Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The beauty and perils of “Baby Language”

A study carried in 1997 among American, Russian and Swedish mothers showed that the way parents tend to speak to children (that is with acute tones, accentuating vowels, exaggerating the tones) is actually beneficial for the kids' language apprehension, and this is equally true in every language.

This is referred to as Baby Language (or Parentese) in English, Bambinese in Italian and Parler Bebé in French. But in French and in Italian this concept stretches as far as developing a whole new set of made up words, used exclusively with and by kids, which can multiply unnecessarily the vocabulary the kid needs to learn.

  • To take a nap in French baby language is « faire dodó » while in Italian is « fare la nanna »
  • To eat in Italian is « mangiare » but for kids becomes « fare la pappa »
  • In France almost every kid has a « dou dou » which refers to his favorite stuffed animal.
  • In our family we have taken the habit of referring to the bowels as « poo-poo », in Italian that would be « cacca » and in French "caca".
  • « Pipi », luckily, is the same in French, English and Italian. But while in English kid language it also refers to the genitals of the boy, the French kids call that « zizi », and in Italy that would be « pisellino » (literally little pea)
  • When the kid is hurt, in Italian « si é fatto la bibi », but in French it’s « bobo »
  • A kid’s nanny in Italian is often referred to as his « tata », while in France she’s the « nou nou »

Modern pedagogists suggest avoiding this artificial language after the age of 1, even in monolingual households, to facilitate the correct learning of proper vocabulary.

I was going to embrace this theory wholeheartedly, when I realized that the reflex to use these words was just too strong to modify my behavior: I did not realize how embedded certain terms are in our linguistic experiences! I grew up myself eating « pappa » and making « nanna » at night and getting « bibi » from time to time; I still use that expression to let my mum know I’m sick!

Milo for the moment seems to get it all, his favorite word being « Pappa !».
Luckily my little boy is blessed with a vigorous appetite, not only for food, but also for words!

Friday, September 02, 2005

Milo says "Au revoir !"

Milo has just spent 2 weeks in Italy with his grandparents, enjoying a full immersion in Italian. This has increased not only his vocabulary, but also his gestures inventory !

  • When eating a delicious food, he accompanies his verbal appreciation ( « Mmmmhhhh ! ») with his hand swinging up and down, at the height of his shoulder !
  • He has developed an appreciation for cars (the real ones) and can imitate very well the action of steering the wheel while making the typical car noise (« Wroooooom ! »)
  • He waves good bye very professionally when leaving a place or a room, and says « Ciao ! » with non-chalance !

Among new words he learnt there’s « torta » (cake), « bau » (the dog’s bark), « pappa » (food in kid language)

He can call his Nonno (Grandpa) and Nonna (Grandma), his uncle Papo (Paco) and auntie Titti (Kikki), and of course his beloved Mamma and Papaaaaaaá (always pronounced literally)!

Upon our return to France the other day, Milo totally surprised me: as we entered our building, we met the concierge who greeted us (in French); this was the first French he has heard in over 20 days. As we left after a brief chat, he waved good-bye to her and said:

« Au Revoir ! »

At 16 months Milo is aware of who speaks what…

Meet Yannis & Dominique

I was on a flight from Paris to Torino, Italy last week and my seat neighbors were two lovely mulatto rascals aged 6 and 7, traveling with their mum. We begun the conversation in French, language that they were using among one another; as I pointed out to them that we were flying over the Mont Blanc glacier, something in the way I pronounced the word «glacier» gave away my nationality: the two boys looked at each other and instantly switched to perfect Italian:

« Ma é italiana! »* Said Yannis, the youngest.

From that moment on, we continued the conversation in Italian, and even among themselves they kept speaking the tongue of the peninsula. They turned out to have an Italian father while their mum is from French Guyana.

« Nobody knows where the French Guyana is, in Italy! I always have to show them on the map! » said Dominique. It is true, Italians are not strong on French overseas territories…

Their mum woke up shortly after:

«T’a dormi bien, maman ?»** Asked Yannis.

«T’a bien dormi, tu veut dire !» replied their mum, correcting the syntax.

This seems to be a recurrent issue with bilingual kids: they often translate in one language using the syntax of the other. I wonder if this phenomenon has been identified and classified by linguists.

Yannis and Dominique attend the French School in Torino, where most courses are taught in French, but they also learn Italian and some English. However, I noticed that, once they switched language, even with their mum they kept speaking Italian.

Their accent (or, rather, lack of) was that of a native, with a soft inflection of torinese. Even their enthusiasm was that of an Italian boy when they noticed that we were flying over a soccer field! They immediately told me about their favorite team and players in the Italian league.

Before leaving the baggage claim, Dominique sighed:

«I cannot wait to see my room again and sleep in my own bed…I miss my bed!»

Something common to every culture: the notion of 'home sweet home!'

* «But she is Italian!»

** The equivalent phrase in Italian is: "Hai dormito bene?". It would be as if he asked:
«Did you well sleep, mum ?» instead of « Did you sleep well ?»