Friday, August 04, 2006

Child's play wordplay

Documenting the evidence of Helena's linguistic understanding, mastery, and mockery at age 3 and a half (these instances having occurred and been repeated over the last few months):

Helena's favourite word: bibliothèque. We don't go very often together, but she goes about once a week with her daycare group. Some mornings I hear this word a hundred times, broken down into syllables and then at breakneck speed, tying up her tongue around the "l"; a whisper in my ear and a public broadcast through the paper towel tube megaphone; in her baby voice and in her monster voice. One word affirms that she is her mother's daughter.

Helena riffs on green. "Vert. Il y'a trois 'verts.' Vert, verre, et ver. Oh, et verre. Quatre 'verts.'"

That's (respectively): green, glass (receptacle), and worm. And glass (material).

Yet to be identified by her: "vers" (verse) and "vers" (toward).

Cross-lingual homophony:

"Il n'y'a pas de trou. That's true. It's true there's no trou."

We've been watching the animated Cat in the Hat, and singing: "Cat. Hat. In French: chat, chapeau. In Spanish he's a gato in a sombrero." Naturally, this leads to Helena's own improvisations about a gato in a gateau.

Helena no longer corrects my French pronunciation or makes fun of my accent (although I'm certain this little entertainment has years of life still ahead). On the other hand, she's only just realized her father has an accent when he speaks English.

There's a reason I'm the one who usually gets stuck with reading Dr Seuss. But when Helena puts The Cat in the Hat in J-F's hands, he complies. When first we meet Thing One and Thing Two, Helena gets angry. "Pas 'ting,' Papa." 'Ting' is the sound phasers make. Of course, Helena has a little pronunciation difficulty of her own. "C'est 'fing,' Papa. 'Fing!'"

Helena babbles. Sheer and utter nonsense. Not simply to fill a silence. It's a game. It started with pipi and caca being used to replace other everyday words. Then strings of nonsense syllables within barely identifiable sentences. Now strings of sentences, with inflections and pauses and a face full of expression, but otherwise meaningless (to me). If I dare ask for clarification, or for a confirmation of my haphazard guess at interpretation, she retorts, "Mais, je peux dire qu'est-ce que je veux." (I can say what I want.) By which I know Helena to mean: "Words mean what I want them to mean."

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."


renee said...

I am contantly amazed by the learning capability of children, and the distinction between what they know and what they haven't figured out yet. I love hearing these little stories.

Martha said...

Oh, I wish my children were being raised bilingual! Their capacity for learning language, and making distinctions between sounds, and playing around with those sounds is amazing right now. C has always made up her own words, and almost always uses them in impromptu songs, which she then wants us to join in. She also has a propensity for transposing word sounds-- for instance, she was calling a building she saw ishred. I was confused until I realized she meant reddish. And I've heard her say chidle for child...etc etc. Fascinating. And I love Helena's gathering of words that sound the same but mean different things.

Kelly said...

Amazing! Watching children learn and acquire language is fascinating. My 14-month-old twins share Helena's fondness for babbling. I look forward to watching them pick up some of her other skills.