Monday, 12 April 2010

Words are easy

It sounds like a bad country song but in the case of bilingualism, I think it's true.

Every day I grow more aware of Suzanne's language ability and how it will affect her little brother who already seems to be understanding (especially if it has to do with calling Lola the cat which makes Max's head whip around to find where the little jingle jingle of Lola's collar is coming from).

I'm beginning to see how the bilingual brain is wired. For example, Suzanne only speaks English to those friends who she's only seen in an English speaking context (ie where the moms are friends and have created an English-only environment on a regular basis). But with friends like Marlow, whose father is English speaking but who is also in Suzanne's class, she speaks French. I picked both kids up from school yesterday and, as always, I persisted in speaking English to them both even though they were speaking French to each other and Marlow was speaking 95% French to me. I suggested to them that they could speak English together. Suzanne turned to her friend and said, "ma maman dit que nous pouvons aussi parler en anglais".

A couple weekends ago, a franco-canadian little girl came to stay while her mom was at the hospital giving birth - little L was speaking French to everyone but I spoke English to her. At one point, L answered me in English and I could see the wheels turning in Suzanne's brain when she suddenly said to L in English, "you speak English too?" But it didn't take either of the girls long to see that French was the more practical language for the situation.

Suzanne also seems totally aware of adult language capacities. If a French person says something to her in English, she will giggle and answer in French. A couple weeks ago, my sister in law was reading her a book in English and mispronounced a word. So Suzanne came to me to tell me she'd said the word wrong and wanted me to come correct her.

But what amazes me most about Suzanne's bilingualism beyond the 6th sense of what language is appropriate when - since I'm a false bilingual ie not born with 2 lanagues - is how she has mastered the grammar. She applies the correct grammar rules respectively in both languages to her franglais. For example, we were baking cookies and when her papa came into the kitchen she said, "Maman dit que je peux licker la cuilliere" or the other night she said, "Maman dit que je ne dois pas washer mon hair". She asked her uncle to tier her belt. In English she does the reverse, "At school, I travailled, I dessined, I did peinture" (a direct translation of faire de la peinture rather than to paint) Another interesting point to note is that she calls me "Mommy" but in French, she refers to me as Maman but never uses it to my face.

And when she woke up in the middle of the night last night and couldn't find her stuffed animal, she said, "I cannot find it". I was surprised (enough to remember the anomoly in the morning) that she used the full form rather than the abbreviated "can't" since that's what I say. I never say "cannot". So either she picked it up from someone else, from TV or just understand that to negate something you use "not". Wow.

On a last note, Max is a chatter box in the making. He tries to communicate at meals by grunting and yelling at people who he thinks he's talking to. And the other day, he tried to say "Mommy". I was headed out the door for a run while he was in my brother-in-law's arms. He arched his back and reached for me while making a noise that sounded like a parrot trying to pronounce "mom". I still wonder if he's getting enough language since I speak and read to him less than I did to Suzanne. But, lucikly, it seems he's set out to be a talker like his big sister.


Anonymous said...

I'm a huge fan of your stories about bilingual children! My biggest fear is that my (future, and theoretical!) children don't/won't/can't speak English to me. I've witnessed a mom speaking English and her children replying only in French and I cried a little on the inside.

I think moving to Lille would help a lot as there seems to be much more exposure to the English language. Are there any English mother and baby groups in Lille? How do you meet all the English speakers?!

Jan Exner said...

Same for BK1: she usually gets the grammar right even when she mixes languages in a sentence. Some examples:

And my favourite:

Amber said...

Your stories give me hope that i'll be able to bring my future little one up bilingually as well. It seems like it must be such a challenge.

L Vanel said...

I am starting to think of these issues now and happy that a friend directed me to your blog. My little one isn't speaking yet but very interested in how things roll out outside the home. He has recently made the differentiation and expressed amusement when I spoke in French in a social context, but at the same time he sometimes seems to disconnect when we are in a French context (out running errands, etc). He always lights up when I add a little English commentary. About the French context, it's hard not to offend people who don't speak English, with my running commentary in a foreign language. I was beginning to wonder if I have been selfish in speaking to him only in English at home, but I see he'll probably choose French later on and it won't handicap him at all.

Nicole said...

Both of my kids did all of what you described (especially the giggling at French people trying to speak English to them) and I too was worried that my second son was getting less (of everything). As it turns out, his English came first and fast, I guess just hearing all the conversations I was having with his older brother was enough to make for the fact that my time with him was often divided.

Sarah in deepest, darkest Lomellina said...

I had never noticed, but you are on the button there. My son always calls me mummy but without fail refers to me "La Mamma" when talking to others.

I can't wait to see what happens when he finally meets another mini Anglo-Italiano.

Reb said...

Emmy, thanks! Hope it can inspire and support other bilinguals! Yes, move to Lille. I like my group of franco-anglo friends here!

Jan, they are amazing, aren't they? I wish I were a real bilingual...

Amber, you have a built in network already ready to give you any advice you need when the day comes. Hope to meet you soon!

L, I used to feel really guilty too about Suzanne especially that I was missing a part of her personality that couldn't translate from French to English. And even though I know French is her strong language, I at least know the English is there. And it's strong. I just hope it's the same for my son!

Nicole, thanks for the support! I am really hoping Max will learn from his sister. I'm convinced that Suzanne's English is so good because of all my chattering and babbling and reading to her. But now Suzanne seems to provide a lot of it for her brother so fingers crossed.

Sarah, isn't it amazing how they know how to choose the right language? I still get confused, but Suzanne never does.

Amber said...

Hi Reb, info about bilingual daycare for you:

Contact Laurence VANDAELE
It'll be in Marcq en Baroeul; I think she's currently accepting applications. The lady is really nice and feel free to tell her that I sent you if you'd like. Good luck!

Sarah said...

This post is SO encouraging! I love hearing about Suzanne's linguistic achievements. And it sounds like Max is well on his way to following in her footsteps!

I would expect that even if you feel like Max hears less in English than Suzanne did at that age, he's still getting plenty. If Suzanne speaks to him in English, even some of the time, he'll definitely imitate her and repeat everything.

Marta said...

Hi! My first visit here. What a coincidence, we're also reading The V. H. Caterpillar (or should I see we're obsessed with the book? :))
Reading other parent's achievements and experiences is encouraging. :)

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