Linguistic tyrant

No legs but lots of buttons

No legs but lots of buttons

Given that my daughter was born in Lebanon, people ask if she learnt Arabic in Beirut. Leaving when she was only 1 3/4 made that a bit difficult, especially as we each spoke to her in the language we grew up with, not Arabic. But just to show how much they can take in, very soon after we left Lebanon, she did surprise me by telling me “Sahtein mummy,” (or bon appetit) when she caught me chomping on a radish while making lunch. She now gives the customary response “3aelbak”… though if you tell her “Na3iman” after a bath, you sometimes get the same answer.

Since her brother was born she has also been telling him “Shou?” every time he starts fussing, something no-one has said to her for a long time. However she objected to her dad saying it. It turns out she thinks it’s mummy’s language since I was the one who fell into the habit of using it with her while we were in Lebanon. So she objected to him using it the way she objects to me accidentally dropping in French words to her. Ironic really, given that he’s the one fluent in Arabic.

In line with a tip I read before she was born, we didn’t bother using the terms English and French with her, we just referred to languages in terms such as “Mummy says car, Daddy says voiture.” Since she was 1 1/2 she has been distinguishing how daddy says it from how mummy says it and could tell us the equivalent.

Now though, at 2 1/4, she seems to have absorbed the terms “English” and “French” on her own, and told me the other day, while listening to our conversation, “Mummy talk in French to Daddy.” She even gets annoyed if she asks something in English, aimed at me, and her dad responds instead. Since she has to make a conscious choice whom she wants to address before even beginning to speak, I wonder if it makes dialogue that much more deliberate, leading to frustration if she’s decided she’s talking to mummy in mummy’s language but gets an answer in French from daddy. Or it could just be another aspect of these terrible twos which have fostered in her a burning desire to control all aspects of life, failing which she dissolves into angry tears. It’s not for nothing daddy calls her his “despote préféré.”

Express delivery


Delivery room

My parcel arrived last month. It came a couple of weeks early. I guess you could call it an express delivery. An hour and a half transit time in all. It wasn’t quite as planned. I wasn’t expecting it to be delivered by firemen for a start. My Beirut baby, who is suddenly no longer the baby at all, got to meet my Paris baby a few minutes after delivery, the two of us wrapped up in a space blanket, in a camion de pompier on the left bank just off the Esplanade des Invalides, where, back in some distant past I studied Flaubert and Zola, interspersed with translation techniques, phonetics and the basics of linguistics.

There was some kind of irony in giving birth so close to my student stamping ground. Nothing could be more different from that hazy era of academic indulgence than the thoroughly mundane world of spit-up, nappies and silly advice into which we’ve plunged once again.

Still, incurable pedagogue that I am, I can’t help analysing my offspring through linguistic glasses, especially as I try to understand what’s going on in my two-year old’s head. At least now I get some clues from the horse’s mouth. Last month for the first time she related to me something that happened when I wasn’t there. Or the first time I understood at least. Here’s the scoop: there was a bike on the grass, lying down, and her grandma stood it up. Not that impressive huh? Yet in a way it’s as big a step as learning to crawl. She actually told me about her day. It’s only when something like that happens out of the blue that you realise it was missing before and that a whole chunk of the language puzzle has just fallen into place.

Two is an incredible age to observe language acquisition, and she’s making leaps and bounds in both English and French. However, her English is still stronger, despite the summer spent here in France.

Now we’re a family of four, I’m all the more aware of the need to work to keep a balance for both languages. For now the oldest has been exposed to a linguistic one on one, but within a couple of years their dad could be outnumbered three to one, since if we leave France as planned she may end up speaking English only with her little brother. For now, though, she speaks to him in both languages, and even a smattering of Lebanese (more on that next time). Let’s hope he’s listening.