The language of thanksgiving

In my previous posts about toddler language acquisition, I’ve largely talked about my younger child, who is currently aged two-and-a-half. You might think this is because my older child, aged four-and-a-half, has already passed most of the more interesting milestones.

This is the opposite of the truth.

Our oldest son Ciprian has had severe language acquisition delays, for reasons that no one knows. For whatever reason, he never passed the linguistic level of a typical two year old, knowing about two dozen single words, and that’s all. He never progressed to simple two-word sentences, he acquired new words very slowly if at all, and his pronunciation remained idiosyncratic and difficult to understand. This was combined with a variety of difficult behavior issues, such as an obsession with running water (he would turn on the water in the sink and watch it for hours if we’d let him), and self-harming when he was frustrated or angry.

It’s hard to overestimate how frustrating this was. When he wanted something, Ciprian would simply shout "Give give give" over and over, and you would have to guess what he wanted from context. (He also didn’t know how to point to request things, an essential pre-linguistic skill that he never mastered.) If you couldn’t figure it out, then you had to prepare yourself for a bout of screaming and self-harming.

Earlier this year, shortly before his fourth birthday, we said enough was enough and sought help from his pediatrician, and then the child psychologist that she referred us to. Unfortunately, all we got was a bunch of negatives: he isn’t autistic, his hearing is fine, and he isn’t cognitively impaired. The technical term they deployed was just "developmentally delayed", without any suggestion of the reason. This was less than encouraging. Eventually, the best thing we could do was just to enroll him in a preschool to give him more opportunities for stimulation, and talk to the school district about special education. The local district offers pre-K special education for qualifying students, and after their assessment they quickly assigned him a speech therapist and an early childhood specialist.

This was the best thing we’ve ever done for Ciprian.

It’s now six months later. While it would be great to say that things changed overnight, the reality is that we saw only marginal improvements for the first several months. His self-harming behavior decreased and his overall mood improved, but we only saw incremental additions to his vocabulary and no significant breakthroughs in his overall language. That was, until about six weeks ago, when for some reason the floodgates opened.

It feels like his vocabulary has doubled or tripled. He’s added a variety of English and Romanian words, and has started to use them more appropriately, where before he would indiscriminately apply the few words he used to virtually everything, making it very difficult to discern what he actually wanted. He’s become scrupulously polite, always saying "please" and "thank you" when making requests, in both English and Romanian. But most importantly, he’s started actually using sentences. Now, he actually says "I want cookie" when he wants something, and life is good.

His sentences aren’t grammatical yet. For the most part they’re two- and three-word collocations. And there’s still a long ways to go—he isn’t remotely like a normal four-year-old yet, and his little brother is significantly ahead of him. But for the first time in years, it feels like we’re actually getting somewhere.

So what am I thankful for this year? I’m thankful for a fifty-item vocabulary, for two-word sentences, and for my awesome kid Ciprian.

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