Thursday, August 30, 2007

Itai vs. Dame: On Conversations with a 16-Month-Old

Imoto's first language, to the extent she uses language, is Japanese. I'll be writing about onechan's adjustment to life in English tomorrow, but today I want to look at imoto's. Unlike her older sister, who started using words like "wan-wan" (the sound a dog makes in Japanese, but also the name of the lead character on Inai Inai Ba, both girls' favorite toddlers' show on Japanese tv) and "atta" (that--often in reference to a dog she spotted in the distance while we were driving around) from a very young age and built up quite an extensive vocabulary of complaints in Japanese in the first half of her first year, imoto has been much more what we expected from a toddler hearing both Japanese and English at home. She's a real listener and in Dunkirk has gone back to doing what she was doing our last month in Fukuoka--repeating a lot of words and sounds. (For a stretch there in Chiba, she was talking in phrases and sentences in a language mostly of her own invention.) Every once in a while she'll pull out the right word in the right contest ("ohayo" to baba one morning, "owata" when she finished breakfast this morning), just to show off what she knows. But she's found she can get around all day mainly using only two words: "mama" and "itai."

At first, I thought she was calling me "Mama" mistakenly, or out of a desire to tease me (this is actually quite plausible, given her sense of humor--she started doing "inai inai ba" [peekaboo] to other people and giggling uproariously at the drop of a hat before she was 6 months old, if memory serves [and it usually doesn't]), but then I realized that she uses "mama" to let someone else know that she wants something from them. When pressed, she'll throw in another word--like "gigi" for some kind of drink (again confusing, because that's the baby word for grandpa, really)--to specify what it is she wants. But in most circumstances, she'll repeat "mama" until someone figures out what she wants.

"Itai!" is what you say when you're hurt in Japanese--like "ow" or "ouch" in English. But imoto uses "itai" for anything she doesn't like. She'll throw herself on the ground and repeatedly scream "itai" if stop her from doing something she really wants, for instance, which got us all kinds of looks when she did this in public in Fukuoka, Chiba, and Tokyo. Nothing like the sight of a gaijin carrying around a gaijin-looking toddler who's screaming "itai" into his ear in a supermarket to get the concerned looks....

Imoto's gone from being the Happy Science Girl to being the Fearless Stunt Girl. Thanks to onechan and her friends, imoto is all into climbing everything, "because it's there." So the words she most often hears from the tsuma and me are ones like

  • "dame!" [dah-meh]: stop it!
  • "abunai": that's dangerous!
  • "kyotskute": be careful!
  • "yasashii": be nice/gentle!

That last one usually comes up when onechan's throwing a tantrum of her own and of course becomes an easy target for pinching, poking, and hair-pulling.

These last two weeks, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, imoto has been going with her big sister to the day care place onechan went to most of the year before we left for Fukuoka. From next Tuesday on, however, she's on her own. Onechan is graduating to my university's children's center (more on this tomorrow). Oh, and did I mention that as much of a daddy's girl onechan is, imoto is a mommy's girl, and more? So of course we're more worried about how she's going to adjust to day care in a second language than onechan, for whom our anxieties are more diffuse and complex (on which more tomorrow).

As we were getting ready to leave Japan, I kind of figured that imoto would have the easiest transition of us all, but now I'm wondering if hers is going to be the most difficult, and by how far. It's hard enough for onechan to get her head around the fact that the way she talked to her friends in Japan will be incomprehensible to her friends in Fredonia and Dunkirk, much less the idea that most adults in the U.S. have even less Japanese than her dad (whom she's been teaching about a word a day)--what imoto will make of all this, I have no idea. I know she'll adjust and adapt eventually--but in what ways and with what effects on her personality and her Japanese, I just don't know.

The folks in Buffalo we are just starting to get to know who organize or use the yochien-like day care arrangement on Saturday mornings and Japanese language classes for older kids all emphasize that once the kids hit elementary school, it's tough to get them to keep speaking Japanese at home. But we haven't heard so much yet about 1-year-olds' adjustments. If you have, please let us know--thanks!

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