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 (ie English only). 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.

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?).

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.

“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.