Mysteries Of The Toddler Mind and The Otro Papi Complex

I’m no linguist. I just muddle through my family’s bilingualism with the help of Google, Wikipedia and bloggers.

People in the know have pointed me to fascinating information and articles on semantics and linguistic relativity.  I’ve bought books and even read them.  But so far I have found little insight into the mystery that is a toddler’s brain.

I can’t wrap my head around language acquisition even as I watch it in action.  My bilingual toddler has an exploding vocabulary and I would love to understand how this happens.  Not the universal issues of language learning, but the kid specific factors.    How did he choose his first words?  Why does he choose certain words in each language?  Why does he enjoy the sounds of P and K?  Why the heck won’t he say Mommy?

Here is a list of his most common words, in order of frequency of use.  From this list can I conclude anything about his language learning or priorities?

I will include the English translation the words he uses in Spanish.

  • Pick-up
  • Papi (Daddy)
  • cat
  • mas (more)
  • otro (other or another)
  • barco (boat)
  • pink
  • taxi
  • Yah (Canadian slang for yes)
  • pato (duck)
  • bus
  • pancake
  • tractor
  • luna (moon)
  • moto (scooter)
  • pigeon
  • buitre (vulture)

These are the words that populate his spontaneous monologues and get shouted from the top of the slide.  So what is the motivating factor when a kid picks up a new word?  Based on Yago’s vocabulary, I can see evidence of these possibilities:

  • preferred sounds
  • need
  • personal interests
  • exposure

You know what baffles me?  Mommy doesn’t even make the list.  Granted, Mommy doesn’t have a P or a T, but he has definitely been exposed to the word.   Am I not needed?  On his personal interest scale do  I rank below vulture and taxi?

He has started calling me “Otro Papi” (other Daddy.)  Is he just messing with me or is there a linguistic explanation?

I’m getting a complex.

This post is part of the Bilingual Blogging Carnival, hosted by Multilingual Living.  If you are interested in the subject there is great stuff here.  Check it out!



  1. Rea, Megan has a huge vocabulary now (she will be 2 next tuesday), and even making full sentences. Her latest is “catcha ta ball downstairs mommy?” And as for Yago not saying mommy, that is Megan’s #1 word… sometimes it gets used a little too much, especially when every sentence/phrase/conversation starts with MOMMY!!!

  2. Hi! My son’s vocabulary was similar to yours, except for buitre and pick-up! He mispronounced “mamá”, so he invented a new word for me, so, maybe your son has invented something similar to “mami” or “mamita” or something like that for you?

  3. I think he’s playing with you! hehehehe
    Maybe he is saving it for a special surprise.

    *I do find it incredibly interesting though to is which words he uses Spanish for and which are English. Pretty fascinating I’d say. Heck, Darius couldn’t be understood by anyone until he was well over 3yo, and THEN! there was/ and still is NO stopping him!

  4. My kids both said Daddy months before they said mummy / mama. I think my son had nearly 100 words – one of them was “Jupiter” – before he said Mummy.

    When my first baby was born quite a few of my friends warned me about it too… so I don’t think he’s messing with you!

  5. That’s pretty funny, Rea! I actually think “Mommy” ranks low on the list of priorities because the Mommy is such a stable factor in life – he may not need a word for you because ALL his comments are directed to you unless specified otherwise! At least, that was my reasoning when we went through the same phase. 🙂

    1. thanks Melissa. A few people have made similar comments. “Mommy” is just an extension of all the pointing and grunting that translates as unarticulated “I want.” I was starting to think he just didn’t like me!

  6. Heh, poor you 🙂 you probably don’t want to know that our youngest, although his overall speech was slower to develop than that of his sister, said “Mama” at 2 months (he did, really! Proof is that I wasn’t the only one to hear it and he did it fairly regularly thereafter, just not very frequently for a long time).

    But you’re absolutely right, toddler brains are amusing. Until about 3 years old, our youngest would say “Ooops, I farted with my mouth!” every time he burped. (A lot). Not sure how he came up with that, but I’m quite sad that he’s a big boy now (or so he claims) and has figured out the difference between farting and burping.

    If you ever figure out why they say what they say, please let me know.

  7. I have a 1-year-old who is only just saying his first words: Dada, dog, and hi. He says a “ma ma ma” sound. And when he does, I tell him: “Say Mama.” What does he do? He says Dada! Gaaaaah! It is a little insulting considering I’m the one who is home with him all day long 🙂
    But my theory is that it is exactly because I’m the one with him so much that he doesn’t say Mama. I talk to Aleksander all day long about his Daddy, and we get very excited when he gets home (especially when he’s been away on business). When he walks into the room, I say, “Who’s that? Daddy!” My husband is far less likely to refer to me as Mama or Mommy. Who else is calling me by this name? No one really. Or at least not enough to really make an impact.
    Of course, it’s also pretty common for children to start with words beginning with “d”.
    So I’ll just wait for that magical day when my little guy finally says Mama 🙂

  8. Fascinating! The inclusion of buitre is quite hilarious! Your post makes me look forward even more to my toddler’s first words. I have a feeling that “Mommy” is not going to top his list, either:-)

  9. Rea,
    I love your post! Ironically my toddler’s first word was “mama” and everything relating to her needs/wants has some form of “ma” in it. I’m desperately waiting for the day when she uses more “dada” (or even “da”).

    Your toddler has an impressive list of vocab! Do you mind me asking how old he is?
    Looking forward to reading more about your experiences.

  10. Hi Rea,

    Here’s Dani’s word list, to compare, get new conclusions about bilinguism or just to have a laugh:
    (same ranking as yours)

    teta (he does say mamá, but I think most of the times this substitutes mamá)
    No, nein
    Spielplatz (playground, we have to go every morning and afternoon!!!!)
    mamá, papá (both in spanish!! now he has also started to say ale for alex 😦 )
    lila (violet, the only colour he can pronounce so far, although he knows most of them, same in spanish and german)
    caca (poo)
    mas (give me more/ do it again)
    este (I want this/that)
    nene, nena
    lulu (wee)
    Hallo, hola (since yesterday 🙂 )
    pepe (his granddad)

    I remember you saying, Yago had like a word explosion one day, this is happening to Dani now. Some days he is so excited about it that he spends the nights composing and discovering new words instead of sleeping. It’s like when he started to walk, just an enormous step in his evolution. AMAZING!!!!! Aren’t they great?



    the rest is still parts of words, but also

  11. My older son’s first French word was “drapeau” and we were all surprise (where did he even learn that?) and he called both me and my husband “maman” for the longest time… 😉

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