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.

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.

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?”

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