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Conversations with a multilingual 2 year old

Sep 25, 2017 • Multilingualism

So many of you have been asking how Oliver’s doing with the four languages, so today I thought I would answer just that, and I’ll do it through his own words.

His speech is full-on at the moment, but because he’s growing up with four native languages he’s now truly and deeply mixing all of them—which makes his language something that really only mummy and daddy understand fully (and not always ;-).

Many of you also asked if Oliver’s confused by having so many languages, and the truth is he’s not: his only confusion might be for not understanding why not everybody understands him, as around here he understands everybody ;-)

During our one-month stay in Finland, though, we noticed something very interesting:

  • He switched to Finnish with the locals, and the Finnish language quickly became predominant during our stay there. He started using Finnish words that daddy hadn’t taught him, just by hearing them around.
  • He translated to me (and this is the most interesting aspect for me) when I looked at him confused. One day, we were in a bathroom the car, he was looking out the window and saying a word in Finnish I didn’t understand. So he looked at me, and said in Italian “bello, mamma” (beautiful).

In this post I’ll write some of his sentences that I’ve been collecting since he was about 21 months old, and I won’t translate them of course so you can fully understand the level of his mixing, which to me is astonishing.

  • While Alex tells him a goodnight story in Finnish: "Oli no like it".
  • He takes my hand as he wants me to sit on the bed, “Papà, aquí”. He realizes he called me papà. “No, mamma aquí, papá loppu (over in Finnish). Papá moto (motorbike), ficio (ufficio: office in Italian), papá loppu”.
  • He wants to push the pram, "Chello (quiero) spingi". (I want to push, Spanish+Italian)Me, "Vuoi spingere tu?" (Do you want to push?)Oli, "Sì, vuoi". (Yes, you want)
  • Me, “Ti piace di più il cavallo o il pony?” (Do you prefer the horse or the pony?)Oli, “Pony”.Me, “Ti piace di più il pony o il cavallo”?Oli, “Horse”.
  • "Oli see grande caufauffa" (giraffe in Oli’s language, English+Italian)
  • In the bathtub, putting his rubber fish on the boat, "Vamos fish, come on, up, no cadi Fish, ven”. The fish falls. "Oh no, fish duto (caduto: fallen in Italian), fish pois (away in Finnish). The apotheosis of his multilingualism :-D
  • At home, before he leaves to the store with daddy, “Ricorda a papà di comprare latte, uova e frutta”. (Remind daddy to buy milk, eggs and fruit)Oli, alone with daddy in the elevator, “Muna, maito” (in Finnish, one of the first times he translated to us, around 2 years old).
  • "Look, paljon scale!” (Look, lots of stairs, English+Finnish+Italian)
  • Oli, “Look, mamma, suihku!”Me, “Oli, non capisco“. (I don't understand)Oli, “Doccia, mamma!" (Shower, mama!)
  • “Quiero menna parco” (I want to go to the park, Spanish+Finnish+Italian)
  • After a birthday party, “Quiero more kakku” (I want more cake, Spanish+English+Finnish)

Now he’s 30 months old, and his speech has jumped another level: he’s now describing stories, telling us things that happened at school, explaining why he’s sad or angry—always mixing the four languages, but also more and more answering in the language he is addressed in, and translating for us. In our next trip to Finland I’ll have my own little interpreter… What a fascinating journey, raising multilingual kids!