There Is This Theory of the Moebius

“There is this theory of the Moebius.  A twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop from which there is no escape.  So when we reach that point, whatever happened will happen again.”

This was what Worf and Geordi Le Forge in Star Trek, Next Generation said when they encounter a vortex that might have captured the Enterprise and her crew.  It was also sampled by Orbital to produce one of my favourite tunes as a student.

But it could very easily have been said about any given day, game or meal that I experience with my 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Mr. T.

The games that he plays always follow the same patterns and everything must be done in exactly the right way or he gets very annoyed.

We go through the same arguments when we ask him to come to the table and eat something, and yet, once he is at the table he eats pretty well.

He wants to read the same books at night, watch the same DVDs and listen to the same music.

His tantrums can be predicted, from the pre-tantrum stage via the vehement, face down, heart-felt crying to the post-tantrum that usually involves giggles while the last few tears make their way down his face.

He says the same things whenever we get into the car, see a bus or a tractor, or meet a dog on a walk.

English: Mobius strip deformed to have a circu...

A Moebius Strip. Made with Mathematica. (Wikipedia)

Everything just happens  again and again and again.  There is nothing new, no variation on a theme, no single, life changing moment.  Just one endless loop, going around and around and around.

We have done the first steps, the first words and the first trip to the potty.  What else is there to do except just stare at my smartphone while he crashes his big white car into the small red one for the thousandth time?

Except it isn’t like this.  It just seems as if it is.

This is not Captain Pickard being doomed to destroy his ship over and over again  because small things are changing all the time.

The games change imperceptibly.  The arguments about dinner get fiercer.  Over time, certain books, DVDs and music get dropped, to be replaced by others.  The tantrums get longer (but they are still followed by a smile).  The pronunciation of the words comes closer to the norm bit by bit.

Writing this blog has helped me because I am able to look back and see the amazing changes that have taken place over the last year or so, but which get lost in the day-to-day minutiae of being a dad.

But whatever it takes, I need to remember to put down the smartphone and start paying attention to all the small changes because whatever has happened, will never happen again.

Further Reading

I am now over half way through ‘1977’ by David Peace.  It is the follow up to 1974 and just as bleak and violent.  This one is also set in the north of England to the backdrop of a hot summer and the jubilee.  There are murders, rapes and police brutality a plenty.

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A Bilingual Child: Question tags, innit?

English: Pictogram for question.

It’s a question mark, innit? (Wikipedia)

‘Oh, look, Mr. T.  That’s a nice big blue bus, isn’t it?’

‘You went to the park today, didn’t you?’

‘You haven’t wet your third pair of pants this morning, have you?’

‘You didn’t hit the other kid because he wanted to play with your car, did you?’

‘You don’t want to watch Peppa Pig again, do you?’

Spot the similarity in the above quotes?  As well as being things I find myself commonly saying to our son, they all contain question tags.  Those little bits at the end like ‘isn’t it?’ and ‘didn’t you?’ that can turn a statement into a question.  There are two types of question tag, ones that make real questions and ones that are just an effort to fill the silence and either initiate or keep a conversation going.  The secret between the two is all in the intonation.

In English, question tags are a feature of spoken language or informal writing.  But they are also quite tricky to master because they change depending on the verb and the tense being used in the main part of the sentence.

In Portuguese, the question tag is much simpler, being just ‘né?‘ added on to the end of any sentence.  ‘‘ is a contraction of ‘não‘ (‘no’) and ‘é‘ (‘is’) and so is similar to ‘isn’t’, except that in spoken Portuguese it can be added to the end of almost any sentence regardless of its original verb or tense.

the knights

The knights who say né (happy via)

Of course, in English, we now have a simplified version of the question tag which is similar to the ‘‘ of Portuguese, innit?

Mr. T has his own question tag: ‘Dah

He uses ‘dah‘ to mean ‘yes’.  So when you ask him a question like ‘Do you want to play with the blue car?’ He will either answer ‘Dah’ or ‘No’.  But he also uses dah to show he is either asking a question or agreeing with something.

If he wants to ask me a question he might say ‘Daddy, Pee Pee please, dah?’ or ‘Daddy, we can watch Peppa Pig, can’t we please?’ or ‘Mi Mi car blue, dah?’  ‘The bus is blue, isn’t it?’

He also uses it in conversations with himself.  As he gets more and more independent, not just in his language but also in every other aspect of his life, he is increasingly comfortable playing on his own with his cars. As he does so, he has conversations with them, or he imitates conversations between the cars.  I am not quite sure because most of the words he comes out with are neither English or Portuguese.  I can catch the odd word here and there, and the most common word is ‘dah‘ which he seems to be using at the end of phrases, as if it were a question tag.

It probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise really that he has picked up the grammar of question tags, even if he hasn’t quite got the words right.  I noted a long time ago, before he started to talk, that we only ever seemed to talk to him in questions.

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6 Things Curitiba Gets Completely Wrong

Official seal of Curitiba

Curitiba’s coat of arms (Wikipedia)

Last week I sang the praises of my adopted city by looking at 7 things it gets completely right.  In the pursuit of balance, here are 6 things that Curitiba gets completely wrong.

1. Pavements

The pavements are a disgrace here.  You rarely see anyone walking, and this is at least partly because it is so bloody dangerous.  I have heard lots of stories about people falling over on loose paving stones or having to walk in the middle of the road because the pavements are taken up by parked cars.  You almost never see anyone in a wheelchair, or elderly people so I have no idea how isolated they must feel if they don’t have anyone to drive them around.

And when you do find a nice bit of pavement, somebody has probably parked their car on it.

2. Public Works 

All public works take forever.  If they tell you it is going to take a year, it will take at least two, maybe three.  And it is quite possible that it will never be finished.

Modern wheel barrow

All you need to build a coach station (Wikipedia)

The coach station is undergoing a huge refurbishment which was supposed to have been finished  in December 2012 (Source in Portuguese) but is now predicted to end in May 2014, if we are lucky.

I often go to the coach station with my son to look at all the coaches and it is amazing how few people I see working there.  That might be explicable if they were using lots of machinery, but, apart from a few tractors, everything is being done by hand and wheelbarrow.

Unfortunately, everything that was planned for the World Cup is either tragically late, will only be finished after the games are over, or have been cancelled all together.

3. Playgrounds

There are lots of parks around the city, but none of them have decent playgrounds for kids to play in.  If they have anything at all it will be a steel slide with jagged edges or a climbing frame in a sand-pit which also acts as the local toilet for all the wildlife in the area.  Dirty and dangerous.


The Lesser-Spotted Curitibano taxi (AnaElisa)

4. Taxis

There just aren’t enough of them.  We have the same number of taxis today as we did in 1974, and in that time the city has tripled in size. (Source in Portuguese)

5. The Metro

There seems to be this idea that the only way Curitiba can be taken seriously as a major city is if they have a metro system.  This will cost billions, not produce any solutions to the traffic problems because it will only consist of one line and take far longer than necessary (see point 3 above).  If they took the same money and invested it in their already very good bus system they would really have something to crow about.

6. Electricity pylons

The local government or the electricity providers (each one blames the other as far as I can tell) refuses to put the city’s electricity cables under the ground.  Instead, we have all the electricity running on pylons above the streets.

This makes the city look ugly, but worse than this is that every time we have a storm the cables fall down and we get power cuts.  Towards the end of 2013 we had 4 afternoon storms which lasted between 10 and 40 minutes.  Each one resulted in a power cut that lasted a minimum of 4 hours.  It particularly irked me because I had deadlines looming and no computer or internet.

There’s probably plenty of other stuff as well, after all every city is crap at something.  These are the ones that attract my ire, but if you know Curitiba and can think of any others, just leave a comment below.

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A Bilingual Child: Homophones

Ursus arctos middendorffi /kodiak bear/ Kodiakbär

The bear necessities (Wikipedia)

A homophone is ‘one of a group of words that is pronounced in the same way but differing in spelling or meaning or both,’ according to the Collins Dictionary.  An example might be the words ‘bear’ and ‘bare’; they sound the same but are in fact different words.

Both Portuguese and English are littered with any number of homophones, but it seems that our 2-year-old son’s emerging language has more than its fair share as he uses the same sounds to denote many different things.

Some examples

Two‘, ‘too‘ and ‘to‘ are perfect examples of homophones in English.  And it is perhaps because this sound is so common that he picked up on it very early.  Nowadays he uses ‘two’ for the number and ‘too’ when he wants to be included in something, for example ‘Me too, daddy’ when I am about to eat some chocolate.  The problems occur when he uses ‘too’ in place of an adjective.  For example, he sometimes says something is ‘too hot’, but more usually it is just ‘too’.  Unfortunately, he also uses ‘too’ for ‘cold’, ‘windy’, ‘wet’ or anything else that he doesn’t particularly like the look of at that moment.

Poo‘ has just taken on a new meaning now that we have started to potty train.  Even before that, though, it was also used for Winnie the Pooh and as a shortened form of the Portuguese word ‘pular‘ which means ‘to jump’.

Doi doi‘ is a word used in Portuguese to say that something hurts and our son uses it in this context as well.  He also uses it when he has crashed one of his toy cars into another one, or when something is broken.  Recently I have realised that he also uses it when he doesn’t want to do something.  Originally I thought he was just lying about being hurt to get out of walking around the park, but now I think it is just a word he uses when he is tired or bored of something.

Me‘ This can be any first person pronoun, so that it can replace ‘I‘, ‘my’, ‘mine’ as well as being used correctly for ‘me’.  I quite like this one as one of the things we say in my home city of Birmingham is to use ‘me‘ instead of ‘my’ so that we get sentences like ‘This is me mum.’  When our son says ‘me car’ I smile.  Those meanings are fairly obvious, but it can also mean ‘Mickey Mouse’ as well as ‘money’.

plane landing over simpson bay

Is it a bike? (steve conry)

A ‘pie‘ can either be a plane or a bike.

Pee pee‘ can either mean he wants to go to the potty or he wants to watch Peppa Pig.  This has already caused one or two problems.

The upshot

In adult life, when somebody hears a homophone it doesn’t usually present too many problems with understanding because we are able to use contextual clues to deduce which meaning the homophone carries.  This is relatively straightforward for an accomplished language user and we do it without even realising.

I am not claiming this is a specific problem for bilingual children because understanding any toddler is problematic.  But when the child is learning two languages it present the listener with an extra obstacle because we don’t know which language to key into straight away.

As his parents, his mamãe and I are usually able to understand what he says fairly quickly, if we know what he has been doing to help us understand.  But for those who don’t get what he says, especially if they are expecting to hear only Portuguese or English, he can easily get frustrated.

I am hoping this frustration is a good thing as it will encourage him to keep experimenting with language until he figures out what people understand and he can communicate efficiently and effectively.  Until then we will just have to go on translating his ‘toos’ and helping him to deal with the fact that not everybody understands him.

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7 Things Curitiba Gets Completely Right

English: Flag of municipality of Curitiba, cap...

Curitiba’s flag kind of reminds me of another one I know well. (Wikipedia)

I have been living in Curitiba for a while now and, while it might not be the best city in the world it certainly has a lot going for it.  Here are 7 things that I think Curitiba gets completely (or at least mostly) right.

And in the interested of balance, here is a post called ‘6 Things Curitiba Gets Completely Wrong‘.

1. Recycling

The numbers vary, but it seems that around 80% of the waste produced in Curitiba is recycled.  This is an extremely high number and one that should make most other cities in the world blush in disgrace.

Edit: Since posting this it has been pointed out to me that the figure is 80% of collected waste is recycled, not 80% of produced waste.  This is still an impressive figure, but it does make a difference.

2. Public Transport

Ok, so it isn’t completely right.  There are problems with the public transport system in Curitiba, but in relation to everywhere else I have been to in South America it is pretty bloody good.

3. The Weather

English: Winter skyline in Curitiba.

Winter skyline in Curitiba. (Wikipedia)

We have seasons.  We get summer and winter. Sometimes in the same day, but at least it isn’t always baking hot or always pissing down with rain.  I lived in the UK where it always seemed to rain, and in Rio where it was always hot.  Curitiba seems to strike a nice balance between the two.

4. Cold People

They come in for a lot of stick from the rest of Brazil because they are cold or snobbish.  They don’t talk to you on the bus and if you are in the lift with them they all get their phones out and stare at them as if they have something really important that they simply must look at right now.  They don’t, it is just a good excuse not to have to look at the other person in the lift and start a conversation.  Anything beyond how are you is a deep and meaningful conversation.  For me, this is great.

5. Beer

There are now lots of places to buy decent beer.  It might be expensive but we have the option.  There are also a number of small artisan or micro breweries popping up all the time.  Thank god we don’t have to always drink Skol or Antartica anymore; it would be enough to drive a man to sobriety, or pinga.

6. Food

The Italian food here is amazing, due to lots of Italian immigrants.  But we also have some excellent Arabian food, German food and quite a few other types.  We even have quite a good Indian restaurant now.  The variety is here, as is the quality and it is usually affordable.  (One proviso, please stay away from Santa Felicidade.  All the tourists go there to eat because it was an Italian neighbourhood, but in my experience the food is over-priced plastic rubbish).

Greenhouses at night in the Botanical Garden o...

Greenhouse at night in the Botanical Garden (Wikipedia)

7. Parks

There are lots of big parks all around Curitiba.  Curitiba is a strange big Brazilian city because it doesn’t have a beach, so these parks are our beaches.  They are also, more often than not, used as flood plains so that when it rains all the water has somewhere to go.

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A Bilingual Child: The longest word

English: Underwater portrait of a Green Turtle...

A turtle’s head (Wikipedia)

In the continuing adventures of learning two languages at the same time, our son, Mr. T, has broken his own personal record.  He now has new longest word in his quickly expanding repertoire.

The word is ‘tartaruga which means ‘turtle’ in Portuguese.  At four syllables long it should be quite an achievement, except the way Mr. T pronounces it it doesn’t always come in at four syllables as he often drops the last syllable so that it sounds like ‘tartaru’.

The other problem we have with the word is what it refers to.  I can see the problem with deciding on the difference between a tortoise, a turtle and terrapin.  But he has also been applying it to other things as well, including a frog inflatable in the swimming pool and a jigsaw picture of a dinosaur.

This shows that he is going through a process of learning a new item of vocabulary and then learning how to apply it and fine tune his understanding.  This is something that I have noticed when learning and teaching a second language to adults, so it isn’t really a surprise that we should do it with our first languages as well.

His new longest word also ties quite nicely into the fact that I am watching the box sets of Breaking Bad at the moment and I am half way through the third series.  Please don’t watch this if you are squeamish or are afraid of spoilers.

Further Reading

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress cover

So after taking quite a long time to read my last book, I fairly sped through the next one: ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ by Robert A. Heinlein.  Set in the near future, the moon has been used as a penal colony by all the major countries on earth, rather as Australia was by the British.  The people who live up there now want to be independent but have a number of serious disadvantages.  Their one secret advantage is that they have the first computer ever to become self-aware.  This is a good book which was easy to read and exactly the type of thing I was looking for.

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What we Did on Our Summer Holidays

While most people reading this have been suffering from a wet and cold winter in the northern hemisphere, we in the south have been enjoying our summer.  On Boxing Day our family did the traditional Curitibano thing and left the city to go and enjoy the sunshine at the beach.

And boy, did we get a lot of sunshine.

New Year’s Eve clocked up 40° C, but it felt even hotter.  We also had another couple of days that were just as hot, before it all ended in the last three days with torrential downpours and floods.

Just your typical Brazilian summer, then.

But as well as just having a good time we, or at least our 2-and-a-half-year-old son, learnt quite a bit as well.

What’s in a name?

Up until now, Mr T has never used his name.  He has been aware of his name for a long time and would usually respond to it if you shouted it loud enough and for long enough, but whenever you asked him to tell you his name he just said ‘Me’.  He also uses ‘me’ whenever he wants to refer to himself, for example ‘Daddy, me no nar nar now.’  (‘Daddy, I’m not going to sleep now.’)

But a few days ago, after a lot of encouragement and persuasion, he finally said his name.  He hasn’t quite got the pronunciation right yet, but it was quite a milestone for all of us.

Other vocabulary

Monkey Neighbours

Monkey neighbours

As well as learning to say his name he learnt the word ‘beach’ and its Portuguese equivalent ‘praia‘.

He learnt to say ‘bicho which is a Portuguese word that can be used to talk about any animal, but especially small creepy crawly ones.  If this creepy crawly animal doesn’t actually crawl but instead flies, Mr. T now calls is a ‘bee’.  This is another example of him having to fine tune his understanding of words in the future.

Another animal that he named was ‘monkey’ because we saw some a couple of times in the garden next door to the house we rented.  He is more likely to, make the noise of  a monkey, but he did say the word a couple of times.

Water freedom

Mr. T has been going to swimming classes for the last 18 months or so.  When he started he was the youngest in the class, but later this month he is due to graduate to the next level when he will be entering the pool without his mamãe.  This means that he is very comfortable in the water, but has always had to hold on to someone as he can’t, by any stretch of the imagination, actually swim yet.

Outdoor pool

Small, but beautiful when it’s 40°!

For Christmas we got him a buoyancy vest that he can wear in the water to make sure his head doesn’t go under for more than a few seconds.  This was the best present we got him as it meant he had total freedom in the pool at the back of the house we rented.  Obviously, there was somebody with him at all times (one of the things he learnt in his class was to sit on the side of the pool and call for somebody to help him enter the water) but he was able to move around on his own by kicking his legs.  He spent hours in that pool.

Potty training

And last, but certainly not least, we have started potty training.  We have had quite a bit of success so far, although there have also been more than a couple of accidents.  And this process has meant a few other items of vocabulary have also been incorporated into his vocabulary.

Further Reading

I finally found the time to finish reading ‘Magus’ by John Fowles.  It really wasn’t what I was expecting at all, but I am glad that I read it.  The story is about an English man in the 1950’s who finds himself teaching on a Greek island because he can’t figure what else he wants to do.  The book is about the nature of reality and what it means to have freedom.  At least I think that is what it was about as the plot has so many twists and sleights of hand that it was at times a bit difficult to follow.

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