A Bilingual Child: Question tags, innit?

English: Pictogram for question.

It’s a question mark, innit? (Wikipedia)

‘Oh, look, Mr. T.  That’s a nice big blue bus, isn’t it?’

‘You went to the park today, didn’t you?’

‘You haven’t wet your third pair of pants this morning, have you?’

‘You didn’t hit the other kid because he wanted to play with your car, did you?’

‘You don’t want to watch Peppa Pig again, do you?’

Spot the similarity in the above quotes?  As well as being things I find myself commonly saying to our son, they all contain question tags.  Those little bits at the end like ‘isn’t it?’ and ‘didn’t you?’ that can turn a statement into a question.  There are two types of question tag, ones that make real questions and ones that are just an effort to fill the silence and either initiate or keep a conversation going.  The secret between the two is all in the intonation.

In English, question tags are a feature of spoken language or informal writing.  But they are also quite tricky to master because they change depending on the verb and the tense being used in the main part of the sentence.

In Portuguese, the question tag is much simpler, being just ‘né?‘ added on to the end of any sentence.  ‘‘ is a contraction of ‘não‘ (‘no’) and ‘é‘ (‘is’) and so is similar to ‘isn’t’, except that in spoken Portuguese it can be added to the end of almost any sentence regardless of its original verb or tense.

the knights

The knights who say né (happy via)

Of course, in English, we now have a simplified version of the question tag which is similar to the ‘‘ of Portuguese, innit?

Mr. T has his own question tag: ‘Dah

He uses ‘dah‘ to mean ‘yes’.  So when you ask him a question like ‘Do you want to play with the blue car?’ He will either answer ‘Dah’ or ‘No’.  But he also uses dah to show he is either asking a question or agreeing with something.

If he wants to ask me a question he might say ‘Daddy, Pee Pee please, dah?’ or ‘Daddy, we can watch Peppa Pig, can’t we please?’ or ‘Mi Mi car blue, dah?’  ‘The bus is blue, isn’t it?’

He also uses it in conversations with himself.  As he gets more and more independent, not just in his language but also in every other aspect of his life, he is increasingly comfortable playing on his own with his cars. As he does so, he has conversations with them, or he imitates conversations between the cars.  I am not quite sure because most of the words he comes out with are neither English or Portuguese.  I can catch the odd word here and there, and the most common word is ‘dah‘ which he seems to be using at the end of phrases, as if it were a question tag.

It probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise really that he has picked up the grammar of question tags, even if he hasn’t quite got the words right.  I noted a long time ago, before he started to talk, that we only ever seemed to talk to him in questions.

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4 thoughts on “A Bilingual Child: Question tags, innit?

  1. It’s really interesting the way different languages have subtly different ways of forming questions. In Welsh, one of the challenges is the multitude of different ways of saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’, which depends on how the question has been phrased and often the subject of the verb in the question. I really should talk about this issue in a blog post myself one of these days.

    • In Portuguese forming a question is easy, grammatically speaking, because nothing changes except the intonation pattern. From my experience of teaching adults, the English question forms ar emuch more problematic, at least for adult learners.

      I would love to read more about the way Welsh works.

  2. It’s super cute (and so smart!) the way your son has picked up your speech patterns. My toddler has sort of done this. In Hawaii, we usually end everything with “Yah?” So, a lot of it is “I know, yah?” or “Pretty fun, yah?” Hapa Baby also does this. “It’s Mickey, yah?”

    She hasn’t picked up my husband’s Russian mannerisms yet, but he’s picked up our “yah’s”.

    • That’s a great story. Interesting to see how your husband is being affected by your child’s language development. We have something similar as our son has started to say ‘uh uh’ for ‘yes’, and now everyone in the family seems to be saying ‘uh uh’ all the time.


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