My 2 ½ year old daughter’s English/Irish bilingualism

An update from the Gaeltacht Ó Conchúir!

It’s been eight months since my post tracking my daughter’s vocabulary in both English and Irish. She’s approaching two and a half years of age now. There have been a lot of positive changes and encouraging signs!

Our daughter often creates her own words and phrases for things: she loves to chew pieces of ice, and has insisted for some time on calling an ice cube a “carraig” (Irish for “rock”). She has been reluctant to say the correct Irish word, “oighear”, though she’s understood the word for some time.

Róisín’s pronunciation is coming along well and she is overcoming her difficulty with pronouncing the letter R. Recently she’s begun to pronounce it more clearly and just yesterday said it perfectly.

The range of vocabulary in both languages grows daily. We are well within the phase that we have to watch we say – she’s quick to imitate every spoken utterance, whether polite or rude. It’s been observed of children that they need to hear a word repeatedly to remember it, however only once if it’s naughty.

Róisín loves to count her numbers and say their color. At this point she only knows them in Irish.

Róisín loves to count her numbers and say their color. At this point she only knows them in Irish.

The most significant development is her improvement in making sentences through Irish. This had lagged behind English. Back in late March she was saying “thank you” and “I love you”, but the Irish equivalents came a little later.

According to the Comhluadar / Foras book A Guide for Parents Speaking Irish at Home, this is normal.  The literature says that it often seems like children are learning English better because English is simpler than Irish – both in that there are less sounds in English than Irish, and the difference is even greater in grammar. Irish is more in line with other Indo-European languages in the complexity of its grammar, unlike English which has fairly simple grammar by comparison.

For example, the vocative form – the rules for when a name changes while addressing that person – (eg: Colm = A Choilm) is of course not found in English. She seems to grasp it pretty solidly now, though for a while I could see it confused her. I’m sure there’s an added confusion with the word for “the” in Irish: an. When it comes before a noun with a consonant, the n sound is dropped, which means it sounds the same as the vocative. My wife has also noticed that Róisín will sometimes call her “a dama,” instead of mama, which could be a two-year-old’s silly attempt at vocative form.

Some of the difficulty is the longer phrases in Irish, so my wife Linda has taken to shortening: asking her to say “Dia leat” when someone sneezes, for example, and not bothering with “beannachtí”. Later I read that native speakers tend to use these shortcuts anyway, including Dia leat. Likewise, she can’t handle “go raibh maith agat” for “thank you”, but “buíochas” (“thanks”) is no problem for her.

Róisín has an equal like for both languages, and about an equal grasp of both, yet my wife believes she has slightly more respect for the Irish. We’ve noticed that if we tell her not to climb on something, or to stop messing with something she shouldn’t touch, she often ignores commands in English, yet will mind the Irish instruction. This “issue” has actually created an environment that requires more Irish in our general conversations at home with my wife and oldest daughter.

I’m not sure if this will remain the same for long, but when visitors come over to the house, she tries a mix of Irish and English at first. When they don’t understand she switches to mostly English, though even when she attempts to sort them apart she continues to mix them. Eventually, she’ll stop trying Irish at all and use English as the default language, with no expectation that the other speaks Gaeilge. That will be sad.

Since my last post on this topic, our son, Cíaran Seosamh Fionn was born. He is in good health and he is a wonderful addition to the family. Indeed, at this point it is hard to believe there was a time without him.

ag leamh an leabhar le cheile

Reading a story in Irish together.

It will be great for Róisín to have another Irish speaker around. I hope this will be a nice counter balance to the general lack of Irish speakers in our area.

As for me, I will be pushing my studies even harder. The next year will be critical, as she will begin to ask more questions about the world. I will need a more robust command of Irish to accommodate it.






One thought on “My 2 ½ year old daughter’s English/Irish bilingualism

  1. susan

    It is wonderful to read about this journey!
    I love the picture of you all.
    Fionn’s look is great, and of course Roisin is Darling!!

    I would like to comment on the fact that she uses the word ‘rock’
    for ice. I believe most sophisticates, when ordering a drink w/ ice
    or it ‘on the rocks’. She is just ahead of her time! (and quite Brilliant!!)


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