Teach your kid to read French

I last wrote about the DELE Spanish exams, which surprisingly I passed, and I’ll have more on that some other time. But today I want to talk about a lovely book for teaching your kid to read French. This has been just the thing for helping my five-year old learn to read in French, but I can imagine it being useful also for older kids who are not native speakers. I’ve included photos so you can judge the level for yourself.


Kids are sponges, but that works both ways. Easy in, easy out. Growing up with several languages may sound exotic, but the reality is you have to strike a balance. Sure kids CAN learn anything and everything, but there’s only so much time in the week. And like adults they will conveniently forget what they don’t use. I’m also not a fan of high-powered schedules for kids. I’m just not willing to sacrifice a lot of family time and farm them out to afterschool classes all week long just to make them trilingual.


Balthazar découvre la lecture

Balthazar découvre la lecture


There’s never time for everything, so you need to decide what is important and what level you want to achieve in each. I like to think I’ll see my kids speaking, reading and writing in English, French and Spanish with a good level of proficiency, and having an affinity with Arabic (spoken and written) even if they don’t learn to speak or read it as kids. I think we have enough language resources (ie relatives, friends, circumstances, travel and access to books!) to manage this, but of course life does throw surprises at you.


I think we have English nailed since I’m their main caregiver, and incurably pedagogical at that. Plus English will always hold its appeal when they are in their teens and wanting to watch blockbusters and other weapons of globalisation. And my daughter is already picking up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to read to herself. So that’s English taken care of. As for Spanish, my little Beiruti is already in her second year at the local school, and my Paris baby starts in September. They’ll get ample practice at reading, writing and, of course, chatting in Spanish. French on the other hand risks falling behind. We already make sure they get plenty of stories and some one-on-one with dad. We haven’t ruled out returning to France at some point such as during secondary school.


But how to crack reading in French? Dad is at work all day and French is as hard to decipher as Spanish is easy. The orthographic depth of French is, well, deep. I found this out when I taught her to read. We began with easy three letter words which are read just as they are written, with no silent letters. That meant tonnes of household objects and animals in English, but scarcely a handful in French.


Enter Balthazar.

pain, train, bain...

pain, train, bain…


Each page takes a grouping of letters which produces a certain sound. The example words are beautifully illustrated.


bille, vanille, chenille...morille?

bille, vanille, chenille…morille?


Most of the words are simple, others are less common. Some of the sentences are frankly hilarious.

sound/word activity

sound/word activity


And at the end 30 little sound cards with the relevant word on the back to match with picture cards.


Result: my five and a half year old is suddenly reading pages of the P’tites Poules collection of stories, which Amazon has down as being from 6 years and up. To see her so engrossed in a book, actually reading silently to herself, is just a treat.

Balthazar reading activity

Balthazar reading activity


I see Balthazar also has a range of first readers for little ones. They are in cursive, which could be difficult if your kids are in an English or US school, which either doesn’t bother with cursive or teaches it much later. The Spanish feel as strongly about it as the French do and teach it from five years old, and kids are doing loopy b’s and z’s before they can write much more than their name. However, in these books apparently the silent letters are in grey so kids can read the words and get used to the spelling, which sounds like a smart approach to French for novice readers.

DELE Spanish Oral review

Following the oral test for my DELE Spanish exam, I felt fairly shell-shocked. Admittedly, oral exams are a bit shell shocking. Having done three foreign language GCSEs, two language A-Levels and one language degree, and a DELF B2 in French, there was nothing unusual in the description of the exam. But, a little bit like in a driving test, anything can happen on the day. Like for instance they might change the format after you have spent hours studying the official website to work out what it will be like.


I already felt out of my depth. I had signed up for the B1 level which is supposed to be lower intermediate, apparently equivalent to a lowish A-Level. Students should be able to show the following:

  • Understand the main ideas in clear texts
  • Deal with most situations in a trip
  • Produce simple texts on familiar topics
  • Describe experiences and hopes, and briefly justify opinions or plans

I don’t remember being able to do all that when I got an A for French A-Level. Not smoothly, at least. It was once I was living in Paris that I actually learnt to talk. But I must have scraped through somehow.


Unexpected oral exam: a night in las urgencias with my 2-year old

Unexpected oral test: a night in las urgencias with my 2-year old

I felt ridiculously underprepared. I hadn’t really studied enough to do the B1 exam, as I was only doing 3 hours of classes a week, and on the other days I didn’t have any babysitting. I hadn’t even finished the B1 course or the text book I bought for it. On the other hand the level below, A2, wasn’t really a challenge. With a background in French, reading is straightforward and writing not impossible. It’s frustrating to be able to read with ease, but only be able to stammer through a conversation, although I know from teaching English as a foreign language that it is all too common. So I was basically trying to get in through the back door, using French as a ladder to sneak in where I didn’t really belong.


I may have mentioned how impatient I am. So… I booked in the exam, rather than wait until autumn for the next chance to do it (I’m busy for the July exam date). In the end I shall probably have to do it in the autumn anyway, because failing one part means you have to retake the lot. That means the reading (70 minutes), the listening (40mn) and the writing (1 hour), too.


It started well. I was very glad I was given a slot for the Oral on the day before the rest of the exam. After the other tests, I would have been exhausted. I was already exhausted. Both kids had had a bad virus, consecutively, in the run up. For two weeks I hadn’t slept through, up at all hours mopping feverish brows and supporting little heads over the toilet bowl. With both kids at home, one flopped limply across my lap, or begging to be carried around the room, I basically didn’t revise. Still, you can’t learn how to talk a language in two weeks anyway, so the results might have been the same.


I was in for a surprise when I was led into a small room to prepare, I was given a dozen pieces of paper, six topics (or was it eight?) and six photographs and told to choose one of each. Each topic had a short article and a list of questions/points. This was not what I had read on the official site. Wasn’t I supposed to be given a choice of two offered at random, and wasn’t the photograph to come later, during the Oral, to be discussed without preparation? I was worried – it seemed they had changed things. What else would be different? I asked her but she had little to say. The staff were tense and rushed.


I scanned them all and chose one of each category. The topic I went for was teletrabajo, telecommuting.  The staff member said I had 20 minutes to prepare. Isn’t it 15? I asked. I put my watch on the table. She checked and returned to say yes, 15 minutes. She came back in 12. When I said it had not been the full time, she told me we had walked into the room on the hour, which I’m sure is true.


I had prepared a little, not even looked at the photo. I wished I had not been given 12 bits of paper to leaf through in the first minutes. I could have done with those couple of minutes to prepare the topic I ended up with, whichever it was, as the guidelines for what the student should cover were very precise. I was to discuss a specific quote from the article, to say what type of work lent itself to working from home, to talk about whether I would like to work that way, whether my home country did a lot of telecommuting and what sectors were most appropriate. I would have used the time to better purpose. After all, students are not going to have a single topic they can speak about while being incapable of talking about any other. I had prepared to talk about ten typical topics by way of practise, but I knew none of them might be offered to me. As it was they weren’t, not one of them came up in the six.


The papers were taken away and I was ushered through. The examiner who was to be my interlocutor, smiley but hurried, set the stopwatch on her mobile and told me to start. I was surprised. Surely I was supposed to keep the sheet if I was to talk about the points outlined. In any case, very soon I was interrupted by the strident ring of her stopwatch. I had a lot left to say, and it felt like it had only been a minute, but it must have been two, I imagine, as it is supposed to be 2-3 minutes. Then the conversation, and the buzzer again; next the photograph. Except we didn’t have it. So the other examiner, the one who takes notes on your level while you talk, was sent to find a copy and came back with one to share. He disappeared in search of another and the rush was such that the interlocutor told me to get started all the same and not wait for him to come back.


Lastly we did the situación simulada, the dialogue.  She raced through the brief description, which turned out to be inviting someone to come to a local festival and describe what it would be like. I would have preferred to have to return a faulty item to a shop, like in the practise. Still, I invited her to stay at my house during the festival, rattled on a little with a few subjunctives and told her how great it would all be should she make it. Her last question was where should we meet using quedarnos. Arranging to meet is a key skill at this level, but I was a bit thrown because I had already asked her to come to stay at my house before the festival began, and of course quedarse can also mean to stay. The buzzer rang again, and I was hurried out and found myself outdoors in no time. In fact I was in the venue for 35 minutes total for a 15mn oral with 15mn prep, along with changing rooms, paperwork and passport checks.


I came home thinking that it was a fat lot of good providing such detailed information on the website to help you avoid being struck by a bout of nerves if they then change the format without warning. But on second thoughts, I wondered if perhaps the format hadn’t changed; if perhaps the examination centre had changed it. Giving a choice of topics might be seen as a way to make it easier on the students. But personally I would have preferred to have the oral as described on the website.


I have to wait two months for the results, but since I’m generous I won’t make them wait so long. They get 2.5 stars out of 5 by my reckoning, penalised for not having thought to make sufficient photocopies; for booking the orals in back to back on a very tight schedule where crossing from one classroom to another counts within your exam time; and for not sticking to the instructions.


I made sure to get in plenty of conjecture and subjunctives, both present and imperfect, and a range of vocabulary. Still, I’m sure I made a tonne of mistakes along the way, especially every time the buzzer went off mid-sentence. And in the rush, my pronunciation probably worsened. In any case, if I have to take it again in October, I will be prepared for variations in format and know that I have to cut to the chase when covering the points listed. I noticed that while at least six different exam levels (A1 to C2) were held in that small language school that day, only three are scheduled for October, so perhaps things will be a bit calmer, too.


In the meantime I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over for now, and sure that I’ll be better prepared next time. After all, over the next five months in Spain, my Spanish can hardly get worse. Really it ought to improve on its own, right?


**UPDATE** One year on I took the B2 and my review of that starts here



Before the exam, I researched some expressions which trigger the subjunctive and which can be adapted to any context to make sure I could squeeze some in. Using the subjunctive isn’t only showing off grammatical knowledge, it really adds colour to a discussion, as you can see below:

sea que sea – be what it may

pase lo que pase – come what may, whatever happens

todo sea dicho – all told

por lo que sea – for whatever reason, for some reason

Puede que… – perhaps

Hay pocas personas que… – There are few people who…

Si fuera así,… – If it were so,…

Si yo fuera él, no lo haría. – If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.


My DELE Spanish exam – thoughts on the written tests

The day after my oral exam, I sat the reading, listening and writing parts of my B1 level DELE Spanish exam, the internationally recognised diploma issued by the Instituto Cervantes. I was in a room with three Danish girls and a Norwegian. The atmosphere was tense. We were given scrap paper, and we asked for a clock for some of the girls who didn’t have watches.


The reading comprehension, which came first, was straightforward, although I’ve noticed that unlike other language exams, the five tasks are not in order of difficulty, not exactly. The first was harder than the second. And the hardest is always a text with missing sentences which was Task 4 in my exam. You have to fill in the gaps using some of the options below the text. It’s deadly because they all look like possible options. If you get it wrong, the resulting text wouldn’t be grammatically incorrect, but it should sound disjointed. My brain was already feeling disjointed from the beginning, so it was quite arduous. Still, I reread it all at the end and it seemed to make sense.


The invigilators were not very vigilant, I think they were covering several rooms. I only saw four staff members in all, and there were at least six different levels being tested in different rooms. But unless you have sent your native Spanish twin to sit the test for you, there’s not really much one could cheat on in the reading or writing. Looking a word up on your phone? Maybe, but you would lose precious time. It’s quite a fast exam. So overall it is a true test of ability. Even the scrap paper got little use, as there’s no time to actually do any rough drafting, though I used it to test out some conjugation or spelling I was unsure of.

my scrap paper

my scrap paper



After Task 5, I noticed that there were more pages in the exam booklet. It suddenly occurred to me there might be more tasks, if it had changed format like the oral. But it was the listening part of the test. It was tempting to look ahead to prepare the first listening task, as the listening test can slightly compensate for a poor score in the oral, my weakest point. But since that part hadn’t officially started yet, I would have lost some satisfaction in the result, so I just rechecked the reading comprehension part with the few minutes remaining. I already felt I had probably failed the oral the day before, but was still up for giving the exam my best shot.


After a five minute break it was the listening exam, very fast. Then a 20 minute break during which I was glad I had shoved a bar of chocolate in my bag. I’d been up in the night with a vomiting four-year old and having breakfast before 8am with a feverish two-year old clinging to me was never going to happen, so the calories were welcome.  The writing has two tasks, the first was an email about an end-of-year university party. I couldn’t keep count of how many times parties and festivals came up in the exam. One of the photographs looked like it had been sourced on Facebook. I suppose it’s to keep the interest of young students, but I really wouldn’t mind fumbling when arranging a party with friends. It’s managing professional relationships that I’d prefer to test and perfect.


The email began by raising the issue of the party which “we”, the writer and I, had apparently promised to organise. When and where would we do it? How would we organise the food? What entertainment would we have? How was I getting on with revision for my finals? His flatmates were too loud, did I have any advice for him? I began with a cheery ¡Se me lo había ovidado lo de la fiesta! trying to mirror his tone of a forgotten commitment. I worked carefully through the points, answering all his queries. Only at the very end did I notice in the pointers that I was apparently to tell him that I had NOT forgotten about the party. So I stuck in a “no“.  I also changed the construction to the simpler No me he olvidado… as I wasn’t sure of the other version and wanted to play it safe. By that time I had already told him that te hubiera dicho que vinieras a mi casa to study in peace, but I too had a noisy flat because of the traffic. It was quite daring given my very recent grasp of the various subjunctives, so I thought I would leave it at that.


For the second part of the written exam, I had a choice of two tasks, out of which I chose a blog comment about my first job. I can’t quite see myself leaving a 150-word comment on a blog. But, at least it was about work.  Phew.  Not a festival or party or show. I had 35 minutes left to complete it. I got stuck in. The scrap paper came in useful to list the tenses I wanted to squeeze into the writing part, as pictured above. Obviously, the last part had a lot of imperfect and some simple past, but it took more thought to get in the present perfect, future, passive voice and subjunctives. For the party email there were plenty of conditionals, and the future was easy to slip in, but I also ticked off a pluperfect. Sometimes just thinking about which tense I wanted to use gave me ideas of what to say, which helps break the writer’s block you can get when you have to write cold about a surprise topic.



If you want to test your level and read more about the exams, here are a few links:

Official Cervantes DELE exam website

Note that the Spanish version has detailed Guías de examen for each exam level, while the English version of the site doesn’t.

Test your level

1) here from the bottom up with corrections,

2) or here up to B2,

3) or here with corrections and timing.

A fourth language in small doses

Arabic is now the family language my kids hear the least of. They overhear a bit from the grandparents and I still read occasional stories in Arabic which they love. We still use the phrases they have learnt. But Spanish has had a major boost recently in our family, with my four-year old starting school in Spanish and the two-year old getting occasional Spanish babysitting while I myself go off to Spanish lessons.


Fi shi? Looking for letters

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Since we already have three languages in our daily life, and since I am not a fluent Arabic speaker, it is only a small part of our life. In our current circumstances, there’s neither the exposure nor the need in place to get my kids to speak Arabic well.  All the same, I didn’t want to drop it entirely. And so we keep it alive in two very limited contexts: animals and the letter box. This might seem odd. But many multilingual families – whether it be in first world TCK multilingualism or third world nationwide multilingualism – work on the basis of one language for one place/situation/context.


So we use words they already know from our books like The Odd Egg, and from our animal alphabet cards and the conversational Arabic I learnt living in Lebanon to talk about animals we have seen, often on our regular trips to the local zoo. I don’t know if anyone ever got as much use out of their year pass as we have in the past 12 months!


As well, we talk Lebanese Arabic about the letter box. Yes, this is the weird bit. It usually starts with the guessing game “Fi shi ow ma fi shi?” Once we find out what is in the mail, if anything, we discuss that. A lot, a little, a letter, who for, who from, where from? Sometimes the conversation continues as we take the lift up home and open anything interesting. It’s two minutes of Arabic a day, most days. It is what it is. A thread, a connection. And they love it.



Stressing over stress

Recently, my Spanish teacher tried to teach us where to write acute accents in Spanish. The first rule was: Agudas: son las palabras cuya sílaba tónica es la última. Llevan tilde cuando terminan en vocal, n o s. The other rules applied to llanas and esdrújulasThese three categories refer to which syllable the stress falls on.


The problem is I usually don’t know where to put the stress (or tonic accent) in the first place before even asking myself what the final letter is, and if therefore it needs a written accent. So I decided I’d best turn the thing around and learn the stress rules first, since accents are usually used to show exceptions to the stress rules.


The rules of stress are roughly the following:

  1. In most cases the stress is on the last syllable;
  2. However, if the last letter of the word is a vowel (very common) or an s or an n, then the stress should be on the penultimate syllable. This gave me a starting point for pronouncing words I don’t know well in Spanish. The next stage is as follows:
  3. Words following these two rules don’t need accents. Words that don’t follow these rules need accents on their stressed syllables to show that they are exceptions;
  4. It follows that:
  • all words with the stress on the third-to-last or fourth-to-last syllable need an accent on that syllable (eg, el estómago, or the grouped form dándomelo)
  • any word ending with a vowel or s or n which doesn’t have the stress on the penultimate syllable needs an accent (el jardín)
  • any word ending with the other consonants which doesn’t have the stress on the last syllable needs an accent (fácil)


For me, learning the topic in this order was easier. You don’t need to memorise number 4 since you can deduce it from the rest. If you are already fluent and just need to learn how to write correctly, the other perspective probably works better.

Apart from showing stress, there are a couple of other reasons for using accents in Spanish, but that is enough for me for one night!

Siblings and language choices

As parents we make a ton of decisions on behalf of our kids and languages are no exception. We decide what language we will each speak to them, when, what language books to buy, which type of school to send them to, which language to speak in our couple…. But something we have no control over – or very little – is what language our kids will speak to each other. I’ve been waiting impatiently to see how sibling dynamics will develop between my two kids and now the little one is actually talking, there is finally something to observe. He can say things like “Mummy eating toast, daddy eating porridge.”  If he sees a book he likes, he says “Want-it have-it book. Please mummy story.” So now that we actually have some verbal communication to speak of, here is an update on my two kids and the three-and-a-bit languages we live with.


reading together

reading together: “C’est quoi ça ?”

The oldest (4 years and 3 months) is fairly articulate in both home languages and knows quite a bit of vocab in Spanish, her school language. I have to be vague about her knowledge here, as she hates being quizzed, so I have no idea exactly what she has taken on board in the last month of full-time Spanish school. I know she knows her numbers, most colours, greetings and a fair bit of everyday vocab. I’m pretty sure she must understand the common instructions at school because her teacher says she does what she is told. She doesn’t mix languages, never has.

The little one, at 2 years and 1 month says hola and gracias in Spanish, along with hundreds and hundreds of English and French words. He doesn’t mix languages, always speaking English to me and French to his dad. He often says something to me and then turns and translates to his dad.

As for Arabic, the little one can use half a dozen words and my oldest, my little Beiruti, can understand a few expressions in addition to a limited vocab. Arabic exposure is minimal. This is just what they get from me and a few books I read them.


The interesting bit is listening to them speak together. I had expected them to speak English to each other above all else. After all, I look after them all day while dad works (though the oldest is now at school in Spanish until 2pm). I was afraid they would pick English and stick to it, even though at meals and on weekends, their dad talks plenty of French to them. As a couple, we speak a fair amount of English in front of them, even though we also speak French together whenever I have the energy. With the oldest being a girl, it could also be that she mimic me, her mother, more, and play mother on the “baby” of the family. That would mean English.


However, I’ve been delighted to see that they switch language regularly, and speak both English and French together, though not randomly. Whoever starts the conversation seems to dictate the language, and the second speaker follows suit. They are definitely influenced by who is around. When with me, they are more likely to speak English amongst themselves, which is only natural and socially normal. When they are with their dad and I am out of the room, I hear them talk together in French more. However, external presence isn’t the only influence. They will both start talking in French together about a French book. Or recycle a joke they had enjoyed in French with daddy. Basically, they adapt to whichever language is favoured by the context around them.


I am looking forward to eavesdropping on a further facet next week - the cousin dynamics, as we have my sister’s family coming to stay. They are also bilingual but living in France, schooled in French. As is common in this type of bilingual set up, the minority language (English) has decreasing influence as you get further down the birth order, while the importance of the community language grows. Maybe my kids will speak English with the older cousins and French with the younger, or maybe they will be influenced by us mums chatting in English all day.


It’s too early to say if my kids will continue switching between the two languages together. Maybe they will settle on one. If we stay here in Spain a long time, I can’t help but expect them to end up speaking the community language – Spanish – together . My husband speaks French to his parents but English to his siblings because of living in the US for the first 14 years. I think I’d feel funny about my kids speaking a language I wasn’t fluent in as their preferred language together. Then again, if we stay that long I’d better be fluent!


Tricks with tenses

The pretérito perfecto is the sneakiest false friend I have met so far. Yes, it’s true that most of the time it equates to the English present perfect. It’s true that we say, “Have you (ever) eaten paella?” and “Has comido paella (alguna vez)?” [both pretérito perfecto], whereas we say, “I went to Rome in 2012,” and “Fui a Roma en 2012,” [both simple past]. English speakers can just translate I did as hice and I have done as he hecho, word for word… for the most part. They have an advantage over the French who have only one form: j’ai fait.

BUT in English you do not use the present perfect with a specific moment in time. You cannot say “I have taken the train on Saturday.” Or: “I have eaten breakfast at 10 o’clock.” Or: “I have been to Italy in 2012.” Or even, “I have been to Italy five years ago.

In Spanish, on the other hand, you CAN combine the present perfect with a moment in time. What matters is not so much whether a precise moment in time is mentioned; what matters is if the general period of time is over or if it is still ongoing, or very recent and relevant to now.

At 11am you can still say: “Esta mañana he desayunado a las ocho.” In fact you should say it, because the morning is not over yet. But once you are home for dinner, you can say “Esta mañana desayuné a las ocho.” Because the time period (la mañana) is completed.

NB In Latin America, the simple past (hice) has gained ground over the present perfect (he hecho) apparently influenced by the same phenomenon in US English compared to British English. If you are in one of the Americas and this post doesn’t make sense to you there is a good reason for that!