04 April, 2012

Bilingualism, brain tissue, and associative thinking

Papa´s little boy seems to be really into puzzles lately. He has recovered his once fleeting interest in some puzzles that he didn´t find so attractive 2 or 3 months ago.
I think now he considers them a challenge and something really fun to play with. He also loves to praise himself clapping hands and saying “bieeeeeen!” when he matches 2 pieces together. Following this renovated interest, Mum and I have been recently prowling around several toy shops, trying to hunt down some new preys to feed our little cub´s hungry brain. In this search we found some nice ones with animals, which he loves, but they were all recommended for children above 3 years old or 3-6 years old. We thought this would be too complicated for a 22 months old baby, but anyway we bought them because we found the colors and the themes very nice.
The thing is we have been surprised (shocked in fact) as after playing twice with them he associates perfectly the animals with the food they eat both in Spanish and English, and he responds with no mistakes to questions such as:
“Who likes to eat honey?”-“BEAR!”
“and what does the bunny eat?”-“CARROTS!”
“and how does granny say BEAR?- “OSO!!”
…and then going way beyond where we could imagine… “Hey man, could you tell me which ones, out of this figures, are animals?” (Clock, doggy, house, snail, bee, tree…). He failed as logically expected, and then PAPA just explained to him which ones were animals. Some days after when he was asked the same question he picked them out correctly, help by the fact that “animals have eyes”, so he started driving the attention to figures with eyes, and then he related this puzzle with the other one (which has nothing to do in shape, purpose, color or design), being the trigger the fact that he had just put together the 2 pieces of a fish, and seals eat fish in the puzzle that matches animals with their food.  
It´s not that I´m saying that he should be in MENSA or he is a super-gifted baby, but I can´t help but think that being raised bilingually is giving him some abilities to develop associative thinking and it might be making him be more aware of things going on around him. I also must say that he is by no means being forced or intentionally driven to perform any kind of mental training or anything of the like. He shows a special interest in linking things, and it looks like as he physically connects the pieces, he also connects thoughts and concepts.  
P.D. Ok yes, I must admit that PAPA thinks a little bit that he is the most adorable and also the smartest baby in the planet Earth… But I guess this is just me being Papá… 

All the way into sentences

Time flies and our little punk grows bigger and bigger every day, together with his vocabulary and language skills. It´s not like I´m an absolute worrywart (well, sometimes yes, I am) or that I´m all the time monitoring his utterances, but I must own up that I as well as mum are definitely more focused than anyone on what he says.
He´s become quite a chitter-chatter lately, and even though we are in permanent contact with him (sometimes less than we´d like to be), we have noticed a huge improvement along the last month. 2 big milestones have been observed within the last weeks:
-       Vocabulary: There is no way to keep track or even count his utterances anymore, as he has dived into the repetition phase already. This means that he repeats many things, of course in his own way, which is hardly recognizable for those unfamiliar but pretty clear for mum and dad (always some exceptions).
-       Structures: He has evolved from only names and some adjectives to using also verbs and expressions that imply some structured thinking. He now describes actions imitating the schemes observed in mum, dad and grandpas. As an example: “elota, ande, se va” (“pelota grande se va”= “Big ball goes away”).
-       Songs: He has started to sing by himself. Until now he used to follow someone singing along, but now he spontaneously starts his own rhythms, being the greatest hits “incy wincy spider”, “twinkle twinkle little star” and “caracol, col col” (this last one in Spanish, about a snail).
Although this must be and of course IS an exciting moment, there is one fishy thing going on for Papá: most of this spurt (not related to songs) is taking place in Spanish. Of course, how else could it be! Given the level of exposure, observing the contrary would be really disconcerting, but it doesn´t mean that I´m 100% ok with it. Still the good part is that when prompted adequately, he responds in English too and with a similar evolution. He seems to have many English words well established, so those ones come out in the first place and unwillingly, but when it comes to sentences and new expressions, Spanish come first, then Papá “doesn´t understand what the baby means…”, then there is normally a moment of mulling over (a second most of the times), and then some English comes along. However sometimes if the expression is too new for him it doesn´t come at all. In these cases, he reminds silent and changes the subject to play with something else or tries to drive your attention to other subject. In most of this cases, when we play the same game again and go over the same expression, he seems to have integrated both the Spanish and the English version, of course Spanish come first again and I have to drive him back to English by asking “what?” or reformulating the phrase. I guess this is lack of practice and he´ll eventually get it.
There´s another interesting detail. He has picked up very quickly the concepts of “what?” or “I don´t understand” to automatically switch into English, I have not taught him or carefully explained him what it means or what he should do when hearing this, but he´s just reacting to this naturally.
I have no close references of the evolution of similar cases, but despite that I think he is responding quite well given the low level of exposure and his age (23 months old now).