The other day at breakfast, I was handing my five-year-old some toast…
Me: Here, eat some jam and bread like your ancestors.
Brontë: What are my “ancestors?”
Me: Well… okay, you know how I’m your mom and my mom is your grandma?
Me: Her mom is your great-grandma, right? And her mom was your great-great-grandma. If you keep going, you get to your ancestors… like your great-great-great-great-great-grandma. A lot of them came out of England and Scotland where they have lots of shows about orphans and eat jam and bread.
She ponders this.
Brontë: We have boys in our family, right?
Me: Of course!
Brontë: And they are our “an-brothers?”
Me: Oh… no. They’re also our ancestors. It’s an-CEST-ors, not an-SIST-ers…
Brontë (pointing through the car window): Mermaid coffee!
Me: Yep! That’s Starbucks and we bought their coffee earlier.
Brontë: Mommy and Brontë had coffee.
Me: Well, mommy had coffee and you had a strawberry smoothie.
Brontë: No, COFFEE.
Me: You loved the smoothie. You drained it.
Brontë (outraged): NO! I NOT BABY, I HAD COFFEE!
Me: Alright, you had strawberry coffee.
Having a kid can make you rethink the mechanics of your language. As adults, we’re familiar with English (or whatever our native language may be). We instinctively know when something “sounds right” or doesn’t, forgetting how arbitrary linguistic rules can be.
And it can be tough to grasp these rules when you absorbed them so long ago, you don’t remember doing it. When I was in the Army learning Arabic, for example, many of my fellow soldiers and I noticed how we had an easier time learning from American teachers than teachers who were Arab immigrants.
Native Arabic speakers were better at the language (obviously), but they knew when something “sounded right” or didn’t, without having to think about why. American teachers, on the other hand, needed to learn the rules themselves before teaching them.
Parents have similar issues teaching kids our native tongue. Think about it. If our child says, “I have two mouses,” we laugh because they should’ve said “mice,” yet we don’t know why. It just *sounds* right.
We often chuckle at our kids’ cute, messed-up phrases while forgetting they’re learning English on the job. Many of the mistakes coming out of my daughter’s mouth are actually perfectly logical, except we don’t happen to say it whatever way she’s saying it.
The last time we had a storm, for instance, Brontë yelled “I’m scary!” every time she heard thunder and lightening. I kept telling her to say she’s “scared” instead.
But her take made perfect sense. In English, you say “I’m hungry” when you have hunger. If you have thirst, you say, “I’m thirsty.”
So why don’t we say “I’m scary” when we have fear?
If you step outside your intellectual comfort zone, hearing kids learn to talk becomes an entertaining showcase of the irregularities of the English language. Besides, their refreshing take can be hilarious.
Brontë: (pacing back and forth with a toy phone): Mmm hmmm… Yeah… Mmhmm.
Me: Who is on the phone?
Brontë (sternly): Mommy, I’m on the phone. I’m **talking.**
Me: Oh, sorry… Shh.
Brontë (pretending to hang up): We were playing circles.