Baby talk

I flew over to Chicago last week and have been spending time with family. This trip has given me the opportunity to get to know my new cousin, the 18 month old daughter of my first cousin. The baby looks a lot like my older brother did when he was a baby. I’m sure that is part of the reason that my parents are so enamored with her and treat her like she is their own grandchild. Her true grandparents are half a world away in Bangkok.
My cousin and his wife are both from Thailand and both have been living in Chicago for about 6 to 7 years. They speak Thai at home, but my baby cousin watches a lot of children’s tv in english. She babbles incoherently (at least not coherent to any adults), but seems to understand almost everything we say to her in Thai. Granted, usually we say the same stuff to her every day: Do you want to go outside and play? Do you want to eat yet? Are you thirsty? Do you need to go to the bathroom? In resonse to each question she either nods her head and says mmm, or shakes her head. The way she says mmm, I think, is very Thai. The words that she does speak now include mum, papa, bu (grandfather), and maa (come). She also said oui the other day. I think I taught her how to say ah (aunt), but it could have been one of the random sounds that come out of her mouth. Last weekend we went apple picking and by the end of the day she was saying ple (as in the second syllable of apple).
One thing that I have often heard about babies that are born in America to parents who don’t speak English at home is that they are slower to start talking. My dad said that my brother didn’t start speaking until he was 2 years old. But at the same time, he was reading simple words by the time he was 3 (he learned this through watching sesame street). One of my dad’s friends used to look after my brother during the day and was surprised when my brother, at the age of 3, would shout out exit when he saw the exit sign on the highway and he would also shout out the numbers on the balls when my dad’s friend took shots playing pool. (note to self, do not ask a Thai man to babysit …he will end up taking baby to pool hall). My dad told me that my brother had a photographic memory…it’s no wonder that I grew up with performance anxiety issues.
As for me, I don’t know when I started speaking but I do know that my early words were as much in English as they were in Thai- perhaps even more English than Thai. When I was a baby, my parents had been in the US for a few years and my dad had gone through a lot of struggle with his English. I think he wanted to make sure that his kids didn’t suffer the same embarassment of not understanding and not being understood by people in the US. So, he spoke to us mostly in English and my brother and I certainly spoke only English to each other. I know other Thai-American children whose parents only spoke to them in Thai. As they started school, it didn’t take long for them to pick up English.
My cousin’s wife commented that out of the three kids in my family, I speak the best Thai (probably because I spent a few years living in Thailand when I finished school). She said that my brother can’t speak Thai at all. However, she was surprised when my brother was playing with the baby and said ja-ae (peek-a-boo).
I’m really curious to see how my baby cousin’s language skills develop. At the moment, she is mostly exposed to Thai speaking people. She doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to speak; she seems content communicating in other ways. When she wants to go outside and play, she’ll pick up our coats and bring them over to us. When she wants something, she points to it and makes an mmm sound. If you ask her, do you want to go to see mum? she’ll nod and say mum. If you ask her do you miss grandpa, she’ll nod and say bu. So she is communicating in her own way but doesn’t seem upset about not being able to express herself more. With English, when she watches TV she’ll copy the body movements she sees on tv, like touching her toes or clapping, but she doesn’t seem interested in trying to say the words she hears. She is starting to babble more, so I guess it isn’t long before she starts saying new words.

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