Thursday, March 26, 2009

Son's first word is ねんね ("sleep") in Japanese

With my obvious interest in language learning, it's great fun to have kids and watch how they learn languages. If you've been reading this blog, you know that my four-year-old daughter has long been a part of my language-learning observations, and now my son had joined the speaking world as well.

We've got what is essentially a trilingual environment set up for the kids. I and my mom, who lives with us, speak only English to the kids. My wife speaks only Japanese with them and we make them speak Japanese with each other (which has so far consisted of our daughter speaking Japanese to our son). We use only Chinese-speaking babysitters or nannies and have them around enough that our daughter speaks Chinese as well as English and Japanese.

Our son's first official word is nenne ねんね in Japanese, which means "sleep". It's the an infantile form of neru 寝る ("to sleep"). We give if the official designation because he's clearly saying the word and linking it up to a meaning that he can use to communicate with.

More observations of a one-year-old learning to speak, after the jump.

He's said lots of things that happen to be words. Mama, baba 爸爸 ("father" in Chinese), dada, etc., but he didn't seem to use these consistently enough to indicate things as to really count as his first word. He'd at times call me "Mama", or just yell it out randomly, for instance. However, he clearly uses nenne to convey a single meaning.

However, his interpretation of nenne meaning is a little different. When he says nenne, he lays down flat on his belly on something soft, whether a pillow, a bed, or a person. If you say nenne to him while in the living room, he'll grab a pillow from the couch, lay it on the floor, lay down on top of it and say "Nenne!" He'll use it when he lays down to go to sleep, etc.

There was one earlier contender for his first word, and that was ge 个 in Chinese. He'd point at things and say, "Ge!" We speculated that he got that from the ge in zhège 这个 ("this") nàge 那个 ("that"), which he heard from the babysitters. However, since the ge was only really part of the word, we couldn't really count that as his first word.

He's also got a few other close contenders. When an airplane flies overhead, he says, "Woooo!" in imitation of the noise it makes. When a car drives by, he says "Vroom!", again in imitation of the noise it makes, which happened to be among my daughters first words as well.

One interesting thing is that he got basic intonation down before he ever said a word. He could long ask a question by pointing and saying some syllable with a rising intonation to make a tone. He would give a warning when something was amiss, like a door being open that we usually kept shut, with a sharp, high tone. He's use a fall tone to indicate comfort or the like.

Gestures came in before words as well. That's a well-known phenomena; children whose parents use sign language end up learning to communicate with that long before their peers learn to speak. Pointing, nodding his head, shaking his head, clapping after doing something good, tilting his head to the side to indicate inquisitiveness, etc., are all among the gestures he learned early on.

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