Bilingual Baby Speak, Take Two

26 Jan

Supposedly it’s common for kids growing up in multilingual environments to take more time to talk. Whether that’s the reason or not, my littler little one is definitely a case study in resisting the grown-ups’ languages. Rapidly approaching age 2, young Khalil still only has about a 6 word vocabulary. But he sure can get all his relevant points across with his limited lexicon.

“M” words are at the top of his list, since they include all the things necessary for his survival: more (duh- more everything, please), ma (meaning both “my” and “mine,” always accompanied by pointing to or beating on his chest), and mum (mama, but apparently he’s part Irish like his Papi* and prefers mum).

For instance, when I caught him drinking honey out of the jar this morning, he didn’t even look guilty; instead he blithely asked for more, since the jar was now empty.

When he heard me talking on the other side of the door at his preschool, he B-lined for the door, which I deduced because I heard a clear and steady stream of “Mum…. Mum…. Mum…. Mum…” Then I heard his teacher ask, “Where are you going, Khalil?” to which he replied, of course, “Mum.” When he sees something that he knows is only for Mommy and Papi to touch, he goes “Mum,” and then shakes his head and points to himself. When he sees a beer can? “Mum.” That’s right, kiddo, that’s right. When Papi comes home? Also “Mum.” Until Khalil makes it to the P sound, Papi gets to be the other Mommy.


These are ma delicious fingers, thank you, says Khalil

The only word that he says in Spanish so far is “uno.” He uses it to count, of course. When we do his asthma inhaler, I count and he also counts, except his counting sounds like this: “uno, uno, uno, uno, uno….” He also uses the word uno to indicate a garafon (big water jug) truck, or anything else he finds interesting that there is one of. A dump truck? UNO!! A bird? UNO! A piece of candy? UNO! (accompanied by ma! and chest beating) Conan has invented his own game for this, which goes something like this: “Khalil, how many Mommys are there?” Khalil: “Uno!” “How many cats in the house?” (Etc.) Khalil has a good concept of mathematics, too. If there are two dump trucks he’ll say “uno” and “more.” And when a whole flock of birds flies into the sky? Latalatalatalata (which we interpret as a lot of a lots: alotalotalotalot)



He’s working on the b sound, since that also contains some favorites. He attempts to say bread and bird and book, although none of them are clear out of context. He makes a grunting noise that starts when the b sound to mean big, which is one of my favorite semi-words of his.

He added two words in one week recently, and for a second there, I thought we must be headed for rapid progress in language development. Turns out, though, he was just really inspired by these two things, because no further words have been added in the weeks since. One of the inspirations is the word Elmo, although I didn’t even realize that he had a clue who Elmo was, since Khalil has zero attention span for videos (I’m not complaining, don’t worry). But he found a pair of Lucia’s old Elmo underwear and was ecstatic, and emphatic about the word Elmo. Now even the Cookie Monster towel is Elmo and it is his exclusive property, thank you.

Equally as emphatic and clear, he also added the word “vulva” to his vocabulary that week. And in case you thought it might have been a mistake, don’t fool yourself. He started using it at bath time, one night that the three of us were bathing at the same time (them in a tub, me in the shower). He pointed at mine and said, “vulva.” He pointed at Lucia’s and said, “vulva.” And finally, he pointed at his own genitals and said, “vulva.” I tried to tell him that his had a different name, but he is pretty determined to also call his a vulva, so I’ve decided it’s best just to go with it for now. Of course it’s become a torture technique for Lucia, to taunt Khalil, singing, “You don’t have a vulva! You have a penis!” And Khalil grabs his and goes, “Vulva!” And Lucia repeats her taunt, ad nauseam until I break up the fight. Leave it to my kid to be a 6 word wonder who uses the word vulva on the daily. So fitting.

And really Elmo and vulva are basically the same in both languages, so perhaps I can count that as four words, as a Spanish part  and an English part of his bilingual lexicon.

If you count animal sounds as words, then we can double his toddler terminology. He’s particularly fond of owls, apparently, because two of his cloth diapers have owls on them and just about every time I change his diaper he goes, “whoowhoo.” He can also howl at the moon to indicate a wolf. Oh and I forgot he can say “moon”- another m word not as obviously imperative as his mum, but pretty darned important (particularly for howling purposes). Because he can say moon, obviously he can moo like a cow just as well as Elsie herself. He makes a sad little whiney meow when he’s imitating a cat- possibly because he’s always abusing our cat- pulling her tail or petting her so forcefully it’s essentially hitting. “Baa” is a classic of his, since we have goats and sheep around our neighborhood. “Baa” is his go-to phone conversation, so much so that Lucia coaches him when he’s talking to one of the grandparents. “Say ‘ba,’ Khalil,” she suggests, and he does. I can sense his building up to the rooster sound, because he bangs on the door in the morning till I open it up so he can observe our neighbor’s rooster come pecking around and crowing. He can’t say “neigh” yet either, but he gallops on the broom really well.

Despite his rather meager vocabulary, this is one communicative child. Uninterested in television, he can video-chat play with my mom for like 30 minutes, while my four year old is only interested for about 5 minutes.  He tells me about the things that have happened in his day, between sounds and demonstrations. He reenacts falls and other mishaps like a natural thespian. When he wants food, he says, “yum” and pretends to put something in his mouth, or else he goes and bangs on the fridge door until you open it and he shows you exactly what he wants.

He shakes his head and/or wags his finger at everything that’s a no. This “no” technique is especially useful in letting you know what’s not for you or to make comparisons. Like he’ll point to his Elmo underwear and say, “Elmo. Ma.” Then he’ll point to your underwear region and shake his head no and say, “Elmo,” until you confirm that indeed, his underwear has Elmo and yours does not. His shirt has a shark and yours does not. He even jokes with his “no” game. That’s his potty and not yours. No, Mommy, that’s his sweet big belly, not yours. Those are his 7 bananas and none are for you. That coffee is his and… No? He’ll smile slyly when he knows it’s not his. The kid can even joke without using real words!

What more could any kid really need to say? Language is for the birds! And wolves and goats, too.



*Sorry, inside joke. I’ll leave you wondering whether he’s really Irish or not. Bwahahaha.


5 Responses to “Bilingual Baby Speak, Take Two”

  1. Kelly Piatt January 26, 2017 at 11:27 pm #

    My grandson is 20 months and his version of uno is dah boo. Translates to “that one”. Dah boo is a multipurpose word, good for anything interesting, trucks, animals, toys, even the piece of fruit you want. I love toddler speak.

    • exiletomexico January 28, 2017 at 7:24 pm #

      Oh, nice! I might start saying dah boo, too. Toddler speak is indeed, SO much fun! Thanks for reading!

  2. Aunt Linda January 27, 2017 at 8:49 am #

    As I recall, you were extremely quiet as a tot, at least around others. Probably not within your family unit, but everywhere else. Of course, once you found your voice, you talked your head off. When I was seven, I taught your father how to write his name, teacher in me even then. We were on the market with Mom and Grandma so I set up a few veggie crates, had him sit on one, use one as a table and use a brown paper bag to write “Mike-o” about a million times. Made sense to me.

    • exiletomexico January 28, 2017 at 7:26 pm #

      I love that story! I can totally picture your early big sister teacher coming out.
      And yes, I was painfully shy for a short portion of my life ; ) We can see that didn’t last!
      Hugs and love!


  1. Disability, Different-ability, Difference, and Determination, Oh My! | exile to mexico - August 14, 2017

    […] My two year old had been able to understand everything for quite a while, and had started talking, but he wasn’t really making progress. He was adding a new word maybe every couple of weeks or every month instead of every day. He wasn’t even putting two words together. All of that is potentially fine. And in Mexico, especially, nobody worries about kids who are slow to talk; it’s practically the norm. “Boys are slower,” people said, or, “Bilingual kids take longer to talk.” Even I sometimes thought, “It’s because he doesn’t need to talk yet; he makes his needs understood just fine with his few words, gesticulations and sounds.” I would try to motivate him to talk, but he absolutely wouldn’t even try to say anything that wasn’t something he could already say. He would suddenly pop up with a new word or new animal noise, and then that would be all his verbal progress for an extended amount of time. The whole, “He’ll talk when he’s ready” theory had started to not make sense to me, because I could see that he wanted to talk. He would try to tell big, complex stories about something that happened, using only sounds and motions. He was starting to get really frustrated with not being able to express himself enough, despite the great lengths he’d go to in order to get his point across. So I worried a bit and then set my worry aside, because there was nothing I could do about in in my small town in Oaxaca.  (I wrote this in January of this year about him, still trying not to worry about his speech: Bilingual Baby Speak, Take Two) […]

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