Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Unbalanced bilinguals

Towards the beginning of my two month long stay in the US this summer, I wrote about Max's confused relationship with English.

Although both of my kids are bilingual, their relationship with their second language, English, is visibly different. To start with, Suzanne spoke English before she spoke French despite the fact that she always heard more French than English (80/20 ratio of French to English). Max on the other hand, always had a closer tie to French which I personally think is due to the fact that he was in nursery school and not with a nanny so he had much more group interaction than Suzanne did at the same age. Max's great English awekening happened last summer (when Max was 2) during my mother's annual summer 3 week visit. Until then, Max spoke English but mostly French. At the same age, Suzanne spoke English AND French.

So it wasn't surprising to see that Suzanne slipped right into the English world whereas Max took some time to figure out the rules. When the kids started day camp on our second week in the US, Suzanne came home interspersing her sentences with "like" while Max continued to speak with a French accent. When my husband arrived during week 3, both kids continued speaking English with him despite the fact that they only speak French with him in home. Thus the power of the community language!

We've now been home for about 2 weeks, the kids have been in French summer camp for a week and a half,  and I've observed a couple things:

  • they continue to speak English with each other
  • they spontaneously speak English to the father; when he addresses them in French, they respond in French.
  • Max is interspersing his French with English, which is something he never did before
  • Max is also using English syntax and translating from English when speaking French. For example, he said "Quoi tu fais Papa?" (What are you doing Papa?) instead of Qu'est-ce que tu fais?
  • Both of their accents have changed. Suzanne still has a NJ twang (which I'm very proud of) and although Max continues to have an accent in both French (almost German-like) and English, his English accent is less French than it was when we first arrived in NJ. 
The part that I find most intersting is how this whole experience really brought out the relationship each child has with their two languages. Suzanne, for the moment, has more of a balanced relationship with both French and English. She can more easily flip back and forth between the two. Max, on the other hand, is obviously much closer to French and especially to the French global surroundings of our daily lives (maybe because he's a very social creature and the nursery school environment?). In any case, the two months in the US were definitely a linguistic success for my kids. And it's something I hope will help carry them both through the school year. Next Tuesday, Max will start school and Suzanne will start CP (French 1st grade). Oy vey!

5 comments:

Tallulah@Bilingual Babes said...

It's amazing how with such similar exposure siblings can end up with a totally different language relationship! My two also have very different relationships to French/English... Schmoo actually thought she was French for a long time!! while Pan-Pan took a while to decide French was important enough to bother speaking it ;-)

Jan Exner said...

I would argue that the environment is quite different between first and second child.

The first child has only the parents at home, while the second has a lot more interactions with the sibling, which probably favours the majority language.

In our case the effect is similar and it is very visible.

Tracey said...

Fascinating stuff! I find it really interesting how different siblings can be in their language acquistion.

Anonymous said...

Hello and welcome back! And Bonne Braderie!

Congratulations on the linguistic success!

My two are the opposite with the languages -- the elder child is much more comfortable in French than the younger, even though the younger has had many more French inputs than the older at the same age. Folks are folks, I think. Kids are themselves and have their own preferences.

Our example may be unusual in that our boys have two anglophone parents in France, but both are more comfortable in English and the younger one will do his best not to speak French, even though he's been in maternelle for going on four years. Our local centre de loisirs recently asked if he could understand French...

Bonne rentree!

Rachael (formerly of Lille)

Reb said...

Thanks for all the comments. It is so very intersting to hear what you - other parents of bilingual kids - have to say. And it shows that there are certain patterns. Reassuring...

@Rachael - I'm so glad you still stop by to say hi. And I hope you are all doing well in Paris! In your case, it's interesting to see the language preference. I have a cousin here in Lille whose oldest child wouldn't speak French except with her grandparents until she got to CP. Who knows what's going through their heads.

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