You’re right! Duì de! (Sounds like: duay-duh)

I bought a “First 100 Words Bright Baby” book, less for Emmy than for me to see which beginning words I’m missing. We keep it on her high chair, and while she eats we’ll flip through it, her pointing at things she knows she knows, or me asking her where things are and her very insistently stabbing at each box with her little index finger. Airplane, car, sippy cup, baby, chair, ball, flower, apple, cheese — she nails everything I know how to ask her for. The animals even come with sounds — she pants for the dog, the monkey gets an “oo oo!” and the cow and cat get a little stuck “mmm…”

Maybe because she’s learning two languages, she’s less verbal than a lot of kids her age, so the game is particularly satisfying for me — she may not be saying the words, but at least I know she understands what they are, both in English and Mandarin.

Each time she points to the right photo, I gush: Duay-duh! You’re right! Or sometimes the simpler duay — right! (She’s comically serious while she’s pointing, but will sometimes crack a smile at my congratulations.)

Currently, her vocab extends to hi (which she says 1,000 times a day) and bye and mama and babah (what we call Rich instead of dad). Beyond that, she’ll throw out a word or phrase once and never repeat it again (at the airport, when I went to get coffee, she said to Rich, “Mama tzai-nar?” Where’s mama?). Or she’ll say something and one kind of has to squint one’s ears to realize it. Or maybe I do especially, more naturally straining for English words. (A little while after I learned munn (door), I realized she’d been saying this when I’d hand her my keys (they jingle, she likes holding them) half a block before reaching our front door. She and Rich apparently have a game in which he points out windows and doors.)

One morning, I was in bed listening to the two of them playing in the living room and Rich said, “Duay-duh!” Which, after a beat, Emmy repeated perfectly.

I jumped out of bed. “Did you hear that? She said it! Duay-duh! What does that mean?”

"Right."

"Oh. How do you say left?"

"No, like, ‘You’re right.’"

"Ah…"

Since that day, she’s never said it again. But it’s in my cache now. And surely also in hers.

ps: I love that pissed-off duckling. Maybe he thinks they’re suggesting the blue ball is his?

Rain, yŭ. Drizzle, máomao yŭ

The last time the three of us were out in a drizzle—the kind of light, messy rain you don’t realize is happening until you step out into it—Emerson, scrunched inside the increasingly too-small confines of the umbrella stroller (the ideal stroller for subway rides) frowned a little and then commented, “Máomao yŭ.”

I thought she was saying māo, cat, and I paused for a second, trying to figure out if she’d seen a cat, or was pretending to be a cat. Before I could follow down this cat path, though, Rich answered, “Duì de,”—you’re right—”máomao yŭ.”

That was day I learned that while yŭ means rain (a word very close to the word for shark—let’s hope I’m never near to some sharks while it’s raining and so robbed of any context clues) máomao yŭ is a light rain.

Tonight, though, eating pears at the kitchen table while reading books before bed time, I asked her, in English, whether it was raining on her way home from school.

“Máomao yŭ,” she said matter-of-factly. Finally, I thought to ask Rich if the words translated to something separately.

“Máo is fur,” he said, seeming to consider the weirdness of that, but then—his expression changing—realizing its perfection. What more visceral a descriptor for the kind of muffled, misting rain one more experiences and endures (than can hold an umbrella to) than “fur rain.”

Looking it up tonight, I also fell a little in love with the written symbol for rain, which (in the noun form) looks like drops falling outside a window.

ps: Let us not overlook the adorableness (and literalness) of the word for cat being essentially the sound a cat makes. Māo

You Don't Say

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"Nice yifu, mama,” Emmy said to me approvingly the other morning, stroking my pajama top and finding it surprisingly soft. “Nice yifu…”

Yifu is clothes, and while she might have said shuiyi—pajamas—my first thought was to be pleased that she’d grabbed for a Mandarin word at all. 

But then I realized she’d used one of each and it started me wondering—is that the result of learning two languages? Or, more likely, the result of regularly listening to me stuff a single Mandarin word into an otherwise English-language sentence? I think I’m messing her up, which means it’s time to step up—I need to be better about constructing and using whole sentences. 

"Hao kan de yifu!" (Good looking, your clothes!) isn’t perfect, but it would be a step. For both of us. 

(Elmo, as he’s wearing his high heels here, clearly, might be told, “Hao kan de xiezi!) 

Asian Mathletes

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"The fish is the last to notice the water," the proverb goes, and it seems my endless pestering, regarding how to say words in Mandarin and what they mean, has caused Rich to give the water, as it were, a bit more thought.

A few years ago, we decided he’d solved the question (slash borderline racist generalization) of why Chinese people are good at math by realizing that Chinese math has so many fewer words to slow a person down. There’s no “2 plus 2 equals 4,” but just “2, 2, 4” and you’re on your way.

(You can roll your eyes at dropping those two words, but give 20 second graders a 100-question, 10-minute test and see if the Chinese kid doesn’t finish 8 minutes ahead of everyone else. It’s the effect of eliminating those two words, not the words themselves.)

But more recently, at a point when my counting skills had maxed out at 10 but Emmy was ready to take on more, Rich offered an even better argument. He explained that there’s no eleven, twelve, thirteen, but ten-one, ten-two, ten-three. In Mandarin, learning to count is learning to add.

Surely that must make the relationship between numbers more deeply intuitive—lodge it into the brain folds where we store the information we understand intuitively, emotionally.

Mandarin speakers (is Cantonese the same? are other Asian languages?) also get a math tutorial from the months.  

"Month" is yuè, so January onward is the equivalent of 1-month, 2-month-, 3-month. If my kid was born in August (8-month) and yours was in June (6-month), there’s not even a second of thinking about their age difference. Abstract ideas are made into numbers and the relationships between them are obvious.

The days of the week work similarly—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday are xīng qī yī, xīng qī èr, xīng qī sān: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

Until you get to Sunday, which for some reason doesn’t play along. Instead of Day 7—xīng qī qī—it’s xīng qī rì.

"Why does it do that? What does it mean, if not Day 7?"I asked, irritated by the inconsistency. 

Rich shrugged. “I don’t know. It means … Sunday.”

ps: When I look at this art piece it instantly says to me: Fish. It’s one of my favorites, from a growing body of work by the young artist who in these parts refers to herself as “E-M-Y! Two m’s!”

Not a whole lot of actual news in today’s New York Times piece about “hearing bilingual.” I’ve read that the link to language is social, so kids don’t learn it by watching TV; that infants favor the languages they heard in the womb; and that bilingual speakers are better executive decision makers. What’s new, it seems, is the idea of “neural commitment” — that monolingual babies stop registering words in other languages at around 10 to 12 months.

Also kind of neat, in studies where babies were shown silent films in which people spoke different languages, 4-month-olds could tell when the language being used changed, but around 8 months, monolingual babies stopped reacting, while the bilingual kids stayed engaged. The bilinguals, the thinking goes, registered that information was still being conveyed.

Now, if someone could release data on the thinking processes of bi-sippy-cup babies, who insist on toting around twice the necessary plastic…

What may be the biggest boost to language-learning ability in children is the extra blood flow and metabolic activity in their brains. Their brains are working twice as hard as adults’. The level of glucose they use rises until age two and then stays twice as high as adults’ until around age nine. Babies’ brains are working in overdrive to make new connections between neurons. It is through those connections that they learn the sounds and words, and then compute the grammar of what we are saying.
—  "Raising a Bilingual Child," by Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D.

There’s a neat distinction in Mandarin, between food and drink, when saying something tastes good. If it’s food, you say hau hau tzuh. (Literally, good, good eat.) When it’s a drink that’s delicious, it’s hau hau huh (good good drink).

This green tea ice cream, handmade specially for a dinner party by my lovely and talented friend Mina? Mmmm. Hau hau tzuh!

*Italicized bold words are totally phonetic and made up by me. 

Language, Love and Respect

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This photo was waiting in the mailbox earlier this month, the day we returned home from a visit with my father and his wife in Florida—our first since having Emerson.

My mother had sent the photo, but it’s of me and my father’s parents, whom I called Grandma and Grandpa Maisto—a rather formal title it seems to me now, as we settle on names for the grandparents in Emmy’s life.

My mother is Grandma. Rich’s parents are Goong Goong and Po Po (pronounced paw-paw), which is not exactly their titles in Mandarin. The parents of a child’s father are Nai Nai and Ye Ye (the mother’s parents are Goong Goong and Po Po) but we got it backward early on and no one, funny enough not even Rich’s parents, felt like making the switch when our gaff was pointed out by a relative.

We call my father, as my sister and her kids do, Nono—the Italian designation—and originally we called his wife Grandma Marge, my thinking being that a Nona is a wrinkled, old 4-foot Italian woman, which his wife certainly is not, and that she might feel more comfortable with an American title.

During our visit, though, noticing no one else included the Grandma, Emmy also dropped it and a change of strategy was implemented.

"How about you call me Grammy?" Marge suggested, which is consistent with what her son’s son calls her.

Perfect.

Titles in Mandarin are specific—they’re not simply nameplates but explanations, making clear even whether a person is a blood relative. There isn’t “aunt” but “father’s younger sister,” not “uncle” but “father’s sister’s husband.”

The Chinese are interesting in this way, I’ve thought over the years, as certainly this says something about Chinese culture—something that can’t be said about Americans.

But seeing this photo of my very stern Grandpa Maisto, and considering how unthinkable it would have been for my parents to suggest we include his first name in addressing him, made we realize that there is something to be understood in the changing titles that Americans use. Something about us becoming, if not less respectful, at least a less formal society than we were then, or even a generation or two earlier, when Grandmother, and not Grandma, would have been more appropriately respectful.

That my mother had sent that photo, and when she did, also seemed meaningful since we’d talked about my grandfather on the trip and I’d learned things about him I hadn’t known—and that gave me some small insight into my father, with whom I, like my sisters, have had a complicated relationship.

My father can be very loving and fun—it startled and touched me during our visit when on two occasions, while my hands were busy with something, my father took my face in both his hands and gently kissed me on each cheek. It was the way one kisses a child—the way that I kiss my child—and it made me realize that he had kissed my sisters and me like this when we were girls, though I had 100 percent forgotten this. Never once, holding Emmy’s face and kissing her, had I realized I was repeating something that had been done to me, or imagined the sensation of having one’s face held. So when he did it, the feeling of his hands on my face—the feeling of being a child—surprised me each time no less than had he, as I stood there arranging cheese and crackers, thrown me into the air and caught me. 

But my father can also be gruff and short-tempered, and through small stories my mother shared when I was young I understood that his father had been the same way, but more of the latter and more so. There was one story about my teenage father arriving a few minutes past his curfew and my hard-nosed grandfather locking the front door on the nose of midnight, so that my father had to spend the night riding the subway.

I knew that my Grandpa Maisto had left for America as a young man to find a job, and that he returned to Italy to marry my grandmother and then again each year after that—to visit her and grow the family by a child—before finally bringing them all back to Brooklyn with him when my father was 7.

What I hadn’t known was that when my grandfather had first left for America, with only his 18-year-old brother, he was just 12 years old. His parents had let go of him—had released him to become an adult—at 12. In the non-movie version of such a story, I can see how such an experience might harden a person. And how, with each generation more parented than the next—my mother left her parents’ house when she married at 21; at 21, I moved back into my mother’s house—we might all grow more soft. 

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Two new words from the weekend: Waterfall, pwau boo — in Prospect Park, we walked past it, flowing harder than usual, on our way to the carousel; and han shan, t-shirt. Babah, on his recent business trip, stopped by the Mollusk surf shop in Venice to bring home two new ones for Emmy. Or, as she likes to call herself these days, nee (you).

(All italic words are phonetic.)

The P.D. Eastman classic Big Dog…Little Dog is a favorite in our house (though wtf, why does the one dog never have any money?) offers a frequent opportunity to practice a subtly that was unfortunately lost on me for some time.

Big dog, is dà gǒh — the “a” sound goes abruptly downward. Give the “a” a little rollercoaster swoop () instead, as I’ve been inclined to do when talking about something as fun as dogs, and you too may find yourself walking around your neighborhood, not pointing out big dog but telling the baby to hit the dog.

 

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