Toddler Talk Through Linguistic Labryniths

I couldn't wait until I heard my son say "mama" for the first time. Once he did, everything was "mama" and he would babble it for no reason at all. At 19 months, my son is still a babbler. He loves to make sounds and repeat words he has learnt in apparently no order. As he is playing, we hear him say to himself "mama, daddy, deda, baba, bobo, vjon, apple, nana, car" etc until he has run through his vocabulary.

I find fascinating his grasping and utilisation of the different languages around him. My son has never been monolingual - from the beginning I spoke Serbian, my native tongue, to him and my husband spoke English with a mix of Greek. For a few months, we had a Spanish speaking nanny. While he had a Spanish nanny, he was able to communicate with the Spanish nanny in Spanish. This was before he could speak, so he would merely process what she was telling him and respond in a non-verbal manner, usually by a flurry of gesticulation. As he started to speak, at a time when I spent the majority of time with him, his first words were all in Serbian. However, as we started a nanny share with an English speaking nanny and his friend - who was English speaking also, he soon realized that the dominant language was English and switched his words to the dominant tongue. "Ne" became "no", for instance and has stayed that way except for the Tantrums Terrible when he reverts back, in his primal anghst, to his first tongue.

English is also his native tongue. From the time he was born (and before) English has resounded around him. We live in an English speaking country, his father speaks predominantly English to him as does everyone else save for me and my parents. It is natural that he would realize that Serbian gets him nowhere in communicating outside a very small group of people. There are however words that he still uses Serbian for when speaking with everyone, albeit I believe it is only a matter of time until he learns the English words, for instance for "eggs" and will switch to the dominant and more effective mode of communication. After all, what is language for but to communicate with each other? If he perceives the word he is using is not being effectively communicated, but another is, the switch, from a purely utilitarian sense, makes perfect sense.

I am fascinated to watch my son negotiate the various languages around him. He understands that "jaja" is "eggs" in Greek but addresses his paternal grandmother, who is Greek, as "yiayia", not being flummoxed by the use of the same word for two completely different things (albeit in Greek the word has a different pronunciation, which he is yet to command).

I have read that native polyglots, such as him, have different brain patterns than monologuists and process language - including the learning of later languages - differently. Further, native monologuists who later learnt new tongues, even as children, will process the new tongues in a different manner than native speakers even if they can no longer speak their maternal tongue. I am squarely in this category. I was monolingual at birth, speaking only Serbian. Then I learnt French and at 7, English. While I have the greatest aptitude and versatility in English - after all I have only ever been formally educated in an English setting and have lived in English speaking countries for most of my life -I will always process English differently from a native speaker. When I am extremely fatigued, I make Serbian mistakes in my English - for instance, I skip articles (which in a 7 case language, do not exists in Serbian). When I learn new languages, my mistakes and my accent are distinctly of Serbian origin. So much so that when I am speaking Italian to Italians, they can tell I am not a native Italian speaker, but rather perceive that I am a native Slavic speaker from the mistakes I make and from my accent and are incredulous that I can speak English, let alone speak it flawlessly. My son on the other hand, has always been at least bilingual, if not trilingual (since he was exposed to Greek, albeit in small bursts, from his birth). The way he grasps and negotiates the various languages around him is inherently different from the way I and other native monolingual speakers do. Whether he continues to be a polyglot or not (and I avidly hope it is the former), we have permanently changed his understanding and processing of language and hopefully, for the better.

Before I had my son, I read that children could grasp as many languages as provided to them - they were the sponge soaked in "universal grammar" that could acquire any and all tongues. I was warned however that one person should always speak one language to the child and not mix different tongues as that would confuse the child in negotiating the various rules of grammar for different languages. For instance, in English, you would want your child to say "sheeps", which shows they understand the difference between the singular and plural and the common rule for defining plurality and then explain the irregular rules. Unfortunately, we have not been as strict as we should have. I only have a limited number of Serbian books, for instance, so I mostly read English books to my son in Serbian (partly worrying whether this would aid his confusion and impede his reading ability, albeit I hope that at 19 months it is still too early for that problem to ripen). However, when an English book has a rhythmic pace, which my son, as most kids adores, I switch to English to get the full benefit of the book. One of my son's favourite books, read to him in English, is "Sheep in a Jeep" which begins with "beep, beep" - when he wants me to read him this book he points to it and says "beep, beep" - and I readily oblige. Apart from reading to him in English at times, I also speak to him in English whenever I am addressing him and other English speaking kids. Sometimes I say everything in English and then repeat the same thing in Serbian, but as I have to communicate to the non-Serbian speaking children, I must use English. Further, if I were to speak to my son alone and then everyone else, I worry I would give the wrong impression, for my intention is to speak to everyone in the group and have him understand that he is a part of the group I am addressing.

I worry that my laxness in this regard, for whatever reasons I can conjure to show I am not at fault and it is environmental circumstances that impel me to make exceptions, is retarding my son's lingual development. I have previously read that bilingual children and polyglots have a slower initial development with language as they process the various languages around them (for instance in achieving word groupings and sentence structure) but that they are later more formidable in their aptitude and utilisation of language than their monolingual counterparts. When I look at my son's development at 19 months - who is evidently a very verbal personality - he seems to be pretty on track even if he were monolingual. It is true he only joins words together that include an instruction or command, for instance, "mama, no", "mama, da (yes)", "mama, apple" etc but he seems to understand pretty much all we say (which might say too much about the level of our household discussions if not his increasing aptitude) and his vocabulary is increasing exponentially. However, there are words that my son says in his own toddlerlike manner, that we can't grasp the origination of. We know "vjon" is his attempt to say "avion" which is Serbian for plane. "Tch tch" is his word for helicopter, the word "helicopter" being the same in English and Serbian (although much more staccato in the latter)  and both too difficult for our son's tongue to grasp. "Tch tch" is the noise we make as we gesticulate the propeller movements for the helicopter as we say "choo choo" for the train. However, my son says "bobo" for boat and we are not certain whether it is from "brod" or "boat" or when he says "bus" whether he is saying the English word or truncating "autobus" from the Serbian. I suppose we will only know when he acquires the ability to speak the actual word.

A newfound worry of mine is that my son has lost two words that were predominant in his vocabulary for months. My son loves his duckies at bath-time and adores doggies. For months we would go out and he would run and point to any dog and say "doggy". In the past couple of weeks, he stopped using both words and I'm terrified it is a step back and due to my maligned mélange of instruction. For every time my son said "ducky" I would reply that it was the name in English but not in Serbian and use the Serbian name. I would likewise reply the same for "doggy". Further, we have been learning animal sounds for a while and this seems to have only aided his confusion. Ducks always go "quack", cows always go "moo" and dogs always go "woof" - the latter being my son's new word for dog. He has now decided that the animal sounds, which reign over both languages are the dominant designation for each animal and for cow he says "moo" rather than using the Serbian or the English word. While I could understand his processing in this circumstance, it nevertheless worries me that instead of adding words to his vocabulary his most recent progression has been the deletion of two, which I cannot see but a regression and one that must fall on my shoulders.

Unfortunately, I am not quite sure of the solution. The one thing I am resolute in, is to continue to speak Serbian to him. This is not only for heritage purposes and ability to converse with his relatives, but predominantly because the gift of one language is always pregnant with the gift of more. Serbian, a particularly difficult beast to tame, where nouns change 7 times depending on their use, riven with irregularities, will hopefully provide him with a formidable foundation to build other languages upon.

And so our linguistic acrobatic adventures continue...


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