I once heard someone refer to toddler speech as “speaking Swedish” because that’s what their gibberish sounds like to us sometimes. It may as well be a foreign language for all we understand from it. When you think about it, a foreign speaker and a toddler are very similar, linguistically speaking: People with things to say and limited skills to say it with.
Dealing with my children’s budding language skills, I’ve found it very helpful to remember what it felt like when I moved to the U.S. as a French speaker. Here are some tips on how to communicate with a foreigner who’s learning to speak a new language, and how it can be applied to making your life with toddlers a little easier!
Tip 1: Repeat things in a different way.
When a foreigner asks “what?” or “pardon me?” or “can you repeat that,” do not repeat the exact same thing louder. They are not hard of hearing, they’re just not understanding your sentence. Try saying it slower, pronouncing more deliberately, or best of all, saying the same thing in a different way.
How it applies to toddlers: When your toddler asks “what?” or doesn’t seem to be understanding your requests, don’t repeat the same sentence over and over, getting louder and more flustered at every iteration. Instead, try to use different words or reshape the sentence. I know we often think repetition is key to learning, but sometimes it’s also just key to frustration. Once they understand the second sentence, the meaning of the first attempt will suddenly reveal itself.
Tip 2: Know that they may be using the wrong word. Consistently.
In French, the letter J is pronounced like an English G, and G is pronounced like the English J. No joke. To this day, I have to pause and think before spelling aloud any word containing a J or G. Even then, I sometimes get it wrong. Similarly, I have a Korean friend who kept getting blue and green confused, because Asian languages traditionally have only terms that can be used for both green and blue. If it’s frustrating to you that a foreigner’s dialect leads of confusion in the translation—and increasingly so if the error is repeated multiple times—remember how ingrained some of these concepts might be in their brain. It’s hard to overwrite some of these things you learned as a small child.
How it applies to toddlers: So your child gets sugar and salt confused. Every. Single. Time. Or she consistently uses “if” instead of “with.” You may be tempted to sigh loudly, roll your eyes, and grumpily retort “for the love of all that is good in this world, how many times do I have to tell you? It’s WITH. Wih-wih-wiiiiith.” I know I do exactly that all too often. I don’t mean to, but it’s just annoying when you have to correct someone on the same thing again and again. But you know what, consistent correction is helpful; The attitude is not.
Tip 3: Simple words are not so simple.
Barn. Farm. Horse. Duck. Pig. These are super easy words, right? Not when you learn a language through immersion! A foreigner will sooner pick up the vocabulary that’s specific to his or her field of work than the vocabulary that American children learn in picture books. Unless a foreigner spends a lot of time in rural areas, dead simple words like “farm” may be difficult to retrieve from memory on the fly. Just because you had to explain what a pig is doesn’t mean you have to dumb down the whole conversation. Chances are their complex vocabulary is more up to speed.
How it applies to toddlers: As a toddler or preschooler becomes more adept at speaking, it’s easy to forget they are still very new to the world. You may promote an extensive vocabulary in a thousand different educational activities, and read book after book every night, but in the end, they are still bound to be holes in their vocabulary. Like with foreigners, dumbing-down the whole conversation isn’t necessary, just fill in the holes when they appear and keep practicing all those fancy words too!
Tips 4: Idioms are really confusing.
I was working with a girl who moved to the U.S. from Sweden while she was in high school. She told me the first thing she had to figure out was the expression “what’s up?” When asked, she’d look up at the ceiling wondering why people kept asking her to look up! Was this a cruel joke?! After hearing it a few times amongst her classmates, she finally figured out it was a way to ask how others were doing. It seems so trivial, but it is really incredibly confusing when the meaning of a word or sentence isn’t literal.
Idioms are tricky in a number of ways. They are hard to figure out if you’ve never heard them before, and perhaps even harder to use correctly once you’ve heard them. Someone may come off as insulting when they incorrectly reply “misery loves company” to someone who’s complaining about a personal problem—oops, I thought it was the supportive thing to say!
Don’t even get me started on how many idioms I translated from French that left my husband perplexed. I guess having your “eyes in bean grease” isn’t a saying in English, go figure! Idioms do not translate very well.
How it applies to toddlers: I did not realize how many idioms I used every day until my daughter came along. “You’ve had enough, I’m cutting you off” had her quite worried about my proximity to knives. “I have a song stuck in my head” had her ponder how someone can have something literally stuck inside his or her skull. “I’ll make a frozen pizza for dinner” had her thinking we’d eat pizza that was still frozen—“but it’ll be too hard,” she replied—whereas I assumed it didn’t need to be mentioned I’d bake it before serving. I don’t necessarily think idioms need to be avoided, just be ready to explain them though!
In the end, I’m no perfect parent. When my kids get upset, yell, or throw tantrums because they’re just so sick of being misunderstood, I usually lose my patience right along with them. Difficult communication isn’t a one-way street, it’s difficult on all parties. Every once in a while though, I like to reflect on what it felt like to learn English through complete and sudden immersion. It reminds me to treat my kids the same way I liked to be treated as a foreigner: Not like an idiot who needs to be talked down to, but like a real human being who simply needs a little extra help learning a new skill.
So the next time your toddler points angrily rather than use his words, or throws a fit because he can’t find the words to express himself again, take a deep breath and treat them how you would an adult learning a new language!