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.