Toddler talk Metroplus

The things children say

There’s nothing more fun than watching your baby learn to talk. The first word, the first time she says ‘amma’ or ‘thatha’ or ‘gagababababa’…. It’s exciting stuff. It’s also the start of a period when, as a reader put it when she wrote in, moms take on a new role: that of official interpreter or translator.

As the primary caregiver, you spend almost every waking moment with your little gabbler, which means you’re in the unique position of being able to instinctively understand what the kid is trying to say. It doesn’t matter if the consonants are all swapped (l for r, z for s), doesn’t even matter if the sound your baby is making bears little resemblance to the actual word; you know what she means. After all, this is the kid whose cries you learnt to decipher early in those exhausting first months. Words are a breeze!

Over a period of time, a sort of code language develops between you and the toddler, like one of those ‘secret’ P or L-languages you used to play at in school. Only, this one has no such set rules. Anything goes. Randomness rules. In fact, if there is one defining characteristic of toddler code, it’s randomness. My daughter, for instance, for no apparent reason, started adding ‘ana’ to words. So ‘going out’, in her lexicon, became ‘bye-na’, bath was ‘bath-ana’, etc. Not so hard to decipher, you might say. Well, try adding ‘ana’ to already baby-fied words. So food, for example, became ‘mammu-na’ and water ‘thanni-na’. Now add it to words that were made up by her in the first place, and ‘sleep’ becomes “wawo-na”. Yeah. Even Alan Turing would have had trouble with that one.

But luckily, no special machines need to be built for decoding. That’s what god made moms for. As your little one babbles away, family and visitors alike look at you enquiringly, and 90 per cent of the time you smoothly provide the translation, feeling a bit like one of those interpreters at global political conferences (sans the smart suits and headphones). The remaining 10 per cent of the time, of course, you yourself have no clue what the kid is saying (so you wing it) or you modify it from the original into something polite and socially acceptable (“She says she loves it here!”).

In the months that follow, these words become an integral part of the general family lexicon, and linger on even long after the kid’s grown up and gone to college. One of my little cousins, for instance, used to say ‘amanna’ for pyjamas, and to-date, that’s what they all call it in their house. Names of grandparents and aunts can be modified for life (I christened my grandma ‘Pommai paati’ because I couldn’t say ‘Padma’ and that’s what she remained till the end of her life).

Truly, toddlers outgrow the baby talk a lot faster than parents do. My daughter dropped the ‘anas’ a while ago, but I still go around saying ‘bye-na’ and ‘bath-ana’.

And you can’t help missing that secret code between you both a little bit. Especially when your now three-year-old announces loudly and clearly in public, “Amma, I don’t like this uncle’s shirt!” or “Amma, why are aunty’s teeth so funny?” or “That uncle is bald, amma!” That’s when you think back wistfully on those days when people looked to you for translations and you could smilingly tell them, “She says she really likes you!” Thankfully, there are also those charming moments when she announces, “This aunty is very pretty!” about the dolled up young lady in the lift, or “I had a lot of fun, amma!” at the end of a play date.

The problem now is that you have absolutely no idea which way your articulate and brutally honest toddler is going to swing: charming or obnoxious. But the good thing is, your mom-radar soon kicks in to address this new linguistic challenge. Even as the harmless old lady with the crooked teeth enters, you know what your toddler is thinking and you frantically point to the window, saying: “Look, baby, see that pretty birdie outside!” Phew! Crisis averted. For now.

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2020 6:48:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/toddler-talk-the-things-children-say/article7098921.ece

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