Wolf at the door?

I know I’m not the only parent in families with several languages to obsess over how much exposure our progeny get to each language. When I read other blogs or forums there’s often a sense of the struggle for survival. Parents racing to stay ahead of the majority language, an unstoppable wave. If we hesitate for but a moment, we’ll see the minority language(s) engulfed by it.

Just to update on our situation, Beirut Baby is nearly three, and Paris Baby is now ten months. I speak English to the kids, my husband speaks French (one of his three family languages) to them and together we two speak English and French. We have been living in Spain for a few months. We spend a lot of time with English friends and there aren’t many French living in the area.

I was delighted to realise that French had drawn level with English during the seven months we were in France. Now I hear her English stronger, both vocal and syntax. She has forgotten some words she used to use. A few times recently she was talking to her dad and turned to ask me a word in French to complete her sentence. And a couple of times when she’s upset and we were both present she has switched from French to English as if it were the easier choice in which to air her grievances.

I’m also concerned about little one. My first baby, born in Lebanon, was surrounded by far more French than my second has been here in Spain. We spoke a lot of French to friends and out shopping, especially when I was out of my depth for Arabic. Whereas here there is next to no French influence from outside the family. Her first few words were French, but I’d be very surprised if his were.

But it’s quite hard to boost the minority language without actually speaking it to your children. I want to stick to OPOL with her as I feel if I mix languages soon enough the kids will mix too and then take the path of least resistance. And when she goes to school Spanish will overtake English as the majority language and her dad and I will both have our work cut out keeping our respective languages alive.

So here are a few ways I’ve been trying to keep in touch with the minority language. Please do add any suggestions.

  • writing a menu for the dinner as I prepare it. I write out the meal in French for daddy and my daughter suggests what drinks and desserts we might offer him. “A yoghurt? Ok, how would daddy say it? Ok, yaourt, and shall we add melon?
  • writing little notes and messages for daddy: “Veux-tu venir manger…maintenant? dans 10 minutes? jamais?” (Do you want to come and eat…now? in 10 minutes? never?)
  • playing a game and then prepare to play it with her dad.

It’s not much but it helps her not to put French aside all day long, and just as important, it sparks lively vocab-rich conversations with her dad over dinner.

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

IMG_6545-001

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.