New language – shape, sound and word association

I bought a book for my daughter around about the time she turned one. It was £1.99 from the British Heart Foundation and called ‘1000 Words and Pictures’. She can lift and carry it by herself now that she’s getting on for four. This week when we were reading about the parts of a tree, she pointed to a sapling and said ‘Grosbeak Starling’. I managed not to laugh and told her it was a sapling but it started me thinking.

1000 Words and Pictures book

She’s heard the name Grosbeak Starling when we’ve been pointing to and naming animals in a very battered and highly treasured zoo leaflet we have. I try to skip the tropical aviary page normally but sometimes end up speedreading through them instead. Clearly in her mind she has associated ‘sapling’ and ‘starling’ and presumably it’s the similar sounds (let’s go with phonemes) or the two syllable pattern with the stress on the first syllable.

Grosbeak Starling and friends

I’m quite aware that I best remember language visually, to the point where I often ‘see’ a word written in my own handwriting when I’m trying to recall new vocabulary. At the same time, when I can’t remember someone’s name, I can often remember how many syllables it has so the heard shape and rhythm of the word also plays a part.

My daughter hasn’t learnt letters yet (and I used to speedread through the birds) so I can’t imagine that she would have remembered the shape of the printed words.

I really enjoy hearing the word combinations she sometimes comes out with when trying to remember a name. We play a memory / naming / recognition game with the AvesBrazil account on Instagram looking through different Brazilian bird species. It actually reminds me of how enjoyable I found it to try and learn the maritime signal flags, their letters and meanings, when my mum was studying for her Day Skipper qualifications. One of the birds is called ‘Ferro-velho’ (‘scrap metal‘ in English but literally ‘old iron‘).

Ferro-velho by Rafael Weber on WikiAves

My daughter often settles for ‘ferrovia’ (‘railway‘ in English but literally ‘iron way‘) instead of Ferro-velho. Again, this is the same shape, four syllables in two pairs, stressed-unstressed, stressed-unstressed.

It’s difficult to say how much she understands the meaning of the words she’s hearing, but yesterday she saw a bird in the marsh and asked what it was, thinking it looked like a chicken. I told her it was a Saracura of some sort and she asked me whether it was a Saracura-três-potes or Saracura-do-mato, both of which we have seen on the Aves Brazil Instagram account, so perhaps her comprehension is greater than I often assume. It’s certainly given me yet another reason to check every word I say in front of her.

I think my favourite word association moment is still when my daughter looked at the map in the zoo pamphlet, pointed at the outline of the capivara (capybara) and confidently exclaimed ‘Capitão América’ (Captain America).

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you noticed any unusual word associations in young language learners you know? Or do you remember any of your own unique language combinations?

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