Bilingual children and language development – Trying out new language or ‘Just us chickens!’

One of the delights of being able to observe our daughter go through a language growth spurt is being present both at the moment of her hearing new language and then hearing that new language being road-tested by her for the first time.

A fortnight ago I asked our daughter (three years and three months old) what she wanted for breakfast which prompted her to ask “E depois a gente vai descansar?” (“And afterwards are we going to rest [have an afternoon nap]?“). My husband exclaimed “Ó louco! Você acabou de levantar!” (“Nutter! You’ve only just got up!“).

[I can’t find a written translation for the meaning of ‘ó louco’. I would say that it is perhaps equivalent of ‘you’re having me on‘ or ‘no way‘ in the sense that it is an expression of disbelief that something has been said or the truth of what’s been said which reflects on both the speaker and what is spoken. I do know that when my husband mentioned that he had been in the queue for the supermarket checkout for over an hour (pre-pandemic) and the cashier responded “Ó louco!” he got quite cross.]

The next day I happened to be hanging out washing and our daughter had headed off past the slatted fence to the backyard with a tub full of maize to feed the chickens. She tends to take a really long time over this as, rather than throw all the maize onto the floor of the chicken run for all eight of them, she likes to throw one piece of maize at a time which means that the chickens who are further down the pecking order and who know they will definitely not get a look in normally lose interest and occupy themselves elsewhere.

In this case some of them must have hopped up onto their wooden pole perches as I could hear a young but very confident voice exclaiming “Já querem dormir agora? Ó louco! Vocês querem dormir agora? Ó louco!” (“Are you already wanting to go to sleep? Nutters! You already want to go to sleep? Nutters!“).

As I stood laughing to myself and the washing, she continued confidently and totally unselfconsciously practising her new phrase on the chickens. I counted four times.

It was lovely to hear her delighting in the discovery of the new language and using it purely for the joy of it. Perhaps the sound of it, perhaps the sense of achievement of having mastered it, perhaps both and more. The chickens would have shown little to no appreciation of her new-found phrase. At other  times of course, there is a visible ‘ahah, that gets a laugh from my audience, I will immediately repeat this endlessly’ moment. But in this case, the audience was unforthcoming with the affirmation and she kept practising her new language anyway.

I found it interesting that she heard the language ‘ó louco’ once and, although she didn’t attempt to repeat it at the time of hearing, clearly absorbed the language as a single unit (both words) and then used it with confidence in another appropriate setting. It only occurred to me when writing this post that she used the language in almost exactly the context she heard it in; disbelief at the idea of going to sleep earlier than usual.

I’m hoping that I’m present for the moment when she uses ‘ó louco’ appropriately in a context not related to timings of waking up and sleeping.

New language seems to be coming thick and fast at the moment so I’m trying to listen out for it as much as possible. I find it much easier to identify new steps in Portuguese as these are units or phrases that I’ve had to learn as an adult (and many of them within the last five years). For language which doesn’t have an easy English equivalent (like ‘ó louco’) I can often pinpoint the moment when I first became aware of it and had to ask for an explanation or attempt to puzzle out the rules of usage myself from the context.

I’d love to hear your thoughts? Have you heard your child road-testing new language? Or has your child started using language naturally that you’ve had to learn recently?

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