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Oct 5, 2009

Of "cou" and "kuh"

So, we have reached an interesting milestone in Daniel's language development. For the first time, at 20 months, he has learned 2 words in 2 different languages that sound exactly the same and have very different meanings. And yes, you guessed right, it's "cou" (neck in French) and "Kuh"(cow in German). It didn't occurred to me first, as I usually never use "Kuh" with Daniel when I talk to him in French. I was just very happy he had learned a new French word. But then, I noticed that he started showing cow pictures to my husband, calling them "Kuh" and showing his neck at the same time. Or, he would show me his neck and imitate the cow sound at the same time. He is probably very confused right now about what to do... And I am not sure what to do except to just use the right word in the right context over and over until this sinks in.

I guess confusion can happen in every language, even for monolingual kids. There are words that sound the same and have different meanings in every language (e.g. "marche" in French can mean "walk" or "function"- btw, this is another challenge I came across with Daniel recently). Monolingual kids eventually manage to master the complexity and understand how to assign meaning to words. They just have to be patient and practice.

I am just wondering if the issue with words from different languages is the same or if it adds another layer of complexity that might be more difficult to navigate. Does anyone have experience with this type of situation? Should we just consider it business-as-usual when raising a tri-lingual kid or should we do something specific to help?


  1. Kids are amazing, and I do not believe that several languages will confuse them too much. They are not even trying, however they learn faster and better than us grown up. The only one important thing to keep in mind is to allow them to associate one language with one person, for instance German with daddy, French with mummy and English at playgroups. This is what we are doing for my one-year old, and she even attends my Chinese lessons. My teacher always tells her a few things in Chinese and I am sure she understands much better than I do.
    I want her to grow up with Chinese and have bought her some Chinese nursery rhymes on a CD too. For me it is a window of opportunity not to be missed. Through my Mandarin tutor agency (Isabelle I hope you'll forgive me for pushing my website here!) I can see that many parents want their children to learn some Chinese. As this trend get clearer, it could well be that mono-lingual kids will be disadvantaged compared to the many mutli-lingual children of my daughter and Daniel's generation.

  2. Isabelle - yes, keep on using the French word in the context of your conversations with Daniel. Rina who is now 19 months is going through the same thing - there is a Russian word for Man that sounds the same as the English word, Daddy, but I think she is getting it and I'm not making a big deal out of it! They are smart!

  3. Thanks for the encouragement. We should definitely share experiences. I am sure we are getting through similar situations, and I find it reassuring to know that these things are normal. Thanks for visiting.

  4. I would also see it as a normal stage in development. We have this too, and also confusion within one language between words (like airport and petrol station - she knows both words but confuses the concept, or Micky Mouse and Nikolaus, knows the different concept but the words are so similar that she calls both Micky Mouse). With time it'll all fall into place.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience. Good to know other people are observing the same thing. Language is very complicated, and it's no wonder kids don't get it all right the first time. It's already amazing how quickly they learn!
    Recently, Daniel corrected 2 words he had been pronunciating incorrectly in French for many months. So now, I have seen evidence myself that things can auto-correct over time. Thanks for visiting.