when i was really little, my babysitter only spoke spanish with me so i became bilingual but i never knew when i was speaking spanish or english. one time i told my mom i wanted an avocado & she understood but then when i said the same thing to my babysitter later that day, she burst into tears with laughter because i was saying “quiero abogado” which means “i want a lawyer.”
imagine a two year old repeatedly saying “i want a lawyer!” as an adult laughs at her.
Reminding me of also funny story: So my piano teacher of many years when I was a kid had a baby when I was in my teens. This little girl was super bright, and also bilingual in Mandarin and English from her first word.
I do not speak Mandarin. At all.
One day as I’m waiting for my mom to pick me up after the lesson, Baby Girl is playing in the kitchen and hears me sneeze! And she runs over and says, “You need [incomprehensible]?”
Now here’s the thing: I knew she was not speaking Mandarin. I don’t speak it, but my aunt and uncle both do, and a close family friend’s family growing up would code-switch quite comfortably around us. I was old enough and it was sufficiently different from English that because there was no formal teaching, I never derived anything from it? But I was very familiar with how it sounds to an uncomprehending ear.
What she said did not sound like Mandarin at all. It sounded like gibberish. Like English baby gibberish.
As I clearly didn’t understand, Baby Girl repeats, “You need [gibberish]!” and then, when I still don’t understand, she stamps her foot and makes Angry Noise at me, which attracts her mother’s attention.
Bewildered, I relate what’s going on. Her mother covers her face and says, “She wants to know if you want a kleenex.”
And then my piano teacher explained that Baby Girl had figured out that some people didn’t speak English and some people didn’t speak Mandarin and she needed to confine herself to one language around them.
But sometimes, as is very natural especially for quite young children, she’d run up against realizing she didn’t know the word for something – and sometimes she knew the word in one language, but not in the other!
And it seemed intuitive to her that the way to fix this was to say the word from the other language … with the right accent.
So what she’d been doing was taking the word for “tissue” or “kleenex” in Mandarin and saying it like an Anglophone would: no tone-change and different vowel shapes and all. And it made Baby Girl VERY FRUSTRATED when this did not solve the problem, and at that point she seemed to believe that the adults around her were being stupid on purpose.
children are amazing