Monday, December 21, 2009

Which kitchen appliance is your child?

Here's my newest theory about language acquisition in children. Or not a theory, per se--more of an analogy. Kids learning to talk are like kitchen appliances.

Sometimes they're toasters: you tell them a new word and right away they use that word correctly (just like when you insert a piece of bread and it pops out as toast thirty seconds later). This happened the other day when Griffin and I were shopping and he noticed a decorated Christmas tree for the first time. Fascinated, he kept repeating the word "sapin" ("sapin de Noel" is "Christmas tree" in French) every time he saw a Christmas tree, a wreath, or a garland.

Other times, they're blenders: you add some new words to a conversation involving familiar words, mix it up, and you end up with a concoction that only somewhat resembles the individual ingredients. Like when I'm nursing, and I ask him if he's ready to change to the other side: "Tu veux changer de côté?" One day, he anticipated my question and annouced "More côté!" in that imperious way that toddlers and royalty do best. "Pardon?" I asked him, clueless. "More côté pwease!" [More side please!] Many of Griffin's sentences elicit similar "huh?"s from everyone except Ed and me. We know that "pompier out" means "remove the firetruck from the box," but it's just a smooshed up smoothie to most people.

Finally, and perhaps the most exciting one for we parent-chefs, is the slow cooker. You throw in a bunch of disparate elements, turn up the heat, and leave them to mingle for a long time. Just when you'd have forgotten about that stew if the crockpot weren't right there under your nose on the kitchen counter, dinner's ready. A whole sentence emerges, unsolicited.

Earlier this month, Griffin and I were reading a book that had a picture of a candle on a mantlepiece. "Bougie," I pointed, and "bou-ee," he repeated, agreeably. "Bou-ee."

He paused, and added, "happy."

Sure, I thought. Why not? Candles are happy.

I could tell from his expression that he was still pondering the idea of happy candles. He looked up at me, back down at the book, and back at me, and then said, completely clearly, "Happy birthday."

I boggled--Griffin had never actually said "happy birthday" on his own before. But he wasn't done yet!

"Happy birthday to you Grandma," he clarified, and then turned the page, calmly, as if that wasn't longest sentence he'd ever said unprompted, as if we had celebrated Grandma's birthday (with candles on the cake, of course) just that morning, not several weeks prior.

Yep. That's my boy, learning languages like a crockpot!


  1. I love how he connects bougie-candle to happy-birthday-grandma. So cute!

  2. You've hit it right on the nail with the analogies. I see it so much in my 28 month old and her three languages!

  3. Sarah,

    My name is Vicki. I just signed up to follow your blog, but I wonder if we could exchange E-mail addresses. My son is about 2 months younger than yours. I am American married to a Japanese man and living in Japan. I am also raising my son bilingual and would love to share notes and ideas. Currently my son is using mostly English nouns with the Japanese grammar. Everyday is fascinating in terms of language acquistion.

    I have a personal blog, but have not yet started a language blog.

    If you are interested in exchanging Emails....