Only parents understand their toddler's babbling
*Tap tap* *tap tap*. Someone’s patting my forehead. As my eyes open with a little morning light sneaking through the blinds into the bedroom, Little Bear is informing me that it’s time to get up. ‘God morgon Lila Björn!’ I can faintly make out his smile as he crawls over to grab hold of me in a heart-warming hug saying what sounds like ‘Pappa! Pappa!’. Raise my arm to hug him back and he does a skilful role under my arm, over my belly and sits up next to me pointing at the lamp: ‘lappa! lappa!’ (‘Lampa’ in Swedish). So me and the lamp have the same name… I’m not jealous of the fact that he clearly has more interest in switching on a lamp than hugging his daddy, but it’d be nice to not have to share my name with a bedside reading aid.
His mum has it worse. Mamma is shared with the Swedish word ‘mat’ (mot, or just ‘ma ma’ for Little Bear). Leading to a few unfortunate incidences where relatives have assumed that he was reaching for his mum, only to be handed over to her and look outraged that they hadn’t given him the waiting sandwich on the kitchen counter. ‘No-wey’ with his eyebrows furrowed pointing to the sandwich ‘mat!’
His vocabulary is growing every week, although when out you could be forgiven for assuming that he can only say ‘car’ and ‘dog’. The Swedish word, ‘bil’ (not like a ‘bill’ but more like ‘beel’) is nice and easy for him to say. Of course, he misses the ‘l’ at the end, so it sounds like he’s just calling the cars bees, but we know what he means.
A lot of things (consistently) sound like bee in fact. If we’re being honest, he has about 10 noises down really well, and then just extends these noises to real words that sound similar. So bubbles, brushes and bushes (or bublar, bostar and buskar) all come out as ‘booba’. Train, take and toe (or tåg, tar and tå) are all ‘toa’.
Parents tend to understand their toddler quite a while before anyone else does. This can be a little awkward when I’ll announce that he knows certain words really well. He’s good at saying thank you (in English) just after he’s taken another baby’s toy without asking. I’m beaming away proudly because he’s so polite ‘see, he just said thank you, how clever’. When in actual fact, he said ‘ta-too’ and the other parent smiles awkwardly pretending they believe me.
That’s if he says anything at all. If he’s in shy mode, I’ll confidently start chatting to him expecting he to demand a ball or his pig, and he’ll just stare at the stranger in the room with an evil eye without a word. One thing we sadly can’t rely on toddlers to do is perform to our friends.
The other awkward misunderstandings are when you know, as the parent, what your toddler is meaning, but the other people don’t. It was only last week that Little Bear has started saying ‘come’ (kom). Before that he just used the word ‘go’ (gå) instead. So he would happily toddle up to guests in our house who were sitting enjoying a glass of wine, tap them on the leg, and start shouting ‘go! go!’ whilst pointing to the door… He wants you to come outside with him and play, we try to explain, but the guests clearly just feel rejected by this tiny person in our living room.
Given his bilingual aspirations, the vocabulary game can get a little political in the family, with some people worried he wont be fluent in one of the languages if he uses the other. A lot of words are safe. ‘Mat’ (food) also sounds like ‘more’, so in nursery he just demands more at the dinner table, and at home he just asks for food. No problem.
Dog on the other hand is a bit more contentious. A few months back during his walks in the park, he started demanding a name for these strange fluffy things that he has to pat gently. The problem is that they not only have different adult and baby names in both languages, they also make different sounds in both languages. So after a few days of calling them ‘doggy’, ‘voven’, ‘woof woof’, ‘dog’, and ‘hund’ interchangeably, he finally settled on the English doggy. When he started calling them doggy in Sweden however, some of the relatives (who will remain nameless) whirred into action: ‘nej, det heter ‘vovve’’. He turned to his teacher with a determined look on his face: ‘No, Doggy’.
Some days you think he’s just on the edge of forming a full sentence, subject-verb-object. He’s got every part of his face and body down to a tee and he’s giving instructions about the food he wants at every turn. Is that a doggy over there Little Bear? No he says, it’s a bird. Because he’s got it down.
But other days you’ll get nothing. ‘Say ‘drink’ if you want your drink’, is more likely to lead to tears than getting the right word out of him. Ask him what a ball is, and he’ll give you his stock way too tough for me response: just repeating ‘diddle diddle diddle’ until you give up. But then, we’re all like that really. For instance there are days when I’d love to just say diddle diddle to some questions I have to answer at work. I’m just more tired those days. He’s learning an awful lot in such a short space of time, so he’s entitled to some days off.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots