The Order of Things

order of things

You might want to skip this one if you don’t find bilingual toddler speech patterns absolutely fascinating.

Before Pata was born, N questioned my intention to speak to her in English. He feared that before going to preschool, she would speak more English than Italian, and that would make it difficult for members of his family to understand her. When he was unmoved by my suggestion that her being bilingual was worth a little of their inconvenience, I argued that as a young toddler, she probably wouldn’t have many words anyway, and it wouldn’t be difficult for his family to learn the few that happened to be English.

We were both wrong. Pata’s vocabulary is very large: there must be at least a thousand words in it, and perhaps many more. (It’s difficult to estimate how many because she seems to know the word for almost everything, and she assimilates new words immediately upon hearing them.) What I find most remarkable is that her words are almost evenly split between English and Italian, and that with very few exceptions, if she knows a word in one language, she knows the analogous word in the other one. This represents a significant change from the situation I described in this post six months ago, and for me it has been a completely unexpected development.

The equality between English and Italian in her vocabulary does not, however, extend to her syntax. She’s been speaking in sentences in both languages for several months now, and as they’ve become longer I’ve noticed something interesting about her word order in English. More often than not, she places adjectives after the nouns they modify. A couple of recent examples:

“Be quiet you, Mommy, I want cookies chocolate!”

“It’s eating carrot bunny little little, look at this, Mommy!” (Note the repetition of the adjective for emphasis.)

Both of these demonstrate another frequent quirk of her English: the placement of the subject after the verb. Here’s one of my favorite examples of that:

“Broke it Pata.”

I imagine that those of you who speak Italian perceive a certain logic in what’s she’s doing. In fact, one of my recent favorites:

“Oh no! Baby turtle! Leg this broke it, help us papà sticky-sticky put it on, Mommy,”

seems little more than a string of words in English, but makes more sense translated into Italian:

“Si è rotta la zampa (questa), ci aiuta papà la colla a mettere, Mommy.”

(Just a side note, I didn’t teach her “sticky-sticky” as an alternative word for glue, instead, not knowing that word, she simply invented her own, using her rule of repeating adjectives to create emphasis.)

So while English and Italian are equally represented in her vocabulary, it seems that Italian grammar has a stronger influence on her sentence construction. That doesn’t surprise me at all given that she hears more Italian than English, and it reminds me of the sìsìhorse and the acquapus, two (endearing) examples of her trying to make Italian sense of a couple of new English words.


18 responses to “The Order of Things

  1. I may be one of few, but I find this post fascinating! That is so interesting how Pata's bilingualism is developing. How old is Pata now? My son is nearing 3, and for the last few months his Eng. and Ita have also become almost equal. He does not do what you describe in the sentence structure, though, but he does make up words sometimes when he forgets the word in the other language or is tired (recent examples: fer for iron, met for put, forn for forno, and fasta for veloce). What makes me happy though is that now he always speaks with me in English. I have always worried that he would reject English, but at least for now, that is not happening.

  2. Pata's speech is cute and it is good to read that everything is working out for her. My family is just like N. They seem to feel that if I speak one word to my daughter in Italian and so does my husband, her English language skills will be so stunted that she will not be able to communicate in English with schoolmates/teachers etc. even though she spends a lot of time with English speaking relatives and I do speak to her in English 99 percent of the time.They also blame Italian for my daughter not acquiring new words as fast as she should but I guess that is another story altogether.

  3. Oh I love the "sticky sticky".She makes perfect sense to me, I know that language ( :That's just what my little boy (9) used to sound like when he was tiny.Am enjoying the waves of nostalgia reading your blog.We don't get the same level of "borrowing" anymore and on one level I really miss the creation of things "cazzini" for kittens when he is doing the "what I did this weekend" news roundup with his friends.

  4. Michelle, yes, that's why I post about these things! I've tried writing in a journal but I wasn't able to keep it up. I think writing it on the blog works better for me because it requires that I edit.Karen, does your son go to preschool already? Pata is only 2, but will be starting in the fall, and I'm worried that she'll regress in English, even after having made all this progress. I'm encouraged to hear that your son always speaks to you in English, though! J. Doe., is she speech delayed? She's quite a bit younger than Pata, and if I remember correctly, the milestone for two years is something like fifty words, and that's for children who only speak one language. I think that some people just don't have realistic ideas about what to expect in terms of speech at that age. Some children speak early, but many others don't. I'm sorry that your relatives are so ignorant about raising bilingual children! Fortunately, once Pata was born, N came around, realizing that we were giving our child a great gift, and that was more important than his family's convenience. We are fortunate also because my SIL has studied early childhood development and was fairly knowledgeable about these issues. There were a few who criticized us, but they were in the minority and it was easier to just ignore them. By the way, I recently read a thread on a forum I belong to about bilingual kids with speech delays, and even in those cases, the recommendation is exposing the children to both languages. Speaking both languages is simply not harmful. (Of course, you know that, and it's your relatives who need to figure it out.)Sarah, I've been avoiding saying "glue" around her because I don't want her to stop using "sticky-sticky!" She suggests it as a solution whenever anything breaks, and being that she's a toddler, and that we live in a very old house, that happens fairly often. I love it.

  5. great post. What i've found with S (age 3.5) is she now speaks only and always in english to me, and italian to everyone else. Her main flaw in english is using an italian verb and shortening it to make it sound english. EG Mum, can you port this bag? Or I want to call Dadda, which buttons do i need to schiatch (?sorry my italian spelling is crap!). I found going to asilo definitely improved her italian to the detriment of her english, however she did start when she was 14 months old. And when the asilo tells her the WRONG pronunciation in english, which of course must be right, since the teacher told her so! There is one song they sing which really annoys me and it goes 'what-a do-a you-a like-a?' and then go on with the 'answer' of 'yes-a i-a do-a like-a etttttttttt' ie bad pronunciation and nonsensical! The only time her english improves is when she spends large amounts of time being forced to speak english (eg when my relatives visit, going to English speaking countries) or when asilo closes over the summer and she spends much more time wiht me. Now though it has been 2 months since she last had to speak english with everyone and it's still almost perfect. Reading books helps a lot with vocab. My current problem is with all the italians who can only speak a couple of phrases in english and try to get her to answer them. Their accents are so bad she hardly understands and they look so offended when i ask them to speak italian to her. Which i feel bad about as obviously they want to speak some english, unlike my MIL who thinks i'm the world's worst mother. Vanessa

  6. I, too, enjoyed this post. You know I'm raising a bilingual child under different circumstances. My experiences were quite different when she was Pata's age — she seemed behind in both languages. An only child to older parents who spent an inordinate amount of time with educated adults should not have been behind. . . it was a tough pill to swallow — even as an educator who "knows better."However. . . now (she's nearly 6) she is rocking it in both languages! Pata will too. They are all so very different, but in the end they all end with a fabulous gift — one that is a great envy of the naysayers.Now. . . if I could find a way to get rid of her THICK Vicentino accent!Have a great weekend!Dana

  7. Vanessa, I also find that people try to speak English to her once they hear me speaking English to her. She rarely understands, but they don't get offended, instead they just assume that she doesn't know how to respond! I suppose that's because of her age, but it drives me nuts. I can't wait to deal with her learning the wrong pronunciation at scuola materna!Dana, well, a Vicentino accent is better than an American one, which Pata has! I swear she speaks English with an Italian accent and Italian with an American one! I should have mentioned that in the post. I can imagine that it was hard to accept that she spoke a little late…it's so hard not to think that every aspect of their development is a reflection of our parenting. (Really, thank goodness that's not the case!)

  8. Absolutely fascinating! Luigi is just now getting to the point where he links words together. He doesn't do it very often, but once in a while he does. It will be interesting to see if his language develops the same way.I'm fortunate in that O's family supports my teaching him English. They sometimes repeat the words he's saying so in the end, they may learn it from him!

  9. Mary, O's relatives may just do that- N's English has really been improving, just from listening to Pata and me talking.

  10. KC,Such an interesting post, yet again! I love being able to read about her progress. It seems like at times the Italian appears to be taking over, but with time, English catches up! Probably since there is more exposure to Italian. The phrases she comes up with are absolutely adorable. Eventually, the syntax will catch up. Please continue to keep us updated!Baci!

  11. You're welcome, Karen!PassagetoItaly, don't worry, I'll keep you all posted on her language development. I really enjoy writing these posts about it.

  12. So interesting to read about different experiences with bilingualism. Yes, my son goes to preschool already. Preschool does reinforce the Italian, but at least recently, not to the detriment of the English. I noticed the two languages evened out after a three week trip to the States, and since our return, has only been improving. Keep us posted on Pata!

  13. Sticky-sticky!I love it. I study linguistics, so I eat posts like these up with a spoon!I'm always curious to know how expats with children feel here if their kids speak Italian better than English. It's obviously expected, living in a country where people speak Italian. It's one of the reasons why I'm afraid to have kids here one day (besides the stories I've heard about hospitals)- I want my children to grow up in an English speaking environment, where I can speak Italian and Sicilian to them at home. :)Post more about this stuff! It's interesting and adorable.

  14. Karen, that is great, I hope it continues!Audra, I thought this post might appeal to you! I have to admit that while I accept that Pata will most likely speak Italian better, it does hurt a little bit. You'll appreciate this, esp. being a New Yorker: I remember one moment in particular, just before I moved over, in the gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum. I was up in the children's section, where there were all sorts of wonderful children's books on art and culture and a feeling of profound sadness overcame me as I realized that 1) the MMA wasn't going to be an important part of my future children's childhoods, and 2) my children were going to speak Italian. (English too, of course but as a second language.) I came to my senses, told myself that they'd still be able to read books like those, that they'd visit the museum on trips to NY, etc., and I felt better. But the sadness of that moment was real and powerful.

  15. Hi KC, A friend of mine sent me the link to your blog and I have to thank you already for writing this post. I'm 5 weeks away from delivering my first child and OPOL is the method my husband and I decided to use. I also love reading everyone else's comments. I can't wait to read more!

  16. Hi Sonia, and welcome. Congratulations on your pregnancy and good luck for the birth!

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