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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. 


  1. How lovely!

    I wonder how culture plays into how our children learn to be (or not to be) polite, and if it varies according to which language they speak?

  2. Now there's a girl who has figured out which side her apple juice is buttered on.

  3. Hi Sarah,

    I'm sure it does, hugely, just as concepts of politeness and how to do it vary from culture to culture. Just to give you one example: in Russian it's perfectly polite to say to your elders and betters "Give me apple juice!", as Solnushka can probably confirm. I had great difficulties when I was there saying such a rude sentence, but I also failed completely to produce a Russian equivalent of "I say, would you mind awfully passing me the apple juice", which as a true blue Brit (ha ha) is what I would normally say in English (is the sarcasm coming across?). I probably just sat there and did without the apple juice, leaving my host family to wonder who this impolite young woman was who never said anything!

  4. And now I'm wondering how it will work with my kiddos, given that they have very little exposure to any of the countries where French is spoken. Since I'm not a native speaker, and have only spent a total of four semesters in France (and shared apartments with students, not families), I don't know how to "behave" French much less share it with my children! And as we plan to spend the rest of our lives in the USA, how important is it for me to "teach" them, say, French manners?

    Of course, we hope to travel with the kids eventually, and I also want them to learn about other Francophone cultures, not just mainland France. I think we'll be reading a lot of books to do so!

    I'm done rambling now! Lots of food for thought...

  5. I think there's a point where you just have to give in to reality, if you see what I mean. My children are never going to be as British as I am - or rather was, seeing as I haven't lived in the UK for nearly 15 years now either. We can give them so much input, but the reality of the environment in which they grow up is always going to be part of the mix. And I guess that's not a problem, that too is part of the richness of the multilingual, multicultural journey. Sorry, healthy dose of bathos coming out there.

    For my children I wonder a bit more about identity, not so much if they stay here where almost everybody we know has multiple roots, but more if they do ever move to a monolingual, monocultural environment. The simple question "Where do you come from?" will in principle require more information than most casual acquaintances will want to hear, and my kids will always be the odd ones who are different to everyone else. Maybe I have to start thinking about how to equip them with the moral fortitude to deal with that situation!

  6. Hi Jen,
    I know this is a loate comment to your post but I only just stumbled upon it while killing time eating lunch (a long story for another time).
    Anyway, my eldest is almost 3 and is having great fun with the bilingual challenge that is living near Geneva with a half Brit/half Irish Mum and Belgian Dad. Last night she took great pleasure in telling me repeatedly as only a 3 year old can:
    " Papa says robe, mais Mama dit dress". Confusion will reign at our house.

    Thanks for sharing and making me feel like I'm not alone!



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