Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Language Acquisition

"Mommy, say Matthew no push Lizzie Senait."  In other words, I was to tell Matthew not to push Lizzie.  This was spoken by Seth about a week ago, at 5.5 weeks home.  Although it's frustrating that language is still a barrier (I'd love to get into his brain sometime to find out what Seth is thinking about), it truly is phenomenal how well his English is coming along.

Other phrases Seth has used in the past week:
  • "Mommy, all of us buckled up.  Go."  (when in the car, getting ready to drive)
  • "This way Grandma's house?"
  • "Turn left this-a-way.  Then straight ahead.  Go home."  (he was right about us getting home this way, and he was right about it being a left turn!)
  • (When asked whether he liked food from Canada) "Seth Asrat love Canada food and injera."
  • (When told that I would not be buying gum from the check-out stand - he had no idea what it was, by the way - he was just copying Matthew)  "Ohhh Mommy.  Come oooon.  Please?"
  • "Come over here everyone.  Come and look."
  • "This for all of us?"
  • (With a smile on his face) "Seth Asrat girl.  Have vagina.  Have panties."  (Lizzie laughed at him for this one and then told him he was a boy!)
  • "How are you? I am fine, and you?"
There are dozens of other phrases he's used, and he's continually asking what new things are.  He has also picked up little expressions that I apparently use, such as "oh my goodness" and "ok, bye" (which I seem to say whenever hanging up the phone).  His comprehension is utterly incredible for being in Canada for such a short time.  Though I speak to the younger kids in fairly simple English still (though I find myself less and less guarded about my word choice), I'm thinking that Seth understands about 90% of what I say in those simpler sentences.  He even overhears me talking to other people and, based on those conversations, will act on what I've said.  He's very bright, very driven, and very curious.

Lizzie's language is somewhat slower in coming, but we were expecting this.  In addition to being two years younger than Seth, she was at a fairly critical age when she moved from Wolayta to Addis Ababa, and then from Addis to Canada - from a language acquisition perspective.  The challenge is that she never had a chance to fully acquire a native tongue - she was too young to have mastered her first language, and then it was confused by a ten-month introduction to Amharic.  When a child is at a certain age without having acquired a mother tongue, the new language acquisition is typically a little slower.  When we take the kids to Ethiopian restaurants here in the city, they clearly understand Amharic when it is spoken to them; however, they both (but Lizzie in particular) combine Amharic and Wolaytan when speaking.

That being said, I think she's doing really well.  In the past week in particular, she seems to have picked up much more vocabulary and a number of (short) phrases, like "not yet" and "I'm coming" and "do it soon."  She's also, in the past week, clearly understood more of what is being said to her - in other words her comprehension has suddenly picked up, too.  She's funny to watch when someone other than Geoff or I say something to her that she doesn't understand.  It's clear to me that she hasn't got a hot clue what the person is saying to her, but then she laughs in this utterly charming way of hers, and people think that she's understood them...meanwhile, I'm laughing on the inside and thinking about how she just bamboozled that person with her social skills.  Oh well, those same skills are going to take her far in life...just you wait and see!

What I find a little sad is that I hear them talking less and less in their combination of Amharic and Wolaytan, even to each other - for the past week, they have been speaking to each other increasingly in English, and Lizzie even mispronounced a commonly used Amharic word (Seth re-taught it to her).  It won't be that long before they lose it, I think.  I've thought about taking them to some Amharic speaking lessons this fall (and we may) but the challenge is that it wasn't their first language anyway, so it won't be as meaningful...and I doubt we're going to find someone locally to work with them on their birth language.  I'm not sure what to do about that, but it makes me sad.

At any rate, I'm thrilled with how well their English language skills are coming along.  They amaze me every day with some new phrase or evidence of comprehension.  I can hardly wait for the day that they can start telling me some of their stories - I want so badly to get to know more about their previous life, and to help them preserve these memories.


  1. It is so amazing how fast they learn english.
    I think Lizzie and Mekuria are the same age. He will be 4 in December. They have a similar history when it comes to language. He has already forgotten some amharic. I said "dabo" last week and he looked at me puzzled and said "bread."
    Hope things are going well.


  2. That's amazing how quickly Seth is picking up the language and how much he is saying already (and expressing complex ideas!) As for Lizzie Senait's social skills and making it seem like she is understanding- how perceptive of her that she is already reading social nuances- that will serve her well I'm sure. :)
    I love the funny things our kids say. My 2 year old informed me "me filarious" (hilarious) the other day. Too funny!
    Hope that you are having a better week this week.