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Sunday, 23 January 2011

Which language does Sofia speak?

Let me start with a quick disclaimer: Sofia is six months old. She doesn't make any utterances which constitute language yet. I am not one of these misguided parents who eagerly listen to baby's every gurgle and burp and try and translate it into something linguistically meaningful (although if pushed I might admit to having displayed such tendencies with Leonard, the first baby...). 

The interesting thing is that if you ask adult speakers of the different languages spoken in Sofia's world, they will all tell you she is speaking their language. A Swiss friend happily burbles to our babies, repeating "areuh" back to them (it's a real French word, check it out on google), whereas any English person talking with them will say "ga ga" and so will baby. For Germans this is a bit more difficult, because there doesn't appear to be a stereotypical baby sound in German. I asked a number of friends what you would see in a cartoon bubble for babytalk and they couldn't come up with anything specific. But anyway, you get the general idea.

So what does this tell us? That all adults speaking to babies are misguided and only hear what they want to hear? Or that Sofia has been reading the comics and knows what she should be saying to whom? One thing is sure (cos science says so): studies have shown that by about the age of 6 months babies have started to filter out the sounds which are not useful to them in the language(s) spoken to them. This is why Japanese native speakers famously cannot hear and often pronounce a distinction between a 'l' and an 'r', because this distinction isn't used in Japanese. It's also why I have great difficulties with 'u' and ' ü' in German. I've learnt to pronounce two different sounds which approximate fairly closely to those used by German native speakers (amongst other things by means of a hilarious exercise involving imitating a frog in front of a mirror, taught to me by a German teacher who was so square that I just had to believe that she wasn't making fun of me). But I still have huge difficulties hearing the difference between the two, to Thomas' great amusement, particularly when it comes to the difference between "drucken" (to print) and "dcken" (to press or squeeze),  especially in the idiomatic expression "Ich drücke dich", meaning to give someone a hug, which I invariably mispronounce as "I print you!"

But I digress. Sofia is definitely on her way to being able to distinguish the sounds made in English, German and French and to have the potential to be able to reproduce them. Although something strange happens along the way (or maybe not so strange: see Prof. Grosjean's expert blog). For example, the older multilingual children we know whose schooling is in French speak their other languages with the cutest of little French accents. But it goes away when they leave home to live in an entirely native-speaker environment. And the kids we know who go to the English-language international schools seem to come out with fairly spooky mid-Atlantic accents, mixing and matching pretty random bits of British and American pronounciation and slang.

I shall have to stop. Said baby has just woken up (very unusually) screaming - I'll leave you to ponder in which language. 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Which language where?

Following on from my last post, I've been thinking more about which language I'm comfortable speaking where. It occured to me that living in an area with a large multinational community (due to a big UN presence and a number of major international firms having their European headquarters in the city) makes life a lot easier. 

For example, until recently we thought we were going to move to the UK last year. I had already started thinking about what this would mean for us language-wise. I came to the conclusion that we would probably drop the French altogether and focus on making sure that the children's German was really up to scratch, seeing as we have no family or cultural connection with French-speaking areas (other than currently living in one). And as their English would be secured by living in an English-speaking environment, I figured we would make German our home language, meaning I would speak to the children in German (instead of English like I do now). 

But then I had to imagine myself standing in a playground in a suburb of Manchester screaming at Leonard "Hoer auf, dem Jungen Sand ins Gesicht zu werfen!" (Stop throwing sand in that boy's face!), and suddenly I felt less at ease with the idea. It was bad enough with German, knowing how rampant a mostly playful Teutonophobia is in the UK, but then I thought, what if you were speaking a language which is associated with immigrants? And I recalled the experience of an Asian acquaintance recently arrived in the Greater Manchester area whose family had had to deal with abuse being shouted at them as they chatted in the street. Advertising the fact that you are different to the majority culture is not always a safe strategy.

So much as it is sometimes a challenge to raise the children trilingually and in my every day life to deal with things in three languages, I have to remember to count my blessings and be grateful that we're doing it here where it's not so unusual to be a polyglot.   

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Daring to speak the other language

Annabelle has a new friend at creche. It was her friend's dad who spoke to me in the creche hallway, recognising a fellow Brit (I was, of course, talking to A. in English, but the creche is entirely French-speaking). They had recently arrived in town from the UK. He's looking after the kids until he can find a new job, while his partner works full-time. So we met up one afternoon and the two girls, although a little reticent at first, soon clicked and had a fantastic time together - in English. 

That was about a week ago. Today at the creche, the staff told me that the two girls had just found out that they shared a language other than French and that when the group had gone for a walk, they had joined hands and gone on for ages chattering away together in English. 

The interesting thing about this is that for days the two girls had hesitated to use English in an (almost) entirely francophone environment, even though the friend is not yet very comfortable in French, having only recently moved to a French-speaking area. It took the relative isolation of walking together and leaving the location of the creche to remove an unspoken pressure to speak the dominant language, even though the two of them had only spoken English together when they had met each other with their anglophone families outside the creche. 

Apparently, having discovered this new freedom, they continued to hold hands and speak English once back inside the creche. I actually felt it necessary to ask if the creche staff were OK with this, which they are - so they don't in fact impose a monolingual policy. It's just that (obviously) not all the staff speak all the languages represented by the children in a multinational creche, so French by necessity has to be the most commonly shared language.

This story reflects a hesitation that many parents in our type of situation will recognise: when, for example, you're on the playground, do you holler at your kid to GET DOWN FROM THERE in your shared language, because that's what you always speak to them and that's what is most likely to get the reaction you want, or do you defer to the local language? For my part, I use English, partly because in our multinational area it's very common to hear parents using languages other than French with their kids, and I think I am also comforted by the fact that English must be the next language to French round here which is most likely to be understood. So I don't feel I'm being quite so rude and excluding people as I might be.

But certain languages belonging to certain places is a funny thing. A different friend of Annabelle's with two anglophone parents was at ours recently. The girls were happily playing (with parents in safe reach), when prompted by what they were doing, I started singing a nursery rhyme to them in French. The look of shock in A.'s friend's face stays with me to this day: how could I (of all people) be singing that song (which for her belonged in the creche) in this place (of all places)! I had clearly broken a barrier which she thought immutable.   

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Quadrilingual and more

Not content with being trilingual, our children have taken to inventing their own language. And I don't just mean mispronouncing words (that they do in spades too: the most common one is "klokat" for chocolate, but only when they speak in English. "Chocolat" in French and "Schokolade" in German mostly come out properly. Bizarrely though, a couple of their friends apparently use the same word for chocolate too, although they may speak French, Dutch or Spanish. One mother explained to me that they all picked it up from a Greek boy in Leonard's nursery group who used the Greek word for chocolate, which apparently sounds something like "klokat"). No, my children will say to each other "Shall we talk in a different language?" And they then proceed to throw gobbledygook sentences at each other, sometimes with a questioning intonation, sometimes not, but very often jabbing at the air with their first fingers as if making a point, or actually pointing at something. And they think it's even more hilarious if we join in.

Today I was listening to their pronounciation in their invented language, and I noticed that while the consonants were not markedly English, French or German, the vowels were definitely not English - no diphthongs! I think this strengthens my thesis that, for the moment anyway, English is probably closest to being their mother tongue, if you assume that they were putting a "foreign" pronounciation into their invented language. They don't have any vocabulary that regularly crops up in their language i.e. a particular word that comes back for a specific thing - they are only 3 and 4 years old! But I think it still shows an amazing metalinguistic awareness, for example of the fact that there are different languages and how you can simulate one in a very basic way.

But one thing that does happen in the multilingual environments that they inhabit, is that they do pick bits of other languages and they are mostly aware that they're speaking another language. I overheard them singing the tune to "Happy birthday to you" while they were doing something else the other day, but with different words. And as I listened, I slowly realised that it wasn't gibberish, or mistreated English, French or German but "Cumpleaños feliz". The only Spanish they hear is from friends at nursery - isn't that cool, that they picked that up, just like that? So I pointed out to them that it was Spanish and mentioned their Spanish-speaking friends. The funny thing is that now sometimes they'll say to each other "Shall we speak Spanish?" and then launch into their gobbledygook language. Cos they know that they don't speak Spanish.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Mixing and matching

I spent most of this evening listening for examples of the children mixing their languages, and all I have to offer is one "Papa, ich habe kein paper mehr" (I don't have any more paper), and one "Bring the Songbuch" (song book), both addressed to their father. I guess this shows a number of things:

- English is still their strongest language, as they almost never throw a German word into an English sentence addressed to me.
- Their mixing with their father goes both ways i.e. a German sentence with a sole English word and an English sentence with a sole German word.
 - The mixing happens in different ways. I think for the first one, Leonard just couldn't think of the German word as quickly as the English one, so he used English because he knows his father understands English. I wonder though if the sentence would have come out differently if he'd been speaking to his German grandmother who speaks no English? And for the second one, Annabelle was wanting to sing a song in German, so I would guess that was what prompted the German vocab.  (See Prof. Grosjean's expert blog on reasons why multilinguals code-switch, as it's know in the trade).

I also noticed that they don't only mix on a lexical level, but on a grammatical level. The one I heard tonight was "Mama, look at our dinosaur pink", so Leonard applied the French rule of putting the adjective after the noun to an English sentence. Annabelle will in fact often say, "Me, I want to do xxx", translating the French construction "Moi, je veux faire xxx" into English. Not heard her do that in German though, I don't think.

However, what amazes me again and again is that they are learning all these different characteristics of three different languages, which is just phenomenal in itself. And mostly they DO keep the right rules and words in the right language boxes. Fantastic.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Who we are

What follows is the original text I wrote in January 2011. I've put some updates in italics, to show how things have evolved.
Three children living in France on the border with Switzerland, born to a British mother and a German father. We are an OPOL family, i.e. we do a "one person one language" set-up. In our case, I speak English with the children and my husband, Thomas, speaks German with them. Thomas and I speak a mixture of English and German together. So what do the children speak to whom? Well, they always talk to me in English. To their father they speak a mixture of German and English (Feb 2012: they now only speak German with Thomas). They also speak French, which they are exposed to at nursery (for Leonard, the eldest, five days a week, and for Annabelle and Sofia three days a week) (Feb 2012: A. is now also at nursery five days a week). And they almost only speak French there, we seldom hear it at home or when we're out with them. And amongst themselves? Mostly English, with occasional switches to French or more rarely into German. (Feb 2012: Oh my, now they speak all three languages amongst themselves, often whole conversations in one language, but some mixing of course.)

So that's our deal. Why do I want to share this with the world? Well, I've been reading this and that about multilingualism on the internet, in books and magazines, and a lot of the material out there seems to me to be rather fraught. And we're not. Not that it's always been a breeze: sure, we've found some things difficult, we've faced times when things weren't quite panning out as we'd hoped. But we've taken decisions, stuck with it and so far we've managed to keep the situation more or less where we want it. So I wanted to add some cheerful multilingualism into the mix to even out some of the more dire and desperate contributions.

The other reason I'm writing this blog is, of course, for my own self-edification (isn't every blogger?), but also to help me think through some of the issues facing a trilingual family. So if you are enjoying reading this, or have any comments on what you read, do let me know.

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