“Uh” says it all


ə

I had already been living in France for three or four years before I made an exciting (note: for a linguist that is) discovery about English of the type you ask yourself, How on earth did I manage to bypass that amazing piece of information before?

In fact, a very clever friend (that’s you, DR) put her finger on something which, despite all that time studying French, teaching English, and breathing in dictionary dust, had never clicked with me before. For me, this should be the very first thing that French collégiens should learn about English in school.

We all know that the English don’t pronounce English as it’s written, but if only there was a rule people learning English could use, right?  Well I didn’t come across a trick to master the rough-through-cough riddle, but actually it’s better than that. It’s a pattern for vowel pronunciation which could make a drastic improvement to your average foreign accent.

To summarise, in any English word, one or several syllables are stressed. The others are not. In the latter group, whatever the vowel may be, the pronunciation is usually the same. Doesn’t matter if its A, E, I, O or U, the actual sound you’ll hear (or not hear as the end effect is often one of “swallowed” sounds) is the schwa.

Put simply, the name Janet could be spelt Janit, Janat or Janut, and yet in conversation it would sound just the same. In my head I think of this sound as “uh” but it’s more ‘reduced’ than the “u” in bug. In phonetics it’s usually written ə, and if you open a dictionary you’ll see it scattered liberally throughout the pronunciation guides.

How could I grow up speaking English and never realise this? Never notice that the vowels in nearly half of the syllables in any given sentence are irrelevant and are all pronounced as if the same sound? Probably because I processed and archived the knowledge so long ago. Say when I was about two years old.

We’re driving along in the car and my not quite 2 and 1/2 year old says to me, “la, not luh”. And repeats. And repeats. Finally she expounds a little: “Car-la, not Car-luh.”  If you had asked me how the English pronunciation of Carla differs from the French pronunciation I would have probably thought of the “r” being less, well, French. But we don’t say Car-la at all. We say Car-luh, much to my daughter’s disapproval.

For the few out there who find this as interesting as I do, Wikipedia gives the following list of examples:

        In English, schwa is the most common vowel sound. It is a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables, especially if syllabic consonants are not used. Depending on dialect, it may correspond to any of the following written letters:
‘a’, as in about [əˈbaʊt]
‘e’, as in taken [ˈtʰeɪkən]
‘i’, as in pencil [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
‘o’, as in eloquent [ˈɛləkʰwənt]
‘u’, as in supply [səˈpʰlaɪ]
‘y’, as in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]
various combinations of letters, such as ‘ai’ in mountain [ˈmaʊntən]
unwritten as in rhythm [ˈrɪðəm]

Reading on the potty?

Art imitates the ladders all over our house right now.

Art imitates the ladders all over our house right now.

Today was a big day for my little Beiruti. Actually it started yesterday. While changing the baby’s nappy for the umpteenth time, I hear my Beiruti girl next to me reading out the numbers on the packet of diapers. It’s the full list of the sizes made by the  brand: “Zero, one, two, three, four, five…” – then comes a parallel range that they do in pull-ups: “muxl,” she says. I’m still trying to pin down the little ones legs long enough to get his PJs back on. She does it again and a thought dances briefly around my mind – what kind of a number is “muxl”? In go the wiggly little feet and finally the poppers are lined up right and I look at the nappy packet. After the string of numbers, the parallel range is labelled: M, L, XL. And then I realise she has been trying to pronounce the letters as a single word, the thing I have been teaching her for a couple of weeks now. I wanted to get a pad and pencil out there and then to test this new skill. But this is real life and I have a fridge in the bedroom, men drilling in the kitchen, tools strewn about the place, boxes still unpacked from the move, and am lacking the required vitamins to make my brain work, no doubt because I’m living off tostadas and churros due to said kitchen issues.

So it had to wait until today, when we took the chalk out onto the terrace and I wrote: L A… “LAD”, she said straight off, a word I have written for her several times recently. So I changed my mind and added a P instead, “LAP”, a word we use, but haven’t written. “La…p, lap,” she pronounced hesitantly. At least I thought she did. To check if she had actually understood the sounds as a word, I asked, “Where is one of those? Can you point to one?” She pointed to my knee. So I wrote R E, and she said “reh”, I added a D and she said “Red.” “Show me some.” She found a red plant pot. I was amazed. I’ve never written “red” for her before. Our drawing and writing times are often out and about waiting for something, or keeping her calm during adult time, so I usually stick to the most basic tangible things that are easy to illustrate with just the pencil in my bag – cat, dog, hat, etc.

So I now have the paradox of a child of 2 years and 7 months who can read but isn’t toilet-trained. And I thought it was bad enough that she tries to tell me how to change her nappy. Let’s hope her new toilet seat and a bit of stability will be just what we need, after 10 months of moving house, moving country and adding to the family. Now that we’re staying in one place for a while. After our trip to England next week that is.

More about learning letters, numbers and words later, right now I have another nappy to change.

Daddy say mangetout

Are bilinguals doomed to a life of franglais, spanglish, or their own peculiar combination of languages? I guess it’s a small price to pay for being able to switch so easily. Beirut baby came out with her first gallicism at about 2 and 1/4: “I banged myself on my front.” When I looked at her she was rubbing her forehead, a word I haven’t really used with her. However her daddy plays a lot of body part games with her, le nez, la bouche, les yeuxle front.

It strikes me as strange, though, that she think to anglicise the French word front to fill a gap. You can’t hear the ’t’ sound in French – so how did she know it was there? She must have already linked le front to the English word “front” despite the pronunciation and meaning being fairly different.

In fact, she has taken on board the difference between English-sounding and French-sounding words to such a degree that not only does she hardly ever mix the languages, but she wants to keep them firmly in their place. “Who’s that?” she asked me about a French friend. “It’s Benjamin,” I answered, pronouncing the name in French. “No Mummy,” was the immediate reply, “say it in English.” Later at dinner, when I told her to eat up her carrots and mangetout, she gave me a funny look: “Daddy say mangetout,” she said frowning at the obviously French ring to it.

He doesn’t as it happens, even in English. “No, mummy says mangetout, and daddy says…what do you say actually?” “Haricots,” he affirms, with barely a hint of hesitation. “No, they’re peas not a beans.” He looks at his plate as if for the first time, with an expression that says, they’re green – what’s the difference? In the end we looked on the packet in the freezer. It said pois croquants which sounded like a translation of snap peas. The same retailer sells what it calls “courge butternut” instead of doubeurre so they aren’t above a few anglicisms.

While it is obvious to us that mangetout is borrowed from French, any farmer in the depths of the British countryside is familiar with the term, and I was surprised that my little girl, hearing it for the first time, home in on the fact that it doesn’t quite belong in the English language. Until last summer she wasn’t able to speak enough to actually talk about language, but it shows that little brains do a lot of silent work mapping English words to their French equivalent and vice versa before even vocalising what they’re learning. Recently she declared, “French and français, it’s the same.” She was eminently satisfied at being able to express her discovery.

French catches up

My very British Beiruti: "Look, rain!"

My very British Beiruti: “Look, rain!”

It has finally happened. I’m finally seeing the effect of living in France on my Beirut baby’s language skills. Though she consistently speaks French to her dad, English used to be her default language for singing to herself or talking to herself while playing. Now not only is she starting to speak and sing to herself in French more, her sentences are getting longer and clearer.

Last week she managed to break the lightbulb in the lamp in her room which she loves to turn on and off. Annoyed at not having a functioning lamp, she decided that the best course of action was to exchange it for the one in our room. After all, it looks the same and – as yet – still works. “S’il te plaît avoir celui dans la chambre de mummy et daddy et allumer?” she asked. (Please have the one in mummy and daddy’s bedroom and turn on?)

Suddenly her French has drawn almost level with her English. I say almost, because I’ve not heard her use any kind of “when” or “if” construction as she does in English: “Can I have a yoghurt when I finished the lasagne?” Or temporal references such as: “Last time we play with the game with the girls and it’s broken.” Though she can string a sequence of actions together in French using après: “Toi tu fais celui-ci et après moi fais l’autre.

It took nearly four months in France to make an audible difference to her French skills. Granted, they were busy months, finding a flat and having a baby, all the while planning our next move. We haven’t had a lot of time for French play dates. It was easier to just hang out with her cousins who speak mostly English at home. She is always out and about with me in town and with our adult French friends. But she hasn’t been to any school or childcare that would have brought her into daily contact with children who speak only French. Had I put her in playschool it would really have been an immersion. But language doesn’t dictate all our life choices.

It goes to show that while children learn languages with amazing ease, they will only do so in the right circumstances, that is, if they have a decent level of exposure and see them as living languages. After all, they can entirely unlearn a language they once spoke if they stop hearing it altogether at a young age. It becomes a dead language, inaccessible, locked away at the back of the mind.

French should never be that way for my daughter, but I don’t want it to be only a passive skill either, where she understands but struggles to express herself. So I’m delighted to see her making progress in French, the way she knows her little stories off by heart and loves to be quizzed on them and how after the last page is read and the book closed she reopens it with a hopeful “On recommence?”

Which family language?

Look mummy I draw a hexagon!

Look mummy I draw a hexagon!

After I took a phone call yesterday, my daughter told me: “No mummy, not say Âllo on the telephone, say Hello.” While I have some issues with being bossed around by a 2-year old, this is actually a good sign. The most important element of the one-person-one-language (OPOL) approach to bringing up bilingual kids, anyone will tell you, is consistency. It can be hard when both parents speak the other parent’s language fluently. It’s sometimes tempting to chip in with the other parent. You have to be really determined to stick to your half of the job. We can’t have done too badly, since she’s started picking us up if we accidentally let slip a word in the wrong language. I think this might not have been the case had we stayed in Lebanon, where people mix the languages so freely, they are barely aware of it. The necessary rigidity of the one-person-one-language distinction would have been a hard concept to grasp for the Lebanese, who embody linguistic adaptability.

Still, I do make some exceptions to always speaking English. I feel my daughter gets more than enough of it already. The fact is that English will always be the more obvious choice, partly through me being her main caregiver, and partly through its dominance on the cultural scene. We aren’t planning to live in France in the near future, so the community won’t be able to counterbalance these factors. So I work to bolster French a little by reading her usual bedtimes stories (all French) even when it’s my turn to put her down for the night or for a nap. Other than that I restrict myself to using French when she’s with French-speaking playmates and playing songs and any DVDs in French.

But I’m afraid it won’t be enough. We’re always aware that if we don’t create a need or a use for both languages our kids might just opt out of one. She is already aware that daddy understands everything she says in English. All her extended family on his side speak good or native English too. That doesn’t leave much need for French. Plus our influence as parents is constantly diminishing as the community plays an ever greater role in her life. I figure we were responsible for about 45% of exposure each while she was a baby. Now, though, not only does she spend more time with the community, she is more susceptible to it. No matter that mummy and daddy both pronounce a word a certain way, she wants to pronounce it like the other little girls. Right now those little girls are French so it’s “Sharlie”, not “Charlie”. But soon enough those little girls will be English or Spanish.

I’m not going to break the OPOL law and start speaking French to her. I think it would confuse her, not help her (not to mention that it would be unkind to inflict my accent on her). And I’m not going to stick her in front of French cartoons every day just to sugar the pill, though I will look out some audiobooks or rhymes for car journeys. The other remaining element within my power is the language we speak as a couple.

English has always been our main language. Of course we are used to talking French together in French company and in French contexts. We’ve both lived in France for years. So we’ve begun speaking more French as a family language. But while my husband grew up with French, I didn’t and I feel it. As a student, on the beam that crossed my chambre de bonne angled just so I’d bang my head getting out of bed, I had pinned a number of quotes. One read: ”Je préfère mourir incompris que de passer ma vie à m’expliquer.” On the beam that ran through the kitchenette-cum-shower room, another read: “If you can name the world you can control it.” The days when books made up 90% of my possessions and I drafted long essays by hand are over. But those quotes still ring true to me. I miss the precision that speaking in my native tongue affords me.

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