Dual-wielding Dutch and English: bilingualism second time round

Zhuzh

Zhuzh

From the start I have been dying to find out how the Girl would get on with the two languages spoken in our house. In case you are tuning in for the first time: I am Dutch and (try to) speak Dutch exclusively to the children. My husband is British and speaks English. And as we live in the UK, absolutely everybody else in the children’s every day lives speaks English too. I often feel like I am battling the tide trying to maintain Dutch – I myself have spent most of my adult life here and it takes a little effort to speak Dutch all the time, and as my friends and their children speak English, all our play dates take place in English.

I know people who have grown up in a similar bilingual set up and almost without fail, they tell me that their younger sibling barely spoke the minority language. This is not surprising, really. The second child in a bilingual family like ours grows up in a very different language environment to the first. Whereas the Boy spent 98% of his time with me, his Dutch mum, for the first 2 years of his life, and went on fairly frequent visits to the Netherlands with me where nothing but Dutch was spoken to him, the Girl has a constant confused language tutor by her side, even when we are at Opa and Oma’s house. Inevitably, and rather sadly, the Boy’s language of choice is English. Especially since starting pre-school and spending a lot of time with a group of people who just speak English, he will often answer me in English even if I start a conversation in Dutch. So of course he will always address his sister in English too.

I could see the effects in the Girl’s early vocabulary. Her first ten words or so were English: Daddy, cat, teddy, down, juice, cheese, shoes and so on. She had two Dutch words: “aai” (stroke), said running after the cat or when saying sorry to someone for yanking their hair out, and “dag” (bye), which she only used for a book I read to her in Dutch at bedtime with little animals you could tuck up in bed. “Dag!” she’d wave as the rabbit disappeared into his hole.

When children start to speak and come into contact with new words, they make several assumptions that help them learn vocabulary more quickly. One of those is that the new word refers to the whole object and not a part of it (“cat” must refer to the whole animal, not just the tail or the ears or the colour of its fur) and another is exclusivity: each object only has one label. This means that bilingual children start off learning just one word per object – which language they go for depends on what is presented to them first, but to start off with they will not absorb both “cat” and “poes“. So most bilingual children of the Girl’s age (18 months) have an expanding vocabulary that includes words in both languages, but only one word per object. In a later phase they will start to realise that Mummy speaks one language and Daddy another, and that they each have a word for “table”, “juice” and “bye bye”.

Except the Girl is already doing this now. And she has done from the beginning.

Not with every word, but from very early on I could hear her experimenting with Dutch and English words for the same concept that had a similar sound. She went through “hello” and “hallo“, as if trying to taste which version she liked best and got the most laughs. And sometimes, she kept both.

She says “neus” AND “nose”, mimicking the version that the person she is speaking to is using. I have also heard her use “voet” and “foot”.

And where she started off with just “cat”, she now also says “poes“.

She says “vast” plaintively when she can’t get out of her high chair or car seat (“I know, I did that on purpose,” I explain). But I also hear her say “stuck”.

She seems very aware of her own language learning, and when she tries out a new word and I repeat it in Dutch, she will repeat what I have said, looking at me proudly as if to say: I am saying it like you, aren’t you pleased, mama?

It isn’t just giving two labels to one object that is quite advanced about her language learning. Generally, she is speeding through the process much more quickly than her brother did. Bilingual children are on average about 3 months behind their monolingual peers when they learn to speak. I was already quite proud of the Boy, who hit each milestone exactly on cue and said his first two word sentence a few weeks before his second birthday (it may have been “bye bye baby” to his new sister…) But the Girl is blowing his progress right out of the water. Besides being an entire phase ahead in her bilingual language acquisition, she is also using personal pronouns, something her brother didn’t do until he was two. She started saying “my Daddy” at about 16 months, expressing a sentiment I had seen in her eyes from her earliest cuddles with him, when she would turn into him and glare at any bystanders who looked like they might be about to muscle in on her special time with Daddy. Also “my juice” turned out to be a necessary addition to her phrases to ward off any thirsty friends or brothers.

She also started making sentences a few months ago, waving “bye bye Daddy” when he goes to work, prodding me while I try to have a sneaky Team Umizoomi-nap saying “mama sleep!” and most recently breaking our hearts with a little sleepy monologue in the Fairy Godmother’s arms at bedtime, saying “Mama? No, mama work. Daddy? No, Daddy work.”

And so it starts. As they say, you spend ages wishing they would talk and then when they do, you wish they’d be quiet. I do love this phase. I love finding out what is in her head, how she is making sense of the world. And I feel more than a little proud of how quickly she is learning to talk, dual-wielding Dutch and English like the bilingual ninja she is.

"tat" or "poes"

“tat” or “poes”

Secrets of the  Sandpit

Overgeneralisation: the Girl strips English of excess words

Cheezh

Cheezh

I loved essay writing – in school, at uni – but I was never very good at handling “constructive criticism”. I would always get defensive and want to explain and justify myself so the teacher/tutor would understand that really I was brilliant and beyond reproach. (Hm I wonder why I write a blog…?)

A recurring theme in my feedback was overgeneralising and hyperbole. I’d make sweeping statements for effect and claim that ‘everyone felt the same fear of death’ (for instance). A piece of feedback that I have treasured for both the compliment and its cutting wit, called my analysis of Plato’s theory of forms: “A marvellous essay, marred only by a tendency to pointless overstatement.” I like to think of this as a tagline for the story of my life.

Now, my 16 month old daughter is experimenting with sweeping statements. I know that overgeneralisation is a natural stage in child language acquisition, but she is taking it to a whole new level. As soon as she discovers a new word, she goes in search of what else you can do with it. Rather than finding out how we, experienced speakers of the English language, define this new word, she sets about delimiting it herself, expecting us to keep up as she rewrites the dictionary. Or rather, rips most of the pages out to slim it down a little.

After her first word (Daddy), she discovered ‘down’. This meant: “I want to get down” but was soon expanded to mean “pick me up”, “get me out of these straps”, “lift me out of the cot” and “I want to go downstairs and watch television”. Perhaps this word is best summed up as: “Move me to where I want to be.”

Her favourite word must be “zhuzh”. This was first said with great delight while pointing at her own shoes, and later when carrying Daddy’s shoes to him to indicate that he must come on the outing too. Then it was said pointing at boots and wellies. Then it turned out to mean socks, feet and toes as well.

I kept nodding and thinking: this is textbook stuff. She is learning to assign characteristics to words. For example, “Teddy” to her means anything inanimate and huggable. She will hug any soft toy – rabbit, raccoon, pony – and say “Teddy!” What is supposed to happen next is that she will start to notice that the people around her limit the word to the bear only and have different names for the other cuddly toys. Then she might add a further note to her internal lexicon:

Teddy: inanimate, huggable, bear shaped

Also cheezh

Also cheezh

But I got a bit suspicious when the word “juuzh” showed up. It rhymed with “zhuzh”, which perhaps explained its appeal. “Juice” has been said while pointing at any bottle, any carton, any jug, any glass (full or empty), her sippy cup, water, milk, cups of tea, wine… Then came “cheezh”. She first said it while hunting through the food cupboard – which is most definitely not where I keep the cheese. I thought: maybe she means Shreddies? Cheerios? But I was soon set straight: she greets any food with a joyful shout of “cheezh!”

This is overgeneralisation taken to a bit of an extreme. I’m sure the Boy used quite a few, if not most of his words at this age, for fairly specific things.

Perhaps she is just not a details-girl. Perhaps the Girl is quite happy to paint life in broad brush strokes. She is not learning words. She is learning categories.

Even “mama” is not for me alone. I was overjoyed when she started using the name to call for me over the Christmas holidays, but when the Lodger returned from a visit to her family, she was greeted with “mama” as well, and so was my friend who looks after her on a Friday. It is clearly the umbrella term for “female who can provide me with soothing cuddles who has nice long hair I can twizzle”.

Her latest category was a source of great delight to the Boy. She pointed at a number in one of his endless number books and shouted: “Eight!”

“YES!” the Boy exclaimed, “Eight! Haha! A. is saying eight!”

Then she pointed at a 4: “Eight!” And a 9: “Eight!” Number 2 was also eight. The Boy thought it was hilarious. But she wasn’t done there. The alphabet puzzle got the “eight” treatment as well, and Surrogate Friday Mama reported that the Girl had been pointing at a handwritten note saying “eight”. We concluded it must mean “squiggle”.

It is just Daddy who gets exclusive rights to his name. She stops in her tracks when there is a sound at the front door. “Daddy!” If we walk past the study after her lunch time nap and the door is ajar, she will peek inside: “Daddy?”

I comfort myself with the thought that at least it sounds a lot like “teddy”, so there can be just as many embarrassing no-that-was-not-who-i-wanted mix ups.

Sixteen months into life, 5 months or so into discovering words, our marvellous Girl sweeps through life using only a handful of words. She doesn’t need any more. She defines them. The world is hers to shape and control.

And that is most definitely not pointless overstatement.

Definitely cheezh

Definitely cheezh

 

Life Game: The Gamers’ Dictionary

Hey there fellow Life Gamers,

I thought it was time I let you in on the secrets of Speech. I’ve started discovering in this new level that increasing your Charisma and your Influence hinges on acquiring more and more Words. You find them by interacting with NPCs and with the Brother, and when you use them on people, I find you get some interesting results. Every word you speak increases your Influence over the adults in the room and makes them go all gooey-eyed and less observant so you can eat more sofa raisins, floor food and play dough, but each particular word also turns out to have a specific extra benefit. To help you out, I have compiled a

Level 1 glossary

down – gets you lifted out of the high chair quicker
wow! – increases interaction time with the object you are admiring and the adult in the room
uh oh! – reduces the negative impact on your relationship with the Mummy when you spill something
cat – draws the brother’s attention to the cat and he will help you chase it for strokes and ear-pulling
teddy!! – exclaiming this while hugging a cuddly toy (not necessarily an actual teddy, a raccoon will do) increases your happiness
ball – gets you a ball. Trust me. This is good.
Daddy – nearest adult will usually take you to Daddy. If the nearest adult is Daddy, it gives you a massive Influence boost with him
bih-ki (biscuit) – this two syllable word will stun the Mummy and turn her into a mindless zombie for just long enough for you to command her to hand over a biscuit, even at 5.30am.
round – gets you a piece of paper and a crayon, which you can either munch on or use to draw loopy squiggles while saying “woun woun woun” some more.
ow! – this one is a trade off. When you hurt yourself, choosing “ow” over crying gets you fewer cuddles but more laughs
puh, puh, tap tap tap (pull, pull, clap clap clap) – Singing this with actions gives you a boost to your Musical and Coordination skills. Singing it within earshot of an adult, while pretending you don’t know they are listening, gives you a MASSIVE boost to your Cute levels.

That’s all I’ve got so far. HTH. If you find any more words, post them here, pref with a sound file so I know how to say them.

Thnx

TinyToddler

Me, hacking the slot machines at my local.

Me, hacking the slot machines at my local, wearing a party dress. Oh yeah.

Talking to my Daughter

When my son was closing in on his first birthday, I was eagerly anticipating his first word(s). But I was reluctant to interpret his babbling as speaking. I had this weird thing about not being presumptuous, or perhaps I was worried about looking silly when it turned out he called everyone ma-ma or something.

DSCF4252With my daughter, I feel like I’ve clicked into a groove that I just couldn’t find with my son. I seem to have found a confidence and an instinct that with my son I drowned out and undermined by overthinking everything. When she wakes in the night, for instance, I feel confident that it has a reason – I may never know what it is – but that it will pass. I don’t spend so much time worrying that it is because I’m doing something wrong. With language development, I just find myself enjoying her babbling becoming more meaningful every day. I can guess when something is an attempt at a word and I encourage it by repeating what I think she is trying to say.

Daddy won the race to her very first word. She pointed at him and said: “Da da.” She repeated it later at Gran’s house: seeing a photo of me and my husband together, she pointed and said it again.

Barely a day later, we got her first Dutch word. She has a little cloth book with things you can hide away in pockets (the sun behind a cloud, a rabbit in its hole). We do this at bedtime, tucking them up in turn, waving and saying “Dag!” (Bye). That evening she flapped a hand at the bunny and said: “Da!”

Clearly, ‘da’ is a multi-functional syllable.

I also think she says hello (“heya”) and occasionally she will hold up her hand and say “hiyuh!”, which we think means “high five!”, judging by her delight when we high five her.

She is quite adept at letting us know what she wants in other ways, too. She holds up her arms for you to pick her up and she shrieks like a banshee when the food is not coming fast enough or when you are not giving her enough attention.

Both hands on your grumpy head

Both hands on your grumpy head

She has also learned her first song-with-actions. It is a Dutch nursery rhyme with the stunningly philosophical lyrics: “Clap in your hands, happy happy happy, put them both on your grumpy head, that’s how the boats sail by.” (Actions: clap hands, put hands on head, sway from side to side). She started off by watching you do the actions, then when the song is over she starts clapping and putting her hands on her head – she even does the swaying. Now, she will suddenly turn to you with a twinkle in her eye and put her hands on her head. The meaning is clear: can we sing the song?

This is the start. From here on out we’re going to find out what she is thinking and feeling, how she is interpreting the world around her. I can’t wait to see what her next words will be, what she finds important enough or exciting enough to vocalise.

She has started waking up at night again. I’m sure there is a reason – teething, or just a busy brain from her research into speech and motion – and that it will pass again, but just for now, we are spending several hours at night cuddling and shushing and calpolling and feeding her again. A few nights ago she couldn’t settle at bedtime. Tossing and turning, huffing and crying, rubbing her eyes and that high pitched wail that means: “I am too tired for this.” Finally, she succumbed to sleep, cradled in my arms. She closed her eyes, and muttered through sleepy lips: “Mama”.

 

Linking up to Magic Moments.