If anyone is still reading this blog, I have decided not to post on The Baby Linguist any more. I am struggling to keep up a regular schedule, and failing to do it is making me feel bad. I have a few other projects on the boil and would rather dedicate my time to those right now. Thanks for reading!
Bitti hears a fair few swear words around here. I did start trying to minimise the blue language, but frankly I just don’t have enough fucks to give about it to stop completely.
Designating certain words as ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ is just another reminder to her that she is not free to be herself at all, that society is going to dictate how to act, how to speak and how to think. I’d like for her to be quite a bit older before she realises she might have to compromise herself to be considered an acceptable facsimile of a human female.
A friend who knows me very well gave me Swearing is Good For You by Emma Byrne for Christmas. I have been reading this with great pleasure because of course it backs up my theory that swearing is actually the best. Not only the best, but super healthy! Well, I would be depriving Bitti the pain alleviating and all round beneficial effects of swearing if I didn’t model it for her, wouldn’t I? Also, how will she learn to swear adeptly if she has no example?
To my amazement, she doesn’t swear. Well, she uses ‘bloody’ on the odd occasion, which is cute as hell and makes me strangely proud because she mostly uses it in reference to something the cat is doing (very appropriate). However, she has mistakenly uttered the most diabolical swear word (well, the worst where I am in the world).
It was a mad rush weeknight evening so I set up a scavenger hunt for her to keep her occupied while I cooked tea. I drew ten different coloured squares on a piece of paper and asked her to find objects that matched the colours. It was working well, she was off doing her thing and I was concentrating on cooking without being dragged away just at the moment our irritatingly delicate burger buns were under the grill (28 seconds they’re perfectly toasted, 32 seconds and they’re charcoal) to explain why stickers that have been stuck and peeled off a thousand different surfaces will no longer stick to her face.
After a while she ran into a roadblock while searching for a grey object and interrupted me at the stove to announce, ‘I need help with my savenger cunt!’
It took a LOT of effort not to laugh at this, which I will take time to congratulate myself for because frankly that was superhuman. If there is a parenting award competition I can enter based on this act of restraint, let me know. I kept as straight a face as I could manage, gave her a hint for the game, and silently noted this mispronunciation to share here. You’re welcome.
I have recorded some of Bitti’s speech over the years and spent a bit of time this week listening back and reflecting on how far she has come. She just turned four, and all remnants of my baby are gone. She has her kindy backpack ready to go, is addicted to scary movies, throws shade like a boss, and has bony kneecaps. She is officially a small child.
(sidenote: can anyone tell me why Americans refer to their children as ‘the baby’ for so long after they are no longer a baby? Perhaps it’s just a TV/movie thing, but I have noticed many times that characters will refer to their child, who has a name, who is walking and talking, as the generic and bizarrely vague, ‘baby’. Example, in Sex and the City, Miranda and Steve still refer to Brady as ‘the baby’ even though he is old enough to start his own blog about being the child of self-involved arseholes in the city. Is a real thing? If so, why?)
The first post where I shared Bitti’s voice was this one, where she was at the stage of saying single words, some of them unintelligible to anyone but me. That was the beginning of a tough time to be a carer for her. Once she had conquered walking she was desperate to get to the next logical stage in life: roaming philosophical discussions, preferably late at night. For so long her communicative aspirations did not match her abilities, which led to a lot of crying, on both sides. Thank chocolate and wine that stage is now over, although we do still have the occasional tiff over her indecipherable pronunciation: see Do you need another hint?
After reviewing my recordings I am astonished how quickly Bitti’s speaking has improved. No wonder she is so much happier these days. Now she can explain ideas and tell stories with confidence. Her imagination is growing more wild, and every day we end up playing characters as we go about our normal business. Recently I have been Mufasa and she has been ‘Lala’ a lot. I also have a separate persona whom she likes to call out for chats.
Known as simply ‘Zebra’, this character speaks with a top notch Northern English/Irish/Scottish/Indian/drunk accent and I’m pretty sure Bitti thinks anything she tells Zebra is a secret from mum. She is very aware of accents now, and if I say something in Zebra’s ‘voice’ at random, Bitti quickly tells me to put Zebra away, she is not wanted at this time.
At the height of Zebra time, my friends were babysitting and she spent ten minutes confusing them completely by requesting that they speak ‘in English’. Although they started out fairly confident that they were already speaking English, Bitti very nearly gaslighted them into questioning their own linguistic reality. So when I explained a week or so later that she had actually meant ‘with an English accent’, it was welcome clarification.
Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying I have added links below to two snippets of Bitti’s stories for comparison. In the first she was nearly three years old, in the second she was nearly four years old.
Here Bitti is recounting her day out with me, where we visited Santa in the Magic Cave. As usual, she takes poetic license and adds in that her toy, Peso, was there with her.
In this recording Bitti is re-telling Goldilocks and The Three Bears, using a Hatchimals catalogue as a pretend book. My favourite part is when she does the daddy bear voice, mostly because the accompanying frowny face is cute factor 10.
As you can hear, these days there is no need for me to prompt the story, it all comes falling out!
I love a good argument, probably more than the next person. But arguing with a three-year-old has its own set of rules i.e. there are none except that they win. It’s much like arguing with Mark Latham or, if you like, a brick wall. So needless to say, there have been some rather amusing arguments with Bitti in the last few months as her language development gathers steam and she enters into experimentation with the truth and meaning making.
My mum was one unsuspecting victim of Bitti’s newfound predilection for pedantry when she inquired about the whereabouts and current state of a chocolate frog I said she had received earlier that day.
Nanna: I heard you got a chocolate frog. Where is it?
Bitti: It’s here with us.
N: Really? I thought you ate it already.
B: I did, it’s in my tummy. And my tummy is here. So it’s here with us! *said in such a tone as to imply nanna was a maniac for even asking.
Oh, it’s all so cute when they’re one metre tall, but this kind of smart business isn’t going to win her many friends when she’s older. She got me up against the wall at a later date when I was asking her to move her legs so I could see the computer screen.
Me: Can you please move your legs? I can’t see.
Bitti: *fails to move legs*
M: Bitti, move your legs please.
B: They’re not even in your way.
M: Yes, they are. I’m not going to ask again.
B: Just look around them.
M: I’m going to count to three, then I’ll move them for you.
B: *moves legs just far enough to be out of my line of sight*
M: Thank you.
B: It’s not my fault they were there.
M: Really, how’s that? Is someone else controlling your legs? Are you a Thunderbird?
B: *ignores cultural reference she’s too young to understand* It’s not my fault. You grew my legs in your tummy. If you didn’t grow them they wouldn’t be in your way.
By this logic, everything she ever does will be my fault. I feel she will be playing this self-appointed trump card for a while. Meanwhile, can anyone tell me how to grow legs that don’t get in my way, mouths that can be shushed with a look and hair that brushes itself?
Bitti has some serious language skills now. She uses adjectives and adverbs like a boss, and it’s surprising and cute when she whips out a new one. Today was another new one, she was looking for something to put her latest acquisition in (a toy bison). She picked up an old jewellery box and said, ‘this is certainly going to hold it’. Certainly. Or when I didn’t want more sticks in my bag but she cut through my excuses with, ‘but they can easily fit in your bag!’
A few weeks ago she was talking about our cat, in between quizzing me about why he was sitting, why his eye winked, why he turned his head and just as I started to get annoyed by the constant questioning about an animal’s unknown motivations for every body movement, she said, ‘MJ is a big cat sitting on the bed. MJ is a big fat cat sitting on the bed. MJ is a big fat white cat sitting on the bed, grumpily.’ LOL, (although, I feel I need to point out that he is not actually fat. Grumpy is accurate). It was a like one of my old language classes where you start with a basic sentence and gradually add more information as you progress through text book chapters. And just like in my old language classes, what we are talking about is rarely anything people discuss with great regularity in the real world. She is super cute, but needs a new text book.
Then this week I got, ‘I have a similar one at dad’s house’. SIMILAR. I don’t know why, but hearing these unnecessary but nuance-creating words is really affecting. She is growing up so fast; she now needs adverbs and more abstract adjectives to get her meaning across. And I love how they just pop up unexpectedly. She’s been quietly hoarding all this new information and observations about words, studying how others use them and then just slips a new one into a sentence correctly, first time. It’s brilliant and makes me wonder why learning a second language is so bloody painful when we’re so naturally skilled at acquiring the first.
However, as fast as her vocabulary expands there are still hilarious mispronunciations that slip through. While she has updated her ‘oi’ sounds now and can say toilet, boy and toy correctly, we still get ‘ablow’ instead of below. And tomatoes are ‘besgusting’ rather than disgusting (but if I take the seeds out they are apparently acceptable!).
Perhaps the most adorable at the moment is ‘gecko’ instead of echo. This worked well when I took her into work and she needed to announce that she’d found a ‘gecko’ in the foyer at top volume (all the better to hear the gecko with), while tens of people stood around the lifts trying not to laugh. She also has a tendancy to get her Kath and Kim on when talking about humans, who are yoomans. As in, ‘Kim, I’m only yooman.’
Sidenote: Can’t wait for her to be old enough to enjoy that show, she’s clearly a kindred spirit.
I stumbled across an article the other day that reported mums are asked 300 questions a day by their darling children. Apparently four-year-old girls are the most inquiring, asking up to 390 questions per day. That is one question every 1 minute 58 seconds. Bitti is not yet four years old, but I feel she is exceeding the average on question-asking for her age. The compounding factor is that the questions are not equally spaced throughout the day. For an hour there are no questions because she is distracted at the park. But once we finish playing, the questions come thick and fast. There is an hour’s worth of collected information to sort through. Sometimes she doesn’t have time to listen to the answer before she’s asking the next.
It doesn’t stop with me either, she asks everyone the same questions. After Bitti has spent some time with her nanna it is reported that the same questions are asked that she asked of me over the preceding few days. It’s like she’s checking to make sure I am not giving her a bum steer. She’s too little to use Google yet, so I suppose this process is the best she’s got. Some recent questions:
‘What is skin made of?’
‘Are people animals?’
‘If all the animals and plants died, would the earth be sad?’
‘Why are all the dinosaurs only bones now?’
‘How come when I swing the bag upside down all the things don’t fall out?’
Respite from questioning is rare but there are ways to make it worse. The quickest way to provoke her curiosity, I find, is to sit down at a task that requires concentration, e.g. sit to write a shopping list or reply to an email. Suddenly there are innumerable pressing questions that must be satisfied by a response from me. The other event that prompts a barrage of inquisition is, of course, bedtime. Quite often my last words to her before sleep are, ‘no more questions for today’.
It has begun. Novice level sarcasm has been rolled onto the test track, and she’s getting it right.
Last week we went to the zoo where she received two stickers from the woman whose job it was to block the end of the queue for face painting and break every child’s heart by telling them no more faces would be painted on this day. She put those stickers on her hand, spied some coloured sand and dived into that for a play. Afterwards we realised that coloured sand = coloured hands so we headed to the toilet block to wash them. This process was complicated by her strict instructions not to get her stickers wet. Seeing as how they were located on the back of her green hands, this was a diabolically difficult instruction to follow. But, I did my best. As we left the toilet block I heard her say, ‘Thanks very much, you got my sticker wet.’
****Thanks very much****
All that was missing was the beat + NOT.
And so the sarcasm has begun. I imagine it will reach its peak at 14-15 years of age, so plenty of time to savour the ire. Ah, they grow up so quickly.
Another sign of the times is her shift to predominantly calling me plain old ‘mum’. I am no longer mummy; this moniker is reserved only for moments of particular fury or excitement. Bitti is not so bitti and seems to be ready to shift into her first share house, a house that will boast zero clean plates, be decorated by found objects and where most of the weekly budget will be splurged on Shopkins and sticker books.
Oh, except she’s decided we are going to live together forever. FOREVER. Even though my budget for treats and toys has been declared unsatisfactory and I insist on the inhumane practice of fingernail clipping with shocking regularity. So plain old mum is good for something yet I guess.
Now that Bitti has a vocabulary broad enough to engage in conversation on any topic under the sun I have learned to both dread and welcome long car trips; this is usually where I get grilled like an overlooked democracy sausage. She has a lot of questions about this
fucked up interesting world, and not all of them are super fun to answer.
A month or so ago she finally voiced her concerns about the connection between living breathing animals and their dead counterparts served on plates. We were enjoying fish and chips on a family holiday when she turned to my unsuspecting brother and asked him ‘how did the fish get out of the sea and to be dead here?’. He wasted no time in handballing that one to me with a nervous laugh.
I am a vegetarian, so I have no problem with Bitti deciding not to eat meat, so that aspect of explaining fish production did not bother me. But even inured to the facts of meat production as I am, it was a confronting thing to have to explain the peculiarities of human double standards and cognitive dissonance to a naive child. Most especially because a lot of what she has encountered in popular culture has revolved around animals dressed in human clothes, being depicted as furry or scaly versions of us, with the ability not only to speak, but to feel emotions. Peppa Pig, The Lion King, Hey Duggie, Play School, most relevant to this particular case, Finding Nemo. It does feel like a cruel joke to turn around and tell her now that in reality humans would rather eat animals than consider their feelings. Well darling, we just like to anthropomorphise them for fun, like a cat playing with a mouse before it goes down the hatch.
However, kids movies have taught me that she will be unemotional in her assessment of the whole animals = meat bombshell. Children’s film scriptwriters do not hesitate in making a joke out of the tension between the depiction of animals as lovable, feeling entities with personalities and the reality of human treatment of those very same animals. In The Little Mermaid the prince’s chef chases Sebastian the lobster around the dining room with a carving knife, and in Moana Maui refers to her chicken sidekick as a ‘boat snack’ and dedicates himself to fattening up the dull bird to this end. Kids are sociopaths, movie makers know this. Parents should cotton on.
So the confronting part of this conversation is all due to my adult perspective and disappointment in mankind. Bitti accepted the explanation about fish being one source of food for all sorts of animals, including humans, with little apparent cognitive or moral disturbance. She ate a few bites of the fish, but she’s not much into deep fried foods anyway (I know! It’s like she’s not even human).
Aside from sometimes being reminded how relentlessly illogical and self-destructive humans can be, I am really enjoying these more cerebral conversations with Bitti. I am seeing a glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel that is mindless, repetitive songs, games and stories for kids. But, as Bitti and I discussed in the car recently, there is some time to go before she is ready to tackle the world and its moral challenges.
Bitti likes to pretend we are being chased by the police when we are driving (when we’re not being chased by a T-rex, that is). OJ Simpson lived her dream; she fully endorses a slow speed chase. Talking about police and the work they do obviously lead to a conversation about jail. Bitti said she was happy for me to go to jail, as long as I could go with her. Otherwise, you know, who would she have to demand stories from? I said that could be a problem because they don’t put kids in jail. ‘But why??’
I started explaining how at this point in time society tends to believe young kids can’t make good decisions yet because they haven’t evolved empathy and a moral framework and therefore can’t be held responsible for what they do. Well, I didn’t use those exact words, but you get the drift. She argued, ‘but I do have those things [morals]’. So as an example I asked her, ‘if you were walking along and someone in front of you dropped some money, what would you do? Would you keep it for yourself or run after them and give it back?’
‘Keep it!’ No hesitation. She answered almost before I had finished the question.
I laughed. ‘And that,’ I said, ‘is why you wouldn’t go to jail, and why you have to live under the guidance of your parents until you finish school’.
By then, with any luck, she will have developed an ethical and moral framework that will keep her out of jail, because right now she’s showing great promise as a criminal element hybrid of OJ and Alan Bond.
I’ve realised that communicating with someone who has both a limited vocabulary and trouble enunciating has forced me to develop quite a good guessing game. I don’t suppose this is what they are talking about when they say train your brain to delay the onset of dementia? But why buy a crossword or sudoku app when I can attempt to discuss mystery topics with my small child without alerting her to fact that I don’t know what in hell we are discussing, all while trying to unravel the mystery topic? Easy.
There are occasions when Bitti and I can get into terribly ‘vibrant’ conversations over a particular word or phrase that she isn’t able to say clearly. But still, I can avoid these somewhat fraught moments more often than not by succeeding at interpreting clues so cryptic that to an outsider I almost appear to have read her mind. What follows is an example of one such conversation that began when Bitti, after a long silence in the car, suddenly piped up with this:
‘You are Achella double.’
She expected me to then assume the identity of this person. Only trouble was I didn’t know who that was because ‘achella double’ is nonsense. Then this happens:
Bitti: ‘Achella double.’
Me: ‘Sorry, what now?’
Bitti: ‘ACHELLA DOUBLE!’
Me: ‘Look, I know you think you’re saying it very clearly, but I have no idea what that is.’
Bitti: ‘Aaaaaargh.’ [probably a lot more of this, but I don’t want to wear out my ‘a’ key]
Me: ‘Can you try to explain it another way?’
Bitti: ‘Her makes … her doggies … her, AAAAARGH ACHELLA DOUBLE’
Me: ‘Is she a person?’
Bitti: ‘Yes, she want to, to, she want to, to do a jacket!’
Me: ‘Aha! Cruella de Vil?’
Bitti: ‘Yes!! A-CHE-LLA DA-BIL!’
Me: ‘I’m with you now, she wants to make the spotty puppies into a coat.’
Bitti: ‘Yes, mummy!’
Me: ‘The movie is called 101 Dalmatians.’
Bitti: ‘Yes. The Croatians.’
It has been a while since Bitti began using ‘got’. A lot. We got a lotta got around here and I am struggling with it.
This evening after reading another Golden Book classic, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, she went through the back cover list of other books saying, ‘do we got that one?’ to each title. Each time I replied, ‘No, we don’t have that one’, but she doesn’t acknowledge my correction at all. It’s second only to the did/done mix-up in terms of grammatical nails-down-the-blackboard. (There has to be a word in a language somewhere that describes the physical pain caused by hearing language butchered?) I can only just manage to tolerate this particular mistake, by reminding myself that she is just three, and probably won’t be saying ‘Do I got that one?’ when she’s 18. If so, I’ll be looking for the grammar equivalent of a military camp to rehabilitate her. Although I bet no such thing exists, this world has its priorities all wrong.
Biti has been known to really test me by pulling out the big guns and adding negation and subject-verb agreement challenges, ‘He don’t got them,’ instead of what was correct for the situation, ‘She doesn’t have them’.
The mixing up of the male and female pronouns is interesting too, Bitti does this a lot. I know this is a challenge for speakers of languages that don’t have gendered pronouns, but haven’t really noticed it being a first language-learner’s stumbling block before. Then I was reading something about the over-representation of male characters in young children’s literature and suddenly thought maybe I had contributed to her he/she block. From age zero I have been reading to Bitti, and because I found a lot of the characters were male, I would often mix it up and change the gender of the characters each time I read. Perhaps I have unwittingly led her to believe that ‘he/she’ are interchangeable? Even with her stuffed toys I mix up whether they are girls or boys, and she does the same thing …
In her mind, at this stage, the difference between boys and girls is purely anatomical, but she does see that difference. So why flip between using he and she seemingly at random? Maybe it is just a stage of development, or maybe I have created this mistake!