The Avalanche of Language : Toddler Talk

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my son's advancing language and predicted that the onset of a sentence would be a while as he was bilingual. Less than a week later, as if insulted by my post and eager to prove me naive, my son uttered his first sentence, which fittingly for a tyrannical toddler was a command. "Elmo, sit" he directed. We were stunned and wondered whether we heard correctly. The next day he commanded, "daddy, come" as he patted the bed next to him, a book ready in hand to be devoured. I was not surprised that his first construction was in English, which is the dominant language around him and has a much simpler sentence structure than Serbian. As if wanting to dispel all my preconceived notions (which in part were influenced by the various books on child development and learning that I have read, which presumably based their theories on theoretical fiction of the average child and standard deviation - for instance, that there is a jump from two to four to more words in a sentence) he used a three word sentence in less than a fortnight. When my mum was out with my son and called my husband, putting him on speaker phone, my son, hearing his father and taking the phone, fumbling for his image as he is used to Face Time, showed his frustration by tapping the phone and noting to his grandmother, "I hear daddy"(thus imparting the salient fact that the process was not functioning properly through its absence  - as the family was astonished by his progression to a three word sentence, I wondered whether this was the harnessing of the jewel of diplomacy).

Another surge in his lexical development has been the grasping and utilization of the concept of "this" - he can point to what he wants if he doesn't understand the word and he can point to what he wants us to explain to him. A few days ago, when he was frustrated at the limits of my somnambulant existence, bringing him something he didn't want to eat, he shook his head and said "no, this is?" and I stood flummoxed as I digested this new progression. Language development seems to develop exponentially.

I find it interesting to see how he connects various objects under one umbrella until he has learnt the applicable word, learning in that instant both the proper word and the differentiation of the new object. For instance in his toddler talk now, "car" is a car as well as a truck and "bus" is a bus as well as all trucks. "Meow", which is his term for cat, is also applicable to the big cat family well as foxes (until most recently when he learnt the word, which he proudly pronounces as "fock" that will likely necessitate some explaining in the near future to aggrieved  parents in the playground) and rodents, particularly when drawn by his mother who admittedly does not follow the strictures of sizing (when viewing the proper dimensions, he rather uses "bunny"). "Horse" is applied to zebras and "sun" is applied to moon. He understands what a horse looks like and to him, a zebra is a white horse with black stripes.

We have to communicate with what we've got. If you've ever struggled in a foreign tongue, you would understand the inelegance and imprecision of communicating a concept or an object for which you have no words for (and let's pretend in this instance, to propel my point that you cannot merely point to the object nor even gesticulate its contours and must allow for words alone to express it). For instance, if I didn't know the word "door" in  a language, I may say off the cuff, "the window that you walk through" or the "opening in the wall between rooms that you walk through and can open and shut" etc Toddlers, with their limited lexical ability may simply say, "window" for "door" and vice versa. As my son learns new words, he learns our categorization of objects, which is somewhat different in different languages (for instance, my husband was proud to proclaim the other day that Greek had a word for "the day after tomorrow" as if this were unique to Greek - Serbian has the same - but why does English lack such a useful word?) and I am keen to see his reactions, even from a purely epistemological stance.

This burst of language, as welcome as it has been, has resulted in a bilingual dilemma. I have been reading English books in Serbian to my son which I thought would not cause a problem until much later on, considering he just turned 21 months and would not be (according to my naive thinking) focusing on the letters in order to be confused. However, my son has taken to learning the alphabet and is now the proud owner (for we own concepts and lexical tools) of several letters which he enjoys to point out as we read. He has beat me to the alphabet. I had been acclimatizing him to the Cyrillic alphabet and had thought fit to start steady learning in the coming months, due to the fact that Serbian is phonetic and would lead to quicker reading and writing. Now I'm in the predicament that if I focus on the Cyrillic alphabet, I will retard his learning because I will confuse him due to the fact that both alphabets share physically identical symbols for different letters- "p" is "r", "B" is "v" and "x" is "h" etc. I despaired at having to teach reading and writing with etymological spelling (on the other hand this allows for a great introduction to etymology). Then my husband had an idea. Why not teach him reading in Serbian with the "latin" alphabet? The Serbian "latin" alphabet is not the same as the English (in fact it is the same alphabet as the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, only employing latinized letters)  - there is no "x" and no "w" in Serbian and there are additional letters that we don't have, for instance "sh", "nj", "lj" etc but at least the latin alphabet is not contradictory, "p" is "p" and "h" is "h". Now all I need are books in the latin alphabet. I don't posses any, because my aesthetic pretensions led me to decline buying any books in the latin alphabet in Belgrade last year albeit it severely amputated my choices, as publishers are unfortunately not keen to publish in Cyrillic anymore, considering that they would have a greater market for books printed in latinica which could be sold and marketed across all the ex-Yugo members as opposed to Serbia alone. So now the hunt begins...


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