Franglais as a first language

The acquisition of language is a fascinating thing… at least for me. We are using a fairly classical bilingual approach with our Beirut baby, that is, the one-person-one-language system. I speak English, my husband French. It’s nothing compared to kids growing up in countries where three or four languages are the norm. Still there are some surprises.

The first surprise was that she wasn’t slow to talk, as it’s widely held that a slight delay is standard for bilingual kids. But when I looked it up, more recent reports suggest there is not necessarily a language delay at all. Which makes sense or I guess pretty much all Indian, most African, and a good many Lebanese kids would all talk “late”. Perhaps a misconception born out of the huge bulk of research being carried out in monolingual cultures?

Of course it’s different if one language comes from the parents and the second from the community. That’s a whole different type of bilingualism. If a child in that situation is assessed when starting school, they’ll be behind the other kids in the community language, but may speak as well or better in their home language.

Still within a few years both languages will be “native” and (in most countries) a few years later still the community language will be dominant unless efforts are made to build on the home language. Especially if the child never learns how to write in the home language, a problem compounded if the two languages are written in different alphabets.

In Lebanon this doesn’t really apply. Here the community speaks not one but several languages. You can play this one of two ways. Either parents can use it to reinforce the home language or to contrast with it since they can opt for schooling in French or English. So parents can, to a degree, “choose” a community language. Many Christian Lebanese kids grow up with French only learning Lebanese dialect as a second language, with classical Arabic coming a poor third or fourth. In Achrafieh the default mode is to speak French to any kids … even if you speak Lebanese with their parents. It especially makes me giggle when Filipina maids sing French nursery rhymes to my daughter.

Of course at 19 months, the community language – whatever it may be – has only a very minor role since she is not at nursery. Since daddy telecommutes, she gets a lot of time with both of us.  So balancing the influence of English against French is fairly simple.  However, we do speak more English between ourselves than French and that clearly shows in her vocabulary. By the end of 18 months she used about 50 French words compared to 70 English words, apart from 25 “neutral” words, such as names, Lebanese words and words which sound the same in both languages.

However you could also put it down to my mild obsession with language, which makes me more pedagogical whereas daddy is more playful! At any rate she’s learning both ways. She’s at ease translating words between the two languages. If she points and says “pawapluie” I only have to ask, “How does mummy say it?” and she responds “umbwella”.

Another surprise for me was that once my Beirut baby learns a word in one language she isn’t slower to learn it in the second language. Her first words were all for different things, not French AND English for the same thing (eg cat and chat) and it seemed to be a case of whether I got there first, or my husband did. But now the crossover of her two vocabularies is almost total. I thought that once the need was filled there would be less motivation to learn the equivalent word, but it actually comes quicker, as if the hard part is nailing the concept and getting a label on it, but then adding alternative names to the same notion is easy. Has anybody else found this?

We don’t know where we will end up living, so for now we are aiming for a good balance of the two languages at home. With time we’d appreciate an extra boost for French from the community to fight the international dominance of English. Ideally we’d also have the chance for our daughter to learn Lebanese in the playground when starting school, and literary Arabic a bit later in class.

Some parents focus so much on English or French that their kids find learning written Arabic a big chore, but if we were to leave Lebanon this is one major opportunity my Beirut baby would miss out on, as neither of us are able to teach her properly ourselves.

8 Responses to “Franglais as a first language”

  1. nicolette says:

    How great that she will speak both English and French fluently! If you are still here in a few years, do you know if you will choose English or French schooling for her?

    • Our first choice would probably be French – English is so predominant in general culture, and French grammar is pretty important and probably better learnt at school than from us! Hope your big girl is getting on well with her school – I read about her school trip! :)

      • nicolette says:

        I think it’s great that you have both as an option! We considered French school for about a second – because as you said, English is so predominant – but then we realized that neither of us would be able to help with homework past 1st grade, if even that, so English it is! She’s loving school, thanks. :)

        Nice to see you blogging again!

  2. Paul Robinson says:

    Think it’s great that your child is growing up multilingually. The French & English are obviously the strong front runners, & it’s inevitable she will pick up on the local dialects as well as she goes along. I’m originally from Northern Ireland & moved to northern France (pour amour – what else) in October 2011. My terrible schoolboy French is a struggle to relearn, as hardly spoke more than a few words since leaving school in 1979. Sometimes difficult to even speak “proper English” for the few locals who do speak English, as with nerves i drop back to Ulster/Scots dialect, which is usually incomprehensible to even the English. I also have the local Ch’ti dialect to contend with. However saying all that it has opened a whole new world of learning for me. I hope your little tresor has the enjoyment i have of enjoying the world multiculturally.

    • Well done for taking the leap. Learning later is a struggle, but also very rewarding in its own way. I have trouble myself speaking “proper English”, for slightly different reasons. Over a decade abroad my vocabulary has dwindled to the very basics and I sometimes end up speaking what can only be described as pidgin, especially to other foreigners here. It’s true what they say about not speaking any language correctly after a while!

  3. Paul Robinson says:

    Merci. I am at that strange stage between the two cultures & languages. My partner generally tries to talk to me in English & i always try to talk in French. With a minimal vocabulary & terrible grammar i have to take the “long road” to try & explain things at times, for the sake of not remembering or knowing one small word. I have learnt one or two regular phrases to mitigate for my terrible French though : “Désolé je parle français comme un bouledogue manger une guêpe» ou «Je parle français comme un âne irlandais”. Glad to hear your little tresor shouldn’t have the same problems as us!

  4. nad says:

    RE: “Has anybody else found this?”
    We are finding that not only he isn’t slower, not only he does not mix the languages, not only that he knows very well the difference between French, English an Arabic, but that our trilingual baby knows which language to use with whom! He would look at me and say “Daddy: ca’ ” then look at my wife and say “vwoitu”. Another time he would look at his grandmother and say “tayyib” and immediatly after would look at his mom and say “bon”. I like very much the fact that while his brain is being formed, he is learning that there are different ways to express the same thought, different ways to name things.
    He is very sociable and has a lot to say and demands to be heard! As my wife once said, even with three languages won’t be enough for him to say everything he has to say!

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