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My bilingual toddler's first words

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The monkey turns 16 months old today. He is a chair-climbing, cupboard-inhabiting, sweaty little party animal. I keep not getting around to writing about all of his milestones, cuteness moments and drive-me-completely-batty antics.

Right now, though, he is quickly learning how to talk, and I want to record his growing Spanish-English bilingual vocabulary. It's pretty exciting to watch his language acquisition in action, and the monster gets ever-so-proud-of-himself when he teaches his brother a new word ('kaka' is a favourite).

(Unlike learning to sit up, crawl, walk and other motor skills, when he would focus solely on perfecting his latest new trick, talking seems to happen right along with everything else. He doesn't wake up in the middle of the night to try out his words, or sit patiently in a corner practicing, like he did with sitting up. He doesn't ignore his toys or his brother while he practices, like he did when he was demanding our fingers to help him toddle around. In practice, this means that he is becoming a little talker while he remains his curious, mischievous little rascal self. No rest for mama!)

At this age, his older brother was just saying his first words, all on the same day: mama, papa, blueberry. He was slow to start, but was soon a really verbal little kid. More on his bilingualism in a separate post.

But the monkey's language exposure has been very different from his older brother's. No longer in Canada, he now hears only Spanish from everyone around him, including me when I talk to anyone other than him and his brother.  

I am his only source of English, other than his books and his Skype-time with his grandparents. When he says agua, I say 'do you want some water?' I always speak English to him, unless I am speaking more for the benefit of others, like my inlaws, his admirers in the grocery store, or little play friends we meet at the beach.

I anticipate that his Spanish will quickly outshine his English, and that we will have to dedicate quite a bit of effort to ensuring he will be fluent in English. For now though, I suppose because he spends so much time alone with me, his English seems to be keeping pace.

Winning, in fact. Spanish 11, English 12.

More or less in order of appearance:

First words in Spanish

  • hola (hi)
  • (yes)
  • caca*
  • este (this)
  • allá (there)
  • agua (water)
  • mama (mama, papa, brother)*
  • más (more)
  • 'má (tomá, here/take this)
  • ya está (all done)
  • nana (banana)*
First words in English
  • bye
  • bvuh (booby)
  • kaka*
  • coco (cracker-cookie)
  • gogo (yogurt)
  • mbk (book)
  • mama (mama, papa, brother)*
  • ball
  • mouth
  • cheese
  • shoes
  • nana (banana)*
Unknown additional language
  • aach (with a guturral, back of the throat, Chanukah-style 'ch': help me / open this)

    *Banana, kaka (caca) and mama get listed twice because they work in both languages. For now, he calls everyone in this house "mama", and he uses "kaka" to refer to: kaka, bum, penis, pee, diaper, toilet, potty, bathroom. Gotta love the multi-purpose utility of it all!


    EDITED TO ADD: I forgot two of my favourites - upa (pick me up) and goal/gol (exclaimed loudly and happily, with arms in the air). I guess that means English and Spanish are tied, for now.


    Deborah said...

    I think that being bilingual is a tremendous gift that you can give to your children. Well done you!

    Katie said...

    I'm quite interested in hearing more about your strategies for raising your children to be bilingual. We're planning to start a family in the next couple of years, and I'll be in a very similar situation to you (I will be the main source of English!). Just out of curiosity, how is Macondo Papa's English?

    macondo mama said...

    Katie - I'll be writing more about how we do the bilingual thing.

    Basically, I always speak in English and Macondo Papa always speaks in Spanish. His English is great, and he will occasionally read the kids a book in English, or speak English to them when English-speaking friends or family or around. And vice versa for me.

    The tricky part is that he and I speak Spanish to each other, which was great in Canada because it meant lots of Spanish exposure, but here it means their English might be too limited. I'll keep you posted!

    Katie said...

    I just stumbled upon this article about bilingualism, and I thought you might find it interesting: http://www.morsmal.org/cgi-bin/index.cgi?action=viewnews&id=1245

    macondo mama said...

    Thanks, Katie. Fascinating, isn't it? I hadn't even heard of some of those 'myths'. Many people seem inexplicably against bilingualism for kids, or convinced that it's not a good idea.

    In my case (and yours, I think), it is part of who we are, and also really important in terms of communication with extended family and friends.

    I really think that you just have to be convinced that multiple languages are a good thing, for so many reasons, and then not listen to the rest.

    Like breastfeeding.

    Discussions on strategies and resources are helpful, but doubting and worrying about whether it's a good choice is not. And I often find that having to explain and defend our choice is both inevitable and tiresome.

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