“Ma-Nye! Ma-Nye!”

That’s what the Dumpling calls me no matter how many times we correct her, “It’s mommy. Mom-ME.”

The obvious reason for her mispronunciation is that she’s only 20 months old. A small part of me, however, thinks that my daughter is being deliberate. “Ma-nye” is her own made-up word, a combination of “mamma” and “nye nye”, the Chinese word for milk. The Dumpling has always seen me as the food source, and she has heard both words frequently and in close proximity with each other since she was born.

My theory led me to wonder how being raised in a bilingual household has affected the Dumpling’s language development. Currently jigg and the grandparents speak exclusively to her in Chinese, while I and her daycare caregivers focus on English. Our thought process is that she would associate one set of language with certain people and communicate accordingly. That didn’t exactly play out as hoped, however, as daycare used to comment that they couldn’t understand her when she spoke Chinese.

I wanted to gain a better understanding of the Dumpling’s communication skills, so I enlisted jigg’s help to gather data. Our goal was to track everything our daughter said over a weekend and make note of any interesting observations. As a preliminary exercise, I wrote down all the word that she knows, so that we could simply tally it off the list. My criteria for a word is something she can verbally say, even if it’s mispronounced, as long as she understands its meaning. For example, if she said “yeyow” and pointed to an object that is indeed yellow.

Result of our experiment in a word cloud.  It appears that I’m competing with cats (“mao mao”), bears, and daddy for her affection.
The Dumpling has a vocabulary of around 80 words with almost a 50/50 split between English and Chinese. She used 74 unique words throughout the weekend and averaged about 262 words per day. I also noticed that she can say something only in one language, not both. My guess is that her preference is for whichever is easier to pronounce. For example, the Dumpling cannot say “flower” in English, but she can say “fa” in Chinese probably because it’s one syllable versus two. If this were true, learning two languages has actually helped expand rather than limit her vocabulary.

The Dumpling repeats herself until she gives up on (or I give into) what she wants. The Dumpling loves watching animal shows (a few of her favorites are Secret Life of Pets, Thunder and the Magic House, Kung Fu Panda, Zootopia, and Masha and the Bear), so it’s not surprising that she frequently said “bear,” “woe woe” and “mao mao” (Chinese for dog and cat) to get us to turn on Netflix.

The Dumpling’s speech is often reinforced with body language. She probably relies heavily on nonverbal cues out of necessity to work around the language barrier between her and her various caregivers. The Dumpling consistently pointed to things, shook or nodded her head, or led us to what she wanted. If she wanted to go out, for example, she would bring us her shoes, stand by the door, and say “guy guy” (Chinese for street). If she wanted a cookie, she would say “ban ban” (Chinese for cookie), lead me to the kitchen, point to the cabinet where they’re stored, point to her mouth and then her stomach.

The Dumpling is a chatter box at home and a mime outside. My only guess is that she’s more shy around strangers.

The Dumpling understands more than she can verbally express…whether she chooses to listen is another story. I often wonder how much the Dumpling gets away with ignoring me under the pretense of not understanding. I caught her last weekend when I repeatedly asked her to sit with her 11 month old cousin for a picture, but she just continued running around as if I were talking to a wall. I then took out her animal crackers and told her she could have one if she sat down. Magically, she understood everything I said.

My takeaway from this exercise is that cookies and crackers work wonders for her language development…and it gave me an idea!

“I’ll give you a “ban ban” if you say “mommy.”” I held a cookie in my hand as proposition. 

“Um! Um!” The Dumpling opened her mouth and pointed to the cookie. “Um um” is the sound she makes when she wants to eat. 

“Say “mommy” and I’ll give you the cookie.” I realized that I’m not beneath bribery at this point.

“Ban ban! Ban ban! Ban ban!” The Dumpling didn’t even bother waiting for my reaction. She ate the cookie off my hand and ran off.

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