You are what you say

My Beirut Baby turned three last week. Watching her language develop still astounds me. And it’s not just linguistic; listening to her speak teaches me a lot about her personality, too.

My little control freak, having breakfast on the terrace:

“Wind, don’t blow my hair when I’m eating!” …or…

“Fly! Fly! Come to me!”

My little humorist, who loves the huge calendar I make her every couple of weeks, with a cheeky smile:

“Is there a “L” in the middle of Wednesday and we say ‘Welensday’?”

Or, deliberately showing me her “Domino” box upside down:

“Do we say ‘Onimod’?”

My little obsessive (eating an olive oil biscuit called torta con aceite) the day after discussing how we don’t say the last letter often in French:

“Do we say the s at the end of torta when there’s lots of tortas?”

Finally I have someone to talk language-nerd talk to. Recently she has begun to pretend she is someone else in the family. “I’m being Daddy,” she says, putting on her red dress-up glasses. “Dans ce cas, pourquoi tu parles en anglais et pas en français comme moi ?” asks her dad (In that case why are you speaking English, not French like me?)

Her response: “I’m being Daddy talking to Mummy.”

We still speak predominantly English as a couple, but much more French than before. Her French is also coming on in leaps and bounds, but her expression has again dropped slightly behind her English. However, we’ll be swapping the churros for croissants and spending a chunk of the summer in France, so I can ease up worrying about that Anglo-dominant tidal wave swallowing her up just yet.

Wolf at the door?

I know I’m not the only parent in families with several languages to obsess over how much exposure our progeny get to each language. When I read other blogs or forums there’s often a sense of the struggle for survival. Parents racing to stay ahead of the majority language, an unstoppable wave. If we hesitate for but a moment, we’ll see the minority language(s) engulfed by it.

Just to update on our situation, Beirut Baby is nearly three, and Paris Baby is now ten months. I speak English to the kids, my husband speaks French (one of his three family languages) to them and together we two speak English and French. We have been living in Spain for a few months. We spend a lot of time with English friends and there aren’t many French living in the area.

I was delighted to realise that French had drawn level with English during the seven months we were in France. Now I hear her English stronger, both vocab and syntax. She has forgotten some words she used to use. A few times recently she was talking to her dad and turned to ask me a word in French to complete her sentence. And a couple of times when she’s upset and we were both present she has switched from French to English as if it were the easier choice in which to air her grievances.

I’m also concerned about little one. My first baby, born in Lebanon, was surrounded by far more French than my second has been here in Spain. We spoke a lot of French to friends and out shopping, especially when I was out of my depth for Arabic. Whereas here there is next to no French influence from outside the family. Her first few words were French, but I’d be very surprised if his were.

But it’s quite hard to boost the minority language without actually speaking it to your children. I want to stick to OPOL with her as I feel if I mix languages soon enough the kids will mix too and then take the path of least resistance (ie English only). And when she goes to school Spanish will overtake English as the majority language and her dad and I will both have our work cut out keeping our respective languages alive.

So here are a few ways I’ve been trying to keep in touch with the minority language. Please do add any suggestions.

  • writing a menu for the dinner as I prepare it. I write out the meal in French for daddy and my daughter suggests what drinks and desserts we might offer him. “A yoghurt? Ok, how would daddy say it? Ok, yaourt, and shall we add melon?
  • writing little notes and messages for daddy: “Veux-tu venir manger…maintenant? dans 10 minutes? jamais?” (Do you want to come and eat…now? in 10 minutes? never?)
  • playing a game and then preparing to play it with her dad.

It’s not much but it helps her not to put French aside all day long, and just as important, it sparks lively vocab-rich conversations with her dad over dinner.

Getting involved

We have been doing plenty of silly rhymes about ants and pants, and the ark in the park in the dark. We’ve also been grouping words in categories, such as lists of animals, and menus of food. Then we wrote this together and read it a couple of times.

Noahs Ark Part 1-001

Part 1


When we reread it about five days later, I pointed to the letters in turn, insisting if she misread something, and I read THE each time it came up (it was new), but otherwise said nothing. The only word which gave her trouble was “squirrels”. The next time round she was word perfect. It helped that she already knew the basic story, and it helped to reread it several times. But what made the most difference was that she wrote it with me. She chose from various ways of expressing the story, and of course she decided which animals got to go into the ark. It shows how a kid’s implication changes everything, as she couldn’t normally read for meaning to that level.

Part 2

Part 2


Perfect timing for me to come across Célestin Freinet.

The basic tenets of his teaching are thus described:

  • Pedagogy of work (pédagogie du travail): pupils were encouraged to learn by making products or providing services.
  • Enquiry-based learning (tâtonnement expérimental): group-based trial and error work.
  • Cooperative learning (travail coopératif): pupils were to co-operate in the production process.
  • Centres of interest (complexe d’intérêt): the children’s interests and natural curiosity are starting points for a learning process
  • The natural method (méthode naturelle): authentic learning by using real experiences of children.
  • Democracy: children learn to take responsibility for their own work and for the whole community by using democratic self-government.

In fact, a lot of this ties in very closely with what Máire Mullarney believed in – Montessori, too, especially the concepts of work and exploration. Although there is a string of schools which follow Freinet’s pedagogical theory, I can see how teaching at home allows more liberty to follow it. Mullarney writes about how she taught maths as they baked cakes, multiplying the quantities for their large family. And how one of her sons learnt to read when he realised there were books about birds, his passion. I can’t speak for group-based work, as baby number 2 is only eight months old, but what I have done so far with my little Beiruti harmonises with a good few of these points, especially the centres of interest. If you set a time-lapse camera to watch the words that come and go on our terrace you’d know who we’d seen, where we’ve been and what we’ve had for dinner. I also like the idea of providing services. So now I’m out to brainstorm new ways to make learning relevant and fascinating – and helpful, why not.

Keeping it simple

Teaching my 2-year old to read in English took a fair bit of thought. But French is a whole different ballpark. It is really hard to come up with short, common words which are easy to spell. We have been playing around with a multitude of short, easy English words which are read pretty much as they are written, letter for letter, such as cat, mat, rat, frog, sit, run, just to cite a few of the top of my head.

In French there just isn’t the same abundance of phonemic words for tangible, everyday items. The same words in French require a much better level of reading, or a lot of guesswork. We have chat, tapis (or paillasson), rat (with a silent T), grenouille, s’asseoir (or m’asseois for first person), and courir (or cours if it’s I run). French is positively littered with silent letters, nasal vowels and strings of vowels. And verb endings are more varied too.

I have really had to work to pull together a respectable selection of words to help my daughter start reading in French. They follow a couple of patterns:

  1. Baby talk: papa, pipi, dodo, bobo, etc (daddy, pee, beddybyes, hurty/owie)
  2. Short words that by some amazing good fortune refer to things a child might be interested in: sac, bol, vélo, bus
  3. -ir verbs and their past participles (ending in i): poli, fini. (-er and -é endings are a step further away)

However, French does have quite a lot going for it, from the viewpoint of a young (but not entirely novice) reader, that is. After all, French doesn’t have the random opaque pronunciation that English does. It isn’t full of contradictory patterns and churning with the exceptions that result from the English language’s mixed breeding. There is no French equivalent to the rough-cough-though-through conundrum or the difference in stress between the verb “to produce” and the noun “produce“, or the differing pronunciation of “I will read” and “I have read“, and other illogicalities. In fact once you can read in French, then you can read any French word, because pronunciation is quite consistent.

Also, in French basic reading does get easier once the children can take on longer words (e.g. nombril) and once they are ready for a silent final ‘e’ (e.g. balle, nage, dessine, culotte).

We are just about getting there and I can see that she has pretty much grasped that words are often written differently to what one would expect. She also reads well enough to be able to start taking on board the context whereas earlier all her concentration was focused on the letters. Now if we are talking about animals and she reads ‘KAN-G…’ she guesses that it says kangaroo long before reading all the letters. Much more like we adults read. This should help her to swallow nasal vowels and not pronounce chien as chienne or ballon as ballonne.

After the complexities of English and French, when she learns Spanish at school, it will be a breeze, with it’s simple consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel patterns. The spelling reform certainly helped. As Wikipedia puts it, Spanish has “a relatively consistent mapping of graphemes to phonemes; in other words, the pronunciation of words can largely be predicted from the spelling.” Phew (or should I say Fyoo?).

Mystery box game

I got the idea for the mystery box game from a blogger who uses it to spark a guessing game when teaching English as a foreign language. The basic concept is mystery and I just adapted it for learning literacy skills. First I discreetly put an object in a large box and then we look how heavy it is and what sound it makes when we tip it. Next I write the name of the object on a slip of paper and tape it to the box (with the sticky tape that comes off easily). Motivated by the desire to discover the mystery object my daughter quickly sets to reading the label and opening the box to verify.

mystery box

mystery box

The mystery element definitely livens things up and the game also provides a strong mental link between objects and their written name. Labelling objects with post-its does too, and we’ve played at reading labels and then sticking them on the relevant objects all around the house, but the idea of an item hiding in the box waiting to be found provides higher motivation.

We then moved on to hiding an object of my daughter’s choice in the box and writing the name of it in French to take to her dad to discover. I had to guide her choice of object to things with simple names (sac, bol, etc). I thought that seeing daddy accurately guess what had been secretly placed in the box would drive home the wonder of literacy, the way it can evoke so efficiently what is unseen. However, at 2 and 3/4 I think she still believes us to be all-knowing and all-seeing (long may it last). What’s more she had trouble not telling daddy what she had put in the box well before he got close enough to read the label. Nonetheless, she had a whale of a time sharing her game while shouting out the contents.

The next phase was to turn the box into a lucky dip of actions. I wrote messages like jump, hop, run fast, get a cup, sit down, stand up, put a peg in a box, hug mummy, and so on. We take turns drawing a slip of paper, since that adds to the suspense, but we both do the actions together. I would never have thought teaching my daughter to read would leave me this breathless.

A random note on the side: I have known a couple of children who will write their name backwards – a perfect mirror image. When it came to ‘GET A [top line] CUP [bottom line]‘ my daughter surprised me by reading: A TEG CUP. So she still needs reminding occasionally to start from the top left. I won’t be starting on Arabic just yet.