11 January 2014, by Tan Yi Lin
When Coco turned 2 last August, we thought that that would be the magic age when she would finally start talking. After all, many of her peers – especially the other little girls – were already chattering away, mimicking their parents’ speech and asking question after question.
Instead, we were rather disappointed and baffled as to why she stubbornly stuck with calling me “mama” and not “mummy”, and insisted on referring to animals by the sounds they made, like “ooh ooh ah” for monkeys and “woh woh” for dogs. We knew that she understood us perfectly, but correct and encourage her as we did, she continued to trumpet like an elephant, buzz like a ladybug and make sipping sounds to convey that she wanted a drink.
It took us by surprise when she started sprouting proper words sometime late last year. She announced each “excavator” and “mixer” that we drove past, chimed in as we counted from 1 to 22 when we rode the lift up to my aunt’s flat, pointed out colours, and started calling everyone by their names – “daddy”, “mummy”, “Claire”, “uncle Ronald”… albeit in considerably mangled toddler-speak.
Over the next few weeks, her pronunciation improved and she spoke in full sentences. It’s as if something in her mind went “CLICK”, and the brain and speech functions suddenly found each other. Today, she fires questions in near-perfect grammar: “Gong Gong, are you okay?”, “What happened to Claire?”, “Where is Daddy?”, “Where is Sui Gu (small uncle) going?”, “What is Mummy doing with the dragonfly? Where is the head?” (For the record, I was throwing out a dragonfly carcass with an already-missing head… Wasn’t me!) She converses with my aunt and uncle in Mandarin too, “不是你的。是恺心的.”
Last Sunday, I beamed with pride when our neighbour commented that he overheard Coco talking in our garden one morning and that she was “very articulate” – until I realised that she had been announcing to all and sundry that “These are daddy’s nipples. These are Coco’s nipples. These are Claire’s nipples. Where are mummy’s nipples?” and that “My ‘pat pat’ is in front. My backside is behind!”
We don’t have any advice on how to make your child start talking. But while we’re not experts in the fields of speech development or language, I do think that the conscious effort on our part to use proper grammar and vocabulary in our daily communication with her and around her, be it in English or Mandarin, played an important part. That and forcing, I mean, requesting that her other caregivers don’t indulge in baby talk. No “milk-milk”, or “walk-walk” or “What Coco eat-eat?”. It’s a delicate operation getting everybody to be on your side without offending anyone and there are times when we let slide the occasional “dog-dog” with elderly relatives for whom English is not their forte.
Speaking good English isn’t about being “atas” (uppity) or perfectionistic. Taking a leaf from our music classes based on the Suzuki method , it’s about presenting the best learning environment for your children – even in their daily setting. Babies’ brains are like sponges capable of soaking up whatever they are presented with. They don’t need to start with watered-down versions of languages. It’s like how we launched into songs and nursery rhymes from Day 1, and Coco’s now cheerfully reciting “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”, “Hickety Pickety”, “Rain, Rain, Go Away”, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” etc. in their entirety. Through day-to-day conversations, she has also picked up the use of prepositions (“Look at the red car in front!”) and her understanding of how to use words such as “maybe”, “also”, “still”, “yet”, “almost”, “only” and “what about” is pretty amazing.
As much as the use of electronic gadgets like the iPad have been near-condemned by parenting experts, this sleek invention does deserve some credit in honing Coco’s speech development. Of course, the Apps are carefully chosen by Dannie and along with acceptable TV programmes like Pocoyo, Tayo, Umizoomi, Dora, Kai Lan and Sesame Street, they help to present the proper usage of words in contexts that toddlers like Coco would find entertaining. The cartoon characters also usually present the story in a Question & Answer format, through which the young viewers subconsciously learn to pose questions in the correct form using Who, What, Why, When and How – and how to answer each question type accordingly. It’s also so cute to see her conduct imaginary conversations with her toys in her wonderful world where Iron Man picnics with cars and buses go fishing together.
The Endless Alphabet app has also been useful in teaching her phonics and she goes, “Letter T! T is for Train. Te-te-te-te-te-te-T. Train.” Knowing that Coco can grasp the use of language this way assures me that she’ll probably do fine when it comes to reading, spelling, grammar and comprehension exercises in future. That said, I have to admit that she has picked up some unsavoury phrases such as “What-EVER” and “Oh my God!” from what is supposedly child-friendly entertainment.
Okay, I shall stop pretending to be some speech development guru now and share some of Coco’s most memorable lines in her first months of speaking.
Coco the Big Sister
“Claire, how are you? Are you tired?”
“Don’t worry, Claire. We’re home. Almost home.”
“Don’t cry, Claire.”
“Drink your water.”
“Claire, eat your medicine. Swallow. Into your stomach.”
Coco the Know-It-All
“Mummy, eat your vegetables. Show me. Swallow. Good mummy.”
“Say ‘Thank You’, mummy. You’re welcome!”
“Enough, daddy. That’s enough!”
“Mummy’s train station! Mummy, GO!”
“Not this way. THAT way.”
“One for mummy. One for Coco. Sit. Eat. Don’t fight ah.”
“Oi! Naughty Gong Gong! Cannot throw!”
“No smoking ah.”
(In reponse to being told that I had accidentally dropped my engagement ring) “AIYAAAAAAAAH, mummy.”
Coco the Tell-Tale
“Claire poo-poo. BIG poo-poo. LOUD poo-poo. TEN poo-poos!”
Coco the Drama Queen
(Claire splashes water in Coco’s eyes) “I CAN’T SEE!!!! I NEED A TOWEL!!!!”
“I banged my head against the table! I NEED TO EAT GUMMY BEARS!”
“Yaay! I DID IT! I DID IT! I CLEANED IT!”
“Oh dear! I NEED sticky tape!!”
“I NEED help! HELP ME! HELP ME!”
“I’m sick. I NEED MEDICINE” *fake coughing*
“I NEED to eat Easter Eggs. I NEED THEM.”
“I am NOT gross. YOU are gross. YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU!”
(When told that everyone had already finished all the rice that she had earlier rejected) “How about ME?!?! HOW ABOUT ME?!?!”
Coco the Enfant Terrible
“I DON’T WANT TO WEAR CLOTHES / BE PATIENT / LISTEN / WAIT!”
Coco the Smart Aleck
(In a deliberate, cheeky response to being asked how to spell ‘bus’) “S-U-B. Bus. Heheheheh.” *smug smirk*
(In another deliberate, cheeky response to when my birthday – 8 Oct -is) “Not 7! Not 9! I don’t know! Heheheheh.” *smug smirk*
Coco the (Pleasantly) Surprising
“May I go with you?” (I never knew that she could be so polite!)
Coco the Mummy’s Girl (well, most of the time, anyway)
“I love you, mummy! I miss you!”
“This is mummy’s hat. Yi Lin’s hat.”
“Mummy! You are NAKED!” (Yes and good morning to you too, Coco.)
“Mummy’s like an elephant.” (“What?” I ask. “Why is mummy like an elephant”) “Yes. An elephant. Because mummy’s so heavy.”
Yes. She really did liken me to an elephant.
As for Claire, she’s trying hard to catch up with Coco. She constantly babbles and calls for “mamamamamamama” when she wants me and I swear she even excitedly squealed, “che che!” after her older sister, whom she SO adores.
Hopefully, when she does start talking clearly enough for everyone else to understand her, this one will have a little less interest in talking about nipples and bottoms.