Pros and cons of using a four-year-old as your language instructor


I have a niece who is a native speaker of Chinese. Playing with her is a free language lesson, and there are advantages and disadvantages.

One advantage is that you will learn all the basic words, and you won't run the risk that your instructor will accidentally use some advanced vocabulary that will throw you off. (You also learn some words that are very important to young children like butt and fart.)

Fortunately, my niece's pronunciation is very good, so it's not like I'm accidentally learning to speak with a lisp or a childhood speech impediment.

One disadvantage is that you're learning kiddie-talk: My niece uses the word for doggie rather than dog, for example.

A bigger problem is that you might learn the words wrong. While playing with some animal dolls, my niece (four years old at the time) taught me the word 頭骨. I didn't know what it meant, but I repeated it to her satisfaction. During a break in play, I asked her aunt, "Hey, I just learned the word 頭骨. What does it mean?"

Her aunt didn't know either. She went back to my niece for clarification. "What did you just teach Uncle Raymond?"

After some discussion, her aunt figured it out. My niece got the word wrong. It's not 頭骨; it's 骨頭. (It means bone.)

Apparently this mistake of flipping the syllables of a word is not exclusive to Chinese. Her aunt asked her, "What do you want to eat?"

— Apple pie! was her reply in English.

"There's no apple pie here."

— It's right there!

"That's not apple pie. It's pineapple."

My niece patiently explained, "Grown-ups say pineapple, but kids say apple pie."

Bonus chatter: The nieces are encouraged to speak with me in Chinese rather than English. They take this as an opportunity to tease me by asking questions they think I can't answer by using words I don't know. Last night, one of them asked me, "When we get to your house, can I hit your butt?" She thought she was being so sneaky; apparently she forgot that she's the one who taught me the word butt.

Comments (15)
  1. Sunil Joshi says:

    Your niece has independently invented Verlan:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verlan

    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verlan

  2. bahbar says:

    Verlan is quite wide spread in French indeed. In fact, it’s so prominent that some words get transformed twice. femme->meuf->feumeu…

    you’d think it would be a proper symmetry, and you’d be wrong.

  3. Frank says:

    Do you mean 骨頭 instead of 骨騭? The character “騭” is not related to word “Bone”.

    [D’oh! Transcription error. I entered U+9A2D instead of U+982D. -Raymond]
  4. Jim says:

    Well in Modern Chinese, there are a lot of doubled characters which just re-enforce the meaning, for your case 骨頭 means bone and 頭骨 means bone on your head, a little bit difference. You can also filp the sell-buy and buy-sell, which means the same but one of them oddly sound.

  5. GregM says:

    This reminds me of when my 5 year old daughter used to say that she couldn’t have pineapple because she was allergic to pine (the sap from the tree would cause a rash).

  6. Matt T. says:

    Hilarious! Your family stories are the best part of this blog (no offense).

  7. Bob Snyder says:

    When I was an undergrad at Penn State in 1983, there was an on-campus restaurant named "Fast Break". They specialized in fast food such as hamburgers, but they didn’t serve breakfast. I always wondered whether international students were confused by the similarity of "fast break" and "breakfast".

  8. Joshua Muskovitz says:

    I don’t think it is a transposition error. Adults are simply big endian, and kids are little endian. :-D

  9. Cheong says:

    The teaser in the end brings me some memory…

    When I was in primary school, my classmates general show no interest to the "Anybody can answer me?" questions asked by her.

    One day somehow she got angry about this, and asked "Does any body in the class have brain? Please raise your hand." (The word "brain" is not taught in any English textbooks be used in previous school years)

    My mom had bought my dictionary one year before so I’ve learnt that word. So I tell everyone near me to raise their hand. The net result is only the people surrounding me and a few others raised their hand.

  10. Daniel Pratt says:

    We recently adopted a 6 year old girl from Ethiopia. I’ve been trying to get her to teach me some of her native language, with limited success. The problem is there seems to be a limited number of words I can ask her about before she decides that it’s more fun to play a game of telling me the wrong words for things. Sometimes I know when this is happening, sometimes I don’t.

  11. tsrblke says:

    Sometimes though a Kid’s honestly and sense of can help you learn the local dialects very well.  My high school spanish teacher goes to Honduras every year and works in a malnutrition center there.  During one of the earlier years he went e was running around talking with some of the house workers telling them to pick up the babies using one of the more formal spanish words.  The workers promptly stiffled laughs.  Finally one of the kids said "Profe, you’re saying something bad."  Confused my treacher asked what.  The kid said he didn’t know any other word for it and promptly held up his middle finger.  It turns out in this particular region of honduras, that turn of spanish phrase (normal in Spain where my teacher was taugh) has…negative connotations.

  12. Tal says:

    Maybe she was accidentally thinking in Japanese – 頭骨 means skull (head+bone). 骨頭 is actually the meaningless word there…

  13. other uncle says:

    Man, you run with a tough crowd–card sharks and butt-kickers.

  14. Kfc says:

    In Cantonese 頭骨 is bone of head(=skull). 骨頭 is bone, any bone.

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