Share this post:    Follow me: 

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The burden of trilingualism?

I promised myself no "proud mum" posts on this blog - but I'm just itching to boast about Sofia's expanding trilingual vocabulary. She's got "bye-bye", "tschuess" and "au revoir" off pat now (you'll have to imagine the cute baby pronounciation), and she's using the right language with the right people. Other words she only says in one language for the moment, "Ball" (in German) and "night-night" being two of her most recent acquisitions. Oh, and not forgetting "meow/miau" for the cat (of whom she is still horribly afraid, although she's now bigger than the cat and much more mobile than she used to be.)

But to round this post off a bit, I thought I'd look at the word lists* we did for Annabelle and Leonard when they were learning to talk. The first thing I noticed was that there were four columns, not three. Ok, so one each for English, French and German - but the fourth one? That was for "own inventions", which are sometimes obviously down to immature pronounciation, but "afwa" for water? And "paco" for helicopter? Some bits are also just cute: they both said "heavy" when they wanted me to carry them because when Leonard, the older one, would hold his arms up to me like his little sister did, I would often say to him "Oh, you're too heavy to be carried now." So "heavy" became their short-hand for "pick me up!"

The distribution between the languages is interesting too in its randomness. There's not any particular type of word, either in relation to grammar or meaning which tends to be learnt in one language or another, other than "encore" (more in French) which all three of them mastered very early on and before they could say the same thing in English or German (this tells you more about baby psychology than reams of books by experts). There also isn't one language that dominates. I sometimes get asked which language the children learnt first, and it's a question I can't answer: it was all three at once.

The other odd thing about these word lists is the timing. Leonard didn't have more than a handful of words/meaningful sounds at 18 months, and he was approaching 2 before we had enough to even make up a word list of any significance. Annabelle on the other hand at 13 months had a page-long list! And Sofia is somewhere in between the two. I think within our family we probably span the typical range of baby language learning, from "not unusual but fast" to "not unusual but on the slow side" - so I'm happy to stick with the collective conclusion of "not unusual - and coincidentally doing it in three languages." 

*Are you cringeing at the mention of word lists? It wasn't just that, we documented everything - to begin with. It went from almost an hour-by-hour record of Leonard's every bodily function, to weekly, then monthly diary entries for Annabelle, and poor Sofia so far has about one page in the baby log! Yes, we are really that sad...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Parent to parent

Not usually one to toot her own horn (oh but didn't blogging change all that!), I'm going to do it today anyway. Let's see if I can come up with some good reasons for it. 

1) If you're reading this blog I'm assuming you're interested in our family and its particular version of multilingualism. The text I'm going to refer you to is all about that.

2) I'm going to introduce you to a website you may not be aware of and which, because of said assumed interest in multilingualism, may well appeal to you.

Have I got you interested? Let me tell you what it's all about: The website Multilingual Mania is running a series called "Parent to Parent" where they interview parents of bi- or multilingual children about their experiences and they recently sent me their questions. That's about it actually - you can see my answers at Being multilingual is part of the fabric of our everyday life. Hope you enjoy reading them!  

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Carnival time!

Yes, there's a new carnival out on multilingual blogging which you can see at the Babelkid blog.

Thanks very much to Jan for hosting what turned out to be a bumper size carnival this time. There's bound to be something that interests you in among all those contributions!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Polite baby!

Sofia, as usual, is way ahead of her brother and sister. For example she eats way more than they do, both in quantity and in variety. We spend hours coming up with ways to persuade the older two to eat anything green, and Sofia even grabbed the lettuce out of my sandwich the other day. (Admittedly she didn't eat it in the end, but she gave it a good look and did put it in her mouth once or twice.) We've started making a list of the unlikely things she eats, which includes smoked salmon, beetroot salad, and garlic dip.

We also seem to have developed a rather irritating politeness routine with the other two. Every morning at breakfast Annabelle shouts "Apple juice!" or "Apfelsaft!", depending on who she thinks is going to react fastest (or alternatively "Apply juicy" or "Apfelsafty"* depending on how silly she is being - or let's be generous and see it as linguistic creativity). Then somebody says in a warning tone, "Annabelle, how do you say that nicely?" to which she promptly says, "Please", which in turn produces the question: "And in a whole sentence?" So she then comes out with, "Can I have some apple juice please?", usually with a cute look from under her eyelashes and some sort of playful accent or intonation. Then she gets her juice. What a palaver.

Sofia doesn't bother with any of that. Her very first word was "Thank you/Danke". Now that may seem like a funny first word (apart from it marking her out as the politest baby ever). It's her first creation of Denglish, a result of her not yet fully developed linguistic skills which don't allow her to reproduce the sounds of the words as we know them. But we know it was a word because it was always the same sounds in the same situation, in this case when somebody gave her something (she has experienced such success with this that she has started using the same sounds when she is giving rather than receiving, but we'll overlook that for the moment.) And the sounds have a "k" sound in the middle, a vowel sound before and after, and sometimes even a cross between a "d" and a "th" at the beginning, thus resembling both the English and German words (she's lucky that the two languages in question share some roots).

Now I was pretty tickled by this, but was even more amazed when at about the same time the staff at the creche proudly told me Sofia had started saying "Merci" (or at least "-erci", the "m" being quite difficult for babies to say) when they give her things! Not just polite, but trilingually polite, right from the start!

* The whole of the rest of this exchange can take place equally in English or in German by the way, but I'll only write out the English from here on. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Look who's bilingual now

Being accused of being too honest for my own good is something I can actually live with quite well. Gives me a nice warm feeling inside, and mostly what I end up giving up is not particularly significant. However, recently I've been thinking that I'm seriously doing myself a disservice. I speak three European languages to a good level of fluency and still find myself looking at job ads and thinking that I can't even apply for most of the vacancies because I don't have the right language skills. 

The problem is that I want a job where I can write, and all the local writing jobs want French or German as a mother tongue. (English-language writing jobs do exist round here, but they're rare, not always genuinely open competitions and there are LOTS of people like me - "trailing spouses" is a term I learnt recently - trying to garner them.) 

Now my German is good, really good. I've published in German. When chatting to German-speakers, I get mistaken for a German. But it's not my mother tongue. Honest as I am, I can't put that on my CV. And in these days of job ads ending with "Please don't bother to apply if you don't fit our basic and easily definable criteria", such as native speaker requirement, it doesn't matter how well I argue in my covering letter that I have near-native German and frankly better French than most German-speaking Swiss can muster. My CV is still not going to make it through that first filter.

So I decided to say that I'm bilingual English-German. This way I'm not lying, I'm not claiming anything about what my mother tongue is or isn't. And I'm not pretending to have any skills I don't have. It's all a question of definition. There are plenty of high-status, academic-backed definitions of bilingual which apply to my language skills (although I'm not yet quite sure how I would manage a challenge to my definition of bilingual in an interview situation - citing some professor's most recent publication might not work so well with a hardened HR professional). 

Can I offer you one definition I came across recently? It's from Xiao-lei Wang's book "Learning to read and write in the multilingual family"*. It focuses on literacy skills, but I would still suggest it's typical of other academic definitions of multilingualism (she in fact quotes some). After several pages of discussion on the "competency continuum" (p.23) of various language users, she arrives at the following definition of multiliteracy:

"an individual [who] can actively use more than one language in reading or writing with different levels of proficiency for a particular purpose" (p.24).

In this definition, the pretension to proficiency is related exclusively to the purpose of the communication, and not to some edified norm of native-speaker status. After all, there are plenty of native speakers who positively massacre their own languages, particularly in writing - one look at the average Facebook page, or comments in any museum's guest book, is enough evidence of that.
So by calling myself bilingual I can stay honest and hopefully significantly increase my chances of finding the job I want some time in the foreseeable future. Wish me luck!

* Wang, Xiao-lei (2011) Learning to read and write in the multilingual family, Multilingual Matters: Bristol

Image credit:

Friday, 1 July 2011

Intonation, intonation, intonation

Isn't it funny how an outsider notices odd things that for you are just part of life? I guess this is part of the richness of travelling and mixing with people from different languages and cultures. And the great thing is that both sides, the observer and the observee, get something out of it, whether it's a great experience or an insight into your own way of living. In my case recently though, I felt I was caught out. I like to think of myself as a pretty canny and informed observer of my children's language use, but it took somebody new to our family (and someone also quite switched on to languages) to notice something I had completely missed.

We have a new au pair for the summer (she's fantastic by the way, a real big sister to our kids), another German speaker (see Why I'm smug about language mixing for the logic behind this)She's been making lots of observant comments about the children's language use, and it was her who said to me the other day, "It's funny how Leonard uses English intonation when he's speaking German". I was flabbergasted. I'd never noticed. Probably because it's always just been that way, and there is of course that native speaker acuity that we "near-natives" can get close to but never quite achieve (although I'm reasonably sure that my own intonation in German is also near-native). 

So I started listening, and there is a definite anglo-singsong tone to Leonard's German. Funnily, it's also a very child-like intonation, which is odd because his main English language partner is me, and I promise I don't talk like a four-year-old! I've been wondering how I could illustrate his intonation in words and within the limitations of the blogspot editor (not sure I have the stamina to make recordings or even diagrams at this point - maybe for later). Let's try. Here's a very typical Leonard sentence:

"Can I have a biscuit?"

I've chosen a question because questions have a standard intonation pattern, in this case you go up on "bis-", and then "-cuit" has a fall-rising pitch, i.e. you go down and then come up again (I'm going to have to get a recording of this, aren't I...)

Now in German the question intonation is a bit different:

"Kann ich einen Keks haben?"

You just go up on the word "Keks" and then come down again. (If any German speakers reading this disagree horribly, please do let me know!)

And sure enough, Leonard tends to use the "up and down and up again" pattern in both English and German. Being a mother I of course then immediately wondered whether I should worry about this (to my credit I at least wondered first rather than jumping straight to the worrying). I came to the conclusion that I shouldn't. Firstly I have much more important things to worry about (such as global warming, social justice and where to hang that stunning wrought iron framed mirror I just bought which is a tad too big and heavy looking for the place I originally wanted to put it). Secondly it's not going to impede Leonard in his general language learning and achievement of life goals; put it down as a slight quirk in his accent, which most multilinguals have. Some people (like our au pair) actually think it's cute, so it might even help him socially. And thirdly, he might just figure it out himself as his language skills mature. So I say, more power to his vocal chords. You never know, it might just be a sign that he's a Pavarotti/James Blunt/Freddy Mercury/Frank Sinatra (choose your preferred style and decade) in the making... 

Sunday, 12 June 2011


As I thought about what I wrote in Why I'm smug about language mixing, I realised that there were some underlying principles to our decisions related to our children's language learning. I guess all multilingual families have been through some sort of similar thought process, although perhaps a little more consciously for non-native bilingualism, and less so for what one could call "involuntary" multilingualism which is sprung upon the family by the language situation they happen to find themselves in i.e. where the parents may speak different languages, and/or the community language is different to the home language(s).

What struck me as I wrote the "smug" post is that in our case we are not practicing multilingualism for its own sake, or for some cognitive benefits discussed by academics and eager parents, but to achieve some communicative goals specific to our situation. For me it comes down to one question: "What do I want my children to be able to do with their languages when they are grown-up?" - and then therefore out of my direct tutelage. My answer is that I would like them to be able to choose between living where they grew up (where French is spoken), or setting up in one or the other of their heritage countries (UK or Germany). Or of course going somewhere else altogether, but I can't plan for their future passions, whether for a particular language and culture or a person, at this point in time. 

Providing them with the means to make that choice is what it's all about. So if a child doesn't actually use one of the languages they are exposed to during childhood, despite the parents' best efforts, I don't see the situation as irremediable. What has probably happened is that for the child, that language just doesn't seem relevant to the context they find themselves in. This is why parents of so-called "at risk bilinguals" have such a hard time: i.e. where only one parent speaks the minority language, and the other parent and all the rest of their day to day environment speaks another. Especially if the parent speaking the minority language also speaks, or at least understands, the dominant language, which is often the case (I figure the parents have to communicate too, right?). It's going to take some effort on the part of the child to ramp up to that minority language, and kids just don't have that sense of altruism that would allow them to "do it for Mummy/Daddy". Nor does the argument "Just think, when you're bigger you'll be able to read Cervantes in the original!" cut much ice with a 3-year old. There are of course other ways of motivating children to use the minority language - I just read smashed pea's great post How we became an opol family on how they pulled their kids round to using more German in an English-speaking environment, but you can see how much linguistic, emotional, parental and logistical effort that cost (hats off to them for getting there!).

But even in cases where it doesn't work, I think parents who continue to expose the child to another language whether they actually use that language or not, are still giving their children the potential to develop that language later on, should they find themselves in an environment where it suddenly becomes a whole lot more meaningful to them. Such as moving somewhere where the language is spoken, or falling in love with someone who speaks that language. Or even being motivated by a really good teacher. Because the advantages of passive knowledge of a language should not be underestimated, as a basis for future communication. I think the key with children though has to be the continued exposure, especially if they never develop the active mastery of the language. If you stop, it will go away. Everybody knows stories of children who spoke fluent x when they were 4 because they lived in x-land, but when they moved back to z-land they completely forgot the language, and didn't even have any advantage over the other kids when it was taught at school.

But I should stop pontificating and get back to my point, which was about being an enabling multilingual parent. My enabling goals for the children are, admittedly, pretty high. For them to be able to function as "local" adults in one of three places, they need to have GOOD literacy skills. Face it, if someone can't put together a decent CV, or email to the boss, or love letter, they may well have difficulties achieving some of their goals in life, whether it's getting a job, playing office politics, or getting it together with the love of their life. These things are hard enough to do anyway, without having a language handicap too! So this is why it's really important for me to aim high with my kids' reading and writing in all of their languages.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...