Playing truant

This is likely the last year I’ll get to dodge the back-to-school rush. While everyone else was wrapped up in the “vuelta al cole” in September, I dawdled in the near-empty park with my two little ones, and enjoyed the peace of the library on weekdays. People are curious about why my three-year old isn’t in school, even though, like in most European countries, the mandatary age for schooling is six. Notwithstanding our disregard of popular opinion on the subject, it has been a very interesting phase in terms of learning. Some snippets from the past few months show that plenty of learning (including academic knowledge) takes place when kids are just getting on with life.

  • My daughter wants to push keys on my laptop while I’m just completing an online purchase. I’d prefer not to have to start over due to some random button-pressing so I let her hold my bank card and read the numbers with me as I enter them. Next step is to click on “pagar” - pay. When I tell her this, she replies: “There are two words in Spanish for ‘pay’.” “Really?” I ask. “What’s the other one?” She replies: “La cuenta (the bill).” From which I gather that the local café culture has more benefits than just letting us sit back with a café con leche.

    SMS-speak should come easily

    SMS-speak should come easily

  • She finds a scrap of card on the floor with a crease down the middle. “It’s a card to send someone,” she tells me, “Can you write it?” Rushing to get dinner ready I tell her: “You write it…you can write Hi or Hello or Dear….” running out of relevant words that she could conceivably decipher on her own. After dinner, pyjamas, stories and bed, I’m clearing the floor and come across the card again. I almost throw the scribbled-on scrap away but glimpse letters: HLO. I double-check with her what she meant to write in case the letters are random: “Hello.”
  • I’m reading her Le Gruffalo (yes, in French,): “Une souris se promenait dans un grand bois profond…” (“A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood,” in the original text) and she interrupts to say: “But it says: ‘une sourisss’ “,  pronouncing the silent ‘s’ at the end. It’s not the first time we discuss how we write X but we say Y. So we then continue reading the book (which she has learnt by heart in that way kids do) and randomly mispronouncing words the way they are written. A week later, “sur le neZZZ” (“on its nose”) still has her in giggles. In the meantime she is learning the illogical spelling of these words off by heart. “Tonight it’s pizza for dinner,” I tell her, pronouncing it pizz-ah. “And we say ‘peet-sa’”, she replies.
  • She is studying a water bottle from the supermarket Carrefour. She points to the E in Carrefour, looks up and tells her dad: “On ne dit pas le ‘e’.” (We don’t say the ‘e’).  Since no-one else was saying the word this means she had worked out what it said (in context obviously), pronounced it in her head, compared the spoken word with the letters, and spotted where the spelling didn’t match the usual pronunciation.

She is currently getting 2-3 hours of one-on-one Spanish play a week, as well as lots of passive exposure to Spanish. The rest is probably two thirds English (me) with the remaining third French and English at the same time (mealtimes and weekends). So far it is working, judging by what comes out of her mouth. I’ve even felt we could afford to throw in a little Arabic, so even her 14-month old brother now turns and points excitedly skywards when asked “Wayn el-’amar?” (Where’s the moon?)

Side-note: More on the French and Arabic translations of The Gruffalo another time.

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?).

“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]

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.

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.