Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Le Petit expresses himself

One thing has been clear from birth: le Petit has plenty to say.

At first, when he wasn't exactly where he wanted to be, which was asleep at mom's breast twenty-four seven, he screamed. Loudly enough to get remarks from the veteran children's nurse at the maternity ward. Le Petit was disturbing the other babies and my weary husband, who was just trying to change a diaper, was scolded.

I'm very happy to report that gale-force howling is now a rare occurance. Le Petit is a happy guy, and aside from fussing a bit when we put him to bed or lodging a complaint when we put him in his playpen, he hardly ever cries.

That doesn't mean things have quieted down chez Petit. The register has simply changed, and as I've mentioned before, we've left behind sobbing for the high-pitched shriek. I've been assured this phase is brief, so I'm holding onto my eardrums and waiting for true language skills to emerge. Meanwhile, I listen to mothers who brag that their babies mastered "Mama," "Papa" and "caca" at ten months old with envy and impatience.

I've heard that bilingual children often take longer to talk and it makes sense. He's been immersed since birth in two languages, Mommy's and Daddy's (and Daddy's spoken by Mommy with an odd accent, and vice versa), so it is no surprise to me that it takes some time to sift though and classify. I'm frankly amazed that the human brain is capable of it at all.

Le Petit has responded to his tiny tower of Babel by vocalizing early, often, and loudly. He loves to interrupt our conversations with a forcefully declared "Da da da da da!" It works. We stop talking and parrot his "sentence" back to him with a "that's right!" or "I agree entirely!" at the end. Now our house is tri-lingual.

The vocalizations are slowly settling into patterns, if not yet what I would qualify as words. I've been pushing "dada" as a first word, for it would flatter both my husband (Daddy!) and myself (a first word from his mother tongue!). He's got the "da" down, and sometimes my husband seems to be "da da," but other times "da da" ambiguously refers to an animal, or is murmured softly in a state of deep concentration.

While we were on vacation, we stayed at a farm in the Gers with chickens that roamed freely around the garden. Le Petit loved to chase them, and when the roosters sang, we translated their song into an English "cock-a-doodle-doo!" or a French "cocorico!" By the end of the trip, le Petit started to chirp "cococo" when he heard a rooster. (I took this as further proof of his brilliance. A future actor? Writer? Member of the Académie Française?)

Of course, when he has something urgent to communicate, like an objection to the closing of the kitchen door or the desire to grab something just beyond his reach, he resorts to shrieking. He has shrieks of boredom, shrieks of frustration, shrieks of excitement, and shrieks of let's see how my voice echoes in the apartment corridor.

In France, where children are still often required to be seen and not heard, these shrieks can be a bit embarassing. I don't know what to do other than gently "shhhhh" and remind le Petit in a calm voice that we are indoors, or get down to his eye level and try to ask him what he wants. Often I just ignore the shrieks and the stares and continue with my business, playing the Bad Mom and Oblivious Foreigner.

What else is there to do? He's thirteen months old and he's just discovered he has a lot to explain to the world at large, so he's starting now. At the top of his lungs. In the supermarket. After pulling both his socks off for the tenth time in the last half an hour.

Some day, he will be able to clearly and coherently explain to me just what I've done to wrong or embarass him. In the meantime, I stand in the produce aisle with a barefoot baby who is shrieking the angst of being confined to a stroller.

"Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" He takes a breath and arches his back. "Aie aie aie!"

"Ah, I understand, your feet must be cold!" I grab a foot and wrestle on a sock soaked with baby drool.

At least for now the translations are up to me.


Inki said...

Haha, that sounds very familiar! Ella, who is a month behind Le Petit, is also growing up bilingual, and I think you're correct that it takes a bit longer to get the first words all sorted out. Ella can say "mamamama" which I'm pretty sure refers to me, and "ca" which is "cat" in both English and Norwegian. (We have two, and she adores them!) I'm sure other words will come when she's ready for it though!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Inki, are you speaking exclusively Norwegian to Ella and your husband exclusively English? I've been trying to only speak English to and around le Petit, but when I'm with other family members or the nanny who are exclusively French speakers, it is difficult.

It is hard to be patient, because I so want to understand what he's trying to say. Thirteen months is still pretty young, though. I wonder if I should have started sign language with le Petit, but I figured he's already learning two spoken languages so it might be a bit much.

For my French readers, signing with babies is very popular in the US. It is supposed to allow them to communicate earlier and more easily, since forming words with hand symbols is an easier skill to acquire than speaking.

Inki said...

We (pretty much) speak exclusively our own language to Ella (I speak Norwegian, he speaks English). But yes, when we're around others who only speak one language or the other, we sometimes switch so as not to be rude. And of course she gets only Norwegian at daycare and with her Norwegian grandparents and other relatives. We're considering enrolling her in the (English-language) international school here when it's time for that so that she won't have to sit through the basic English classes Norwegian kids get their first years of school, but we'll see. We still have a number of years to decide on that, and we'll have to see how comfortable she is with both languages by then.

We actually have been using sign language a bit with Ella, but it doesn't seem to have worked much... we probably haven't used it enough, or it could be she's thorough confused with the two languages already! But she has shown no interest in using signs to communicate with us so far.

Isabelle said...

If it can reassure you, Parisienne, Albert Einstein didn't talk before the age of 3!
As for my kids I absolutely don't remember at what age they started talking, so really there is no big deal!!!

caramama said...

First, I wanted to pass on that my doctor said that animal noises when used consistently for that animal are considered a word! So, there you go!

Sign language has been such a help to us, and it hasn't delayed her speaking in words either.

But she still does love to scream sometimes. Just last night, while in the bathtub, she discovered the accostics of the bathroom. By shreiking!!! Shrill and LOUD! I had such a headache afterward, but at least it wasn't in public. ;-)