A Bilingual Child: Homophones

Ursus arctos middendorffi /kodiak bear/ Kodiakbär

The bear necessities (Wikipedia)

A homophone is ‘one of a group of words that is pronounced in the same way but differing in spelling or meaning or both,’ according to the Collins Dictionary.  An example might be the words ‘bear’ and ‘bare’; they sound the same but are in fact different words.

Both Portuguese and English are littered with any number of homophones, but it seems that our 2-year-old son’s emerging language has more than its fair share as he uses the same sounds to denote many different things.

Some examples

Two‘, ‘too‘ and ‘to‘ are perfect examples of homophones in English.  And it is perhaps because this sound is so common that he picked up on it very early.  Nowadays he uses ‘two’ for the number and ‘too’ when he wants to be included in something, for example ‘Me too, daddy’ when I am about to eat some chocolate.  The problems occur when he uses ‘too’ in place of an adjective.  For example, he sometimes says something is ‘too hot’, but more usually it is just ‘too’.  Unfortunately, he also uses ‘too’ for ‘cold’, ‘windy’, ‘wet’ or anything else that he doesn’t particularly like the look of at that moment.

Poo‘ has just taken on a new meaning now that we have started to potty train.  Even before that, though, it was also used for Winnie the Pooh and as a shortened form of the Portuguese word ‘pular‘ which means ‘to jump’.

Doi doi‘ is a word used in Portuguese to say that something hurts and our son uses it in this context as well.  He also uses it when he has crashed one of his toy cars into another one, or when something is broken.  Recently I have realised that he also uses it when he doesn’t want to do something.  Originally I thought he was just lying about being hurt to get out of walking around the park, but now I think it is just a word he uses when he is tired or bored of something.

Me‘ This can be any first person pronoun, so that it can replace ‘I‘, ‘my’, ‘mine’ as well as being used correctly for ‘me’.  I quite like this one as one of the things we say in my home city of Birmingham is to use ‘me‘ instead of ‘my’ so that we get sentences like ‘This is me mum.’  When our son says ‘me car’ I smile.  Those meanings are fairly obvious, but it can also mean ‘Mickey Mouse’ as well as ‘money’.

plane landing over simpson bay

Is it a bike? (steve conry)

A ‘pie‘ can either be a plane or a bike.

Pee pee‘ can either mean he wants to go to the potty or he wants to watch Peppa Pig.  This has already caused one or two problems.

The upshot

In adult life, when somebody hears a homophone it doesn’t usually present too many problems with understanding because we are able to use contextual clues to deduce which meaning the homophone carries.  This is relatively straightforward for an accomplished language user and we do it without even realising.

I am not claiming this is a specific problem for bilingual children because understanding any toddler is problematic.  But when the child is learning two languages it present the listener with an extra obstacle because we don’t know which language to key into straight away.

As his parents, his mamãe and I are usually able to understand what he says fairly quickly, if we know what he has been doing to help us understand.  But for those who don’t get what he says, especially if they are expecting to hear only Portuguese or English, he can easily get frustrated.

I am hoping this frustration is a good thing as it will encourage him to keep experimenting with language until he figures out what people understand and he can communicate efficiently and effectively.  Until then we will just have to go on translating his ‘toos’ and helping him to deal with the fact that not everybody understands him.

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6 thoughts on “A Bilingual Child: Homophones

  1. Love this post! As a speech pathologist/foreign language enthusiast, I just want to get in there and do a full language analysis! His use of “too” alone merits a full report. Love it! I am enjoying watching his multilingual development from afar. Thanks for taking us readers on the journey!
    Julie

    Reply
  2. Growing up with English and Portuguese we made lots of jokes about Pie and Pai 🙂 When my kids were tots they also experienced some frustration with mixed languages when people seemed to not understand them. I think around 2.5yrs they started to figure out who spoke which language and it became easier.

    Reply
  3. Fascinating! Now add to the mix three additional children, one additional language, cognates, homophones and mispronounced words. On my good days I laugh. On my not so good days… well, let’s just say my patience is seriously put to the test! 😉

    Reply

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