“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.

The Doodle Wars

The magna doodle started out as a relatively benign toy in our household. Its purpose was to introduce the Dumpling to drawing without giving me the anxiety of having to scrub crayons off the walls. Although the most I could get out of her were a bunch of scribbles, I would also take turns doodling to keep her engaged. I turned my sketches into a game where I would ask her to name or pick out the correct animal, object, or letter on the board. The ever changing artwork and the interaction kept her interested and bringing me the magna doodle has become part of her daily play.

Everything changed one day when jigg sketched a “rabbit”. I commented that it looked nothing like what it’s supposed to be and drew my version next to his. He obviously disagreed, so we turned to the Dumpling for the tie breaker. I showed her the board and asked her to find the rabbit. Without hesitation, she pointed to mine.

jigg cried foul and claimed that I had more practice. There was only one thing left to do whenever we have a trivial disagreement – we took our case to Facebook. I posted the below picture and asked our friends to decide: who drew the better bunny? The consensus was that jigg’s looked like a rat.

Winner: Mrs. jigg (left)

Then came the rematch and then another. What started out as an educational exercise for the Dumpling somehow morphed into an ongoing doodle war between jigg and me. The rules are simple: jigg and I each have half the board to draw the same animal that we take turns selecting (the Dumpling currently can correctly identify 30+ animals, so we have a sizable pool to pick from). We then present our work and ask her to point out the animal. Whichever one she selects first is the winner.

Winner: jigg (right)
Winner: jigg (right)
Winner: jigg (right)

As the Dumpling assessed our work, it was interesting for jigg and me to analyze her thought process. At 20 months, she is able to pick up certain physical traits unique to specific animals even if they’re poorly drawn: cats have pointy ears and whiskers; crabs have claws; fish have fins; etc. Although her speech is still limited (we were told that speech development for children growing up in bilingual households take a bit longer), she displays her understanding by identifying an animal in one of three ways depending on what is easier for her to vocalize – by its English or Chinese name, or the sound the animal makes. It’s assuring to know that she can connect the same thing in multiple forms.  For example, she understands that “moo”, “cow,” and “ngau” (Chinese for cow) are associated with cow, but she can only say “moo” and “ngau”.

The Dumpling also turned out to be a fair and honest judge in our doodle wars. Sometimes she would just stare and stare and wouldn’t be able to find the animal she was supposed to be looking for. In that case, it means that jigg and my drawings both suck.

To be honest, my art skills are probably slightly better than average at best. Even though jigg is currently ahead in the doodle wars, it makes me happy when my daughter picks mine. That means she [sometimes] “gets me”.