to share with you all is Anya’s signing progress. I just find this whole ‘human learning to communicate’ journey endlessly fascinating. Anya seems to pick things up so quickly. I have to tell someone or I’ll burst! I try not to go on about it (too much) in person, in mommy groups or the like… but yeah, with you guys I let it out, to get the bragging out of my system, so to speak. Anyway, we all know all babies are amazing and to each of us our own baby is the best – of course – and to each of us it is, of course, true. Here is my truth:

At one year old (yes Anya has turned one!! – awesome) Anya now has over 50 signs. She went through another cognitive-development spurt, clearly. For a couple of weeks she was picking up signs at a rate of up to 2 a day – just fantastic to watch. She has also been building her repertoire of ‘words’ (with sounds for sleeping, pig and, the old classic: fart) so that brings her overall vocab to about 60 concepts.

Baby sign language improves our life in a myriad of small and great ways. One of my fave signs is ‘music’. When I am out with Anya in the baby-carrier she’ll sign for me to sing to her and then, when I stop, she signs for ‘more’. I love it. It is like having an audience cheer and shout encore. I also really enjoy that she calls food ‘mmm’ (not a sign, I know, but cute). There are not many people who greet my food with so much enthusiasm. Got to love that. Other favourite signs include computer, ‘there is none’/empty, tree and sleep (as in ‘dada is sleeping on the bed and snoring like a pig’ – I kid you not, she has pretty much signed that whole sentence… or at least that sentiment).

Anya also now has combinations of signs like ‘more milk’. Or she’ll combine sign and sounds by doing something like sign ‘where is’ and add the word ‘dada’. Cute and clever, no?

The other thing I think is fab about signing is the insight it gives me into the thought processes of a pre-verbal baby. For example, if we are indoors playing and Anya suddenly signs ‘bird’ it can take me a few seconds to realise she is saying she just heard a bird, outside. Who knew babies can hear and identify things out of sight, even when seemingly concentrating on an activity at hand?

So you can see, I am more and more sold on this signing thing. It is a lot of work, or at least it was to get it going in the start. It kind of has its own momentum now and is just fun, so that keeps us motivated. But I really enjoy it and I can see what a kick Anya gets from it, each time we respond appropriately to a request or communication of hers. She gets a real glint of joy and recognition in her eye. I can’t imagine not signing now and I find myself wondering how other moms communicate to their babies: how do they know what they want, what excites them, what they are thinking about? I know they make do but it seems so much more practical and rewarding to sign, now that I am into it. I’ll fully admit I do it as much for me as for Anya but she is clearly getting a lot out of it and I have read the research results: this stuff has positive impact on learning for life, not just as toddlers. I am lucky I stumbled across signing and grateful I stuck with it. Thanks California for your crazy hippy parenting ways!

Having a conversation

Yesterday I had the first conversation with my daughter. It went like this:

Me: ‘Anya, it is time to go out, now’
Anya is super excited, smiles and bounces up and down.
Mom puts on Ergo and pulls baby into carrier.
Baby: ‘Aa-Aa’ (her word for dog – ão-ão means woof woof in Portuguese)
Mom: ‘Oh, you want to go see the doggy, when we are out? Sorry, right now we are going to the car. We can go visit the doggy on our way back.’

Sweetest thing ever. She knows that we are going out and knows that out there is the dog she loves to go see and, most exciting of all, she is now able to tell me (ahead of time, note) that is what she wants to do. Man, I love her so much!

We are having more and more of these incipient dialogues. She has ‘asked me’ for food (her word for food is ‘mmm’) in the car. Today she asked for water (‘aia’ – Anya’s attempt at ‘agua’). So sweet. Add to this her signs and we are definitely away. She signs ‘more’ with great enthusiasm when she wants me to read the book again or sing a song again (she likes my voice, bless her) or to bounce her on the ball again. So cool!

She now has a vocab (yeah, I am calling it that!) of about 30 ‘words’. She has over 20 signs and nearly ten verbal words – mostly sounds like ‘blah-blah’ for phone (my personal favourite) or rrrrrrrrrr (which stands in for ‘vroom-vroom’ for tractor or car. But it is clear, verifiable and repeatable that she uses those sounds for those objects or actions, so they count :)

Here is the flip-side, though. When she started using signs that were not just descriptive (like duck) but also prescriptive, if you will, like ‘milk’ or ‘all done’ I noticed she started having more tantrums. I checked with other mums and quite a few remember experiencing the same thing: more signs = more tantrums, at the start. This is what I put it down to: I reckon she got a taste for power. With first words and the ability to say what she wanted came Anya’s first realisation that she could ask for what she wanted and with that an expectation that she would get it (’cause at the start, she often did). She was developing a sense of self, an ego or an identity are forming. She realises she is a separate being with separate wants … and with that came demands for her wants to be met. She communicates that through not so cute screaming with occasional back arching. This was mostly about expressing her will: ‘I want to go to the swings’; ‘I don’t want to get into the car seat’, that kind of thing.

I have so far mostly dealt with it by, well, ignoring it. This was the best momma advice I got on the subject. Nobody had much else to offer on the subject. I guess the main thing is to be clear that screaming does not get you what you want nor does it get you more attention.

So far… so far it seems to be a little better. Meanwhile, I got over the ‘I don’t want to get in the car thing’ by giving her a treat once she sat compliantly in the seat (yep, bribes – another piece of mommy advice gold). I just had to do that a couple of times and now she has made friends with the seat again. Phew (otherwise I’d be virtually housebound). Nobody told me the terrible twos actually start at ten months (or perhaps around 15 months when non-signing babies get first prescriptive/request-oriented words?)!

But, overall, more language means more fun, more communication and exchange and I am really enjoying finding out about what Anya gets, what she likes and what she wants and I am ready (or getting ready…) to show her where the limits, the boundaries to her new powers lie. Mommyhood, real mommyhood, here I come.

Proud Momma of a signing baby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At ten and a half months my child has over fifteen baby signs. Hooray.

So far these are the concepts and words she can communicate:

  1. toilet
  2. ceiling fan (oh, the joy!)
  3. light/lamp
  4. duck (duck, duck, DUCK!!)
  5. fish
  6. airplane
  7. monkey (accompanied by enthusiastic monkey sound)
  8. all done/enough/finished
  9. car (she is working on this one)
  10. swings (Anya invented her own sign for swings – her favourite thing)
  11. TV (okay this one is a bit dodgy and looks like ‘duck’)
  12. dog
  13. bird (… also looks a bit like sign for ‘duck’)
  14. baby (one armed, but essentially a valid sign)
  15. more
  16. milk (by far the most used of all signs – oh, man, I am a slave to this sign!!)

Yay! Those are the ones I can remember, now, anyway… Most of them are for fun and so we can hold a ‘conversation’ about what we are seeing in the world; but signs like ‘more’, ‘milk’ and ‘all done’ are life changing. Of course she also does the usual pointing, waving, clapping, etc, which are all pretty cool and expressive ‘signs’, too.

Meanwhile, there are probably other things Anya is trying to sign to us which we haven’t yet clicked are signs (sometimes they are a little hard to recognise at first :p ) She also has a slowly growing repertoire of words or, in most case, animal sounds, like ‘mia’ for cat. This is such a fun development to watch, our kids naming and sharing their enthusiasm for what they see, like and want.

It is very interesting to observe that she seems to learn them in spurts. She learnt the first four almost all at once, then none for a while with just a few here and there, after; and now five new signs in the last few days.

I should say, if I haven’t before, that I started teaching Anya some first signs when she was six months old and I didn’t get anything signed back to me until she was nine months old – just when I was beginning to think it would never work!… which probably explains part of why I am so ecstatic, now.

Are you teaching your kids signing? How is it going?

P.S. Sorry about repeat photo… haven’t had time for much photography, recently. Soon, soon, perhaps.

What’s the baby sign for ‘this is awesome’?

Cover of "Baby Signs"

Cover of Baby Signs

We had our first baby signing class the other day. It was very sweet. I had read the Baby Signs book a couple of months back and got totally sold on the idea of signing to my baby. Why, you ask?

Well, a lot of parents around here sign to their babies which got me curious about it, in the first place. Originally, I thought I might do it with just a few words (like food, milk, toilet, water – basic stuff she might want to get my attention about). I thought it would help us bridge the few months between Anya knowing what she wants and being able to express it clearly and efficiently. My reasoning was that that would reduce the guessing for me and the frustration for her. Then I read the book and my view of what this could do for us expanding considerably.

It turns out teaching your baby sign language (which they can master well before then can speak) essentially teaches them the basic principles of communication (the give and take, to and fro, negotiation and the ability to describe, request, share, etc). And this, it turns out, has lasting effects on their ability to communicate throughout life (not just as toddling cuties). A study by the book’s authors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn revealed that even when signing kids grow up and are fully eight years old they are on average a year ahead of their non-signing peers in terms of language skills. Outstanding. I never saw this coming – and neither did they, apparently. It seems having people respond to and validate their interests and desires from so early on only seems to increase babies’ appetite for learning and talking. By age two, signing babies already have on average double the vocab of non-signing children (as you basically add-in signs to their ‘word count’). But this means they are able to bring your attention to twice as many things – objects or actions. And as you know, already, if you have been following, I have really gotten into language development for my kid, so this is pretty interesting stuff to me, at this point.

I, myself, don’t know why I am so interested in language, suddenly. Perhaps it is because my mom is an English teacher (in Portugal) and has always had a love for words and language. Perhaps it is finally rubbing off on me. Maybe it is because it feels like the only part of Anya’s development I can have an influence on, at this stage, observably, at least. So much seems dictated by genes – when she’ll walk, her temperament, etc. and then there are all the immeasurables and the stuff so hard to control like personality, respect for authority, etc. Language appears to be the only area I can really pour myself into, which requires some skill and hence becomes a fun challenge.

So, we went to our first class. It turns out there is a big divide between baby signing schools. Both are based at least in part on American Sign Language (ASL). However, on one side are those who say go ahead and let your child make some signs up, encourage it even, and use others that are ‘made up’ especially for little hands and baby minds to manage. So, for example, the sign for dog with them is ‘panting’ with your tongue out, like, well, a dog. This is absolutely not an ASL sign.

The other camp teaches babies real American Sign Language. Their view is that you are giving your child an additional language which can serve them for life (and for which you can get credits at College or something – they keep referencing this, but not being American not sure I totally got it). These kids often remember being taught signing as children and want to go back and study it when they get older. Plus they say using real signs a) is totally possible for little babies (proven to be so) and b) ensures you do not make up signs which clash with or even offend the deaf community. Apparently this has happened in the past with some of the baby signs. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say you don’t want your kids doing that sign out in public where there are ASL signers!

The instructor also mentioned that often mothers who teach their kids ASL end up enjoying it so much they go forth and learn the whole system, some have even become sign language interpreters.

Having originally read the book that, though based in ASL, was all about following the baby’s lead and making it as easy as possible for them, I was quite sold on that approach. After all, as they say, the aim is only to get them through a few months (from about 9 or 10 months when they can sign to 18 months when they have quite a few words to communicate their needs). However, in the end, that final argument on the ‘pure’ ASL side swung it for me.

When I was in the UK I started learning British Sign Language (which incidentally is totally different from ASL). I was really enjoying it and then had to stop. Now, I get to do it all over again, learn sign language, but this time with my partner and for my kid. Sweet.

The idea of learning sign language is really appealing to me. It is not just ‘another language’, it feels like there is something special about it for me. Okay there are the basics, like K. and I will be able to sign to each other, when we don’t want to or can’t speak. More than that, though, it opens the possibility of speaking with a whole new group of people, not ‘foreign’ but somehow a completely different community. I am super psyched about this.

So, here I go, on my journey. Now it is fun and helpful to everybody: baby, daddy and me.

… And, just in case you are wondering, the most asked question is ‘won’t this slow down your child’s spoken language acquisition?’. The answer (according to leading research) is: no. In fact signers speak earlier than non-signers, on average. The motto is: ‘just like crawling makes a baby more motivated to learn to walk, signing makes a baby more motivated to talk’.

Now, at 9 months, Anya has her first signs. She signs ‘fan’ (her favourite thing, the ceiling fan) almost as soon as she wakes up, before we are even in the living room, where the fan is – such is her enthusiasm for things that spin. That is her best sign. She has also signed ‘light’ (she likes street lamps), ‘fish’ and ‘more’ (as in ‘more food please’) although all of those are still in the learning phase, I think. So much fun to see her able to ‘talk’ about things, both present and just stuff for which she wants to share her love. Bless…