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I Say Potato, You Say Bwheegooga

October 10, 2010

Some time ago my wife asked why I don’t use baby English with our daughter. I pondered this for a while and a few weeks later asked, “What’s baby English?”

What she meant was the use of particular verbs and nouns you use whilst talking to babies. I don’t use them to my daughter because I had forgotten these words existed, and secondly, what am I supposed to be talking to her about anyway.

Most Indo-European languages have the capacity for “baby talk” far more than in English (or at least in Australian – English). Generally, most English-speaking families I know well use made-up words that don’t get passed on to the next generation. My sister in England uses a host of very creative words and phrase constructions with her kids but I suspect they’re not sustainable.

Ever curious, I asked a host of friends whose mother tongue is not English for baby talk examples.

Generally, these are entirely separate words with no linguistic connection to the adult words.

Sleep, that all-important activity for new parents, is a word with many different ways of conveying. In Italian it is fare la nanna instead of dormire. In Spanish, it’s mimir, instead of dormir. In Swiss German, to go to sleep is heia machen instead of schlafen gehen, and to sleep in Swiss German is pfüsele whereas for adults it is schlafen. In Romanian it is nani and sa faci nani (to go to sleep) rather than the adult dormit. In Greek and Bulgarian, it is also nani (and I assume in Turkish.)

In Arabic, there is wawa for pain or discomfort, tata and seedo is grandmother and grandfather, and baba for father. Food is nounou (in Hebrew it is numnum instead of ochel), and a scary monster is a bo’bo.

Swiss German will usually put the suffix “li” when talking to children, for example a bicycle is Velo for adults and Velöli for children; bed is Bett for adults and Bettli for children. A song is Lied and Liedli.

So what’s it all for? A Spanish friend feels that some words used in baby language sometimes accentuate and help practise certain characteristics of the adult tongue, such as the r sound (/je/ ) in Spanish.

An old friend of mine in Sweden tells me that parents there are careful not to use special words for or with children. “We want our kids to use the right adult word from the very beginning,” though there are “kid’s words” for animals such as cat (katt for adults, kisse for children and hund and vovve).

She makes another interesting point, away from the topic, which I’ll put verbatim as it’s quite fascinating and something I have never heard before or thought about:

“About the only (?) word/sound that is common to all human languages: the sound “schhh” (to make somebody keep quite or to comfort a child). No matter if you’re from Guinea Bissau, Sweden, Australia, Romania, Russia or Japan, you’ll understand the meaning of that sound. So, why is that? Think about the first time you heard your daughter’s heart beat in Maria’s belly. Except for your baby’s heart beat you probably also heard the sound of Maria’s blood rushing through her veins. And what was the sound of that? Schhhhh. To comfort Alika you will probably rock her, whispering “schhhhh” in her ear. And it comforts her as it reminds her of the sound, and the motion, in her mother’s belly. And who doesn’t fall asleep, or at least relax, when going somewhere far by car? The monotone sounds of tires against the road (schhhh), and the “swaying” of the car. It goes far back, to the time before we were born.”

Interestingly, how we teach children to talk – speaking clearly and in short sentences, praising their early words, monitoring their grammar – is a peculiarity of Western culture. Linguist Steven Pinker studied societies where parents rarely talk to their infants and toddlers other than to scold or make a demand. Their two-year-olds are behind on language compared to Western kids, but by age four they catch up.

In academic papers, baby language is referred to as Child-Directed Speech (CDS). So what do researchers have to say on this subject?

In terms of how babies talk and perceive language, there are some interesting findings, though “exactly how infants become such skilled manipulators of a communication tool as complex and nuanced as language, and to do it within a relatively short time frame, still remains a fascinating riddle without a completely satisfying solution.”

Research claims that babies can already separate words. For example, they are hearing “how are you today” and not “howareyoutoday,” which is remarkable though I have some doubt. I can, however, vouch for the fact that we can babble away to Alika and she does turn her head at words we use frequently with her, such as “you numbnut”.

Also, kids prefer learning verbs though parents generally start off with trying to teach nouns.

Another interesting aspect of language that babies use that comes up in academic literature is that what we perceive as grammar mistakes when they talk is actually the speaking of another language, or at least another language’s grammar structure.

For example, the double negative, a favorite grammatical error among very young children. “I don’t want no vegetables” isn’t perfect English, but it is perfect Spanish. Another common mistake is dropping the definite article: “I want puppy.” Several languages, including Russian, do not feature articles. Sometimes the verb to be is ignored by children, such as “Where my shoe?” This sentence construction simply mirrors Hebrew and Arabic. When kids leave out the subject in the sentence “Where going?” they’re thinking like in Chinese, which sometimes drops the subject.

Which grammar system they end up using will be the one that doesn’t get corrected when they’re talking.

Researchers also expound on why adults participate in CDS.

To whit, it attracts attention, conveys emotional affect, and conveys language-specific phonological information, and each of these roles are reflected in certain components of the speech signal – pitch, rated affect, and vowel hyper-articulation.

Some interesting facts abound. Researchers found that fathers use more sentences beginning with ‘Wh’, such as Who, Where and What. I noticed I do this a lot, saying to Alika not that “Your nappy is disgusting” but rather “Whose nappy is disgusting?” The other use of language academics noticed is that mothers use more connecting language to bond with a child in general and fathers use more command language to set status.

The only change I have noticed in speaking to my daughter is my frequent use of the Bulgarian nay rather than the English no because it is easier to keep her attention by using the ā sound, which you can hold for longer to compared to the ō in no.

But this is all jumping the gun. Alika can’t talk at eight months. But I suspect that language acquisition is going to follow the pattern that I’ve noticed babies develop, in that to accept a new skill or experience, they have to first “own it.”

You see it in the food with the beginnings of solids.

She doesn’t need to own her food it by hunting and killing a wild beast. Yet before Alika accepts new food, she has to relish it, see how it feels in her ear, how it sits in her hands, how well you can blow bubbles with it, throw it and then maybe see how it tastes. Then and only then will she think about swallowing it.

It will be the same with language. Babies have to own it, see what works, play with it, create own ways to build it, react with it in their own way that will be different from the parents’ usage because mimicry can only go so far.

And if it’s going to be anything like her eating habits, it’ll be a lot of fun for her but very messy for everyone else.

Thanks to the following for their valuable input: Maria Efremova-Holmes, Baher Rushdi, Elisabet Ek, Ana Serban, Haber Patricia, Anna Lipowska, Silvia Rasheva, Siegrun Krayer Meier, Nir Ofek, Oded Ofek, Julia Martinez Garcia, Eva Simeth Di Fortunato, Bjørg Helene Edberg, Chloé Bonnard, Ariela Perez-Vald, and Renae Akritidis.

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