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Baby speaks language of my heart

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Phoebe Jay | April 17th 2016

A friend asked me what language Adoti communicates in.

“What do you mean? But I told you she speaks Chinese?”

He laughed. Chinese is a euphemism for baby-talk, or Adoti-speak, if you like.

“No, I mean for real. Which language does she understand?”

I wanted to say that Adoti understands everything; she just chooses to ignore the things she does not agree with. But in the interests of civility, I said: “Well, English mostly.”

He sneered. “So you are saying your nanny speaks English?”

“Well ... yes, as a matter of fact she does. Where is the problem?”

I could see him battling to subdue his inner sceptic.

“I see,” he said after a while. “I guess she will learn Kiswahili in school.”

Until that conversation, I had not given much thought to the whole idea of language because communicating with Adoti is a mind, body, spirit experience. We go with whatever works.

It might be a facial expression or a foot stamping. A threat of tears or a folding of arms. A word here. Or a word there. But when I did think about it, the child is multi-lingual. She is multi-lingual because she goes on tone more than anything else.

Her beloved ‘Dowa’ the Explorer (Barney and his friends are not her BFFs anymore) speaks Spanish often. “Can you say bruja (witch in Spanish, pronounced bruha)?”

“Say bruja! LOUDER!” Dowa commands. You don’t have to tell Adoti to yell twice. “BRUJA!” she shouts.

“Can you say el principe (prince in Spanish)?”

“Say el principe! LOUDER!” Comes another command to which Adoti joyfully responds, “Principe!”

Finally, and more quietly this time, Dowa says: “La bruja y el principe (the witch and the prince – the ‘y’ is pronounced ‘ee’). Adoti has not managed to wrap her tongue around the full sentence yet.

So yeah, she can speak Spanish ...well, she can say ‘witch’ and ‘prince’ in Spanish, which is a start.

The other day, her grandmother (my Mum’s sister) came to visit and she speaks French.

Every so often she would speak to the girl-child in French.

“Qu’est-ce que tu fais la,” she would say to her, meaning, ‘what are you doing there?’ From time to time she would say, “Arret!” meaning, “Stop!” and that is a word that Adoti is well-acquainted with in any language.

The child did not baulk at the frequent language changes as if she was sensing the meaning more than hearing it. So yeah, she can speak French ...well, she can sense it, which is a start.

And of course she can understand Swa. So far, I have not heard say Swa words but I know for a fact that she understands the language.

Her conversations with Nanny Lucy are peppered with a litany of Kiswahili threats and warnings.

“Shuka chini Adoti, hio haiwezekani!”

“O-ooh, kumbe hio ndio kazi unfanya hapa!”

“Kwisha Adoti, hakuna Weetabix tena!”

“Ati sasa unatema chakula? Basi umeshiba!”

And on and on and on it goes. Surprisingly, Nanny Lucy rarely loses her actual cool. Her bark is far worse than her bite and unfortunately Adoti figured that out kitambo. So yeah, the girl-child understands Kiswahili.

She also understands Dholuo because Nanny Lucy is a Luo. The way things are going, one day they will be talking and I will be sitting there not understanding a word.

“Nyathi ma nyako (Baby Girl), smart gal, beautiful!” Nanny Lucy says to Adoti, causing the child to beam with pleasure.

“Adoti ni mtoto mzuri. Very good girl. Ata maliza chakula saa hii!” Nanny Lucy continues, straying from her native tongue and launching into both Kiswahili and English.

Which is fine. Children learn quick and as always, it is fascinating to see Adoti respond to a variety of languages, often in her own special tongue.

In the morning, when she knows it is time for breakfast, she yells, “Tea! Byed!”

And when it comes time to brush her teeth, she goes, “Tee (teeth)! Bwash (brush)!”

But there is one thing that makes me smile every time she says it. She will go, “Mama, Mum, Ma-mee!” over and over again.

It warms my heart because I am reminded that I am not just me anymore, I am somebody’s mother. Mama Adoti.

Perhaps the only title that I claim with undiluted pride.

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