The other day I was sitting on the sofa when, out of the blue, my toddler came up to me and said, ‘Daddy, c+nt.’
As you can imagine, I looked at her in shock. ‘What did you just call me?’ I gasped.
I got down on her level and looked her in the eye. ‘If you ever say that to me again -‘
‘Daddy c+nt, me hide.’
She wanted to play hide-and-seek. Thank God.
The way kids learn to talk is nothing like the way you learn a language at school. There, it’s hideously formulaic. Nuance? Nah. Emotion? Hell no! But can you ask directions to the train station where you’ll buy a return ticket to an A-ha concert? You bet I can! (This was already a dated reference even when I was at school – we’d moved on to New Kids On the Block by then).
The way to truly learn a language is to do it the way kids do it: by immersing yourself in it, listening to the way it’s spoken, the way it’s used, and experimenting with it to find ways of expressing your thoughts and ideas that are unique to you. Sure, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way, but it’s the only way to become fluent. And it’s damned entertaining for the rest of us.
My two-year-old is at this stage now, and it is a daily dose of fascinating. Except that, as she attends nursery, mother-toddler groups, play dates and the houses of family members, I’m not always in control of the influences she’s exposed to.
Like the other night when I was hurrying her up to bed. ‘Come on, get a move on,’ I said, halfway up the stairs.
She turned to me, slowly took out her dummy, and in the manner of a person around thirteen years older said, ‘What’s the rush?’
It stopped me in my tracks. Where the hell did that come from?
Possibly the same place as her accent. My wife and I were both raised in the south, so we speak Estuary English with just a touch of West Country. I therefore have no idea why my daughter has started to speak as though she’s from the West Midlands.
It’s not a train but a ‘trine’, not a table but a ‘tie-bull’. We get on a ‘boose’ and wave ‘boy-boy’, and when mummy brushes my little one’s hair, she doesn’t ‘loik’ it. It’s like having a miniature Frank Skinner running round the house – every vowel sound is everso slightly off.
She also has no idea about social niceties – that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. I asked her to describe someone to test her communication skills. Is he tall or short? ‘Short.’ Is he thin or fat? ‘Fat, like daddy.’
Out the mouths of babes…
And that’s before we mention the profanities. The other day I got cut up at a junction and snapped, ‘Asshole.’ Driving on down the road, I suddenly heard this little voice from the back going, ‘Ash-hole. Ash-hole.’ My wife made the mistake of laughing, and lo, we now have a potty-mouthed toddler whose favourite word is going to get us banned from the church playgroup.
Her storytelling is a bit bizarre at the moment too, focusing on the trivialities and glossing over the important stuff. After a whole day with granny on Monday, she summed it up with, ‘Natasha came to see granny, and Barry came to see my tongue.’
I have no idea what that means.
Still, if you really listen, sometimes she gives you pearls of wisdom. When she noticed the dog had a sore foot, she asked me what was wrong, and I told her to ask the dog. This she did, waited for an answer, then said to me, ‘Dog food needs butter.’ Problem solved.
But for me, the funniest thing was when I was putting her to bed the other night. My wife made a clatter in the kitchen and my daughter said, ‘Mummy noise.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Mummy made a noise.’
‘No, she’s downstairs in the kitchen. It’s right below us.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, pointing. ‘It’s below, right here.’
Pushing back her covers, she climbed out of bed, got on her hands and knees and blew on the carpet.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
‘Kitchen,’ she replied.
‘Yes, it’s below here.’
And she bent forward and blew on the carpet again.
‘Why are you -?’ I started, and the penny dropped.
You forget that kids can’t always differentiate your words.
I can’t imagine why she thought daddy was pointing at the floor and saying, ‘Blow here.’