School can wait

Some parents worry their kids won’t learn the language of their adopted country well enough. I tend to worry about the opposite. Many people ask me now whether my daughter is speaking Spanish yet. For the record, we lived in Spain for two months last year and five months this year so far.

I suppose if she had gone straight into kindergarten, then by now she would be speaking Spanish (after a fashion). She spends an hour or two once a week with a Spanish babysitter and she’s already starting to respond in Spanish. Surely I should be in a rush to help her learn Spanish as soon as possible, as young as possible. Otherwise she’ll already be behind the other kids when she starts school. Except that she won’t be starting school very soon anyway. Because it gets worse.

Do you really want to shock people? Make them leap to their feet and ask you But why? How could you?! Have them shake their heads disbelievingly as you walk away convinced that you will soon rue the day you made such a terrible decision? Try not enrolling your 3-year old in school. Judging by the reactions where we live in southern Spain this is tantamount to giving them a bedtime bottle of whiskey. Same in Paris. And a lot more places, I suspect.

I would have had to enrol my oldest last March if I wanted her to start this September at the grand old age of 3 years and 1 month. After much consideration, I decided not to. What a can of worms to open.

Do I not realise that starting late will put her at a disadvantage? Odd as this may sound, I don’t mind her being at a disadvantage for a while. Let me explain. I don’t really think that getting total immersion in Spanish five days a week would be the best thing just yet. It already takes a conscious effort to keep her French strong; so far her world is dominated by English. Preschool would reduce her exposure to French and English. English would survive, but I’m not sure French would. I’m not the only one in this situation. Peer influence is so much stronger than any parents’, so I am willing to put off – for a little while – the pride I’ll feel when my daughter starts spouting fluent Spanish.

If she were at school there’d be no more leisurely breakfasts with dad, and maybe no shared lunchtimes. Interactive French exposure would be limited to little more than busy weekends and short evenings – with only about 1h30 between dad finishing work and bedtime.

Besides, in her post 5 Myths About Raising Multilingual Kids one multilingual mum cites the misconception that “You must reinforce the environment language at home.” 

So how will I feel about her starting school aged four (just) and not understanding what anyone’s going on about? What if she can’t learn at the same speed as the rest?

I figure that just living here with a little Spanish babysitting, she’ll pick up enough to get by and not feel entirely lost. She won’t struggle learning to read, write or count. She already knows her numbers and letters, knows her right from her left, and can read a little in English (words like park, window, basket and splash, and in my opinion, enough to work out the rest on her own without any teacher). Converting all this to Spanish is easier than learning it in the first place. What’s more, reading Spanish is a doddle in comparison to English, given the simplified spelling and consistent pronunciation. Spanish is an easy language for a French-speaker – my decision might have been very different if she could go to school in Arabic.

This decision will affect her brother too. I’m guessing that within six months of starting school she’ll be starting to use Spanish with her little brother (who’ll then be 2 years old) as the language of play as I’ve seen happen in so many families where the community language was different to that spoken at home. So I’m also glad to stave off the influence of the majority language on him at an age when he’ll only just be starting to string sentences together in his mother and father tongues.

Finally, as eager as I am to return to a world of adult conversation, I do consider myself fortunate to be around as she makes those precious early discoveries about letters turning into words, about a banana looking oval if you bite it on a slant, and how sand makes for better cake dough when wet.

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]