Loving letters

Last month’s post on my two-year old starting to read was something of a non-sequitur. It’s been quite a long journey, in fact, as my little Beiruti learnt her letters over a year ago. When it comes to learning of this sort, I’ve been very influenced by a book written in another era entirely by a mother who homeschooled her 11 children in the fifties and sixties. It’s called Anything School Can Do You Can Do Better, by Máire Mullarney. It’s a book I discovered on the shelf at my parents’ place, a remnant from when we kids were taught at home for a few years.

In Mullarney’s time, people apparently thought children were not capable of learning much at all before six or seven, and should only learn from teachers, not from parents who would only impair their education. Now of course, society has swung in the opposite direction. Parents need to be reminded that kids need unstructured play time, and that you can overdo extra-curricular activities. Early learning is so in vogue it is almost passé. The concept has been bought up by big business and turned into a brand. Every toddler out there has a set of stacking cups and a touch-and-feel book. The misconceptions that the author battled with are no longer commonplace. All the same, I found some gems in this book which really hit home.

Máire talks of a stage in the process of learning to read when things fell into place and her children’s delight was such that they would follow her around the house begging: “Listen to me reading!” This book influenced me on several fronts:

  1. The age for offering letters
  2. Capitals vs lower case
  3. Letter sounds vs names

With regard to the first point, the author discusses how children have a phase or period of opportunity when they are particularly interested in a certain skill. That may come before they go to school. Learning should be a question of offering a chance to a child. If the time is right they will jump right in. If they are uninterested, put it aside and only bring it out later. Like the author, I offered my Beiruti her first letters at 13 months. She fell in love and knew them all by 16 months.

This argument swings both ways because it also means going at the child’s pace and not rushing them. More about that later.

The other argument for an early introduction that struck home to me was that of suitability. What kind of story book could you offer a five- or six-year old that is just beginning to learn to read which would actually be interesting to him/her? Basic phrases like “a big box on a mat”, accessible to a novice reader, are fun for a two- or three-year old, but rather uninspiring for the runaway imagination of older kids.

I went to school aged 5 and 1/2, and I would have been thoroughly bored if all I could read were phrases that simple. The English language is partly to blame. Bear in mind that the complexity of English spelling means that even a word like “the” must wait for phase two in the learning process (in phonetic reading, at least). Fortunately for me, I had been taught to read at home, so when I did go to school, I was allowed to choose what I pleased from the bookshelf.

I wanted my daughter to take the same pleasure in reading as the author’s children did, indeed as I did. When she comes tugging at my sleeve, saying, “Please mummy, I want more words,” meaning she wants me to write her a word to sound out, I know things are going the right way.

More on the second and third points later.

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?”

Linguistic tyrant

No legs but lots of buttons

No legs but lots of buttons

Given that my daughter was born in Lebanon, people ask if she learnt Arabic in Beirut. Leaving when she was only 1 3/4 made that a bit difficult, especially as we each spoke to her in the language we grew up with, not Arabic. But just to show how much they can take in, very soon after we left Lebanon, she did surprise me by telling me “Sahtein mummy,” (or bon appetit) when she caught me chomping on a radish while making lunch. She now gives the customary response “3aelbak”… though if you tell her “Na3iman” after a bath, you sometimes get the same answer.

Since her brother was born she has also been telling him “Shou?” every time he starts fussing, something no-one has said to her for a long time. However she objected to her dad saying it. It turns out she thinks it’s mummy’s language since I was the one who fell into the habit of using it with her while we were in Lebanon. So she objected to him using it the way she objects to me accidentally dropping in French words to her. Ironic really, given that he’s the one fluent in Arabic.

In line with a tip I read before she was born, we didn’t bother using the terms English and French with her, we just referred to languages in terms such as “Mummy says car, Daddy says voiture.” Since she was 1 1/2 she has been distinguishing how daddy says it from how mummy says it and could tell us the equivalent.

Now though, at 2 1/4, she seems to have absorbed the terms “English” and “French” on her own, and told me the other day, while listening to our conversation, “Mummy talk in French to Daddy.” She even gets annoyed if she asks something in English, aimed at me, and her dad responds instead. Since she has to make a conscious choice whom she wants to address before even beginning to speak, I wonder if it makes dialogue that much more deliberate, leading to frustration if she’s decided she’s talking to mummy in mummy’s language but gets an answer in French from daddy. Or it could just be another aspect of these terrible twos which have fostered in her a burning desire to control all aspects of life, failing which she dissolves into angry tears. It’s not for nothing daddy calls her his “despote préféré.”

Express delivery


Delivery room

My parcel arrived last month. It came a couple of weeks early. I guess you could call it an express delivery. An hour and a half transit time in all. It wasn’t quite as planned. I wasn’t expecting it to be delivered by firemen for a start. My Beirut baby, who is suddenly no longer the baby at all, got to meet my Paris baby a few minutes after delivery, the two of us wrapped up in a space blanket, in a camion de pompier on the left bank just off the Esplanade des Invalides, where, back in some distant past I studied Flaubert and Zola, interspersed with translation techniques, phonetics and the basics of linguistics.

There was some kind of irony in giving birth so close to my student stamping ground. Nothing could be more different from that hazy era of academic indulgence than the thoroughly mundane world of spit-up, nappies and silly advice into which we’ve plunged once again.

Still, incurable pedagogue that I am, I can’t help analysing my offspring through linguistic glasses, especially as I try to understand what’s going on in my two-year old’s head. At least now I get some clues from the horse’s mouth. Last month for the first time she related to me something that happened when I wasn’t there. Or the first time I understood at least. Here’s the scoop: there was a bike on the grass, lying down, and her grandma stood it up. Not that impressive huh? Yet in a way it’s as big a step as learning to crawl. She actually told me about her day. It’s only when something like that happens out of the blue that you realise it was missing before and that a whole chunk of the language puzzle has just fallen into place.

Two is an incredible age to observe language acquisition, and she’s making leaps and bounds in both English and French. However, her English is still stronger, despite the summer spent here in France.

Now we’re a family of four, I’m all the more aware of the need to work to keep a balance for both languages. For now the oldest has been exposed to a linguistic one on one, but within a couple of years their dad could be outnumbered three to one, since if we leave France as planned she may end up speaking English only with her little brother. For now, though, she speaks to him in both languages, and even a smattering of Lebanese (more on that next time). Let’s hope he’s listening.

Bring on the stories

Story telling Beirut Library

Story time

I read somewhere there were only three municipal libraries in all Beirut. If so, I’ve been very fortunate to live where I do. Not only is there a little park within walking distance, but within the park itself is a tiny gem of a library. It’s a great discovery for my Beirut baby who appreciates the books more than the slide and the swings right now.

Last Saturday we finally got to attend the storytelling (thanks to a tip from my friend M.). Adapting to her audience, which grew to at least a dozen kids over the course of the readings, the librarian began with a picture book in French, and then, apologetically, two stories in Lebanese.

She felt bad speaking her mother tongue, and that of all of the kids present, because it was a language my little one wouldn’t understand, as if she ought to speak a European language, as if it was somehow better.

You come across this a lot in Beirut, and it can make it harder to learn Lebanese in two ways. Firstly people assume they ought to speak French or English with you. Their ease with switching languages has helped me out in many a confused situation, and I particularly appreciated understanding and knowing I was understood in hospital when giving birth. But in everyday life I’d much rather people spoke Lebanese to me and am happy when they do.

Secondly, when you ask people a word in Lebanese, they have a habit of telling you a word they never use. Instead of the everyday word, they tell you the classical Arabic. This has happened to me frequently ever since I arrived in Lebanon. Sometimes they tell you the Lebanese but also the Arabic and you end up confused. They’ll say X, then they’ll correct themselves, “but the real/right word is Y.”

 Now I would love to know both languages and I do believe that you need a certain amount of modern standard Arabic if you want to really understand the Lebanese. Of course, it’s vital for reading or listening to the news. But it’s interesting to see how people are reluctant to offer only Lebanese, to tell you the words they really say, the ones they’ve used in everyday life all their life. When people know I’m learning Lebanese they even greet me with Kayfa halouki. That may be what the books say, but I’d rather people greet me in the same way as they do all the other people in the room. I want to learn to talk like them, not some imaginary character in a book.

I didn’t have a name for this phenomenon until I came across this article on linguistic prestige. I just drank it up, because a lot of it applies to exactly the situations I encounter in Lebanon.

The cross-reference to diglossia actually notes that those who are “proficient in the high prestige dialect will commonly try to avoid using the vernacular dialect with foreigners and may even deny its existence, even though the vernacular is the only socially appropriate one for them themselves to use when speaking to their relatives and friends.” You can find more on this in my earlier post But how do YOU say it, together with a link to a fascinating essay on so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ dialects.

However, the Lebanese are a contradictory bunch, and the opposite is always true for someone. Interestingly, there exists a kind of ‘covert prestige’ in not speaking classical Arabic well for some Christians who favour learning French  – not just as well as Arabic but instead of it.

Although story-telling sessions are common in libraries around the world as a way to entice children into the world of books, I’m especially happy to have found this little group. Not only do we love it but I can only imagine how unappealing reading would be for Lebanese kids when they first try to read a book to find it’s all written in another dialect (or language, by my standards). Even the most basic vocabulary such as pseiné (cat) changes to qatt, not to mention prepositions, plurals and the syntax. Reading clearly isn’t as favoured a pastime as in other countries, and I figure these kids can use a helping hand.

Jeitaoui Library story-telling is at 11am on Saturdays. You can borrow Arabic, English and French books for just 10,000LL for life. Feel free to post where your favourite libraries are.

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