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!

Bursting the bubble

This my second vuelta al cole in Spain, the second time I have been here at the start of a new school year, when summer winds down, temperatures become pleasant, and town gets quiet.

The first was a non-event as nobody in our family went to school, to the surprise of our neighbours. This time round has been quite different with my four-year old now officially escolarizada, which actually meant braving the seasonal flurry of stationery to buy books (for preschool!). She wasn’t the only one. I am now enrolled in the Casa de la cultura for Spanish lessons twice a week, as I attempt to keep up with my daughter as long as I possibly can!

This is the third time I have moved to a new country and thrown myself into learning the local language. But this time is more complicated than the previous two.

 

unas mochilas

unas mochilas

The first time was the simplest: I moved to Paris and immediately started a French degree. I knew a lot of other English students but I did plenty of activities in French, listened only to French radio, wrote all my notes in French, and read constantly in French. I had no internet at home for the first two years, so no BBC Radio, no English TV, no Skyping family all the time. Instead of looking things up on the Web I had to find everything out from the locals. It was true immersion.

The second time was in Lebanon. I started lessons after a few months. Lebanese is a harder language to break into, as there’s no real written form of it. But by the end of three years I could understand most of what went on, even in fast-moving social situations. However, meetings and the radio were still very hard. I also had my work (in French and English) and soon a baby to take up my time, as well as other priorities.

This time round is the longest I have left it before starting any classes. I’ve spent the last year and a half in a bubble. I speak Spanish every day, but only the smallest of small talk, buying the veg, other mums at the park, neighbours in the stairwell. I have a few Spanish friends who speak reasonably good English. Life is too busy for me to go out looking for new friends just because they are Spanish. However, this time round there are also some advantages. The local language seems so much more accessible. Unlike Arabic, you say everything like you write it (albeit at top speed). Plus it is so similar to French. I’m not just talking about words like timide (FR) and tímido (ES – shy). Even phrases like no vale la pena (it’s not worth it), and hacerse pasar por  (pretend to be) are so similar in form to the French equivalents ça ne vaut pas la peine, and se faire passer pour.

 

There wasn’t a placement test for the classes at the Casa de la cultura. The secretary just enrolled me in the A2 level. From what I can tell, A1 is for absolute beginners, A2 for basic tourism, B1 for actually communicating, B2 for competency, C1 for fluency and C2 for mastery.

When I got home and researched the levels, I decided A2 could be a bit slow. I know there will be stuff in it that I don’t know – in fact there’s probably a fair bit in A1 I don’t know yet. But with a kid in school, I am now officially out of my bubble. Not only do I have to talk to her teacher and to the other parents, I have more time to talk to everybody I meet all week, and more time to learn on my own. Also I know the past tenses, the future, the conditional and the subjunctive, when I see them. And I’m willing to work at it because I’m impatient to be able to communicate.

So I tried the online tests, which I passed, up to and including B2. I’ve always been better on paper than in real life. Sad, but true. In fact, when I sat a similar placement test for Classical Arabic lessons years ago, I asked the teacher to enter me into a lower level than the one I qualified for, and the class I ended up in was plenty hard enough. There I was at a disadvantage there compared to many of the other students. Most were of Arab origin, so that gave them some background knowledge, concrete examples they knew were right, and a bunch of random vocabulary they could call in to play. This time I don’t feel any such disadvantage, as most foreigners here are English or Scandinavian or Dutch and can’t call on any knowledge of Latin languages. So I have been swotting up on my conjugations in the hope the Casa de la cultura will bump me up a level when I start.

 

From now on I’ll be sharing what I learn here. I figure it makes an extra outlet to ease the avalanche my husband faces every time I come in the door, spouting all the expressions and grammar explanations I’ve learnt! For now, here is a bit of vocab from the scolastic baptism of fire.

 


 

la mochila – back pack, specifically at my school they want them to be sin ruedas, without wheels, so none of this small suitcase business

 

la vuelta al cole – the back-to-school period or start of the school year

 

el cole = short for colegio – primary school …NOT British college (16-18y), not French collège (11-15), and not US college (18+). After el colegio comes instituto – secondary school

 

infantil – the preschool section for ages 3 to 5

 

la maestra – teacher, or of course el maestro if you have a male teacher

 

el desayuno – breakfast of course, however my school papers say the children must have desayuno before school but also bring desayuno with them in their mochila to eat before el recreo (break). So elevenses, or playtime snack, or tuck if you like. Le goûter for the French, but at the wrong time.

The Bery Fungry Caterpillar

At the beginning of the summer, we came across The Very Hungry Caterpillar at the local library, the Spanish version. Curled up on the sofa with my nearly-four-year old, I read it in Spanish, pausing when I think she can fill in a word she knows, like luna (moon) or hambre (hungry). After all, in September she starts school – 100% Spanish school.
When I get to hoja (leaf), I pause, thinking she might know it. She suggests “feuilla?”, her own variation on the French word feuille. She’s completely wrong, but I’m pleased all the same. Clearly she has seen how similar French and Spanish are. Most of the time at least, even if not for the word leaf.
pastequa anyone?

pastequa anyone?

When the caterpillar goes on a major binge on Saturday before building its chrysalis, I pause for her to guess at a couple of food items, like ‘queso‘ (cheese) which she gets right. The last thing the caterpillar eats on Saturday is ‘un trozo de sandía‘, a slice of watermelon. When I pause tentatively, my daughter suggests: ‘pastequa?’ from the French pastèque.
Learning Spanish naturally pushes you to draw on French or any other Romance language you may have some grounding in because of so much vocab in common. In addition, some grammar is more understandable to English eyes, for example, Spanish has two present tenses, giving equivalents to I do and I am doing whereas French only has one, je fais. And to top it all off, Spanish has a large vocabulary of words taken from Arabic, though many are altered past recognition. In fact, Arabic is said to be the second largest lexical influence on Spanish, after Latin, accounting for 8% of the Spanish dictionary.
So with some knowledge of French, English and Arabic, I feel we should be able to get to the bottom of Spanish. Except of course there are some words which, at first, seem to have come from nowhere. Like hoja (leaf/feuille), for instance. Or hogar (home/chez soi). They don’t seem to have anything in common with their French, English or Arabic equivalents. It feels a bit odd, when words come from nowhere, because that’s just not possible. But then I noticed a pattern between Spanish and French.
Hoja – feuille (leaf)
Hija – fille (daughter)
Higo – figue (fig)
Hinojo – fenouil (fennel)
Hambre  - faim (hungry)
Hilo – fil (thread)
Hila – file (row, queue)
Harina – farine (flour)
Hogar – foyer (home)
There’s definitely a shift from the initial F in Latin to H in Spanish. And I’d say there’s some kind of complicity between the L and the Spanish J – someone out there who’s done some Spanish linguistics would know. All of a sudden the fog clears and hoja does look a bit like feuille, or at least like folio and its variations. And while hogar can’t be made to resemble chez, it happens to share its root with foyer (from the Latin focus, or fireplace; and of course hogar and foyer also mean hearth). Even hacer, a word I learnt so long ago I never wonder about its origin, is apparently a cognate of faire.
I even came across a Spanish sign asking people not to fumar (smoke, French: fumer) as we were in un espacio sin humo (smoke-free area, in French literally un espace sans fumée). So there you have both spellings in the same word group. Once you’ve got the pattern, all sorts of words make sense and become easier to learn. Now I know an F can hide an H just like J can replace an X, or like the German J often turns out to be a Y in English. The language nerd inside me is relieved, triumphant even; it does make sense after all.
Funnily enough, it turns out sandía is from an Arabic word, but not the one I know, bateekh بطيخ , which is, however, the one which pastèque comes from. Sometimes with etymology you seem to end up right back where you started.

Is it a good school?

I received many dire warnings from people (whom I had never met before) who were concerned that my three-year old wasn’t in school yet. The main concern was that I was a social recluse, maybe even a Stig of the dump, and perhaps hadn’t realised that I lived in a town with schools. Secondary to that, they worried – more likely scenario – that I wouldn’t find a place. Since there are nine or ten state schools in my municipality, I didn’t think that was very likely. I mean, I can’t be the only crazy mum out there that is still at home looking after a baby and that doesn’t pack the older one off to school as soon as the government is willing to relieve me of her. After all, I’m already putting her in two years before real school starts.

But, they said, you won’t get a place in a GOOD school. What are the good schools? I asked. They listed four or five in my town, so I relaxed and ignored them again. The chap at the Education Department of the Town Hall also labelled two of the closest schools as “good”. So what is a good state school?

Some points we thought of were, not necessarily in this order:

  • distance from home (preferably a 10mn walk or less)
  • a short day (some schools run from 9am until 2pm; others have a 2-hour lunch break then the kids go back until 5pm)
  • languages taught (some have English ‘taught’ from age three up, some have a couple of subjects actually taught in English later on, and some have French taught from age ten)

Oh, and of course we would love to have great facilities and fabulous teachers, but from what I have found out, there isn’t all that much variation between the local state schools (which is as it should be in publicly funded schools, after all) and we may only find out the differences by actual experience.

When I visited the school that the chap at the ayuntamiento intimated was the best in the neighbourhood, I mentioned his accolade. Oh no, replied the lady who fielded my questions. “Todos los colegios son iguales,” she insisted.

If I had moved here with a seven or eight year old, then sending them to a centro bilingüe school with some classes in English would be a very high priority for me. I can imagine that total immersion for kids that age and who don’t speak Spanish in a curriculum designed for native speakers would be quite a baptism of fire. But at four, when school is more about playing, I’m hoping it won’t be too bumpy. In the two years of preschool before any classes in English are introduced, I think – I hope - that my daughter will learn to function well enough in Spanish.

Some days I’m confident – after all, she is already bilingual, and she’ll find Spanish very similar to French. Plus she has a head-start on reading, so she won’t struggle with the actual material, just with the communication side. Other days I just play the stressy mummy role.

Perhaps being in a centro bilingüe would make some classes easier. Perhaps I would understand more about those classes. Perhaps she would even learn some English vocab that I am not likely to use with her. But at the end of the day I think it is down to me to teach her proper English with a wide vocabulary and a deep love of learning so she can fill in any gaps I leave. It is also down to me to keep up with understanding her education and her homework, and I’m determined to make that happen. Besides, it could even be irritating to be in a class of complete beginners being taught English by a non-native speaker. The same goes for French.

As for the timing of the school day, all those in the area stick to the shorter day, so that turned out to be a non-choice. So when it actually came to filling in the form, listing our choice of five schools in order of preference, we simply named the closest school as top choice. Followed by the next closest schools. Phew. All that research to end up back where I started. What was I saying about stressy mummies?

On a positive note I discovered evidence that some schools in Andalucia use Cuisenaire rods (regletas) to teach maths to five-year olds in Infantil. As you know, I am very interested in these rods and the similar colour factor sets, so I’m delighted to know there are some like-minded educators in the area.