My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.
The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水，冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.
Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?
Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.
Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.
She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.
Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?
More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.