“mamma mamma mamma mamá”

On repeat and growingly dramatic. This is what my son Lorenzo does to get my attention these days, or how he looks for me when he suspects I’m hiding away in the house and working.

It’s not dissimilar from this Family Guy sketch that my colleague Nesrine Malik reminded me of last week during a meeting.

Stewie Griffin’s insistence is quite similar to Lorenzo’s.

Now: how sad is it to complain about a toddler’s excellent use of his relatively scarce vocabulary – especially when you work as a first 1,000 days correspondent?

Lorenzo’s use of words amuses me and fills me with mama pride and tenderness. It also surprises me because it’s all happened so fast. There was a time, quite recently, when he made funny sounds and mostly cried when he wanted my attention. But now that he’s one and a half, there are new words every week, and his communication is becoming clearer and clearer.

I love observing him (despite his loud mamma cries) because it reminds me of what it’s like to be learning a new language. You observe a lot at first, then you practise some easy words, you repeat and repeat, you try to say some things but you get frustrated because no one understands you. And eventually (if you’re as good as a baby) you manage to get to a point of proficiency.

I’ve been thinking about language a lot because we’ve been living in Greece for over three months now, and I don’t speak the language, but have started learning it, very slowly. I can read the alphabet and I know most foods and animals, but there is a long path ahead of me. The process will be riddled with mistakes – as I know from my past experiences with learning foreign languages, including this very one I’m writing in today.

There are many moments where you get lost in translation. My best moments in English happened when I could not get the length of vowels right. Just think about people’s reactions when you tell them you want to go to the beach but instead of using a long “eee” sound you use a short “i” one. Yeah, bitch! You got that right! Try to do the same as you explain that you’re putting clean “sheets” on your bed.

This sweet short documentary by Atsushi Kuwayama made me think of those funny moments and exchanges that happen when you don’t master a language.

Now, there’s a side effect to not being able to communicate fully: frustration. Many educators suggest using sign language with babies in order to teach them to communicate better and feel less frustrated. Sign language seems fun, but some researchers are worried of how commercialised it has become – without clear evidence about its real benefits. Most research suggests that better communication happens when parents pay more attention by making eye contact (which you may do if you’re using sign language), using gestures and communicating as if the baby could actually speak.

This is a whole different thing if you or your child are deaf. My favourite father-son learning-a-language moments come from what Ian DeAndrea-Lazarus, a deaf MD/PhD student, shares on social networks. I’ve become a big fan of little Miles’s videos as he learns American Sign Language. 
(And thanks to my colleague Nabeelah Shabbir for sharing this tip with me!)

I’m curious: have you taught your child sign language? And what has your experience been?

Until next week,


P.S. I managed not to apologise for what I was going to write today. I did so following these wise words by my colleague OluTimehin Adegbeye, our Othering correspondent.

This article first appeared in The Correspondent, the member-funded platform that shut down on 1 January 2021.

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *