April 12, 2006

Bunny or Rabbit, or XiaoTu (小兔)?

Posted by Xun  |  1 comment

The other day, I took Emma to visit a preschool. She was a little intimidated first, then kind of fell for it, looking here and there. All the while, she was holding her little green bunny, XiaoTu (小兔). When we were about to leave, the director, a kind grandma-type woman, bowed slightly and touched the bunny gently. She said: "What a cute bunny!" Emma was very much puzzled, so I told her in Chinese: "Yes, this is a bunny. 小兔 has a name called bunny." We continued to talk about the bunny a little bit and Emma quietly listened.

That night, when I put Emma in bed, she started playing with the word "bunny".

(All in Chinese, except the specific words such as "bunny", "rabbit")
Bunny in her arms, she said: "This is a bunny".
I said: "eh"
Then she said "This is not a rabbit."
Quite surprised (I once told her that 小兔 is called Rabbit in English) , I said "This is also a rabbit"
"No, this is a bunny, not a rabbit"
She kept saying and giggling: "Bunny. Bunny. 小兔's name is bunny. 小兔's name is not rabbit."
Felt the need to correct her, I said: "Emma, when 小兔 is little, she is a bunny, when she is big, she is a rabbit. When you were very little, you were a baby, but now you are a girl."
She nodded, as if she understood. But then 10 seconds later, she looked at her bunny, and said: ""Bunny. Bunny. 小兔's name is bunny. 小兔's name is not rabbit."


I thought, what a perfect example of "mutual exclusivity".

I read about mutual exclusivity from the book "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" by Malcolm Gladwell. In his book, Gladwell recounted the sesame story of "Big Bird Roy", in which a big bird was upset because he was simply called as "Big Bird", while everyone else have a name like "Jimmy", "Jack". So he started looking for a name for himself and he finally settled down on "Roy"... It is funny, has a perfect serial storial structure, Gladwell writes, however, the show missed its audience, preschoolers, because it violates the language principal of "Mutual Exclusivity".

Mutual Exclusivity, Gladwell states, means "small children have difficulty believing that any object can have two different names... children are going to have trouble with objects that have two names, or objects that change names." A child has difficulty with, say, an apple is both a fruit and an apple.

Or another amusing example of Emma:

Emma lives with us (Leo and I) and her grandma and grandpa (not long ago, she also had lived with my sisters and my parents for about 8 months). Every day, we call my parents "ma" and "pa", we asked her to call my parents "po-po" (grandma) and "ye-ye" (grandpa). Everyday, Emma is probably living in a great confusion. She knows everyone by name, except my mom, because she hear us to my mom as "ma" everyday.

We ask her: "Emma, who is po-po?" She said: "Ma" (mother)". My mom tried to correct her by telling her: "Emma, po-po IS po-po, po-po IS NOT ma".

We ask her again: "Who is is po-po?"
She said: "Ma (mother)".
Then she adds, as if to confirm: "po-po is po-po, po-po is not ma".


However with Emma, I found another thing interesting and curious. In her bilingual world, everything is bound to have two names, one in Chinese, the other English. However she never seem to have difficulty using both, like the first thing about bunny is that it is also called a rabbit, however, she never has problem with that "bunny" is also "Xiao Tu (小兔)".

How to explain the coexistence of two or more than two languages?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006
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Hsien said...

Thanks for your comment at Play Library! I was just poking around your
blog and had a nice read. I gather you're from China? I'm
Chinese-American, my family is originally from Taiwan. I think some of
the issues you write about when it comes to raising Chinese children in
a Western world are so very important. I'll definitely be back to visit

BTW, my personal blog is at http://cottontimer.com. :)

All the best,

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