Daily Archives: 7 November 2009

One Child’s Language: at 24 months (and abroad)

Rachel celebrated her birthday in China this year. We used the occasion to invite all of our sophomore class students over to our apartment for tea and snacks. Rachel was overwhelmed. But two people brought cakes (most of which we prevented ourselves and Rachel from eating) and she got to blow out two candles. Shortly after her birthday, she started going to the Number 2 Kindergarten in Shiqi town, Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province. It is about a 10-minutes walk from home, but Rachel can stretch it into 30 or more minutes when she walks home. She examines puddles, ramps, steps, curbs, passing vehicles (especially walking tractors), the chickens in one front yard, and the regulars who wave at her or come out to touch her.

Culture shock: For a long time Rachel would just stick her thumb in her mouth and and ask us to pick her up when anyone else wanted to talk to her or pick her up. She has been subjected to a lot of physical and vocal attention here; we had expected as much. But she has gradually begun to deal with the attention a bit more confidently. After our students assault her, she will ask us “They just want to be Rachel’s friends?” She dodges or brushes aside most passing maulers now, and lets one or two of the more familiar people pick her up. But for the first two months or so, she was in deep culture shock and very fussy and clingy. She still won’t say “thank you” or “good-bye” to anyone in either Chinese or English.

It was as hard for us as it was for her the first day we dropped her off at kindergarten. It was really sink or swim. She had had some setbacks in her toilet-training because of all the travel and stress she went through just before her second birthday. The first week of kindergarten, she wet her pants at least once a day, she wasn’t napping the required three hours [!] each day, and she was clinging pretty close to the principal all day. But now, she talks happily about “Rachel’s new aunties” and “Rachel’s school” (it helps that Mama and Daddy also have a school), rarely comes home with wet clothes, and is almost always in a pleasant, curious, and talkative mood all the way home and into the evening. She enjoys us a lot more when she isn’t with us all day long. She’s had a rough time but she’s grown up a lot in the last two months. She won’t even suck her thumb (considered a vile habit in this dirty environment) while she’s at school anymore. It may get worse, but the terrible twos don’t seem so terrible now that she’s actually two.

Physical development: She is increasingly confident—even reckless—on her feet: running, climbing, jumping, sliding down long slides. She almost has a swagger when she walks by herself. She loves to swim. We’ve been several times to hotel pools and she’s enjoyed leaping or falling off the side into our arms. She has very good control in her hands now. She can put up one finger or two fingers easily, and just recently managed to put up three fingers (the last 3) on the first try. We were all quite proud.

Intellectual notes: She is delightfully curious about all the new things around us, and wants to “see” every noise she hears. She loves to stop and inspect the snails, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and butterflies we encounter in our walks. She has an amazing memory. She can remember exactly where she put something hours ago, can remember what she saw where on a previous walk, and can remember who gave her things. We’ll say “Do you want to walk on the sand?” And she’ll say “Rachel want to walk on sand with Rachel’s new pink shoes from Rachel’s Grandma Grandpa.” She often asks “What’s that from?”—even about the toothpaste.

One of her games is to tell you one thing (“That Winnie Pooh”), then tell you something contradictory (“That not Winnie Pooh”). If you react with appropriate surprise, she will exclaim delightedly, “Rachel tricking Mama!” She can keep it up until you have trouble feigning surprise. Daddy said to her one day, “Rachel’s a talking trickster and a walking tractor.” She adapted that to “Rachel trickster, Rachel tractor, Rachel walking tractor.”

Language notes: Over the past two months, Rachel has been filling in a lot of the unstressed words she hears between the major words: prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, and conjunctions. One week it would be from, the next week with, the next w’out. She hasn’t got the and a figured out, and still uses Rachel instead of I, me, my but her English is more and more grammatical. She has now got the /s/ sound under control, so she distinguishes Rachel and Rachel’s, but she still has trouble with /p, b/ and /k, g/. She also just recently managed to make her Dayto sound a little more like Rayto, but the old habit of saying Dayto will take a while to break. Recently she has been playing with doubling words: “This Rachel Rachel; that Daddy Daddy.” [In retrospect, I think this may have been prompted by Chinese usage in her kindergarten, where she was called Qiuqiu, from her Chinese name Liqiu ‘beautiful autumn’. She was greeted every day like a visiting celebrity, with shouts of Qiuqiu lai le ‘Qiuqiu has come!’—J.] Not much progress in Chinese yet, but she can count from 1 to 5 (sometimes 10) in Chinese, and can follow simple directions at school.

We are amazed by her eagerness to read. She knows all the letters of the alphabet by name. We bought her a little magnetic board with all 26 letters and she plays with it each time she sits on the potty. It makes for some long potty sessions. She’ll keep playing with the letters long after she has done her business. Her demand as soon as she sits down is, “Rachel want to play with these letters,” followed shortly now with “Spell something, spell something.”

UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in Boston’s Chinatown.

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One Child’s Language: at 22 months

For several weeks, durai (dry) was Rachel’s antonym for we’, diti, ‘ow (wet, dirty, ouch). She would talk about dirty and dry hands, or ouch (sore) and dry knees. Lately, she has started to use deen (clean) sometimes. Di and dido (big, little) sometimes occur instead of her old favorites wow, wee. She is beginning to use location words hia, dea, roro dea (here, there, over there), and when she bruises herself, she lets us know where to kiss by pointing and saying rai dea (right there), usually several times. Just today she started tagging otay?, dat rait? onto sentences to make them questions.

She does constant pattern drills, making the same sentence using Rachel one time, Mama the next, and Daddy the next—a standard substitution drill. She does endless repetition drills. We don’t drill her, she drills herself. She also does expansion drills: we say “Let’s brush our teeth” and she says Daydo dah Daydo dee’, Daddy dah Daddy dee’, Mama dah Mama dee’. If we tell her we’re going home, she’ll expand it to dodi Daydo ‘ous, Mama ‘ous, Daddy ‘ous (going to Rachel’s house, Mama’s house, Daddy’s house). And then, of course, she also does negation drills: we say “Not that!” and she says yes, dat; we say “Rachel drink water?” and she says Not Daydo dwin’ wawa; we say “Don’t throw your noodles” and she says yes, dwow noonoh. She never uses yes to answer simple questions, only to contradict a no. She’s definitely showing signs of nearing the Twos.

UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

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Among the Spice Island Sago-eaters

From The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin’s Discovery of Evolution, by Tim Severin (Carroll & Graf, 1997), pp. 142-144:

More than a century before Wallace‘s visit, the people of Gorong were still habitual sago-eaters. Toman upon toman of sago flour was stacked up in the little shops of Kataloko. The tomans were the shape of small solid drums wrapped in green palm leaves, or you could buy the sago flour already baked into biscuits and neatly tied with string into bundles of ten. Then they looked exactly like small, hard, light brown floor-tiles. When we asked where all this sago came from, we were told it came from the island opposite, from Pasang where the sago palms [Metroxlon sagu] still grew.

Pasang had a deceptive approach. From the direction we arrived with [our boat] Alfred Wallace, it looked as if the usual fringing coral reef protected a broad lagoon with deeper water; if we could cross the reef and enter the lagoon we would be safe. At least, that is how it appeared, because the water was much darker on the landward side of the reef. In fact, when we crossed the reef we found that we were wrong. The lagoon was dark not because it was deep, but because it was carpeted with brown sea grass. In fact it was barely 50 centimetres deep and studded with rocks. A normal vessel would have been stuck fast, but again Alfred Wallace needed so little water to float that we could pole our way through the shallows for a kilometre or more until we were able to anchor off the main village of the island. From there a guide took us into the sago swamps.

The sago palms appeared to be wild, but were in fact planted as seedlings in the muck and stagnant pools of the swamp. For 12–15 years the palm tree grew until its trunk was approximately one metre thick. Then, quite suddenly, the tree flowered and was ready to harvest. The owner felled the tree, peeled off the skin and chopped his way into the thick white soft trunk. We found a sago harvester at work, sitting inside the tree-trunk as if in a large dugout canoe. In front of him was the unworked face of white sago pith, and he was steadily hacking at it with a long handle which had a tiny sharp metal blade set at right-angles in the end. As he struck, the blade sliced away a sliver of sago pith which fell inside the hollow trunk and on to his feet. The blade also came alarmingly close to his feet with each blow, and it seemed he risked chopping off his toes. Occasionally he wriggled his feet and toes, pushing the growing pile of the sago shavings back down the hollow tree-trunk. When he was tired of chopping, he climbed out of the tree-trunk, filled a sack with sago shavings and carried them off through the squelching mud to a trough which he had set up beside a pool of stagnant swamp water. He dumped the shavings into the upper end of the trough, poured water over them from a bucket, and squeezed the wet pith against a cloth strainer. The water ran out of the sago pith as white as milk, carrying sago flour with it, and drained away into another trough where it was allowed to settle. Within an hour, a thick deposit of pure white edible sago flour had settled in the trough and could be scooped out with the hands. It was ready to bake and eat.

The sago gatherer claimed that in just two days’ work he could produce enough food to feed his family for a month. As for the sago palm, he said, once you had planted the seedling there was no more work involved. You merely had to let it grow. Apart from Joe, who rather liked the taste of sago biscuit, the rest of us wondered if it was even worth that much effort. We compared eating sago with buying a packet of breakfast cereal, throwing away the contents and eating the cardboard packet.

I got to help process a sago palm into starch during my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea in 1976. As unskilled labor, my job was to pound the pith of the felled sago palm trunk into smithereens, using an adze handle with an artillery shell casing on the end. Others carried the pith to the washing chutes near the river where the starch was strained out of the pulp, then drained and formed into large blocks, which were allotted among the households whose members helped with the work. I had never heard the term toman used to name such blocks until I read this book.

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