Look Mummy, I made a number 2! – wot so funee?

Where did that last week go?! I’m totally out of sync with days; we had a short week last week and this week, as we got back from holiday mid-week and then the bank holiday this week. So I’m writing this round-up of the week’s toddler-isms quickly on Tuesday morning.

Andrew is very keen to point out these days that he is a ‘big boy’, in contrast to Joel who is a baby or little boy. When we arrived at one of our local Children’s Centres on Friday morning for a group, he wanted to make this matter clear too: ‘We’re at the Children’s Centre, also the Big Boys’ centre’

As I type the two ‘the’s there, that reminds me that he’s doing an interesting thing when he says this word now. As you’ve probably realised from your own speech, there are two ways of pronouncing ‘the’ in running speech – one with a kind of ‘uh’ vowel, which almost blends into other words and you hardly hear it, and one that sounds like the old-fashioned word ‘thee’. He hasn’t been using the word ‘the’ much until recently, which is normal for language acquisition, those small words tend to come after they start saying the nouns that they go with. Now he is using it, he mostly uses the ‘thee’ pronunciation, which sounds really weird to me, because it makes the ‘the’s stand out much more than in my speech where there seems to be a more even mix of both pronunciations. I presume he has heard this from us, as this pronunciation is more prominent than the ‘uh’ one, and he has stuck to one for now; I’m sure the other will come in time, it’s just very interesting linguistically at the moment.

Another interesting thing that we’ve noticed recently is his use of ‘yesterday’ to mean any day or time in the past, and ‘tomorrow’ to mean any day or time in the future. This is generally understandable, though can cause some confusion if I’m not quite on the ball.

I haven’t written much about our adventures in languages other than English recently, because what he comes out with himself is mostly English. When asked questions in French or German, he clearly understands (most of the time) because he replies in English with a correct or plausible answer. He does randomly start counting in French or German at times, and he sings along to the CDs we have in these languages. I doubt he has a clue what he’s singing about half the time, just like many old English nursery rhymes make no sense to a toddler! But one thing that I know he knows is ‘häschen hüpf’ (‘hop little rabbit’) which he likes to say when he jumps. It was funny when he randomly asked me ‘was ist das?’ the other day though, rather than his usual ‘wassat?’ – his most favourite question in the whole world at the moment.

We had a comedy moment at dinner time one day this week….

  • Andrew: jabbering on in ‘googoo gaga’ language, trying to imitate Joel’s babbling
  • Me (quietly to myself, not expecting him to hear): what are you on?!
  • Andrew: erm, a seat!
  • Daddy: haha, that’s brilliant Andrew! Turns to me… See, it shows he understanded
  • Me: haha, now you’ve forgotten how to speak English!

And finally, I can’t forget Andrew’s first ‘written’ funee (which is where the ‘wot so funee’ linky started)….

‘Look Mummy, I made a number 2!’ (Of course I’m biased, but I think this use of some garden gravel is brilliant for a 2.5 year old!)

Number 2

Wot So Funee?

When in Germany, speak German – wot so funee?

As a birthday present for me, my parents organised and paid for the four of us and them to go away for a long weekend this week. The destination was the village where a good friend of mine lives in Germany. We have known each other since we were paired up for the exchange that was organised by our schools when we were just 14 years old (doing the maths, that means I’ve now just about known her for longer in my life than I didn’t know her!) We got on very well during our first visits to each other’s homes through the school trips, and then we kept in touch and stayed with each other on various occasions and our families have too. My family and I went to her wedding and vice versa, and this was the first time that our kids met each other.

This was also the first time that my boys went on a plane. Of course Andrew was very excited, and absolutely loved the experience. We thought that he might get a bit frightened when the engines powered up and the plane shook for take off, but he laughed and shouted: “it’s like a rocket!” He’s watched countless rocket launch videos on youtube after Grandad once showed him one! I was sat on the other side of the plane with Joel, who managed to fall asleep feeding during take off on both legs of the journey, but Daddy and Grandad, who had the pleasure of sitting in the vicinity of a very excitable toddler, recounted how he had been during the flight once we’d landed.

As all 6 of us couldn’t easily fit into my friend’s house for staying the night, we stayed over at a local hotel, which was an old castle – Schloss Hotel. It was really interesting seeing the (relatively) modern rooms inside what was a very old building from the outside. When we’d pulled up in the car park and Andrew was standing with me and Joel as the others unloaded the hire car of luggage, he looked up at one of the turrets and said: “it’s like a rocket!” Bit of a rocket theme going on here! He does generally say that a building is like a rocket if it is tall and stretches up into the sky – he says the same thing about the tower on the church we go to for example.

Schloss Hotel, Friedewald: it’s like a rocket!!

After we’d deposited our bags, done a bit of shopping for essential supplies, and the boys had had a nap, we headed back to my friend’s house to spend the late afternoon and early evening with them. We pulled up on the drive, where we had parked earlier when we’d first arrived before her husband had showed us the way to the hotel. Andrew let out an excited: “Here’s Germany again!” He’d obviously understood that my friend’s house, the central place of our visit, was in fact this place called “Germany” that we’d been talking about all week before we went. We’d been telling him that we were going on a plane, and that we’d travel to a place called Germany. In his mind, it was just the end destination that was Germany, not the whole country. But then why should he have a concept of a “country” yet? He’s not been abroad until now, and even now he’s done it, I’m not sure he understands that we live in one country and we went to another country on holiday.

And I can’t forget the snippets of interesting German-English interaction that involved Andrew. One funny moment occurred when we were at my friend’s parents’ house and her sisters and their children came for Kaffee and Kuchen (German equivalent of afternoon tea) on Saturday. There was a big table for the adults and a small kiddy-sized picnic table where Andrew and another little boy and girl were. Andrew had recently had a drink in a Very Hungry Caterpillar beaker, and was enthusiastically explaining this fact to the other two children. After a minute or so of rabbiting on to them, the little boy looked up to the table of adults and said “was sagt er?” (“what’s he saying?”) as if Andrew was from another planet or something, which we all found hilarious! It was interesting though, that despite the fact that they were both speaking different languages to each other, it didn’t matter – the universal language of play meant they all had fun chasing each other around the garden and getting wet with the various water games on offer.

Although Andrew understands a fair amount of German when I ask him questions, inevitably he can be quite shy in speaking it when we ask him to in front of others. But by the end of the weekend he was impressing everyone with his counting to ten in German, sometimes on demand and sometimes whenever he happened to randomly think about it! He also got the hang of “Danke” (“thank you”) – when he said it to the lovely lady in charge of breakfast at the hotel, she thought it was the cutest thing ever 🙂 Charmer!

Wot So Funee?

Mr Chatterbox

It’s about time that i wrote another update on Andrew’s language development and shared a few videos that I’ve taken of him talking recently. He’s become quite a little chatterbox; sometimes it seems like he’s never without something to say, either commenting on what’s going on, or recounting a past experience he had, or asking us a question. It’s amazing how he’s gone from just single words and pairs of words to whole strings of several words in the space of just a few months. His word strings are not often what we would think of as grammatically correct sentences, but nevertheless they convey the message he intended more often than not.

The other Mr Chatterbox

His ‘sentences’ mostly sound like orders, for example ‘Daddy eat Shredded Wheat’ or ‘Mummy sit there’, but in many cases what he really means – we can tell from the context – is what we would use the present continuous tense for, so ‘Daddy is eating Shredded Wheat’ or ‘Mummy is sitting there’ for the two examples given here. Sometimes, however, he clearly does mean an order, his favourite being a very clear ‘Andrew do it!’ when we try to do something for him but he’s having none of it and desperately wants to do it himself, or there are a few occasions that he admits defeat and demands that ‘Mummy do it’ 🙂 A particularly interesting case is when he says ‘Mummy/Daddy wake up now’, which usually seems to mean either ‘Mummy/Daddy is awake now’ or ‘Mummy/Daddy just got me out of bed’ – it’s interesting how he doesn’t quite understand, or at least can’t communicate, the difference between the process of waking or getting up and actually being awake.

He does have some short grammatically correct sentences; the most noticeable and regularly uttered ones are ‘What’s that?’ and ‘There it is!’. It’s so cute when he finds what he’s been looking for and excitedly proclaims ‘There it is!’, and he’s very curious and keen to learn what things are, so the question ‘What’s that?’ is very useful to him. We haven’t reached the ‘Why?’ stage yet, but I have a feeling it won’t be too long before he begins to question us using this word all the time! Can’t wait (not)!

Talking of questions, he clearly understands when we are asking a question, I suspect from the intonation, as the pitch rises at the end of the utterance, and if he doesn’t know the answer or doesn’t understand exactly what we asked, he stock answer is ‘Yes’. He’s pretty good at saying please and thank you, but if he’s not said it and we’d like him to, we just have to repeat what he asked for, such as ‘more Shreddies’ with a rising pitch at the end, as if to say ‘what do you say….more Shreddies ‘what’?’ and he appends the word please onto the end. So that’s how I’m guessing he understands when we’re asking a question from the rising intonation. Interestingly, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are the last vestiges of his baby signing – as he says the word he still signs it too.

When he’s asked what something is and we tell him, he has a go at repeating it himself, and he varies in how accurate he is depending on how difficult the word is to say. It’s a bit like having a parrot as he copies what we say! Often he’ll also just repeat something we said without having asked us what it is – that feels even more like we have a resident parrot, and you have to be really careful what you say! He has a tendency to be very cheeky and noisy just as Tom is doing the bedtime routine with him once he’s had mummy milk, and clearly Tom has told him to calm down several times because now he just spontaneously comes out with ‘calm down, calm down’ as they go into his bedroom before Tom has said anything. Often he’ll say things later that he heard somewhere earlier but didn’t say at the time.

The number of words he now knows is too many to count, and increases by the day. It’s incredible to watch this sudden explosion in vocabulary, which now includes nouns, verbs, adjectives and more. He’s particularly into his colours and numbers, and can spend quite a long time counting things and telling us their colours when we read or do other things that we do regularly in daily life. Reading books is one of his favourite activities, especially when it’s with Daddy who can give him undivided attention whilst I’m feeding Joel. We read the most when he’s sat on the potty or toilet after meal times and before bed. He still likes flicking through his board books and looking through the pictures, but he also likes us to read big boys book with paper pages and a real story. I’m sure that all the reading is extremely helpful in his language development.

In a previous blog post about Andrew’s language development, I wrote about ‘overextension’ – a while ago he would say ‘car’ for all four-wheeled vehicles and ‘moo’ for cows, horses and other large furry mammals. His vocab has extended in theses areas, so now he no longer overextends the meaning of ‘car’ and ‘moo’ but differentiates between car, lorry, bus etc. and cow, horse etc. Interestingly he now overextends the meaning of ‘football’ to all balls, even though he used to say ‘ball’ (or ‘buh’) for all balls. He’s obviously learned ‘football’ (no doubt because the neighbours’ children kicked one over into the flats’ communal garden and he’s played with it lots as they don’t seem to be looking for it), and now he thinks that this applies to all balls. Of course we don’t use the word ‘football’ when we talk about different types of balls, so eventually he’ll figure it out, just as he did for vehicles and animals. Even more interesting in his understanding of balls is that he’s started saying ‘tennis football’ for tennis ball; so he’s specifying a certain type of ball (a tennis one) but not quite getting that ‘football’ is also a certain type of ball, a different type from a tennis ball.

Generally his sounds are much more accurate than they were, and it’s quite easy to tell most of the time what he’s saying. There are some occasions though when he says something over and over and we just can’t tell what he’s saying. The recent one that sticks in my mind is ‘bassle’ – he kept saying it over and over, usually before another word but sometimes on its own as I asked him to repeat it so I could try and work out what it was by making suggestions, none of which he said ‘yes’ to, which is what he says when you repeat back to him correctly what he just said. Then a few days later, suddenly the context made me think he meant ‘special’ and when I repeated this back to him, out came a hearty ‘YES!’, as if to say ‘finally Mummy, you’ve got it!’ ‘Bassle’ isn’t a bad attempt at ‘special’ – the consonant cluster ‘sp’ is hard for toddlers, who tend to take a while to get the hang of it, the vowel isn’t far off as they are both produced with the tongue at the front of the mouth but in ‘e’ it’s a bit higher than in ‘a’, and ‘s’ instead of ‘sh’ is another thing that takes a while to get the hang of and I hear this in other words too, for example ‘shops’ sounds more like ‘sops’.

The sound that seems most comical in its inaccuracy is the ‘i’ sound when it precedes an ‘l’ sound as in ‘milk’ or ‘builder’ – both are words he says a lot (the latter when referring to a certain guy called Bob with a yellow hard hat!) For this he says something more like ‘mowk’ or ‘bowder’ with the ‘o’ similar to that in ‘pot’ (anyone want to watch Bob the Boulder?! Sounds like a fascinating programme!) I’m guessing this is fairly common in toddler acquirers of English, though I haven’t specifically read about it, as it makes sense to me when I think about how and where the sounds are produced in the mouth. First, it’s quite common for English speakers, particularly in certain accents like Cockney in London, to ‘vocalise’ ‘l’ sounds after vowels – this means that they say the ‘l’ sound like a vowel which is produced with the tongue at the back and near the top of the mouth, so we hear something like ‘miwk’ instead of ‘milk’. The ‘i’ sound in ‘milk’ is produced with the tongue at the front of the mouth. The ‘o’ vowel that Andrew is saying is ‘assimilating’ to the vocalised ‘l’, which means that during the vowel his tongue is anticipating the position it needs to be in for the vocalised ‘l’ after it, and therefore the vowel is produced at the back of the mouth, hence the ‘mowk’ pronunciation instead of ‘milk’ with the vowel at the front of the mouth.

Although most of what he comes out with is English, I do catch glimpses of the French and German that he clearly understands. The other day he spontaneously started counting in French, and one of his favourite books to read with us is the ‘First Thousand Words in German’ that we were given as a present from some Swiss/German friends – his favourite page is the ‘Küche’ page, which shows a rather messy kitchen with all sorts of things in it to learn the words of, and which he asks to read in German by repeating ‘Küche, Küche’ until we do, even though Tom is reluctant to read it with him. I have to admit that I’ve been less consistent in speaking French and German to him since Joel was born, mainly because I find my mind has so many other things to keep on top of that I simply forget or don’t have the energy to put my thoughts into actions. I did use some of Andrew’s Christmas money to buy some DVDs in French and German though, so he now excitedly watches Feuerwehrman Sam, Bob der Baumeister, Thomas le petit train and Les Teletubbies! He has often been heard shouting back to the screen what he’s hearing in French and German, such as ‘Hilfe!’ and ‘Feuer!’ during Sam, and ‘Bonjour!’ and ‘Gros calin!’ during Teletubbies. I have a video of him reading a German book with Daddy but I’ve realised that he’s sat on the potty naked, as he often does when reading, and I don’t think he’d appreciate this going on youtube when he’s a bit older so I haven’t uploaded it; I’ll try to get a video of his trilingual talking when he’s got some clothes on!

I think that’s just about all I have to say on Andrew’s language for the moment, but I’m sure he will continue to develop at an amazingly fast rate and there will be more to record over the coming weeks and months. It’s so incredible to get an inkling of what’s going on in his mind now that more and more is coming out in the form of speech. It’s fascinating when you can see that he really wants to say something but sometimes it takes him a little while to come up with the words he needs to convey the message, and it’s almost as if you can see his mind working as he formulates and produces the speech. A-MA-ZING!

Baby talk

I only started blogging when Andrew was nearly a year old, so I didn’t blog anything about his early speech and language development. As Joel has been making some lovely noises with his vocal apparatus over the past month or so, I thought I’d start on my record of how his talking develops.

He doesn’t have a wide range of sounds yet, which is normal for his age of course, but what he does ‘say’ makes up for this in cuteness. As he smiles and laughs away at me, he does some impressive velar and uvular trills – techie speak for a kind of vibration of the very back of the tongue against the soft bit of the roof of the mouth at the back. They are similar to the sound we hear when French speakers say their ‘R’ sound, but his are much longer, going on for several vibrations rather than just a few; we don’t use this sound in English. At this age, babies can produce all sorts of sounds that may well not be part of the language (or languages) that they are surrounded by on a daily basis, which will become their native language(s). They are just playing around with their vocal apparatus and starting the process of figuring out which actions lead to which sounds.

The other sounds that he is making are various vowel sounds, again not all of them are recognisably English, but he’s opening his mouth into various shapes and sliding around from one vowel to another by moving his mouth in different ways. All this is accompanied by lots of smiling from him, and of course positive feedback from us, which makes him do it even more.

I’ve also started doing the sign for “milk” before I feed him, which is much earlier than I stared signing with Andrew because we didn’t go to a class until he was about 7 months old. But now that I know more about baby signing, I know that it’s never too early to start; even though he won’t sign back for a while, it’s all about laying the foundations for communication when he is able to coordinate his hands appropriately.

Before I know it he’ll be babbling away, so I’ll do another update when he’s producing even more cute sounds. I’m also going to write an update on where Andrew is at with language acquisition soon – he’s stringing more words together now, up to 4 or 5, and although they’re not grammatically correct sentences, they do make sense and convey what he wants to communicate. To think that he was not that long ago a gurgling baby like Joel is now! Amazing!

We have blast off! Toddler speech development

In the past couple of months my blog posts have been quite focused on pregnancy and baking. As I glance across to my sidebar whilst typing, I’m reminded that there are other categories that I like to write about. One of these is linguistics, and within the past month, just before Joel was born and since the birth, we’ve seen something that definitely fits into that category – Andrew’s speech development has suddenly hit blast off! He’s gone from saying just a few words to coming out with several new ones a day, and copying some of the words out of what we say with pretty amazing accuracy. I really need to watch what I say now, including those moments when it’s all going wrong and a potentially naughty word slips off my tongue before I know it.

In fact it’s not just us that he copies. The other day we were at a clinic to get discharged from midwife care for Joel. Andrew wasn’t the only toddler there, and at one point another little boy’s mum shouted across to him as he was messing with someone else’s car seat: “Riley, I’m watching you!” Andrew proceeded to say very loudly “Watch you!”, as I went a rather interesting shade of red and thought to myself: here beginneth years of embarrassment with toddler/child (deliberate) slips of the tongue. But hey, that’s part and parcel of having kids, and I’m sure I’ll be just as embarrassing for him one day.

Counting and naming colours whilst stacking pots - Daddy is explaining that we're currently missing number 9 of 10, a green pot, and we have no idea where it is!

Two things that he’s very into at the moment are numbers and colours. The best way to get him to demonstrate his abilities is with his set of 10 stacking pots. He happily counts the pots as he stacks them, sometimes getting carried away and counting faster than he can stack! Eight is often the number he slows down for and struggles with, though I’m not quite sure why – to me this combination of sounds doesn’t seem particularly harder than other numbers; maybe it’s the fact it starts with a vowel (? – only thing I can think of now). English is no problem for him now, and he’s even starting to say some of the French and German numbers; he can count to 10 in French, just about, though German is a bit slower to come as he only consistently says a few of those numbers (I have no idea why German should be slower than French). Another way he likes to practise counting is with the book Animal Airways – I’d definitely recommend this, it’s great! With each turn of the page, another group of animals is added, starting at one and ending up at 10.

Going back to the stacking pots, Andrew likes telling us the colours as he stacks them high. At first he started off with just the primary colours (red, blue, yellow) and green, and now he’s expanded to others including purple, orange, pink, black, white, grey etc. He’s now started putting a colour with a noun to describe objects, for example he’ll say “red car” or “blue cup” or “green tree”. To me this really makes him sound grown up!

There are other instances where he strings 2 or more words together, not just an adjective and noun pair like the colour examples. Since Tom has gone back to work after paternity leave last week, Andrew has said “Dada work” every morning when he’s gone. He’s figuring out possessives and says things like “Mama’s car” (I love the fact that he calls it my car!) and “Dada’s drink”; he’s starting to say mine and yours, but I think he gets them mixed up a lot, saying yours when he means mine and vice versa. The nicest example of word strings recently has been the phrase “Pop up and down” that he’s been saying a lot since last weekend. The story is that his paternal grandad, who he calls Pop, came to visit, and the place where we said goodbye to him when he had to catch the train back was at the lift, which Andrew calls an “up and down”, in John Lewis. So ever since, Andrew has kept saying “Pop up and down” to remind us that this is the last place he saw Pop before he left! We’ve even started to hear what is technically a full sentence: he says “It’s a [insert object name, e.g. ball]” when he’s naming some objects for us. This is probably one of the easiest sentences in English to start off with.

Until recently he didn’t say his own name, or so I thought, but it suddenly dawned on me one day that he was saying it, just not in a phonetically very accurate way! His version is something more like “A-tar” than “An-drew”. He’s learned his brother’s name very quickly, though the “J” sound is hard to say, so it sounds like “Dole”. In general, however, his pronunciation is getting more similar to adult speakers’ for the easier sounds. I was interested to hear him say “glasses” with a long “a” sound – he must have picked that up from Granny/Grandad or friends who say it like that, as both Tom and I say it with a short “a” sound, a northern rather than southern “a”.

A great action shot of the top pot falling off the stack. (The white thing in the foreground is the back of Joel's head!)

His first words were all one syllable long, and his first 2-syllable word was “flower” quite a while ago. Recently I’ve noticed many more 2-syllable words, including his name of course. Other examples include “Grandma” and “orange”. So far he’s not said any longer words, unless you count “up-and-down” as one word, which it apparently is in his mind. I find it interesting that all the 2-syllable words he says have stress on the first syllable – most English 2-syllable words have first-syllable stress – but he says “tar” for “guitar” which has second-syllable stress (it was originally from French), even when I repeat “guitar” back to him several times and ask him if he can say it, it’s still “tar” for him, so he’s basically only saying the stressed syllable.

Most words that he says are English, although he understands a lot more in French and German than he can produce. I can tell this from how he responds by pointing and talking back in English when I ask him things in French/German. Two words that he uses a lot are, however, “Baum” (German for tree) and “pap-pap” (French “papillion” for butterfly) instead of the English words. I’m guessing the “b” of Baum is easier for him than the “tr” of tree, and perhaps the song “vole, vole, vole papillion” that’s on our French CD can explain that preference?

I think that’s all I have to say about Andrew’s language for now, but I can imagine that it will continue to develop quickly over the coming months and there will be lots more to say pretty soon. I’m finding it fascinating to witness first hand the incredible journey that is a child going from gurgling baby to fully fledged chatterbox (he is my son, after all 🙂 )

Trilingual adventures with three mice (not blind) – one mouse, une souris, eine Maus

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 🙂

Us reading 'That's not my penguin...' - an Usborne touchy-feely book

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).

Andrew pointing to the mouse (in a snorkel) on the bottom left of the left-hand page

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.

Andrew's right hand was pointing to the mouse on the penguin's back, but he moved too fast and our camera shutter speed couldn't cope!

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.

Listening to some French nursery rhymes on the stereo

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!

Dancing to some French nursery rhymes, but suddenly spotted the camera and got interested in 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 🙂

So you’re a linguist…. how many languages do you speak then?

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’.

Linguistics written in the International Phonetic Alphabet

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.)