Daily Archives: 19 November 2009

One Child’s Language: at 27 months (and abroad)

Rachel’s command of Chinese is growing. She still doesn’t volunteer to speak any, but she understands simple Mandarin and Cantonese at school. Her teachers teach her Chinese and she teaches them English, correcting them if they make mistakes. In Chinese, she can count quickly to ten, and knows basic body parts, items of clothing, and animals. At home she rehearses songs from school. In fact, she is now able to carry a tune (as well as her parents at least) and is sensitive to rhythm and rhyme. She frequently wanders around singing songs and rhymes to herself.

She loves to recite the Mother Goose rhymes we read her. She knows Pease Porridge Hot and Eeny Meeny Miny Moe by heart, and objects if we don’t stop to let her fill in the rhyming words in many others that we read her. The Grand Old Duke of York is one of those she loves to help recite. One time her Daddy said “Eeny Meeny Miny Yes” and she responded by trying to make all the lines rhyme with yes. She goes crazy saying Goosey Goosey Gander. When Daddy recited a nursery rhyme destroying the rhyme and using Rachel’s worst pronunciation, she said, “No, that not right.” Then she recited the rhyme and declared, “That’s right.”

We have worried that her English pronunciation won’t improve quickly, since we are the only native speakers of English that she talks to, and we already understand her idiosyncracies. But lately she has begun to mind her /p/ and /b/ and /m/ sounds. One day she managed to put /b/ in bubble bath. Since then, she has been changing a few of her all-purpose /d/ and /t/ to /b/ and /p/ when they should be. The /g/ and /k/ sounds may not be far behind. Any sounds that Chinese and English share should get double reinforcement. But old pronunciation habits die hard. She still has to stop and think before saying her name with an initial /r/ rather than /d/.

She is still eager to read. She pretends to read things sometimes, moving her head as if she’s scanning the lines. She has also started to read Chinese, starting with the characters for Zhongshan City (中山市). She spots them on signs or city vehicles all over the place. We’re helping her with some basic ones like Fire (火), Woods (林), Person (人), Water (水), and the like. But right now she is more eager to sing and recite rhymes than to read letters. She recites rather than reads many of her favorite passages in books.

She knows clearly now that she is dealing with two separate languages, and she doesn’t object any more if we English speakers use Chinese with her. She elicits the names of the languages by counting in one language and then the other, asking “What Rachel saying?” after each series of numbers. She also knows how to ask “What that mean?” if she doesn’t know the English equivalent of a Chinese word. Her nose, which is often runny these days, she calls bizi as often as she calls it her nose.

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

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At the Fruit Bat Market in Manado

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), p. 230:

Wallace had also eaten fricassee of bat in Minahasa. Today bat is still a popular local dish, and the President of Indonesia himself is said to enjoy a meal of bat. At our request Saskar took us to the street market in Manado city where, on most mornings, a bat-seller arrived with his box of bats for sale. He brought them in a closely slatted wooden box, with a little trap-door in the top. Inside the box the bright pinpoints of bat eyes stared out of the gloom, and it was just possible to distinguish the sharp, foxy faces of the creatures themselves. From time to time a black claw worked its way through a gap in the box slats to grasp and scrabble in the daylight. The shoppers strolled up and down checking the street market’s vegetables and other foodstuffs, and a housewife stopped to ask the bat-seller if she could see his wares. He flung open the trap-door on his box, reached inside and pulled out a furiously scrabbling bat. The creature tried to grab the sides of the box with the desperation of kitten being pulled from a bag. The bat-seller then displayed the animal and spread it out, a wing in each hand, to show off the chubby body. The shopper, after poking and prodding the bat, liked the purchase, and the seller swung the bat through the air and brought the animal’s head down on the pavement with a sharp smack. Then he tossed the still fluttering corpse to his assistant for the fur to be frizzled off with a blowtorch.

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