Sunday, 7 October 2007

Bilingual baby torture

I studied foreign language acquisition, bilingual children, teaching methods, etc. I'm perplexed by my daughter's preference for English. She hears French all day, with the majority of her family and my friends, with her father. Yet, I've only heard her say 3 words in French.

Our wonderful nanny says she speaks only in French during the day but I have my doubts since one day I went to get Suzanne and she was saying water and making the sign for it. The nanny told me she'd been doing that all day and thought she was teething. I said that no, she was asking for water. We gave a complete list of Suzanne's vocabulary to the nanny, but we can't expect her to understand Suzanne's version of English if she doesn't understand the language. So I was thinking that maybe she speaks English when I'm around?

But on Saturday, we lent Suzanne to her French grandparents so we could work in our money pit and all they heard from her was English. But I wasn't around so maybe she speaks English when she associates people with me?

I wonder what other bilingual kids do. Do they tend to prefer the mother's language even when it's the minority language? Maybe, quite simply, it's called a mother tongue for a reason...

At 16 months, Suzanne is very verbal (see word list below). Favorites at the moment are bath, brush, taxi and eyes. Jerome and I particularly like "eyes" because we get her to repeat it over and over and she crawls through the apartment saying "ass ass ass". Is that mean?

She's so close to walking. She's even taken a few steps without realizing what she's doing. Note to grandma - make sure anything fragile is out of reach and all cupboards are locked when we're there.

So here's the list:
taxi - more like "gacky". The New Yorker in me is oozing with pride.
yeah - she punctuates all affirmative sentences and questions with "yeah". I'm wondering if I say it too much.
bath - the "th" is somewhere between an f and an s but close enough
eyes - sounds more like ass but she's got it.
mommy - when my mother left in August, she reverted to mama but she now consistently calls me mommy as part of her string of names for me : mama mamou mommy...
knee- she's reconfigured my anatomy and thinks my knee is in my shin but that's ok.
bus - the repetitive singing of "wheels on the bus" finally paid off last week when we took the bus a few times. Now she says bus - with a proper s at the end - when we pass the bus stop.
blocks- sounds like bus
box-a slight variation of the above
go - I've played "stop and go" with her in the stroller for months and she's finally understood it.
bee - perfect pronunciation on this one!
boot/boat - she doesn't quite have the ending of either word, but she distinguishes between the hard o and the soft o
key - she always wants my keys when I let us in and she's finally asking for them with the right word
yes - she understands and repeats it but has yet to use it.
dance - she bops her head and bounces on her knees as she says "da"
down-when she wants to get down from the bed or her high chair she says "dow"
eeyah- her word for cat also means home.

She repeats a lot of words back like tushy, gassy (made me chuckle), mouth, grass but doesn't use them yet.

She's consistently identifying circles, squares and stars.

She can name family members in her photo album and in person: tonton, bopi, nanne (used for most female relatives named Anne or similar) and baba.

She's following directions like looking up at the tree or under the bed for the cats or giving a leaf to papa. And we've made a huge step in her shopping etiquette - she's finally understood that she has to give the leek to the cashier so we can pay, all without crying or screaming.

Her new animal sounds are :
pig -she's finally got some sort of throaty grunt going although it's far from a snort
guinea pig - this one's close to my heart since I had a few as a kid. So far it's more of a grunt than a proper wheek (in case you're wondering what they say...)
bee - they obviously say"beeeee"
bear - they don't growl but say "beh"
meow- she's finally realized cats, with the exception of our own, don't say eeyah.
birds - except for pigeons and owls, they all say caca
dog - is sounding more and more French

She's using a dozen signs from American Sign Language. A friend lent us a couple of Signing Time dvds. We were skeptical at first but she uses them regularly, with both us and the nanny. Of course, it would be helpful if she could sign things she didn't know how to say.


Anonymous said...

I think it is because English is her mother's language. I live in Washington, DC and there is a big French community here. My daughter went to a french school and I have met so many children born here with French mothers who speak mostly French and are more comfortable speaking French than English. My husband is French and I am American. My husband has always spoken French with our daughter and I have always spoken English since she was a baby, but she started speaking English first. Sometimes when they are young it is difficult, but it is so worth it. My daughter is now almost 14 and she is lucky to be fluent in each language and is learning a third.
Love your blog (my husband is from Lille).

Madame M. said...

Honestly, I don't know what to say. I would say that she may prefer English because it's her maternal tongue, but Herr Meow (who's 22 months) seems to prefer English even though my native tongue is Spanish.

I have also noticed in my limited experience that Spanish sounds seem more complex for a younger baby, whereas English sounds are rounder and simpler --to a degree.

I'm sure as she grows older, Suzanne will speak both well --because you'll make sure of it, as her mom :o)

Deb said...

It amazes me how connected you are to Suzanne. The fact that you know all her words. I admire that. I don't think I'll ever be like that with my little one!

Even though you work, I know that you were always very talkative with Suzanne and read to her a lot. Even though you and your husband take care of her, mommy is always the REAL caregiver! I think us mommy's spend more time talking to our babies and we have a lot more patience than the menfolk.

Just my opinion!

bibilamalice said...

I miss suzanne and her funny words as much as I miss you, my insightful friend rebecca..
well done for writing them all down - I'm looking forward to seeing the video of those steps!!!
your bilingual friend bob (in london)

Sarah said...

Great descriptions of her different words! Her vocabulary just keeps growing and growing.

I have no idea why she uses English when she's not around you--but it's fascinating to try to figure out! I wonder if Croissant will try to speak French with the anglophones in his life.

I know what you mean about encouraging her to say her version of "eyes" for the comedic value: my nephew loves playing with his dump truck, but he doesn't pronounce the P and the TR comes out as F. There's nothing more incongruous than watching such a sweet and innocent little thing giggle and push a toy vehicle around while calling out a profane insult!

Pardon My French said...

I love this post. Ella is so not interested in books; depresses the heck out of me. I keep trying, though. And I'm interested in signs so you're motivating me to start trying. I'm not sure if I'll go DVDs or not, though. This cracked me up: "Of course, it would be helpful if she could sign things she didn't know how to say."

Reb said...

Thanks for all the comments. Lots to think about...isn't bilingualism really cool?!

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