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25 May 2014 @ 11:14 pm
Alex and language  

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.