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language explosion

One year, seven months today. And the moment we have long been awaiting appears to have finally arrived.


Munchkin has always been a vocal child, but outside of a handful of basic words, the first year and a half of his life his adorable chattering has been largely without meaning — or at least any meaning that we could discern. For many months we have thought he was on the verge of speaking, only to be treated to endless variations on the same few words: mama, papa, goal, and the menagerie of animal sounds, which he had mastered early.


Knowing that he was trying to make sense of two completely incompatible vocabularies helped us stay patient as we wondered which language would take precedence in his young mind. On one hand, he was exposed to a lot more Russian than English during the first year and a half of his life, our nanny’s occasional diversions into Romanian notwithstanding. On the other hand, Russian words tend on average to be quite a lot longer and harder to pronounce than their English counterparts.


After mastering animal sounds, Munchkin started learning body parts, and on this front Russian took a clear lead. Usually, he can’t get more than the first syllable out, but he is consistent enough in his pronunciation and usage that there is no questioning the meaning behind his utterances. For example, whenever D lifts him up for a piggy-back ride, Munchkin grabs D’s ears and repeats, “Oosh” (уши — the word for ears in Russian — is pronounced “ooshi”). He says variations of Russian words for ears, eyes, nose, hair, and cheeks, and points to his mouth, tongue, and teeth when asked. His favorite Russian word, however, is “pupok” (belly button). He thinks it’s great fun to lift up our shirts and poke at our belly buttons while exclaiming, “pupok!”


The next linguistic leap, however, came in English, and the vocabulary was all related to travel. First came “shoe.” For months now, as soon as Munchkin senses that we are getting ready to go somewhere, his go-to move is to grab either his shoes or ours and bring them to us while repeating, “shoe, shoe.” Next came “car,” which was a catch-all term for all moving vehicles until he also learned “bus” and “truck.” And shortly after, Munchkin started saying, “come on,” a phrase S now realizes she employs rather often.


A few random words have crept into Munchkin’s vocabulary, such as “konets” (the end), “baby,” and “again,” but by and large, his language development appears to be thematic. He does a good job identifying family members: mama, papa, “tyetya” (aunt in Russian), “nana” (the nomenclature preferred by S’s mom), “baba” and “deda” (the corresponding terms in Russian). He is also beginning to identify foods: “arbuz” (watermelon), hummu(s), “bamaa” (for banana), “ka” (for kasha).


Linguists define the number of words a child knows to include animal sounds, made-up words, parts of words, and incorrectly pronounced words so long as these are all used consistently to mean the same thing every time. A word only counts if the child uses it spontaneously in his own speech, which complicates counting. These days it seems that Munchkin says a new word every day, but we also try to keep our enthusiasm in check because quite often he is simply mimicking the sounds he thinks we are making without subsequently incorporating these new words into his own vocabulary.


Munchkin’s made-up words are our favorites. There is “a-go,” which means “to open” and “a-boom,” which he says any time something falls or gets dropped (usually by him, and usually on purpose). He also says “a-shi-go-o” a lot but we have yet to figure out what this means. There is “nyam-nyam” for eating and “ga-ga,” shorthand for the Russian word for hot, which he brazenly overuses. If we try to feed him anything other than fresh fruits and veggies, he immediately says “ga-ga” and insists that we blow on it, even if the food in question just came out of the refrigerator.


His best word is “din’-don,” which in Munchkin-speak means “elephant.” The origin is a Russian children’s poem about an old, sleepy elephant who stands by the bedroom window to block out the light when it’s time to go to sleep. The poem starts, “Din’-don, din’-don,” which not only rhymes with “slon” — the Russian word for “elephant” — but also is clearly a lot more fun to say. D was skeptical at first about Munchkin’s usage of the term until he saw S ask him in English to bring her his elephant. He ran off, chirping “din’-don” and unhesitatingly picked the elephant out of his pile of toys.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kara Freedman #

    It’s so cool to think about the way that children learn two languages at once! I guess you’ll have to see how things go when you move to Rwanda – not as much Russian there, but maybe French?

    September 24, 2015
    • We’ll definitely put him in a French school when we get to Rwanda.

      September 24, 2015
  2. msophianewman #

    This conclusion might be subject to logical reasoning about whether it’s come up in your own use enough, but I am rather inclined to guess that “a-shi-go-go” means “Chicago.”

    September 24, 2015

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