What my two-month-old has taught me in and about the Spanish language
In my last post I wrote about my desire to raise my baby in my second language, Spanish. She was born two months ago and so far, so good: I have been speaking to her almost exclusively in Spanish, no matter who else is around. Here’s what I’ve learned from the experience so far:
Spanish is great for speaking to babies!
There is some debate about whether “baby talk” is actually good for babies (some advocate for using an “adult” tone right from the beginning), but I have found that most of the time I just can’t help it. I see her cute little face and I want to speak in a cute little voice – and Spanish is perfect for that! Since there are a limited number of word endings in the language, it’s very easy to make things rhyme – even in otherwise mundane sentences.
But what makes Spanish really great for baby talk are the diminutives – suffixes that indicate smallness or affection. In English, we can do this by using the word “little” (look at your little hands!) or by adding “let” or “y” to words (piglet; doggy). In Spanish, you can change any noun ending to “ito”, “ico”, or their variants (for gender, number, spelling, etc.) to form the diminutive (dog = perro, doggy = perrito). And you can actually do this with adjectives too to make them more endearing, which is hard to translate back into English. Here’s an example of something I might say to my baby:
Hola mi chiquita lindita. ¿Ya estás listita para la lechecita?
Translation: Hello my little cutie. Are you [a little] ready for the [little] milk? Or maybe this last word would be something like “milkies” in English. Cheesy? Yes! Super cute-sounding in Spanish though? You bet!
After almost 20 years of studying and speaking Spanish, you’d think my vocabulary would be pretty extensive. Well, it is BUT one set of words missing from my repertoire were all the ones you need for baby-raising! Like diaper, onesie, and spit-up. Since I started learning Spanish as an early teen, I missed out on the baby years, and those kinds of words don’t tend to come up in language classes… Many of these words also vary between Spanish-speaking countries and regions, so the WordReference forums are my go-to these days. I can read about where and how people use the different options and decide which ones work best for us.
Other low-frequency vocabulary
In addition to the baby-specific vocabulary, I’ve been surprised by how many other words I’ve discovered I didn’t know – words like squirm, squeal, and drool (my baby does all of these things). I also read to my baby a lot, translating books from English to Spanish on the fly, and discover many new words that way. For example, I have a book called “Tails” which describes all kinds of animal tails, so I’ve learned words like bushy, scaly, and stumpy. I didn’t know these words before because they are low-frequency words, meaning they are not used often in the language and usually not taught in language classes for that reason. They are the kinds of words that you only learn when you actually need them – which, apparently, I do now!
Words close to home
It turns out that my baby has a lot of “Canadian”, and especially west coast, toys and books in her collection. Some of our current favourites are from the Native Northwest series which are full of beautiful art by local Indigenous artists. I knew most of the animal words already like raven, beaver, and whale, but I’ve been surprised by how much I am using them in Spanish these days. I’ve also had to learn words like [beaver] dam and pod [of whales]. We haven’t come up with a Spanish version for Sasquatch yet though…
Children’s songs… are weird
Like baby vocabulary, I also never learned Spanish kids’ songs and nursery rhymes. I started studying some of these before my baby was born (YouTube has been great for this), and have been learning more each week. One thing I’ve realized is that children’s songs can be really weird. For example, one favourite of mine (Una Rata Vieja) is about a rat who burns her tail while ironing, and another non-favourite (Arroz con Leche) includes the line “Rice pudding, I want to get married to a little widow from the capital“… But the weirdness is not a Spanish thing – if you really listen to the lyrics of English kids songs (for example, Rock-a-bye Baby or Do Your Ears Hang Low?), they can be pretty strange too!
Overall, I’m having a lot of fun learning along with my baby. I’m excited, and so curious, to hear what will come out of her boquita when she starts to talk!