Noah and the shark – wot so funee?

One of the first blogs I came across when I started blogging just over a year ago was Actually Mummy – cleverly written as if from the perspective of a 7-year old loquacious school girl, and most posts are guaranteed to make me ‘LOL’ (not sure I’m cool enough to pull that one off?!) I spotted a while ago that she writes a weekly post featuring some of the funny things that she or her younger brother have written or said, and she invites other bloggers to link up with a post about their children’s linguistic accomplishments that week. I always said to myself that one day I would link up, once I had some data to share. And that’s just it – “data” – that gives away my background in linguistics. I have a fascination with speech development, all the more so now that I’m experiencing it first hand rather than out of a textbook.

Andrew has come out with a few funny-sounding things, but until recently these have mainly been just his not-yet-fully-developed way of saying certain sounds in single words. Now that he’s stringing several words together and saying whole sentences, there is a lot more scope for coming out with some howlers. Here are a few of the best from the past few weeks…..

“Noah shark”

For his dedication, Joel was given a Noah’s Ark book. Now of course Andrew thinks it’s his, and has been fascinated with reading it, particularly as it has pop out foam shapes – very exciting. I told him it was the story of Noah’s Ark, and a few days later, when I asked him which book he wanted to read, he replied with “Noah shark”. There was a definite gap between Noah and shark, so he’d certainly interpreted my speech with a different position for the word boundary. And that’s an example of an interesting point of language acquisition – when I say Noah’s Ark quickly there is no gap between the ‘z’ sound of Noah’s and the ‘ar’ sound of Ark, so how should he know where one word ends and the next begins (or whether it is indeed two words or one big one)? The brain of a toddler acquiring that language has to guess, and I presume that he went for Noah and shark because he knows the word shark already, but not ark.

But ‘shark’ doesn’t sound exactly like ‘zark’ ([Noah]’s Ark) I here you say? No, not in my speech, but in Andrew’s they sound quite similar. If you try saying ‘sssss’ (like a snake hiss) and ‘shhhhh’ (like you’re telling someone to be quiet), notice that your tongue is further back for sh than s, and your lips are a different shape, but otherwise they are very similar sounds; now try saying ‘sssss’ and ‘zzzzzz’ – notice that you don’t move your mouth at all, it’s just that your throat vibrates for z but not s (in techie language, z is ‘voiced and s is ‘unvoiced’ or ‘voiceless’). So it’s not surprising that Andrew hasn’t quite mastered these different sounds and that his sh sounds about half way between my s and sh. Here’s a video of him saying ‘shhhh’ – listen for yourself how it doesn’t sound exactly like my ‘shhhhh’.

“Pinny eggs”

I wrote a bit about this in the craft post explaining how we made mini eggs for Easter. I have visions of little chocolate eggs walking round with aprons on now! He still insists on calling them pinny eggs, even though I’ve called them mini eggs throughout the continued chocolate eating since Easter. I’m not quite sure why, given that he can say ‘m’ (as in mummy) and I’ve only ever called them mini eggs, but he’s obviously just got it into his head that they are pinny eggs. The ‘p’ sound is made with the same part of the mouth as the ‘m’ sound – the lips coming together and then opening again – but the ‘m’ also involves air being let out through the nose (it’s a nasal consonant).

“Foot bum”

This made me giggle, as I didn’t know what he was talking about at first. One evening he came out with ‘Andrew foot bum’, to which I replied ‘yes Andrew, you have a foot and a bum’, trying not to giggle too much. He said it again and again, and looked like he was looking for something in the living room where I was sat feeding Joel. I did think it was a bit odd that he should say ‘bum’ as I usually say bottom when talking to him about nappy changes etc., but couldn’t think what else he could mean…..until he emerged from around the corner with a yellow object – of course, our foot pump! I had been using it to blow up the ring thing that Joel sits in underneath his play gym. ‘Foot bum, foot bum’, he said enthusiastically. ‘Ah yes Andrew, the foot PUMP’, I replied.

Like the mini/pinny eggs sound confusion, ‘b’ is also made with the lips coming together and then opening again, and at the start of a word, the difference between ‘p’ and ‘b’ is the number of milliseconds it takes for the vowel to begin after the lips release – more for ‘p’ than ‘b’. So again it’s easy to see how he can confuse these sounds. At the end of a word, sounds like ‘p’ (and ‘t’ and ‘k’) don’t always get released very audibly, especially in faster speech and when the word is at the end of an utterance, so it’s not surprising that Andrew didn’t pick this up when I briefly talked about the foot pump earlier in the day.

Well that’s enough on linguistics for this week. I’m sure I’ll be back with more posts to link up with ‘wot so funee?’ as Andrew’s brain and mouth try to work their way through the minefield of mastering the English language. In the meantime, if you fancy a giggle over language from the mouths of babes, head over to the link up by clicking on the badge below.

Wot So Funee?

Pregnancy diary: week 25 – what is baby upto?

As we’re approaching the end of the second trimester (where did that trimester go?! ….the first seemed longer!), I thought I’d do a bit of research into what baby is upto at the moment in terms of growth and development at this stage of pregnancy. I say ‘research’ – this consists of me reading the NHS ‘Pregnancy’ book (for the first time in ages) and a few other pregnancy websites. I used to follow Andrew’s progress in pregnancy much more regularly, as I found it interesting to know what was going on inside me at each stage, but this time I’ve had fewer opportunities to catch up with where we’re at.

So, apparently I should really look pregnant now. Check. Apparently I may also feel hungrier…. I feel less nauseous, does that count? I can’t say that I’ve really got a sense of ‘hunger’ back. In the morning and afternoon, I do feel more like eating for the taste of the food itself rather than because I know I have to (though still no smelly cooking allowed in the flat), but the evenings are still not great. Still, I’m generally feeling much better than in early pregnancy 🙂 Both the ‘looking more pregnant’ and ‘feeling hungrier’ things are of course to do with baby starting to grow more quickly per week than in the earlier weeks which involved a lot of laying the foundations of growth. The BBC pregnancy calendar tells me to make sure I eat well and put my feet up when I can because my body is working hard. Bless it, it clearly doesn’t know I have a toddler to look after! Feet up is a thing reserved for evenings, when I just lie horizontal anyway.

Apparently baby is moving around ‘vigorously’ now. Check – definitely! That’s a good word to describe it actually. He/she also responds to touch and sound, and a loud noise close by make make him/her jump and kick. That’s definitely the case, like when my tummy was being prodded and poked in various ways for the scans I had last week, baby moved in reaction to touch, and when we’re in church, baby is always very active during and after the worship sessions (which feature drums, keyboards, guitars, and of course my singing).  Daddy and Andrew are also starting to get reactions out of baby, either intentionally in the case of Tom talking to the bump or unintentionally in the case of Andrew boofing the bump as he feeds or plays with me. It’s amazing to think that baby is starting to experience bits of family life even in the womb.

Looking bumpy! This is the last time I wore these trousers - when I took them off I discovered a rip right over my bottom! Apologies to anyone who saw me that day, whenever it happened. Nobody was brave enough to tell me though. Although they weren't particularly tight, they were wearing very thin across the bottom, and I did brush past a bike handle that day whilst locking my bike up and trying to get out of the space between my bike and the next (bike racks weren't designed for big or pregnant people!), so I think it must have torn then.

Something that I can’t say whether it’s happening from the outside is that apparently baby is swallowing small amounts of amniotic fluid and passing tiny amounts of urine back into the fluid. That doesn’t sound particularly nice, but it’s a good thing I guess to get the system used to working before it has to do it ‘for real’ once baby is out in the real world of being unattached to me through the umbilical cord. Baby may also get hiccups; I haven’t felt this yet, but I do remember Andrew getting hiccups quite a lot in the womb (and, incidentally, I know now that frequent hiccups in a newborn can be a sign of tongue-tie….) By now baby is covered in a greasy substance called vernix, which is thought to be there to protect the skin as it floats in the amniotic fluid. The skin isn’t as tough as it will be at birth as it’s still developing – this is why premature babies often look redder than full-term babies who have their natural skin pigment colour. The vernix mostly disappears before birth, but I do remember Andrew having some bits left on his back when he was born.

It may be that baby starts to follow a pattern for waking and sleeping. I haven’t noticed this yet, but then I’m not sure I will without really paying attention and making notes, because I’m so busy doing everything else that I don’t really think about when exactly I feel kicks or not. I do know that I would notice if I suddenly felt far fewer kicks over the course of a day though, and this is something I would need to contact my midwife or GP about. Apparently it’s quite common that baby sleeps more in the day when mum is up and about, and then decides to wake up and wriggle as she is slowing down and going to sleep herself. I don’t remember this being a particular problem with Andrew; I think I just slept well generally in pregnancy, until the end when I was so big and then felt him moving a lot all the time! Let’s hope this will be the case this time too 🙂

At this stage of pregnancy, it’s relatively easy to pick up baby’s heartbeat with a stethoscope or ultrasound probe. As this is my second baby, I don’t get a midwife appointment this week as I did with Andrew, so I don’t get to hear that amazing sound of the heart beating on the ultrasound machine. I’ll have to wait until 28 weeks for that pleasure. Apparently it won’t be long before Tom (or anyone else who’s invited to get that close to bump!) can possibly hear the heartbeat just by putting his ear to my tummy, but only if baby is in the right position. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for that!

With most of baby’s vital organs now developed and in place, most of the work left to do is just increasing everything in size. Baby is basically an even mini-er version of what he/she will be when born in about 15 weeks. The brain and nervous system are still getting there, however, and are developing intensely around this time. Although the brain needs to reach a certain level of development in order for baby to survive outside of the womb, it doesn’t stop developing at birth. In fact baby’s brain will continue to change as he/she experiences things in the world right throughout childhood and into adulthood. This is what happens as we learn new things – the brain makes new connections within itself, and is constantly doing this in the first years of life. Fascinating!

So as you can see, that’s a lot of stuff going on with baby right now, some of which I’m aware of from the outside by observing his/her reactions, and some of which isn’t obvious but is interesting to think about and imagine going on inside me. Next week sees us counting down to 30, in more ways than one, as I’ll be 26 weeks pregnant and celebrating my 20-something-th birthday 😉

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.)