September 21, 2007

A child's garden of languages

My granddaughter Opal (who's three and a half) has been working for a while on a theory of what different languages are.  The latest episode, as reported this morning by her mother Elizabeth on the blog Elizabeth and her husband Paul maintain:

Opal is about to take Chinese classes. Paul advised her to say "Ni hao ma" to her teacher. "I can't," said Opal. "Why not?" "I can't say 'ni hao ma'." Our laughter alerted her to the fact that there was a problem with this statement. "I mean, I can't say 'ni hao ma' in Chinese. How do you say 'ni hao ma' in Chinese?" I dunno. "Hello", maybe? We were unable to convince her it was already in Chinese.

Elizabeth told me this story at breakfast today, at which point it occurred to us to ask Opal what language we were speaking.  Elizabeth offered several possibilities, all of them rejected until she got to English, which Opal accepted enthusiastically, adding that "English is plain words".

[Amendment 9/22/07: Several readers have pointed out that Paul didn't have the Mandarin quite right (as I should have noticed): "ni hao ma" (with the interrogative marker "ma") is a question, literally 'Are you good/ok?', conveying 'How are you (doing)?', while "ni hao" is literally 'You (are) good)', serving as a conventional greeting, roughly 'Hello'.  The latter is what Opal would have wanted to greet her teacher.]

Opal is about to take French as well as Mandarin.  At her day care center, there are kids bilingual in English and several other languages, and most of the teachers are at least bilingual.  Her mother is fluent in French, and Opal's been to Germany (where she learned one word of German, "Hauptbahnhof" -- useful to her because a main train station will offer both ice cream and books).  So she's been exposed to lots of languages (and to quite a range of varieties of English, from Australian to Irish).  For a while, she identified all languages other than English as Spanish; I'm not sure what her current take on these things is.

[Addendum 9/22/07: Elizabeth notes that Opal understands a number of exressions in a variety of languages -- but apparently she thinks things like "On y va!" and "¡Vámonos!" and "Bleibst bei mir" are just English idioms that don't relate to other things in the language.  Meanwhile, she does pretty well at shifting back and forth between Australian lexical items (to her father) and American ones (to her mother).]

At one point on that trip to Germany, Opal awoke from napping in her mother's arms to find Elizabeth negotiating with a desk clerk in German.  Opal shrieked, demanded to be let down, and ran to the door, trying to get out of the pension.  Elizabeth asked what was going on, and Opal explained that she had to go outside to find her momma and daddy.  Apparently, she thought (for a little while, anyway) that Elizabeth had been replaced by a German-speaking impostor.

Now we'll see how the kid handles French and Mandarin as well as plain words.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 21, 2007 02:36 PM