As sickness took over my life at the weekend (the boys all seem to have escaped it so far…), I’m a bit behind with this week’s funee round-up. But Andrew was on top form, making me laugh with his cute-isms when I really wasn’t feeling like laughing otherwise 🙂
If you’ve been reading these posts for a while, you’ll probably remember Andrew’s encounter with a fire alarm at the local Children’s Centre. Ever since that day he has become a toddler on a mission to spot every fire alarm in the whole world! He regularly points them out to me in places that I would never have noticed them. Just recently he has spotted a few “black fire alarms” – these aren’t the usual colour, which is of course red. He’s seen these on the bus, and also on a building just by the bus stop that we wait at if we get the bus home from town – this building is the magistrate’s court. I’ve had to break it to him that this black variety are in fact not fire alarms – they are CCTV cameras instead! I’m not sure he really understands that concept, but I think he’s just about understood that they are video cameras. If anyone does have the pleasure of watching them, they’ll have plenty of footage of Andrew pointing at them and rabbiting on.
On Saturday morning, Daddy explained to Andrew that he was going to take both boys out to ‘Daddy and me club’ at a local church, which they haven’t been to for a while for various reasons. This club is a brilliant Dad and toddler group that runs on the first Saturday of every month, and is a great way for the three of them to spend time together and give me some time on my own at home. Andrew took in this information about where they were going, and then later, when they were about to leave and I asked him where they were going, he said “golf club…. might be Granny and Grandad there!” I giggled and told him that he was right about the word ‘club’, but this wasn’t the same kind of club as the golf ones. You see he’s come across golf clubs in Granny and Grandad’s garden (hence their mention in his reply above) more frequently than he’s come across other kinds of club so far. Grandad has even sawn down an old club of Uncle Matt’s to just Andrew’s height, so he’s had lots of fun hitting balls in random directions with it!
Before he goes to bed, Andrew has a little routine: bath > potty and Thomas story > tidy up toys > mummy milk > teeth brushing > Bible story in bed > bedtime book in bed. That might seem like a lot of stories, but he loves books, and each one doesn’t take that long in itself. The ‘bedtime book’ is a small board book with a touchy feely bit on each page, and it goes through various things associated with going to bed (pyjamas, teddy, teddy, cot etc.) Andrew has heard it so many times that he now ‘reads’ it himself, turning each page and saying the words perfectly as he does, all by himself. However, the other day, disaster struck and the paper on the front board cover, which has been loose since we got it secondhand, ripped off as it was picked up the wrong way. Andrew’s response was: “Oh no, the skin’s all ripped off!” I love the fact that his mind is very logical and made the link between his skin or fruit skin and the book’s ‘skin’ – they are similar after all!
One morning Andrew and I had been talking a bit of French (well I was doing most of the talking and he was answering my questions in English in his usual fashion). He then went over to Daddy with a basket of blocks, which he’d been pretending were fruits, and asked him: “Do you want an orange, Daddy?” Nothing unusual about that you might think… but he said “orange” the French way! (It’s a bit hard to convey that funee in text, it’s much better spoken out loud, the spelling is the same in both languages!) Daddy, whose French isn’t up to much, said ‘thank you’.
And finally, one evening Joel was getting tired and hungry for dinner, which he showed in a very vocal way by whinging and then crying if I dared to move out of his sight to start cooking. At one point, just as the sound effects took on a new crescendo, an ice cream van came up the road, of course playing its loud Greensleeves tune. Andrew turned to Joel and said, rather loudly in his face (which was necessary to be heard): “Don’t worry Joel, it’s just an ice cream van, just an ice cream van!” Now that’s called being a good big brother, reassuring his little bro that these ice cream vans that plague the area really are harmless!
For over a month now, Andrew has been saying his very first words. According to the NHS ‘Birth to Five’ book, which gives average ages that children tend to reach milestones of development, this is at the later end of average for starting to talk. But as Andrew was an early walker (just before his 1st birthday), I wasn’t expecting that he would talk particularly early, because it’s often the case that babies and toddlers are early at gaining some skills and later at gaining others compared to their typically-developing peers. It’s like their brains seem to concentrate on one big thing to the detriment of other big things, until the first thing is sorted and then other things get a look in. I’ll give you a run through of his first words, and add some notes to each of them, sometimes referring to ‘techie’ terms – ones that I’ve learned through studying phonetics/linguistics – but hopefully explaining them well enough in everyday words too.
His first word was ‘bye-bye’, which he says something more like ‘ba-ba’, with a short ‘a’ instead of the double vowel (or ‘diphthong’ in techie speak) that I and other British English speaking adults use. His vowel here is slowly becoming more like mine compared to when he first said the word. This is a very useful word that gets used every morning when he waves to Daddy and/or me as we go to work, plus on other occasions like when we leave a group.
His second recognisable word was ‘ball’, which he says something more like ‘buh’, with no ‘l’ and a short vowel instead of the long vowel that adults use. But it clearly refers to ‘ball’, one of his favourite toys to play with wherever he is (including in the park when older kids are trying to have a game of football…) – I can tell because he consistently points to balls and says ‘buh’. He generally likes the sound ‘b’, as his ‘buh’ has now extended to also mean ‘balloon’ (which to be fair is pretty similar to a ball in shape) and ‘bird’. Again he will consistently point to these things and say ‘buh’, as well as using the sign (as in sign language) when he points to bird.
The next few words came about the same time; I can’t really say in which particular order. The word he now says the most on a daily basis must be ‘car’, which he says with a consonant produced slightly further back in the mouth than adults do – what I would call a ‘uvular plosive’ (instead of a ‘velar plosive’), so it sounds a bit like the ‘guttural’ sounds we associate with French ‘r’ sounds or Swiss German or Arabic. Over time this will become more English-sounding, and in the meantime I think it’s great that he can naturally use sounds that native English-speaking adults find hard to produce because they don’t use them in English. He points and says the word ‘car’ constantly as we walk anywhere next to roads, as he plays with his toy garage, and as we read books featuring cars. In fact he says car for pretty much any vehicle with wheels! Buses, lorries, vans – all cars in Andrew’s world. Bikes or motorbikes don’t seem to get this treatment, but he doesn’t consistently come out with anything else for these. Of course I encourage him when he says ‘car’, and then I go on to specify what it is if it’s not actually a car. One day he’ll figure this all out, but for now this ‘overextension’ (as is the techie term) is a normal part of language development. The classic example is when children use the word ‘dog’ to mean any four-legged, furry animal. This phenomenon happens across languages, not just in English, so it seems to be a general part of language acquisition, though researchers haven’t quite figured out exactly why it happens. It does show, however, that children initially categorise objects rather than simply label them, and then work towards being more specific in their initial categories.
Another word that he uses a lot is ‘shoes’. He says this as something like ‘shuhz’, so you hear mainly the two consonant ‘sh’ and ‘z’ sounds (what I would call ‘fricatives’) with a very short kind of non-descript vowel in the middle (a high central vowel that adults don’t use in English). This word is very useful for him, because he uses ‘shoes’ as a signal to let us know that he wants to go out – he brings them to us, repeating the word ‘shoes’ several times until we put them on, and then goes and stands by the front door to show that he wants to go out. Of course this isn’t always appropriate (like when I’m still in my pyjamas having got him sorted but not myself!), but he does love putting his shoes on and going out. In fact he also likes putting our shoes on and attempting to walk around constantly repeating the word ‘shoes’…. not always successfully in the case of my 2-inch-heeled mules!
Two little but powerful words he likes to use are ‘yeah’ and ‘no’. He seems to use ‘yeah’ for everything from everyday questions like ‘shall we get you dressed?’ (not his favourite activity) to questions about things he’s really excited about, like’ would you like to go to the park?’. Both his ‘yeah’ and his ‘no’ are now very adult-like, though ‘no’ started of as something more like ‘doh’, in which the vowel was pretty accurate, but the consonant wasn’t very nasal. I knew he meant ‘no’ though, because it was always accompanied by a shake of the head and usually happened just after I’ve said no to him!
One of his most recent additions was flower – he came out with this at my cousin’s wedding after several people were pointing the pretty flowers out to him, and ever since he’s been able to point them out himself. His version doesn’t sound exactly like flower, it’s more like ‘wa-wa’, but it’s obvious that this is what he means as he points to one.
Although animal sounds aren’t technically words, I would like to quickly mention that his favourite animals to point out are ‘cow’, ‘dog’ and ‘duck’ – which he calls ‘moo’ (somewhere between ‘moo’ and ‘boo’ actually), ‘urh urh’ (trying to say ‘woof woof’ but actually sounding more like a real bark than ‘woof’!) and ‘quack’ (more like ‘kack’). His productions of cow and duck (‘moo/boo’ and ‘kack’) are always accompanied by the sign language for each, which interestingly are also quite approximate compared to those that I make with my hands. I must write a post specifically on babysigning one day (I keep saying that and never get around to it….) For some reason he seems less bothered about making the dog sign with his bark. Although he doesn’t seem to overextend the word dog (as in the example I gave above), he does seem to overextend the word ‘moo’ – generally it refers to cows (we see them quite often on the fields near us), but he’s also used it for horse (which I think he’s just about picking up the sign for now, so using ‘moo’ less often) and elephant! So it seems it can apply to any big mammal.
I’m not quite sure why, but he often makes a sound like ‘ts’ when pointing at things that he can’t yet say the word for. As he points, I of course say the word of the object he’s pointing at, and one day he’ll have heard it enough times and be able to produce the right sounds to say it himself. Generally he likes making sounds like ‘sh’ and ‘ssss’ (what I’d call ‘fricatives’ in techie speak) all over the place, when I can’t always tell if there’s something specific he’s trying to refer to.
For anyone who remembers me writing about trilingual adventures before, here’s an update on where I’m at with introducing French and German as well as English. I’m still saying three words (one in each language) to him as we sit and read through books or point out things around the house or when we’re out and about. More recently I’ve decided to have two ‘French’ days and two ‘German’ days a week when I’m with him all day (I’m at work for the other 2.5 days), when I speak the relevant language to him when it’s just the two of us. So today is a ‘German’ day, and as we’ve walked to the shops and to groups, I’ve talked to him in German, pointing out things along the way, or making general small talk (as you do, talking to your toddler who can’t talk back, much!) Lunch was ‘Mittagessen’ and I’ve changed his ‘Windel’ instead of nappy etc. So far he’s only producing English words (or words that sound like English words). BUT, he clearly understands a lot in French and German, given how he reacts when I talk to him in either language. For example, when I ask him ‘Wo ist das Auto?’ or ‘Ou est-elle, la voiture?’ (‘Where’s the car?’), he’ll point and say ‘car’ in answer to my question. Amazing! He does this with various things, not just cars. It’s so fascinating to see the fact that he’s picking up more than one language without even thinking about it.
This leads on to an interesting point about language acquisition: the fact that he can understand a lot more (in English) than he can currently say. I’m finding that I can say some quite complicated sentences, for example give him instructions to do something like bring me his ball or put his sun hat back on, and he consistently does what I ask of him. If Tom and I are talking between us, not directly with him, and we happen to mention in passing something that he recognises, he’ll react to the word he’s heard in our speech, for example if we mentioned a dog, he’ll suddenly woof, even though we weren’t really aware he was listening to us. This has made me realise that I have to be careful now what I say. I hope that in general what I say is suitable for a toddler to hear and make sense of, but we all have days when we react and say something we wish we hadn’t – that’s the kind of thing I can just tell he’ll now pick up instantly!
I think I’ll leave this account of Andrew’s language acquisition journey here for now, but of course there’ll be much more to share over the coming months and years. You can probably tell, given my background in linguistics, that I find this all fascinating. Since Andrew was a baby, I’ve been recording him ‘talking’ – obviously this started of with baby sounds like gurgling and cooing, then babbling, and now some actual words (although capturing words on the recording is pretty difficult, because he’s aware of the recorder and then doesn’t produce them on cue like he would if it was just the two of us playing together – Observer’s Paradox, as Labov would say). These recordings are all waiting for me to sift through them and do anything specific with them – one day, if I ever get time to do that kind of thing. For now, just writing about what’s going on is interesting enough in my opinion.
Last week was an exciting time for me (and Andrew, though perhaps he didn’t feel it as much as me!) because my (no longer) baby suddenly started to show me that he recognised some words. That’s not to say he didn’t recognise them before; it’s hard to know exactly how much babies perceive from speech before they can physically respond to show they know what you’re talking about. It can be done though, in ‘lab’ conditions – experiments with babies have been designed, by getting them to turn their head to stimuli like speech sounds, or to suck on a dummy which is hooked up to computers that work out how fast they’re sucking and how their speed changes with the introduction and exit of stimuli. From these kinds of experiments, researchers have been able to figure out some of the earliest abilities to hear speech, even at just one or two days old. For example, we know that newborns recognise and prefer their mum’s voice to another similar female voice (de Casper 1980), and recognise and prefer listening to their ambient (to-be-native) language from others that are rhythmically different (Mehler et al. 1988, Nazzi et al. 1998). They’re not understanding specific words and their meanings at this age, of course, but rather the overall rhythm and intonation of the speech. They were hearing this for quite a while in the womb you see. This kind of research sounds fascinating to me, but hard work – it must take them ages to collect enough data whilst working with babies! Just think about all the times they’d need to stop for feeds/naps/nappy changes/just wanting to be with mum etc. Respect to those researchers, I say!
This little diversion into infant language recognition research (apart from showing you how cool it is) was to make the point that just because Andrew can’t speak recognisable words at the moment, it doesn’t mean he can’t understand anything. Last week was when this understanding was finally clear for me to see. We were sitting reading some Usborne Touchy-Feely ‘That’s not my…’ books. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading these, firstly let me highly recommend them. They’re brilliant for reading with babies and toddlers, as there are ‘touchy-feely’ patches of fabric or other materials for them to explore with their fingers. Secondly, let me tell you that they all have a little mouse on each page, blending in with the pictures (for example, he has a snorkel in one of the Penguin scenes…!) This means you can ask your toddler ‘Where is the mouse?’ each time they turn a page, and it gives a consistent point of reference for them to learn. This is exactly what I’d been doing with Andrew for a while, and pointing to the mouse myself. Last week was the first time that he consistently pointed to the mouse on each page himself! It was a proud moment 🙂
Even more so because I’d been doing this with him in three languages, and he not only pointed at the mouse, but also la souris and die Maus on each page. As I studied French and German for my BA, Masters and PhD, I’d always said that I would introduce these languages alongside English to my kids. During the research I did for my Masters dissertation, which was about adult bilinguals living in Switzerland, I learnt that it is easier for young kids to learn multiple languages than it is for adults once a native language is well and truly acquired. Some people do learn other languages to a near-native standard in adulthood, but this is less common than kids who pick up more than one language in childhood and speak them to native standard (for their age at every point).
As we live in the UK, and Tom only speaks English, of course Andrew is going to get much more exposure to English than he will to French and German. Whenever the two of us are home alone, I speak some French, some German and some English to him. When we’re playing with something, for example the ball, I will say to him things like ‘That’s a ball’, ‘The ball is blue’, ‘Where’s the ball?’, ‘Can you throw me the ball?’ in one of the three languages. I usually concentrate on one language for each period of time that we’re playing, but I do mix them up a bit too. For example, if we’re sitting looking at an animal book, I’ll say the word for the animal in the three languages whilst we’re on that page, and then the same for the animal on the next page.
Does this confuse him, you might wonder? Well our adult brains might think it’s confusing, as they have been shaped and molded into what they are today over several years; they’ve become set in their ways. The baby and toddler brain, however, is still being shaped and molded into what it will be one day. It has no concept that there is ‘ONE’ language or ‘TWO’ languages or any other specific number of these things we call ‘languages’, but rather it’s hearing all these sounds coming out of people’s mouths, and trying to figure out what it all means; for all it knows there could be a gazillion languages that it has to figure out. Why should a toy have one particular name and not three? That’s a monolingual adult way of thinking, which has been cemented into the brain over years of only knowing one word for that toy.
Will Andrew be trilingual? Maybe, maybe not – it partly depends what you mean by trilingual (perfect native speech in three languages is one extreme of a continuum of multilingualism). I do not personally claim to be native in 3 languages, so he’ll only be getting native-like input in one, and fluent input in the other two. My main aim is to give him an awareness that there is more than one of these things called languages out there in the world. By the time he gets to school, I hope he will have a more open outlook on languages than the view I was often confronted with at school – ‘Why do you want to study languages when everyone else speaks English?’ (actual comment by my GCSE Maths teacher who wanted me to take his A-level). Yes lots of people in the world speak English, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make an effort to learn other languages too, and shape my brain differently from many native English speakers. In fact from a global perspective, bilingualism is more normal than you might think. There are more bi- and multi-linguals in the world than monolinguals, and many of these will have learnt two or more languages in childhood (another thing I learnt during my Masters research from a book called The Bilingualism Reader).
Most importantly in this language development adventure of Andrew is that I’m making it as fun as possible, as with all areas of development that I can play a part in. He loves singing, clapping and dancing to songs and rhymes, so I bought a CD of French nursery rhymes and kids songs, and we’re about to be given a German one by some friends, though I’ve been using YouTube in the meantime. Just like he can listen to English rhymes and songs at the various music and play groups we go to, he can hear other languages blasting out of the stereo at home. We were also given a bilingual French-English toy piano that plays tunes and talks about colours and shapes when you press the keys. He loves playing with that, especially now he’s really into pressing any button he can lay his fingers on! Another option I have is reading books in French and German to him, which we bought on Amazon, were given, or borrow from the library, for example Monsieur Bavard (Mr Chatterbox from The Mr Men and Little Miss range) and Die Kleine Raupe Nimmersatt (The Very Hungry Caterpillar). His attention span is still quite limited, so at the moment it’s more effective to just read his simple English board books with things like numbers, animals, shapes, toys etc. to him in French and German. My translation skills are good enough for that!
Is anyone out there raising their kids bilingually? Do you find other parents generally view it positively or negatively? I haven’t had much discussion either way with others yet. Apart from with our friends who are Swiss and German living in the UK, so their child (a bit older than Andrew) is in full swing with acquiring three languages: Swiss German and German at home (believe me, they are different languages) and English at nursery and playgroups. We meet each week to speak English and German with our kids. It’s great fun all round, and needless to say we’re all very positive about mixing and matching our languages 🙂
This post has been on my (never ending) to-do list for aaaages! It occurred to me that the linguist part of who I am might not be as immediately obvious as other parts. I mean you’re no doubt aware exactly what a home-baker, a craft lover and a swimmer are, but do you know what I mean by a linguist? Usually I find that people’s responses to ‘I’m a linguist’ are something like, ‘oh that’s nice’ or ‘OK I see’, but I can almost see their brain thinking it through, saying ‘I know it’s something to do with language, but I actually don’t have a clue beyond that, and it would be awkward if I let on!’ So if you can imagine yourself in this scenario, let me help you out.
The other response I get, if not the one above, is ‘ah, so how many languages do you speak then?’ In my case I can actually say that I speak a few languages (though how you define being able ‘to speak’ a language is not a clear-cut thing – I’ll come back to this later). But speaking several languages is not necessarily a prerequisite of being a linguist. Let me begin to explain why.
The word linguist is often used amongst (undergraduate) students to mean someone who is studying a foreign language (or languages), and this usually means they are learning to speak and write the language(s) to an even higher standard than they did at school, and they’re probably taking various courses as part of their degree, like, for example, translation, literature, and history/politics/geography etc. of the country (-tries) where the languages are spoken. I know this because I was once one of these ‘linguist’ students: I did a BA in French and German at Nottingham University, and graduated with a fluent level of spoken and written language in both, having also learned along the way some random facts about the history of France, the ins and outs of Satre’s Existentialism, what politics in Austria is like, and how the Berlin Wall came to be built and knocked down. All very interesting (well actually not allthat interesting I found) but my favourite extra courses beyond getting on with learning the languages in more detail were those which came into the category of ‘Linguistics’.
This Linguistics thing can be simply defined as ‘the science of language’, but does that really explain what it is? Not sure…. It’s about studying the ‘make-up’ of a language, without necessarily learning to speak/write it for the purpose of communication with a particular community of speakers. What do I mean by ‘make-up’? Nothing to do with Max Factor or Maybelline, what I mean is its structure, what it’s made up from, how it’s made up. This has several levels, from sounds as small as individual vowels and consonants (in technical jargon – phonetics and phonology), to parts of words like the -ing ending (<– like here ‘end’+’ing’) (more technical jargon – morphology), to parts of sentences and whole sentences (the wonderful world of syntax – note the irony in my ‘voice’ there), to the meaning of words both on their own and in wider contexts and specific situations (semantics and pragmatics). And someone who studies any of this lot is a LINGUIST – there we go, I’ve finally got to the word. Although it usually helps to know how to speak the language you’re studying in this way, if nothing else for getting by on field trips in another country, it’s not absolutely essential, because what you’re more interested in is figuring out some detail of its sound/word/sentence structure etc. than being able to converse with other speakers of it.
In my case, I’m a sounds girl. Ever since I took some French and German linguistics courses for my BA, I realised that I loved finding out all about the sounds of languages, including how they are produced in the mouth, how they differ within one country (e.g. different accents of a language), and how they change over time. After I graduated, I knew that I wanted to carry on and study for a Masters in Linguistics, so I took a year out to figure out exactly which course would be best for my interests. In the end Cambridge University was my preferred option, and after a brief interview that I didn’t even know was coming on the day I was informally looking around the department, I was in. The Masters (MPhil) course started with doing a bit of all sorts of areas of linguistics, and then allowed me to specialise in phonetics (which is about the sounds of speech) for my dissertation. I chose to compare the consonants spoken by monolingual and bilingual speakers of French and German in Switzerland. If you’re interested, you can read all about my MPhil research here. After that I thought it would be a good idea to carry on with the research as I enjoyed it, so I applied to do a PhD, got funding, and so spent the next 2 and a half years researching how speakers of French and German in Switzerland hear rhythm in speech. Again, if you’re interested, here are some articles and my thesis (warning: not for the faint-hearted reader!)
That was a bit of a digression off the main point about what linguistics is, but I thought it best to explain my background and where I’m coming from. When you get into the nitty gritty of phonetics, the sounds of speech, it’s actually a rather obviously scientific area of studying. As I started to study speech production and perception (how we speak and hear speech) for my MPhil, I found myself revising basics concepts of Physics and Biology that I hadn’t looked at since school. For my MPhil and PhD research I worked with ‘real data’ – looking at acoustic waveforms and spectrograms (aka pretty pictures of recorded speech) on computers, measuring various statistics, and devising ‘experiments’ to try and figure out how listeners hear certain aspects of speech by playing them particular recorded sounds/sentences and analysing their responses.
In doing all this it became clear to me what I thought all along at school but didn’t quite know what to do about it then: I’m actually a scientist, but one who also has an aptitude for languages, precisely because I approach them in a very ‘scientific’ way. At school I never enjoyed English literature, history or human geography, but my favourite subjects were languages (we did French and German at my school) and sciences (including biology, chemistry and physical geography). I was unusual for my time in my school for taking mixed A-Levels: French, German and Biology (this was just before the new-fangled AS system thing came in to encourage this mixing of subjects). Later as an undergraduate, once I’d seen that I could in fact marry these two loves of languages and science, I knew that linguistics (and more specifically phonetics) was my thing. A good friend of mine, who did her PhD at the same time as me in the Phonetics Lab (look, we even call it a ‘lab’!) put it very nicely when she said that we’re not linguists, but ‘Speech Scientists’. I see her point too.
Just after finishing my PhD I was offered a job as a Research Associate (similar work to my PhD, but I get paid :)) in a Psychology lab. One of the main reasons I was employed was because my boss felt that some phonetics input into the lab’s research on language impairments would be valuable, because the backgrounds of people already there were in psychology and neuroscience. So now I find myself well and truly integrated into the world of scientific research in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University. If you’re up for it, here’s some info on what we do.
I hope this journey through what linguistics is has been enjoyable and enlightening. What did you think linguistics was before you read this? Were you far off? To finish I thought I’d leave you with a funny (to me!) picture that I saw recently on Facebook: it hits the nail right on the head! (Except I don’t agree with the ‘What I think I do’ one – it’s Noam Chomsky, a famous Linguist, but I don’t do anything along the lines of his work, nor do I aspire to do so. You have to be a linguist to understand why, and I’m not going into it here.)