Ups and Downs

ArrowImage: jscreationzs /


Thomas and I were talking on Skype to my parents back in the UK the other day when they mentioned something that I had noticed in passing before.  Although he doesn’t have many words and he babbles a lot, it sounds as if you know what he is trying to say.

When teaching my English language students, one of the things that often comes up is the importance of intonation.  I give them made up statistic of how most of what we communicate is through our intonation rather than the actual words.  I say made up because I don’t know if there are any actual real statistics around, but it is very important.  I give a few examples of how intonation can change the meaning and most of the time my students are receptive to the importance of intonation when learning English.

This is probably because Portuguese and English intonation patterns are similar.  There are obvious differences; the use of the auxiliary in questions allows English to have both rising and falling intonation patterns; when people want to congratulate you on your birthday they sound bored to me because the intonation pattern they use would be more appropriate for a list in English.  The differences, though, are noticeable simple because they are so rare.

I think this is also the reason why it sounds as if Thomas is speaking, even though he is just babbling.  The intonation and the rhythm of his baby talk are similar to English or Portuguese.  If my made up statistic has any relevance at all, this is also what enables him to communicate despite not having many words.

One thing that he seems to be able to communicate perfectly well in this way is his complete and utter disdain for me when I am messing around with him.  I often do stupid things to get him to laugh and most of the time it works.  If it doesn’t work then I just get a ‘Oh daddy!’ which lets me know how ridiculous I am.

I would love to know if this is just me making things up, or if other people have noticed that their child sounds like he’s talking, even though he isn’t.

Communication Strategies

As any good second language learner knows, sometimes you either don’t know or can’t find the word you need in order to communicate what you want.  In this case you have to find an alternative way of getting your message across.

Before T was born I was of course aware that babies and infants could do exactly the same thing, only I was under the mistaken impression that their communication strategy was based on crying.  When T was very young we quickly learned to interpret the different types of cry that he had; one for a dirty nappy, one for being hungry, one for being scared and so on.

He has also learned different types of communication strategy that I was never aware of.  If he wants to watch TV he opens the palm of his left hand draws a circle on it with the index finger of his right hand.  If we are going outside he reminds me that he needs a hat by pointing at his head.  This is not to be mistaken for telling me has hit his head when he uses the palm of his hand and gently pats the area that he has hit.

He has learnt to point at the thing he is interested in, and even pull me or his mother by the hand towards the thing that he wants.  This was recently illustrated when he was hungry and pulled me off the sofa, directed me to the kitchen and pointed at his high chair.

He can nod or shake his head when we ask him questions.  He also uses different intonation patterns to show that he is thinking about something, is frustrated or just happy.

When he wants acknowledgement that he has done a good thing, he claps his hands an waits for us to join in or tell him what a clever boy he is.

These different ways of getting the message across are invaluable for him.  I think they are even more useful for a kid learning two languages at the same time.  I can envisage a context whereby he is in England in the not too distant future trying to ask for something from my parents, but he only knows the Portuguese word.  He is going to have to find a way around the communication block if he is to get what hewants.

I would like to know if anybody else hs noticed any other communication strategies that babies and infants use that perhaps I have missed.  Please leave a comment if you have.

Listen and Repeat

In the world of second language learning there is quite a debate at the moment about the use of drills for language learning.  For the uninitiated, a drill is basically an exercise in which the learner repeats the target language a number of times.  There can be a number of objectives for using a drill, but the most common are either associated with a behaviourist approach to language learning (repeat something often enough and it will become internalised behaviour), or just giving the student to get the chance to wrap his or her tongue around a new set of words and sounds.

I must admit to using drills with my students occasionally.  It has therefore been interesting to see how T has used the equivalent of drills in his language development.  He has got to the point where he will sometimes hear a word that I have said and repeat it.  If I say it again, he will repeat it again.  This can go on for up to a dozen times before he gets bored of it.

One such example is the word ‘tractor’.  I think I have mentioned before how T seems to have become obsessed with cars.  Well, ages ago a friend bought a book with lots of little cars that are attached to the pages by velcro.  This lets the child pull the cars out, pay with them and try to put them back in the right place.  For months T was not interested in this book, but it has suddenly become of his favourites.

One of the cars is a tractor, so I asked him what it was and he said ‘abuda‘, as he usually does.  I said ‘tractor’ and, to my astonishment, he repeated it perfectly.  I was surprised because I thought the consonant cluster in the middle might be too difficult.  I thought it might just be a one-ff, so I said it again.  Once more T repeated it perfectly.  He did so another 5 or 6 times before turning his attention to other cars in the book.  Unfortunately, he was no longer interested in the names for the digger, ambulance, fire engine and so on.

Later that day I was on Skype with my brother and decided to see if T would show off what he could learn.  After an initial reluctance he did come up with the word, again with perfect pronunciation.  In the evening I showed my wife, but he was of course having none of it by now.

Since then, I have tried to repeat the exercise on a number of occasions.  Sometimes he isn’t interested and sometimes he repeats it.  There has been, though, a subtle change.  The consonant cluster in the middle has changed so that the /t/ sound is often missing and the word sounds more like ‘tracor’.  I am not quite sure why this has happened but my bet is that he is no longer paying much attention to what I am actually saying and instead is just saying what he thinks is the best word.

This tells me a lot about using drills with my adult students.  One of the main criticisms of drills is that they can get very boring very quickly.  If a drill doesn’t grab the student’s attention then they are likely to not say it properly and this defeats the object of the drill completely.

Word Games

From what I have read from various people on the web about bringing up bilingual children it seems that one very important aspect is to make sure the child enjoys what they are doing and has fun while picking up the two languages.  This also chimes with the way I try to teach English as a foreign language to my students.  While I don’t always play games with my students they at least need to enjoy the experience and not just see the whole thing as boring work.

I think I played my first word game with my son last night, and he certainly seemed to enjoy it.  It was just the two of us messing around together and he suddenly stopped and said ‘mamãe’ (‘mommy’).  I said ‘no’ and shook my head because she was at work.  He immediately repeated ‘mamãe’ and I immediately said ‘no’.  He again said ‘mamãe’ and I told him ‘no’.  This went on for about a minute or so, but by the end he was smiling as he said ‘mamãe’ as if he knew what I was going to say and was expecting it.

I know that this isn’t exactly Scrabble or anything, but it gave me a great sense of achievement and I hope it gave my son a fun time and a great experience.  I am already looking forward to more.