Watch Your Language

At 20 months, my son Fox is exhibiting some scandalous baby-talk. No joke: if you point to a wall clock he snappily supplies the word “cock.” We recently bought some pussy willows, the first two syllables of which Fox says flawlessly. But for some reason he refuses to say “willows.” And don’t even ask what he said during Monday’s art class when we made a kite… I don’t want to involve the Anti-Defamation League.

The other day as he reached for my sunglasses, Fox confidently said “gafas”. I commended him for his effort, then patronizingly pronounced the word glasses. His nanny Maria overheard from the kitchen and timidly offered that gafas is in fact Spanish for glasses. (Maria wears her gafas on a granny strap, from which they dangle about her bosom.) Holy frijole. My son is bilingual.

Since Maria is only part time, my wife was initially concerned that occasional Spanish would confuse our son – and maybe even delay his speech. I figured that for babies, all languages are foreign (or native, depending on whether you see that glass as half empty or half full).

It seems to be working out. Maria speaks to Fox solely in Spanish, and he appears to understand everything she says. Granted, besides gafas Fox’s only Spanish words are a few numbers, plus gracias and naranja (orange). Wait, can I count no? Maybe that’s a stretch.

In our neighborhood it’s fashionable to hire a nanny from somewhere exotic. The hope is that an unusual second language will distinguish your child on a school application.

It’s even more fashionable to procreate with someone from an exotic country (assuming it’s not the nanny).  My wife’s friend married a Japanese chick and at 18 months, their daughter Magnolia barely speaks a word. But she holds back with such assuredness that you know she’s already fluent in both English and Japanese.  She’s just biding her time. Talk about a triple threat: English + Japanese + she’s adorable.

As a college Russian major, I always intended to speak the language of Dostoevsky to my son from birth. But like a bad tennis stroke, there was no follow-through. So while Spanish may not be as interesting, it will almost certainly be more useful. And the early exposure to a second language is wiring Fox’s brain in all sorts of developmentally salubrious ways.

When I lived in Russia a friend teasingly told me the following riddle (translated for your benefit): “What’s the word for someone who speaks three languages?” I answered, trilingual. He continued, “What’s the word for someone who speaks two languages?” Bilingual. “And what’s the word for someone who speaks only one language?” I thought for a moment, but couldn’t come up with anything. He smiled and said “American.”

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3 Responses to Watch Your Language

  1. Amanda March 16, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    We speak fragments of different languages we’ve picked up. Thanks to my educational experience and Dora and Diego, there’s some Spanish spoken in our house. Usually it’s “Vamonos!” Our youngest for whatever reason would never respond as if I was serious with a command unless I gave it in Spanish during those defiant toddler years. I don’t even know how I discovered that trick. Probably like most parenting tactics – desperation.

  2. Marissa March 25, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    my oldest (now 3 1/2) would wedge herself in between the couches and then complain “I Suck! help!” as for forign languages she is in love with kai lan and seems to be picking up the little Japanese words phrases and numbers. I want to teach then some of the languages ive picked up on (spanish turkish sign language) but her little 3 year old attention span is unwilling to cooperate. lol. my 2nd is still working on mamama babababa tikklll (tickle) and my 3rd is working on lifting his head. lol. Hopefully i can teach them a few things with other languages eventually.

  3. Venus March 28, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    I had fully intended to speak French to our little guy, but I, like you, am a poor tennis player. Our nanny is not exotic, so not help there. However, hubs and I do count 1-5 to him in 5 languages (English, Spanish, French, Italian, German). He hasn’t said any of those numbers yet (in any language, he only just turned a year old) but I’m hoping just hearing the other sounds will help. We’re also considering doing a Rosetta Stone tutorial in Italian (we took real classes ages ago and have lost almost all of it) so that we can start throwing that around like we’re in Firenze.

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