Death Valley, Vegas, and a child’s mind

My son-in-law, a buddy, and my grandson took a quick road trip to Death Valley. There wasn’t much to do there, so they went on to Las Vegas. There wasn’t much to do there, either, so they came home.

The buddy was curious. “How does he know which language to use?”

“What do you mean?” my son-in-law asked.

“He knows when to speak Japanese and when to speak English. He never gets it wrong. He’s three years old.”

They thought about it for a while.

A little quiz

Back at home they gave Ringoro a little quiz. In Japanese they’d ask him, “How do you say [word] in English?”

They went through his considerable Japanese vocabulary, and for several minutes he unhesitatingly spoke the correct English translation. On the surface it seems like a neat parlor trick, a little kid blurting out translations.

But when you think about it, it’s pretty profound, because it’s not just that he knows two words, “ringo” and “apple” to describe one object. It’s much more than that.

First, he understands the question, that there is something called English, that it’s different from Japanese, and that the two are wholly distinct. That kind of amazes me, because “language” is a pretty abstract concept, and it’s one that he must have known even before he was three. It must have been an abstraction that he was somehow able to understand even as he was mouthing his very first sounds, because as I thought about it, he never mixed the two up, speaking English when he should have been speaking Japanese, or vice versa.

Second, he plugs those words seamlessly into a wholly separate system of grammar, pronunciation, and idiomatic usage. No Pimsleur, no Rosetta Stone, either.

Third, back to the buddy’s question, how does he know so unerringly which language to use with whom? It’s not that he almost always gets it right … he always gets it right. He is fully equipped with the abstract concept of language, the building blocks of vocabulary and usage, and the knowledge of how to read the social fabric so that he can use the language the right way with the right people.

Did I mention that he’s three?

Kids are kids

Bilingualism is totally normal. More than a third of the world’s population understands more than one language, and you have to think that most dual speakers learn both languages simultaneously, from infancy.

My eldest son, who lives in Vienna and teaches, says it’s not unusual at all for immigrant children there to speak four or more languages, often ones that are completely unrelated. Speaking five and six languages isn’t particularly special, for that matter.

It really makes me wonder.

END

6 thoughts on “Death Valley, Vegas, and a child’s mind”

  1. Complete speculation here… I wonder if different languages are developed on different neural pathways that converge on the same function. That could explain why they don’t mix unintentionally. As an analogy, you can pick up an apple with either your right hand or your left, but you never accidentally pick it up with your right if you meant to use your left. Different pathways.

  2. Seth, My Dad was raised in a multi lingual family….they were Scottish, and his dad (my grandfather – I never knew him) was quite mad, and insisted on speaking to my Dad in Latin, German, and French. Along with English and Gaelic, my Dad just grew up with all these languages. He learned to speak russian and Chinese later, which helped him get that cush job gteaching languages up at the Naval Grad School in Monterey.
    I never had that experience (or gift) so I am stuck knowing a few words in a bunch of languages plus I learned how to cuss in Spanish so that I wasn’t always stuck in the gutter in races down in Mexico.

  3. I am so envious of people who were raised in a multi-lingual environment. It seems so natural to them, but I know that learning a foreign language as an adult is anything but easy, having spent several years studying French in college.

    1. Yes, but kids have their own issues learning multiple language. I’ve heard lots of bilingual kids gripe about having speak back to their parents in the language they were addressed in, when it’s not the dominant language of the society they live in. It changes once they grow up, though. I’ve never heard an adult complain about speaking more than one language …

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