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Learning Bethanese

Bethany has very good English aural comprehension. She understands a very large number of words – not just words for her toys and food, but most items of furniture, places, people's names, items of clothing, an increasing number of adjectives, and so on. And she can understand really quite complex sentences, such as "Why don't you pick up the red cup from behind the turtle and put it on the tower of blocks?" (When she didn't know where the red cup was, but could see a number of other cups, etc.)

However, her spoken communication bears much less resemblance to English. She will make a great variety of vocal sounds to herself, like she's chatting away in her own language, but they're not recognisably English, and they're not intended as communication. Certain things definitely are intended to communicate with us, though; so I thought it'd be fun to try to enumerate the words and other pieces of communication she uses.

She has a few spoken words based on English, but these vary amusingly between the very general and the very specific:

  • "Mama" and "Dada" were fairly early acquisitions. They're still in use, although mixed with the variations "Mamaha", "Dadaha", "Mamagai" and "Dadagai"; if there's any logic in when she uses these, we haven't identified it. The ambiguity which Rachael previously noted[1] between "Mama"=Mummy and "Mama"=banana is still present, even though Bethany does now have a word "Nana"=Nanny. She also has a word for Grandad, which sounds like "Dadid"; it's possible she may have become confused by having three Grandads into using the word for any older gentleman.

  • She does have a word "Baba", which has two main meanings, "Bethany" and "Baby". She uses it of herself (if we say "Can you say Bethany?" she'll say "Baba!"); but she also points to pictures of babies and says it. Her definition of a baby is quite broad: children up to at least 10 years old are "Baba", and certain adults too; again, the precise terms under which it applies have not yet been ascertained.

  • She has very clear words for "Yes (please)" and "No", which are extremely useful. "Yes" is "Yeah" or "Ii-yeh". "No" is a kind of "nuh-uh-uh!" accompanied by a vigorous waving of hands.

  • She has a gesture for "song" as well, which it's been fascinating to see emerge: it's pretty much etymology in action, as it's based on her gesture for "No" but distinct from it. At first she would request one song, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, by making a twinkling gesture with her hand. Then when she learned about another song about stars (We Three Kings), she wanted us to sing that. The way she came up with to communicate this still strikes me as very clever: she'd do the twinkle gesture, then "Nuh-uh-uh!" with waving hands, and then "iiyeh" for "please". After a little while we realised this translates as "Please do Twinkle Twinkle, but not": i.e. sing a different song. Now she'll ask us to sing for her by waving her hands in front of her chest, not in the frantic denial of "no!" but in a more stylised way: it's become its own word (well, gesture) with a different meaning.

  • One other notable word of hers is "Goh!" or "Guh-guh-goh!", meaning "Gone". This has also been fascinating to watch as she progressively extends the concept. Originally it was a stand-alone utterance, meaning someone or something had left her sight. She'll now use it after a noun - most commonly "Car" because she loves to observe and comment on cars going past us, but also "cat", "mama", and one or two other things. But what's interesting is the other senses in which she'll use it when there's no physical object disappeared. If a musical toy has finished playing, it's presumably the music that's "gone". If a tower of blocks has fallen over, is it structure that's "gone"? If a moving toy stops moving, then perhaps it's the motion that's gone? If a lamp turns off, then the light has gone. In almost all these cases, if the "gone" item (such as motion or music) returns, she'll give it her characteristic "There it is!" sound, which sounds something like "There it is!" without any consonants: "Ehh ha huh!"

  • One very versatile word she has is "Dar!" This means "Car" (and by extension most motor vehicles such as vans and lorries, although not trains or motorcycles); "Star" (the shape) and by extension certain songs about stars such as Twinkle Twinkle and We Three Kings); "Down" (in the specific context of getting down from a high chair or table, either as a request for herself or, cutely, as an instruction to the cats); and "Done" (as in "I'm finished with this now, please take it away" – usually of a plate of food, but sometimes also of an activity or computer program). This may be more accurately viewed as four homophones.

  • By contrast, there are some very specific words she uses in certain circumstances: "Rho!" means "Row Row Row Your Boat", normally more precisely "Please sing / play Row Row Row Your Boat with me." "Bear" means precisely "Bear" - either a teddy bear or the big fierce kind. Many other animals have specific words or gestures: "Cat" was her first word but these days is pronounced "Tata" by confusion with "turtle"; "Baa baa baa" is "sheep" and certain songs about sheep; "Buubuubuu" is her approximation to "Moo" for a cow; a clicking sound for a horse, a bouncing gesture for kangaroo, flapping arms for penguin, clapping for crocodile, "zzzz" for a bee, "ssss" for a snake. Those have all been around for some time, but she's recently added "Ti" for "chick", a panting sound for "dog", and an approximation to "eee aww" for a donkey.

  • An amusing word she's picked up is "Bwah", meaning "Kiss" (as in "Mwah"). If Rachael and I are saying goodbye, or hugging or something, often Bethany will comment "Bwah!" Also if we tell her we love her, that kind of thing. She can also wave goodbye, and will do so even if someone isn't leaving but she thinks they ought to be!

  • Other words: "Aer!" or "Eeh!" for "Aeroplane"; "Duudid" for "What's that?" or "Who's that?"; "Wubble" for either "kettle" (because they bubble) or "video"; "Babbub" for "bib"; "Yo-at" for "yoghurt"; and a kind of insistent "Unh." noise for "I want that please" (usually accompanied by pointing at something). This last is by far her most frequent utterance: a large proportion of Rachael's day is spent following Bethany's pointing finger, trying to guess what Bethany might be after, and saying "Do you want the X?" "Nuh-uh-uh!" "Do you want the Y?" "Nuh-uh-uh!" "Do you want the Z?" "Iiyeah."

  • Oh, and she's recently started recognising letters of the alphabet! Startling and exciting. She'll say "Muh", "Buh" and "Duh" (for Mummy, Daddy and Bethany) upon seeing the appropriate letters, and now will spontaneously notice them on book covers or suchlike, and point them out gleefully. She also takes delight in carefully pressing the B key on my keyboard and watching how this makes a big letter B appear on the screen.

So that's, what, perhaps 40 words and gestures that she uses? Whereas her vocabulary of understood words I'd say must be around 1000 now.

One other exciting development, as implied above, is that she's also now assembling short sentences. Two-word sentences like "Car gone" are common, and I've seen a few three-word ones: "Sheep song please" and suchlike.

It's delightful and intriguing watching as our daughter gradually becomes more linguistic :)

[1]: If you're not on Rachael's baby filter and would like to be, do ask; those posts are only filtered as a convenience to those browsing long friends-lists who aren't interested in baby stuff.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 27th, 2012 05:05 pm (UTC)
Both my sisters had the "unh" noise for "I want that!". Wonder how common it is?
Feb. 4th, 2012 06:51 am (UTC)
Now you've made me almost regret having missed the first few words. Our youngest was 18 months when we met, and already had strong vocabulary with a few phrases.

Granted, we're now seeing her transition from combining short phrases to forming complete thoughts in sentence form, at almost three years old. Our sense of awe at the progression is exactly what I feel from your post.

I wish we could feel the same wonder about our kindergartener learning to read, but she ruins it by becoming stubbornly stupid at the slightest frustration.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )