Zuki: Talk-talk


Zuki makes the happiest noises when she sits down to eat. She chirps and whistles.

Even her little laughs sound like a sparrow.


I’ve been slowly approaching speech lessons with her.

In Language Development, we learned that young children vocalize in all the different sounds that are used in all the different languages.


Then, through the reinforcement of the parents, siblings, grandparents, and other language-speakers around her, the child begins to pick out those specific sounds that are part of the primary language of her home culture.

So we have all been talking a lot with Zuki.


“Zuki? Zoo? Key? Zuzu? Mizuki? Mee-mee-mee?”

She doesn’t pay much attention.


Confession time: I didn’t start speaking at home until I was four years old, and then, I only spoke with Mom and Dad. Maybe it was because they each had such strong–and distinct–accents. English was their shared language, but each spoke a very distinct, non-standard dialect. At age six, I began speaking outside the home, but only with close friends. I didn’t speak with strangers until I was eight. 


I didn’t mind being quiet. I still don’t–though Meadow might consider me a chatterbox. 


I almost went into speech language pathology when I returned to school, except I didn’t like the “disorder” model that seemed to prevail. 

We take a different, developmental approach in early childhood education, and that feels more in harmony with my own experiences as a nonverbal child.


I am practicing some of the methods we’ve been exploring in our Early Language course.

One style involves combining sign language. This works well for very young children who have trouble forming sounds, but who are processing symbols easily.

I’ve been practicing with the sign for drink.

“Drink,” I say. “Glug, glug.”

Click-click-oo!  says Zuki.


The sign for happy: “Happy? Happy! I am happy! Are you happy?”


She stares at me.

Brrrrrr-eeee-warble-chirp-click-click!  she answers.

“Maybe that’s her language,” Jena suggests.


“Brrrrr-eee-click, click?” I say, buzzing my lips, singing like a little bird, clicking my tongue.

Zzzzzzz-eeee-click! Zuki says with her sparrow laugh.


“Are you talking to me?” I ask her.

Meadow told me that when Jena first came, she spoke Urdu, which she’d learned from her first care-givers at the refugee camp. Jasper recognized it, first, and started conversing with her in Urdu. They were going to raise her bilingual, if they could find someone who spoke it fluently to meet with her regularly, until they learned that it wasn’t her birth mom’s home language–it was just the language of the camp, a place that was mostly tragic for Jena.

When I click and chirp with Zuki, she looks so happy.


I start making up sounds, nothing I’d heard her say, just imitating the sounds in our environment: the growl of the garbage disposal, the hum of the fridge, the beep of the garbage truck when it stops in front of our house.

She loves it.


She looks like she wants to tell me something. I become very intent in my listening pose.


She doesn’t say anything.

“I’m listening,” I tell her. I make the sign for more.


“Were you going to tell me something?” I ask.

Suddenly, she lets loose a long cascade of bird warbles, like a wren, with the trills coming faster, faster faster!

“What is it, Zuki?” I ask.


She makes the sign for “All done.”


“Oh,” I say. “So we’re all done talking for now?”

Then she puts her lips together and makes the biggest raspberry I’ve ever heard!



And that’s our language lesson!

“All done now?” I ask.

“Uh-huh!” she replies.


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