Toddler Talk Society

The parrot paradox

Toddler talk

Toddler talk  

It’s fun when your toddler starts talking up a storm. Some toddlerisms make you laugh out loud, others surprise you with their cleverness, and still others are just random, but they’re always entertaining. For instance, last evening, my usual comment of “I just want to eat you up!” was met with some toddler resistance: “But then I’ll be gone!” (Well, now, you can’t argue with that, can you?). My daughter’s investigation of our puja area resulted in this wise comment on Saraswati Devi: “Amma, this umachi plays the guitar!” But her explanation for why she couldn’t use her potty was a bit of a head-scratcher: “My potty is kaaram!” Spicy? Seriously?

But this phase brings with it a side-effect that catches most first-time parents unawares – let’s call it the Parrot Paradox. Toddlers are like sponges, soaking up information around them all the time. It’s just that, up until this point, the process has been mostly silent. Now, what they hear, they repeat out loud. And what they mostly hear is you. So, the first time you say something in the heat of the moment, such as, “What was that fellow thinking? He’s so dumb!” and your daughter looks at you clear-eyed and says, “Who’s dumb, amma?” you almost pass out in shock. Then you back-peddle furiously, while your child repeats the offending word over and over again:

You: No, no, baby, that’s a bad word!

Toddler: Dumb, dumb, dumb!

You: No, no, amma shouldn’t have said that! You shouldn’t say that!

Toddler (singing now): Dumbo, dumbi, dum-dum-dumb!

And so on.

From then on, you learn to be careful. You watch your language obsessively and you and your husband glower at each other if either slips up. You also learn not to use trigger words such as “chocolate” or “ice-cream” or “beach” or “park” in front of the kid because you know she’s listening (even if she appears to be absorbed in her dollies) and is going to latch on to it and repeat it non-stop until you buy it for her/take her there. And so you start to spell, spell like you haven’t spelled since you were in first standard, and certainly more than you ever have since Microsoft Word introduced spellcheck.

When spelling isn’t sufficient, when entire conversations need to be had about the toddler or about taboo subjects such as doctors and injections, you start to move on to whatever third language both you and your husband/family know (since your toddler is now a multi-lingual parrot who understands both her mother-tongue and English). And so it happens that you spend extended periods of the evening speaking to each other in barely serviceable Hindi. Or spelling atrociously and getting annoyed with each other when you can’t follow the word being spelt.

When I was small, I remember my mom and her sisters babbling away to each other in Bengali, since they grew up in Calcutta and we, their kids, didn’t know the language. Until, of course, we learnt it, purely by listening to them and parroting words back to them.

My husband and I know that we’re living on borrowed time here. We’re just a year or so away from the time when our toddler will learn to spell, so we can’t get away with going “i-c-e c-r-e-a-m” “what? What?” “I-C-E C-R-E-A-M!!” to each other for too much longer. And shortly after that, she’ll be learning Hindi too. She’s already started, thanks to one of our neighbours in the building (predictably, she’s picked up “Nahin!” first).

Which is why, come this weekend, my husband and I will be enrolling in Spanish or Italian classes. Unlike my mother and her sisters, we don’t have any more languages in our arsenal, and we need to keep one step ahead of our toddler linguistically. Until she picks up that language too. Then we’ll look for Korean or Japanese classes.

Till then, g-o-o-d-b-y-e! Arrivederci!

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Printable version | Aug 14, 2020 5:08:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/brush-your-linguistic-skills-for-toddlers/article6369871.ece

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