Sunday, 6 December 2009

jibberish as a third language

I wasn't at all surprised when my mother sent me a newspaper clipping in the mail from the NYT : "Study: cries of newborns mimic their native tongue." I had this theory about Max but it seemed too crazy to be true. Ever since he starting cooing in early October, his sounds seemed somehow more American than I remember Suzanne's sounding. I chalked it up to not remembering. I remember Suzanne's rolling her "r"s like in French and her sounds being more sing-songy. A bit like a-rrr. But Max seemed to be making more guttural, short sounds like "hhhh".

And then this study came out and it all made sense. When I was pregnant with Suzanne I was still speaking French at home and didn't have many English speaking friends. But with Suzanne's arrival and our switch into a OPOL home, I went from speaking English 50% of the time to 90% of the time. And during my pregnancy with Max, I even had someone speaking back to me in English since Suzanne is a pretty good conversationalist these days.

It also turns out that Suzanne is trilingual - her list of languages includes English, French and jibberish. What's interesting is that she can not only clearly distinguish between French and English, Suzanne came home from the circus a couple weeks ago and I asked her how it was. She told me there was a tiger and lots and lots of acrobats. Then she hesitated. "Ja..jibberish acrobats," she said. I smirked and said, "Chinese acrobats?" "Yes," she said, "lots of Chinese acrobats." (there were Chinese acrobats at the circus we went to in the spring so I just assumed...)

What surprised me most was not that she recognized that the acrobats were Asian (I think she was trying to say Japanese because of the half-Japanese boy in her class but knew it was wrong) or that she remembered that the acrobats at the circus last year were Chinese but that she has understood the idea of jibberish being a language she doesn't understand.

Last week we talked to Suzanne about bilingualism and named all the kids she knows who speak multiple languages. When she gets frustrated and cries instead of speaking, we tell her how lucky she is to be able to speak English and French, but we aren't sure if she realizes it's not the norm. She so easily flips back and forth, glissing* words into a French or English sentences. Whereas she used to get frustrated when she couldn't find the right word, now she just slips the word into her sentence in whichever language she can. She even said to me the other day, "I don't want to mix up my languages."

I have to admit that I'm glad she still slips English words into her French sentences because it means her French hasn't completely taken over... English has not been taken over.

And one last thing...I have been going into her class to teach them "Jingle bells" in English. Last night, she was singing it to her French grandmother. Jérôme and I looked at each other during her performance and giggled because she was singing it with a French accent when usually she sings it in perfect American. It seems she's adapting to her audience.

*Suzanne-ism for slipping


Jan Exner said...

I was thinking about something similar just yesterday. 1.5yo BK2 speaks her very own language, which probably also counts, in a way.

I was thinking about updating our family language diagram accordingly :-)

Rachael said...

My nearly five year old also sings that wack version of Jingle Bells sometimes. I can't stand it. But he doesn't understand that some people might think he's making fun.

The jibberish thing is also a headwreck with another language learner in the house. I ask the nearly five year old to stick to known languages in front of the nearly three year old but he doesn't. A good friend who's studied loads about bilingualism insists that this is normal and to ride it out. But the little guy doesn't speak either English or French very well (both of them have much better English than French) so the jibberish from the older sibling wrecks my head.

The big boy is starting to see that it's cool to speak another language -- I read/sing to his classmates once a week and he loves having me at school. But since other kids speak Flemish, Japanese, or Arabic, it's not that big a deal yet.

I should have just done Jingle Bells with the kiddies. But Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes is a riot in any language.

Reb said...

Thanks for the comment Rachael. it all seems pretty normal and it's great. But I really hate when she puts her french accent on English stuff. grrr. I mean, I expect her to do it later when she starts to be embarassed of her American mom. But for now, she is so proud to be "helping" me teach her class a song in English. I wanted to do head shoulders...but the teacher insisted for a holiday song for the fête de noël at school. now I have to sing in front of the entire school with the kids...great!

MM said...

I saw this on the beeb

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