Language Evolution: How “Gat” Becomes “Gato”

The first time I heard Guapa say “cat”, I was super confused.

We were in Costa Rica visiting Tico’s family, and Guapa was fighting her afternoon nap. Picture this: A sunny afternoon in a bedroom with transparent curtains, a pack’n’play with Guapa, and a double bed with me (almost sleeping already). Guapa’s portable crib was right next to the window, and I cracked my eyes open to realize she had pulled back the curtains and was looking into the flower-filled alleyway.

“GAT!” She declared.

I’m like… um, what?

Turns out she saw a cat in the alley and using all her language resources in her brain, she named it “gat”. In her mind, this made total sense because “gato” plus “cat” equals “gat”.

Then a month or so later, we were back in the U.S., and Guapa and I were visiting my parents who happen to have two cats. This time Guapa pronounced them CATOS because again “gatos” plus “cats” equals “catos”.

Eventually she has figured out that the C goes with AT and the G goes with ATO and she’s saying CAT and GATO, which isn’t such mental gymnastics for me to figure out what combination of letters and language she’s currently using.

Now stick with me for a moment while I get nerdy and make connections to what I learned during my masters studies (and what I see happen as a teacher). Let’s say in the diagram below that everything I can say in English is in the blue circle (let’s say in the context of math I can talk about lots of things in English), and everything I can say in Spanish is in the green circle (again let’s say in the context of science I can talk about lots of things in Spanish).

language-capabilities-of-a-bilingual (1)

With this hypothetical language situation, if all a teacher speaks is English, she is going to think I am really good at math (because I can talk all about it in English), but that I am not-so-good at science (which I can talk about in my second language, but because this teacher doesn’t speak Spanish, she has no idea what I know in Spanish).

True? Nope. Just a listener’s evaluation based on what SHE knows, not on what the speaker actually knows.

And kids get labeled as low-level learners because of these types of language bias.

Okay, nerd moment over :).  

So in Guapa’s case, she’s fortunate that both Tico and I speak both of her languages. We can hear what she knows in English and what she knows in Spanish and what she knows in sign language (mostly because we’re learning from these awesome sign language videos). And then we know what she means when she says GAT or when she says CATO, even though it’s not technically “correct.” What I’m really enjoying about this whole language process with Guapa is that even when something is not “correct,” it still accomplishes her purpose: to communicate. 

And just because they’re super cute, we’ll close this post with a recent photo of Tico and Guapa:



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