Friday, July 12, 2013

Language Learning

One of the more interesting (funny and annoying at times) aspects of having Janet & Lemu with us has been language learning. Our home has become a tri-lingual confusion with often rather amusing results. Lemu came to us speaking only Karimojong, and Janet came speaking only Ik. Being immersed in our culture of course has motivated them to learn English, but we have also had the opportunity to improve on our Ik abilities.

The first month together was characterized by Janet & Lemu learning memorized phrases in English, like 'I love you', 'Thank you', 'Please help me', 'Peepee', 'Poopoo', etc. We also got a lot of practice in Ik as we tried to teach Janet in Ik about all the rules and preferences of our family culture.

Through the second and third months, both girls started picking up more and more English. Being in Kampala, in an all-English environment, for five weeks really gave them a boost in the language department. As they were exposed to so many new things, from pools to ice-cream to boats to toy motorcycles to digital media, they had to learn all the words to go with them. And apart from seeing their Ik Uncle Hillary every Sunday, Amber and I were their main company...and we spoke English.

It's funny, sometimes a day or two will go by without us seeing any notable improvement in their English skills, and then all of a sudden, they will just bust out with a new word or grammatical construction. Janet started this much earlier than Lemu (being older), but Lemu is starting now, too. For example, a couple of weeks ago I asked Janet why she did something, and she answered "Because,...". Amber and I got so happy because that was the first time in her life that she not only had said the word 'because' but had actually used it in the right context. We didn't intentionally teach her that, her brain just recorded all the uses of 'because' she had heard, and then she ventured out on a hypothesis that this was the right context for it. Another time recently, Janet was trying to say something, and she prefaced it with "Um", which is a very English filler word. Who ever thought a child would be praised so much for saying 'um'? But we sure did praise her for that.

Lemu is only three years old, so her world-view is pretty much Lemu-centered. She operates on the basis of pure desire, or curiosity coupled with desire. For the longest time now, her primary mode of being as expressed in language goes something like this:

Lemu: "What is dis?"
Terrill/Amber: "It's banana bread."
Lemu: "I want-ee banana bread."


Lemu: "What is dis?"
Terrill/Amber: "This is tea."
Lemu: "I like-ee tea." (I.e. 'give me tea').

A few evenings ago, while I was walking home holding Lemu, she broke out with her first non-memorized, created English sentence. It went something like this: "Ee go home, ee take bath, ee, ee go sleeping." We were so proud of her and tried to make sure she knew it. Language learning goes so much better when people encourage you.

The books on international adoption talk about children going through an 'interference' stage of language where the sounds and patterns of their mother tongue interfere in their usage of a new language. We definitely see this with Janet and Lemu. For example, in Janet's best-known language, Ik, there are no prepositions like 'in', 'at', 'on', 'from', etc. Instead, little particles (suffixes) called 'case endings' go on the end of nouns and take the place of prepositions. So even though English doesn't have case endings, Janet will say things like "Let's go Kaabong" or "Can I sit Daddy?". As another example, in both Karimojong and Ik, the main verb of a sentence usually comes first before the subject and object. So Lemu used to say things like "Coming Mommy?" or "Eating Janet food?".

Unfortunately, much of the English the girls have learned is in the form of prohibitions like 'don't do___', 'don't say___', etc. We have been trying to eliminate some of the less desirable behaviors arising from selfishness, or should I say human nature. For a long time we've been telling Janet "Don't be jealous of Lemu". For over a week now, every time we say or do anything to Lemu that seems even remotely enjoyable to Janet, she says "I'm not jealous of Lemu." Yeah, wish I believed that. She also likes to forbid herself from doing stuff before we get the chance. We often hear her saying herself things like "Don't say 'where is food?'" or "Calm down". Doing this kills two birds with one stone: it both reminds her to do or not to do something AND shows us how obedient she is.:)

And lastly, for those of you who don't follow us on Twitter, here are some linguistic gems from the girls:

Terrill, whispering sweetly in Lemu's ear, "Lemu, I love you!"
Lemu: "I want cookies."

Amber, kissing Lemu gently on the forehead, "Lemu, I like you."
Lemu: "I like eggs." (Actually she doesn't...)

Janet, always eager to prove her worth (I wish she knew she didn't have to), proudly announces to us: "Janet spanking English!" Yes, my dearest, you are, in a manner of speaking.

Janet: "I am good!" We'll have to work on her theology later...

Janet, praying: "Thank you for food, thank you for Janet,..."

Janet, trying to be funny: "Janet fun!"

One evening we were trying to get Janet to help Amber make cookies. She just could not get the concept of lining up cookies on the cookie pan. She would put them at random places and look up at us for approval. I'm sorry to say we got quite frustrated. Disgusted, I walked back to the kitchen and continued washing dishes. Janet messed up the cookie project a little more and then called out to me: "Daddy proud of Janet?" My heart melted. "Yes, Daddy proud of Janet."


Notinthewild said...

This post could have gone on indefinitely as far as I'm concerned. :) Such a pleasure to read. Pleeeease videos soon!

Rich and Sally Hoffman said...

Janet fun! Lemu fun! Thank you for Mommy and Daddy☺☺☺☺!!!! How we wish we could be flies on the wall to follow this daily progress☺☺.

Lois said...

This is adorable. I've heard it's especially fascinating watching kids go thru the language acquistition process after having done it recently yourself. But, clearly, when it's 2nd language acquisition it's doubly a way, a reverse process to what you two have done, but also SO different, because as kids it's more intuitive and less about studying. :)

"I like eggs" hahaha!

ChadandRachel said...

I'm with Laura; all this is wonderful stuff. Janet's speechifying reminds me of Toby a bit. He uses the performative a lot, what he wishes were true (e.g., "we're not having chicken for supper"), perhaps analogous to Janet's "I'm not jealous." And self-talking what the child expects the parent to be saying is an interesting common trait.

Anonymous said...

Soooo sweet and precious to read this! Give us more Janet & Lemu-isms. :) I love that as I read these little conversations out loud to myself or in my head, I can hear all the love and kindness of Christ pouring out from both of you on these girls!

Love, Kate