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18 July 2016 @ 10:31 pm
I've been writing periodic entries about Alex and his language acquisition. I have so far made little or no mention of his little brother Philip, who's now just turned two.

Philip's language skills are startling for his age, I think it's fair to say. We understand that this is fairly normal for second siblings, as they copy everything. And in Philip's case he's been imitating people since before he could walk. That might be an exaggeration but only a slight one. One of his first words, as far as I can remember, was 'outside', which he used a lot to tell us - or his teachers at creche - where he wanted to go. It's mushroomed from there to the point where he's saying whole sentences, asking questions, using tenses, getting pronouns right and so on. I asked him the other day why he hadn't eaten his fishballs. He said 'I didn't like them'. Only four words but that's quite a lot of grammatical information.

He's got past the stage of copying, then, and now he's announcing what's happening even if it's obvious! So we often see him laughing and he'll stop laughing to say 'I'm laughing, that was funny' and then resume his laughter. Or when he says a nonsense word such as Boombalooma. He likes it and instead of just saying it he'll say 'I said boombalooma' to which we all reply 'yes you did' in an encouraging tone. I used to find it priceless when Alex, his older brother, used to say 'look, a lady'. Philip does the same but with verb phrases. It's lovely.

Unlike Alex, Philip has an older brother to banter with and repeat phrases, words and noises. So when Alex roars just to be 'hard', Philip will follow suit. He's also picking up on some of the odder things Alex comes out with. I really enjoyed this afternoon's chat on the way home from creche, whcih went something like this:

Alex: what's this car?
Me: a Renault [a replacement car while ours is being repaired]
Alex: like Renaud the pole vaulter? [long story]
Me: Yes, the name sounds just the same!
Philip: I don't want Renaud's car. Leave it alone!

This thought made Philip quite agitated and he yelled 'Leave it alone, this is Renaud's car!!' a few times.

One thing I'm enjoying at the moment is when he asks for things by screaming 'I want X'. I ask him to ask nicely and not only does he say 'Can I have some X?' his voice suddenly goes quiet.

Philip also really likes singing. In fact he's just stopped, having sung himself to sleep as I write these notes. It made us all tremendously happy this afternoon when Philip sang the whole of Incy Wincy Spider, then Alex - proud older brother - applauded, with a huge smile across his face. Not that they're as pleasant as that most of the time, but it was a nice moment, worth recording.

Just as I think of it, Alex randomly said on the way home 'Our house is bigger than a planet!' I politely pointed out that this wasn't the case but it was amusingly bonkers.

These are exciting times for a linguist dad!
14 January 2016 @ 12:37 am
I was asked by a friend this evening if Bowie was ever that big for me. The implication being that he wasn't for him. The conversation felt incomplete so i thought I'd take to the blog to sort out my thoughts.

My sister told me yesterday (a day after the singer's death) that I bought Space Oddity on 7", which may have been my first record purchase. I think it was All The Young Dudes but never mind. The chap was vaguely in my consciousness even at that tender age - I must've been under 7. That was the period before I *got* music, that prehistoric 70s, the time of innocence, Junior Choice on Radio One, Elton, Bolan, Glitter (before we knew what we now know). The music from that time that I look back on now has the quality of a half-remembered dream. Bowie's odd voice and colourful presence is definitely around but it's years before I could call myself a fan of his or anyone else's. I feel that I recall hearing Sorrow on the radio. I think even then I found it weird and unsettling but perfect. I think I remember seeing Starman on Top of the Pops. None of this can ever be confirmed, and I hope no one has been auditing my life, but I guess that hardly matters. Even if I were making all of this up after the fact (I don't think I am) it still wouldn't deny Bowie his place in my life. I didn't have a clue back then, of course. Who at the age of 7 could know, apart from people with ultra-cool elder siblings perhaps, just how mindblowingly out-there it must've been for a rock singer - the author of such riffs as Jean Genie and Rebel Rebel - to go soul in 1974/5? In his mid-20s for goodness sake.

One of my many answers to the 'was he ever that big' question was that he was never bigger than anyone else. I'm reasonably sure I've never told anyone that Bowie was my favourite musician ever. Certainly not when I was entering my teens when there was so much other stuff occupying the bit of my brain devoted to music. After all, 1979 (when I began to buy music properly) to 1985, when I went to university, was a particularly fertile time in music with so many styles, even in the mainstream, vying for attention. I liked Bowie's Fashion and thought Scary Monsters was interesting. I couldn't claim yet that I was a huge fan. By the time I was old enough to know about music and my likes and dislikes Bowie's own career was taking a turn for the less interesting.

Spring 1996. I'm on a trip around Eastern Europe and Russia. In St Petersburg I'm led to a shop selling bootleg tapes. One of several I buy has Heroes on one side and Low on the other. It's shortly before the internet, so I can't just look it all up as you can now, but the spectacular strangeness of the albums is clear and I'm starting to place things into some sort of context.

The next Bowie landmark for me was seeing him live in 2000. It was at Glastonbury. My recollections of the event are scant: miles from the stage, competent band, watched it on the big screen. Not exactly a transcendent experience. But it was Bowie, the man from somewhere we can't quite place (OK, officially Brixton, but it was clear he was no ordinary headliner, even if I didn't spend all my time listening to his music). When you're at a festival you hope you might see a legend and an icon. I might not have had all the important albums at that time but gosh I knew most of the songs.

I'm a slack sort of chap, and my listening is inconsistent, my knowledge piecemeal and slipshod. As an adult I've encountered genuine Bowie fans, people who know their stuff and who've shared their personal tales, their passion for Bowie's ethereal otherness, their knowledge of dates and music styles. A helping hand has guided me into being the fan I am now.

Nowadays when I think of Bowie I think, as an adult armed with a bit more knowledge, of that extraordinary soul album and break with the past and that appearance on Soul Train; I think of Modern Love (a wonderfully uplifting pop song); I think of Bowie's wild years and his extraordinary persona; I think of the times I've told people - because I've come to believe it - that Bowie's not made of flesh and blood like the rest of us; I think of Life on Mars, the gorgeous song I remember from prehistoric times AND the TV series, along with Ashes to Ashes immortalising those songs; I think of those obtuse lyrics with moments of glorious albeit impenetrable panache; I think of the Berlin years; I think of Nile Rogers' contribution; I think of Sound and Vision, a song so grand and so ambitious (and yet so effortless) that it has the balls to have a sax solo before Bowie has even started singing.

Last year Mateja and I went to Paris to see the Bowie Is exhibition. Two years earlier we wanted to go to the original London one but couldn't get tickets, so we said shall we go to Paris in 2015. We'd been looking forward to it for two years. It was great albeit stupidly crowded.

And now he's gone and died, as mysteriously and oddly as he lived.

17 September 2015 @ 10:34 pm
We've now reached the stage where we can have a conversation on more or less anything with Alex. He's articulate, amusing and sharp. He also appears to retain absolutely everything we say and seeks to use new words at the earliest opportunity. But the most cherishable thing at the moment is that he makes us laugh every day.

Some amusing things he's come out with recently:

- Would you like some fruit?
- No, thanks, I'll have a cigarette*.

*our (somewhat inappropriate) nickname for cylindrical wafers from Slovenia.

- Alex, go on, stand in the dinosaur's mouth. It'll be fun.
- No. I'm not in the mood.

- How about a big man's hug, son? [Mateja was out]
- OK... (cuddles)
...I want my lady.

(talking to his plate of pasta)
- I'm going to eat you baby!


This is just a taster. You get the idea.

I'm enjoying this!!
16 June 2015 @ 11:30 am
The progress is phenomenal. Not only in English but in Slovene too. And of course in French, which he gets in creche. In fact until about two weeks ago we had never heard him speak French but now he occasionally prefers to say something in French. He sometimes prefers to say 'j'ai froid' rather than I'm cold, for example. And today, hilariously, he started singing a Slovene song deliberately pronouncing the Rs in a French way.

On the subject of singing. Alex loves it and sometimes even sings himself to sleep. He's at a stage where he's such a chatterbox that doesn't spend much time with his mouth shut! I sometimes get the impression that he fills in the silence with songs he's learnt. It's not perfectly in tune but it's not far off. I love the fact that if he doesn't know the word he'll make an approximation of how that word sounds. This calls to mind the books he reads, which contain some words I know he hasn't seen before but he makes sure I say every word when I'm reading, even if he doesn't understand everything. Books are so similar to songs for him: it's like a ritual of recital that we go through together.

He expresses himself really beautifully now and his grammar is remarkably good. He's got a really good grasp of past, present and future - inevitably with mistakes but generally very impressive. He knows that if something happened prior to now you have to put a past tense marker in. So this morning I heard 'I drawed it'. He also uses auxiliaries did/didn't really well. He'll say 'I did go' or 'he didn't went' etc but this of course is part of learning and I wouldn't dream of correcting him. He'll learn by osmosis and life isn't a classroom, at least not in any formal sense. His future tends to be 'I'm gonna...' and he's absolutely nailed the present continuous now.

One thing I love is the way he's not always mega-noisy (though he is most of the time!). He's capable of speaking quietly and seems to find it amusing. Last night I wasn't feeling well, so he came into the lounge and asked in such a gentle voice 'are you not well daddy?'

You can tell he loves improving his vocabulary. He's forever apeing (parrotting?) what I say, and seems to play with new words as though they were new toys. It's such a joy. So when I say 'the trouble is...' he'll repeat that with exactly my intonation. Talking of intonation,...

Alex has a very good ear. When I ask him to ask me nicely for things, rather than just shout 'I want X', he gives me a perfectly intoned 'Can I have some X?' ...including the high eyebrows! A lot of his previous difficulties, or should I say grapplings, with pronunciation have largely been ironed out. And i love the way he enunciates every letter, even when he's got it slightly wrong, e.g. he pronounces suitcase as 'soupcase', which is kind of sweet.

His English is better than his Slovene these days - language comes more naturally in English - understandably as he gets Slovene only from his mum. But Mateja is consistent and persistent and he always responds in Slovene when pushed. One thing about his English, though, is that it is occasionally influenced by Slovene syntax, so you get phrases like 'it's coming the train' and 'to the park I want to go'. And more recently there's French interference, with things like 'me I want to play football'.

Some of his utterances are really quite complex and he's attempting more and more conditionals, for example. It's usually a repetition of a sentence he's heard, which after all is the best way to learn: 'If you do that I will be very angry'.

There are tantrums and troubles to go with it but gosh this is a fun age.
31 December 2014 @ 10:32 pm
Coming to the end of 2014, Alex is two and a half. His charm and cheekiness take our breath away. What a joy he is to be around.

There is so much to report in terms of his language development it's almost impossible to know where to start. The first thing to say is that I now feel as though we're making conversation. I don't want him to grow up too fast but it makes me happy that he's happy and confident in his way of expressing himself'.

To break it down a bit, he's got I, you and we completely nailed now. 'It's not your X it's my X' is a construction we hear quite a lot, and he's mastering 'yours' and 'ours' too. Mine comes out as 'mys' (rhyming with prize), which is quite sweet. It helps that Philip's, daddy's etc., which he's more or less got, also end in possessive 's'. That our bus? is now a fairly common question, which suggests he knows who the 'our' refers to.

There are more and more articles creeping in, so he'll say, for example, on the table, on the sofa, in the book, etc etc.

Verbs such as can, want and need are in place now. He used to confuse want and need - he'd say 'I need it' in all kinds of not-very-urgent situations - but I think he's working that out now. He's said Can I... (to ask for things) once or twice, but still prefers 'I want more' or just saying the thing he wants. Can occurs often in sentences such as 'I can do it'.

Questions are starting to sound like questions. Mummy, which one you like? Daddy, how do that? When train coming? Where mummy? (The present tense of 'to be' is not there yet, though 'was' has arrived: we're really enjoying pointing a jokingly accusing finger at each other and saying 'it was you!'). He also makes questions that are not grammatically correct but are entirely effective: 'Philip cry?' 'Philip finished?'

There was a kind of present perfect the other day, with the expression 'it been in the oven long time'. These sentences are just getting more and more complex. Like 'I show you how to do it' and 'it difficult for me to do it'. I'm suitably gobsmacked.

He's clearly realised that 'don't' is a useful negative marker. 'I don't want go shopping with you' was a great one recently, not least because of the message: before I would've just scooped him up and put him in the car but now he really says what's on his mind.

One thing I lover at the moment as the way he mimics us. My favourite example is when I say just a little bit, with my thumb and forefinger together and a little squint for emphasis. Alex's copying of this gesture is surreal - he really hams it up - and very amusing.

Alex is singing more and more as well, which can only be a good thing, both for his language development and for his general growth as a person who loves life. You wouldn't say it's in tune but it's generally recognisable. He sometimes shouts the song, bending it out of shape, as in the 'see saw' anecdote of a few months ago.

Alex is so confident with his language that he's even started making up nonsense words, knowing that they're funny.

So looking forward to reading this back in years to come!!
16 November 2014 @ 09:30 pm
Here's a selection of sentences by way of an example of what Alex can now say and to show what a funny little chap he is.

- I can do it.
- Daddy get it.
- Daddy stay there.
- I'll show you.
- Alex got big shoes.
- I going play. I going drink etc
- I like playing. I like eating. (Me: don't lick your bread! Alex: I like licking!)
- I like it. I don't like it. I like this song. I don't like this song.
- Want this? Have juice daddy?
05 November 2014 @ 11:31 pm

Call me a language nerd but gosh this is getting exciting!

Alex has been home now for two and a half months, after the summer's seven-week injection of Slovene. Mateja still speaks to him in Slovene, of course, and he understands everything but unsurprisingly, given the amount of English he gets at creche and our recent visit to England, the words are coming out much more in English.

The big news, grammar-wise, is the presence of I/me/my, as he becomes aware of who he is and that his possessions belong to him. Actually, to correct that, he claims that lots of things belong to him even when they don't, like a children's sized supermarket trolley today ('mine!'). He now says 'I want it/one' and 'I need it/one', for example, whereas a couple of months ago it would've been simply 'Alex!' In short, this is useful stuff.

The other thing I've noticed that he does brilliantly is copy. And I don't mean just words and phrases, though that too is impressive (Me: Take off your sweater or leave it on? Alex: Leave it on). No, I'm referring to intonation, body language and facial expressions. For example when he's offering something he leans his head ever so slightly to one side, looks up and raises his eyebrows. That is real and realistic communication.

In terms of pronunciation, he's getting much better at consonant clusters. The names of the other kids at creche are pronounced much more accurately than they were. One great example is Oscar. Mateja's step-sister has a baby son called Oscar, which used to come out as Oko-u (the second syllable like moker 'moko-u' and bagr 'bago-u'), but this afternoon it was close to perfection.

He also gets French in creche - to be precise, it's one week English, one week French, alternating - and a couple of weeks ago he shouted, quite randomly, 2014 (deux mil quatorze) at me. The nursery nurses tell me his French is coming along but there's little evidence at home. Maybe that will come out in due course.

Today we got a phrasal verb: tidy up. It's just a copied chunk of language, but that's really nice English.

The thing that really strikes me at the moment is that our conversations, especially on the way home from creche, are heading towards decent dialogue, with listening, asking questions, turn-taking and so on. Sometimes he doesn't answer the question and answers a completely different one but that's fine. The timing of his answers feels realistic.

Lastly, Alex's love of music shows no signs of abating. We attended the Philharmonie's open day last month and, from our point of view it was a great success. We came home with a poster showing all the instruments of the orchestra, which Alex has more or less memorised, and some nice memories, including attending mini-concerts, workshops and so on. We've also watched this Jack Teagarden video countless times. It's great on many levels, not least because of the incongruous nature of a 2 year old in 2014 watching a podgy-faced old maestro from the 1950s playing the trombone. I also love going through the instruments with him as they appear. Oh yes, the other unlikely new word from this video is 'coda'.

That's all for now, suffice it to say that the terrible twos have kicked in and it's not all fun...


useful verbs learnt lately: sleep, cry, sit ('sit daddy lap'), come, speak, work, play, put on, take off, turn over (and, just today) think!


PS just reading through this, I realised that there have been some choice phrases that need noting down:

- [pretending he'll sleep somewhere else] I sleep computer room, I sleep lounge. (I like this, not just because it's playful but also because there's an awareness of his surroundings. In a similar vein, 'daddy sit sofa' is really effective communication.

- Alex presses the intercom button from downstairs. Mateja, at home, answers and says hello. Alex: 'Open this door please!'

- Our personal favourite at the moment... Alex finishes a tantrum with the words 'finished crying'.

11 September 2014 @ 04:45 pm
Reading that previous post back, it seems like an awfully long time ago. Since then, plenty has happened: Alex has a acquired a brother and we've had a long break in Slovenia and Croatia.

Alex also no longer has time for makes of cars or planes. He's gone on to much more sophisticated things like mechanical diggers and bulldozers. Happily this appears to be a time of huge building works here in Luxembourg so there's never any shortage of heavy machinery to pick out.

While we were in Croatia some friends came to join us for a few days. Their little boy is a year or so older than Alex and he showed that the next stage is not just to point things out but also to ask what they are, what they do and why they're there. It was a vision of the future. But for now it's just 'daddy digger!' or simply 'daddy man!' Yes, his desire to point everything out includes telling us that there's a bloke over there. It's very endearing.

Mateja pointed out the other day how simple it is in English to pile up nouns and make utterances. For example, there's a lorry that's often parked near us delivering cheese and other dairy products. Alex and I have got into habit of seeing it and shouting "cheese lorry!" - something that's doable in Slovene but with some inflections required. Another nice example we've come to use a lot recently is putting the word man or lady after a noun to make, say, 'donut man', 'trampoline man' or 'pizza lady'.

Alex's first proper complex sentence was when we told him his grandparents had gone back to London by plane. Since then he's said, usually when he sees a plane, 'Papu Nana back London by plane'. He developed similar sentences when we were in Slovenia to say, in Slovene, that daddy had gone to Ljubljana by train and dedi (his grandpa) worked in the town of Dobava.

His Slovene came on incredibly well while we were away. Not just the vocabulary, which he takes in so easily, and which he wants to repeat and get used to, but also the little particle words that, as a learner of Slovene, I find so tricky. The word 'pa' for example is extremely common and is just dropped into everyday speech 'to add colour', as my first Slovene teacher put it. Not that this helped us to grasp why it was used, but I digress. Alex is learning chunks of language at a time, and not just individual words. Take the difference between knowing that home is 'doma' and being able to say (with a perfectly executed 'pa') "pa smo doma"! It's impressive. Another thing about learning in chunks is that the grammar just flows and makes me - a decent language learner - quite envious. I'll give you an example: on holiday, when the tide was out there was no more water in the little rockpool he'd come to like. "Ni vec bazena" said Alex (= there's no more pool). I can assure you that this sentence contains quite a lot of grammatical knowledge.

Thinking back to that post in May, not only can Alex now say 'big'/'velik' he can also say 'THIS big' and even 'THIIIISSS big'! In other words, he's able to add intensity and expressiveness that wasn't there before. Sometimes this just means shouting louder but he's also capable of speaking quietly to say what's on his mind in a more subtle manner. Where we were staying on holiday there was a church nearby, and whenever we heard the bells Alex would stop, look at me, nod, point upwards and say 'bells', sometimes in such an undertone it was inaudible. I found this charming.

Alex's pronunciation in both languages is very good, and he's capable of aping our intonation very accurately. There are of course plenty of things he can't say correctly yet, and it's up to us to work out what he means. For example, he has difficulty with consonant clusters, so the s is dropped if it's followed by another consonant: spiderman becomes 'piderman' and, amusingly, in Slovene skakat (= to jump) is pronounced kakat (= to poo).

We're entertained by the fact that he's memorised the names of musical instruments in both languages. Not only that, he can more or less identify them whenever he hears them. On holiday we were walking through a nearby holiday camp when we saw a chap playing the accordion. We watched him play for a while. Several times after that he would repeat 'accordion man' at seemingly random moments. A week or so later, Alex called me and his mum a few minutes after we put him to bed. Our first reaction was 'it's night time, go to sleep' but he was calling very insistently so I went to see what was up. 'Daddy, accordion!' He was right, there was accordion music drifting over from the holiday camp. So I took him onto the balcony and we listened together for a few minutes.

Alex sings now, too. He's memorised the alphabet song (to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle) and knows most of Baa baa black sheep well enough to recite. He's starting to become aware of what a birthday is, now he's had his second, and he spent much of the summer singing 'Happy Doo Day'. I caught him singing Three Little Birds by Bob Marley and the Wailers along with me the other day (my baby-calming song of choice) so it isn't just children's songs.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Alex's language acquisition is that he comes up to his mum and her family and speaks Slovene and when he's with me words pop out in English. The first time this became apparent was when we were having fish for dinner. Alex said 'daddy fish, mami riba'. I know this is how it is supposed to happen but it really is amazing to observe this at close quarters.


random useful expressions picked up recently:
- 'one': this one, that's a good one, daddy Alex have one? etc
- 'it' - found it, daddy do it, can do it [and just today] done it!
- a bunch of adjectives: big [no more ggggg], good, wet, dry, hot, cold, sharp, heavy
- a smattering of verbs: cry, drive, have, go, play, pay
- a couple of question words: what and where. He doesn't know how to say 'I don't know' but he's great at shrugging!
- one particularly delightful sentence: bakery buy some bread mummy happy
25 May 2014 @ 11:14 pm

Throughout little Alex’s life so far we’ve been told ‘oh that’s a lovely age’. It seems, in that case, as though every age has its charms. The age he’s currently at – 23 months – is proving to be not only tremendously sweet and charming but also incredibly exciting and stimulating to me, as a linguist, in terms of the way he’s picking up language.

On the one hand, Alex isn’t unique – he’s just a kid and all kids learn language. He’s only different from yours because he’s ours. On the other hand, the set of circumstances he’s confronted with, the personality he’s developing and as such the words he comes out with are all very much Alex’s own unique blend. I thought it might be interesting, then, to scribble a few notes and anecdotes about where he's up to as a language learner (and all-round charmer).

Words come easy

Right now, he’s at the stage where he’s stopped merely absorbing words, he’s actually producing them. The thought crossed my mind today that, in language terms, everything so far has been leading up to this, like the trainee sushi master who spends three years just watching before he’s allowed even to touch a knife. He’s been quietly (and not so quietly) absorbing the ways in which we refer and relate to the things around us and I now realise how important it has been to keep talking even when there’ve been no obvious signs of interest from the gurgling baby in the pram. It’s been apparent for some time that he’s been able to understand a great deal and, more recently, to point to things when asked to. Where’s the monkey (on the picture)? ...Yes! Well done!

He has yet to come out with anything approaching a sentence (though you could argue that pointing to the floor and saying 'Dirt!' is tantamount to a sentence in terms of the information it conveys). What we have now - with the help of words rather than just pointing and grunting (and sometimes crying in frustration at his inability to get his point across) - is much more like real communication than we’ve had before.

The current stage of exponential growth of vocabulary production started I’d guess about three weeks ago and I believe the turning point was when he began to say his own name. This seemed to allow him all kinds of new language possibilities and he now learns at least one new word every day, as though it's all suddenly coming naturally to him. It had previously been much more isolated and haphazard, whereas now there's a clear determination to say new words. He's clearly having tremendous fun with it. I suppose our encouragement can’t do any harm: the more his parents appreciate what he’s doing – hopefully without histrionic hysteria – the more he appears to want to produce words.

Third country kid

Having a Slovenian mother and an English father, and being born in Luxembourg, we thought it would take him a very long time to start speaking. I don’t know when these things normally happen but this mixed background doesn’t appear to have hindered him. Now he seems to be equally at ease saying words in Slovene, English or, at long last, French, which he gets from the crèche. And, on a more universal level, the makes of cars! Yes, he points to cars and he says Mini, Kia, Audi, B (for BMW), Opel and as of today – breaking news! – Peugeot!

There appears to be no obvious logic as to which language he uses to express things. Of the soft toys he sleeps with, he refers to his cow in English and his žaba (frog) in Slovene. Gratitude, on the other hand, is always expressed in French – we find his 'Merci mami' or 'Merci daddy' really delightful. There’s clearly some sort of process at work to decide which word he feels more comfortable with.

Sometimes the reason for the choice of language is fairly obvious. As recently as yesterday, he came out with ‘kolo’ (bicycle/tricycle) in Slovene for the first time, which is fairly understandable given the relative simplicity of the word. On the other side of the coin, ‘jam’ is far easier to say than the Slovene ‘marmelada’ and ‘coin’ much easier than ‘kovanec’.

Not just words

One thing I’m finding incredibly stimulating is his gradual move from gesture to word to get his point across. Until this week, his way of communicating that he wants an ice-cream has been to point to his tongue and move his finger downwards in a licking motion. He can’t say ice-cream or the Slovene ‘sladoled’ but he says his favourite flavour ‘pistachio’. It sounds closer to ‘pi-ta-sh’ but that’s obviously not a problem.

I also love the way in which the sound of the word is associated with an action or motion, which presumably reinforces the learning of the word. Now when he sees a plane he stops whatever he’s doing, points to the sky and shouts ‘PANE!’ As he does so, he makes a sweeping gesture with his arm. As a plane is the biggest thing he’s seen he wants to tell us it’s a big thing. He can’t yet say ‘big’ or ‘velik’ so he’s invented a word, or rather a kind of heaving/wheezing sound, as though groaning in wonderment at the magnitude of the thing, now accompanied by a g-g-g-g. So ‘ball’ (= small ball) and [heaving sound] ‘g-g-g-ball’ (= big ball). A bus, on the other hand, is just ‘g-g-g-g…’, along with that sound, presumably because it’s, well, just big.

It's these words he's developed for his own use that blow my mind. Take his word for football: come on! Whenever he sees people playing football he shouts 'Come on!' This is clearly derived from watching me watching football. Needless to say, we think this is very cute. He's now added City to make Come on, City! partly because he knows that his dad - a Manchester City fan - will find it a source of pride and joy.

Word and music

It’s confusing for us, as parents, and there are plenty of times we simply don’t know what he’s saying and we spend quite a bit of time every day trying to work out what he's on about. Like any reasonable people, we show interest, try to work it out and, if we fail, hope he isn’t too frustrated. Sometimes we just give up, for example when we don’t know which song he wants to hear. ‘Di-di-di’ means a song with a saxophone in it, usually by Madness: the origin is in One Step Beyond, which if you think about it goes di-di-di…! The trouble is that there are lots of songs with a ‘di-di-di’ in them and sometimes he just wants us to change the song after a few seconds. On the plus side we now have a ‘word’ for the Specials’ trombone-led A Message to you Rudy – ‘g-g-g-di-di-di’, because a trombone is bigger than a saxophone.

The longest utterance we’ve had so far is ‘see-saw Marjorie Daw’, which he’s stopped saying gently. It’s become a shouty punk-ish rendition, which we find tremendously funny.


If only I’d paid attention during psycholinguistics lessons at university, which was part of my linguistics degree. In any case, as you can tell, I’m still very keen on the subject and, of course, utterly besotted with my son.
19 September 2013 @ 10:17 pm

I once had the misfortune to catch an episode of the BBC programme Grumpy Old Men. If you haven't seen it, the show consists of a bunch of people in, I think, their 50s talking to camera about things that get on their nerves. It's intended to be amusing, Each week there's a different theme and the one I happened to see was a 'technology special' in which the talking heads (with a small t and h) banged on about their technology gripes. In some cases they kind of had a point (easy targets like 'choose from one of the following options' on the phone) but the bit that made really me wretch was when one contributor simply shrugged and said "well I don't know" and burst out laughing as though he'd amused himself greatly. I thought, you sad bastard, making a virtue out of not knowing something. The conceit of the whole series makes me think that agreeing to appear on that show must be such a heavy statement of abandonment of the world around us, a retreat into one's comfort zone (presumably padded with nostalgia) and a one-way ticket to the old-age home. As for technology, I must admit at this point I have a love-hate relationship with it and there's something about the new operating system at work, for example, that I find daunting. The 'love' part of the relationship is that I cherish the joy of the new when it comes to music. I'm just not very good at it. But any time I ever feel myself slipping into that feeling of pride in an ability to deal with new technology I try hard to stop myself and the remember the warning served by that episode of Grumpy Old Men.

At the other end of the scale, this article in the Daily Mash this week made it very clear that being an older person trying too hard to remain young is another salutary tale. It's written for humour but I found it also very thought-provoking: what are people my age (46) and above supposed to do? I don't think I behave in an undignified manner. Not least because plenty of older people go to gigs and music festivals these days, for example. I don't go to clubs any more, much as I enjoy dancing. The only time I ever dance these days is when I go to gigs.

Talking of which, I loved the Madness gig here in Luxembourg last weekend. I've reached an age where I can safely say that I know I'll always love dancing to ska. I'm not comfortable with the idea of retreating into nostalgia but I go to see plenty of new bands too so I'm entitled to an evening of wallowing in the past from time to time. Madness, of all people, are such a charming institution, as their songs - and their lovely depictions of growing up - will always remind me of where I'm from. There's a feeling of 'This is why pop music is great, 3-minute snapshots of life conveyed through lyric and melody'. The gig made me wonder at what point the members realised they were in the band for life, that it would be their career, when Chas Smash (who goes by his more sensible real name these days but really he's still Chas Smash) realised he'd be shouting 'Don't Watch That, Watch This...' for a living. Mike Barson went off in the mid-80s to live in Amsterdam as a Buddhist, if memory serves. For him it must've been like being in The Firm or Married To The Mob as he gravitated (despite himself?) back to the band.

So much for the band. They at least make music - and in Madness' case actually release decent new records, to their credit. What of the fans? It's odd when you go to ska gigs these days, and I'm referring to reunions of second-wave bands from my youth in the late 70s/early 80s. When I saw The Specials' Neville Staple in concert a few years ago it was like visiting a ska retirement home. I dread (dread) to think what people like these must think of the modern world. Are they the kind of people who go on youtube to say 'now this is real music, not like today's rubbish'? I do ask myself what it must be like to be a member of one of the pop tribes your entire life.

Being a goth, for example, is supposed to stand you in very good stead for future life, but the proviso is, I presume, that you don't stay a goth forever, however noble you may think the cause of gothdom.

Take the Rolling Stones. Whenever they play live there's always a debate between those who say how marvellous they are at 75 or whatever age and those who say it's time for them to retire. Of course they should play - they're a fine band and people are prepared to pay (ludicrous) money to go and see them. Just take it for what it is: nostalgia. They haven't been challenging or adventurous or rebellious for about 40 years, they've just been ploughing the same furrow. And don't let rock fans tell you otherwise.

I hope I'm aware of the dangers of, on the one hand, looking like a mid-life fool, and on the other, of sitting too comfortably, of failing to challenge myself. And yet despite being conscious of this, when it comes to learning new technology I sense the forces of 'pride in technophobia' massing on the horizon, waiting for their opportunity to laugh themselves silly at my stubborn refusal to learn. Technology isn't for everyone of course (unlike some - often very clever and charming - people, I frankly couldn't care less how things work) but my inner sulky kid, arms-folded, stubbornly refusing to 'get it' is a wretched side of my personality that in my conscious life want to fight, and that desire to fight is probably a good thing in itself.

If there's one thing worse than trying too hard to cling to youth, it's not trying at all. Just don't confuse 'doing what you've always done since you were young' with staying youthful.