Language Development and Bilingualism

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One of the many questions a parent may ask themselves when trying to raise a bilingual child is: ‘will my child be at a disadvantage?’ ‘Will his understanding be delayed?’ ‘Will she be able to advance at the same pace because of having to learn two languages or more?’ The answer to all of these is a categorical no according to current research. Being bilingual is beneficial in many areas of life, especially in the early years. But there is also the reality that a small percentage of children the world over have language development issues for a variety of reasons.

Little Girl has a lisp, in that she can’t pronounce the ‘ch’ sound at all. ‘Elle zozote’, as we say in French. It’s cute but I have been aware of it for a while as a potential ‘thing’ to look out for. She is only three years old so it hasn’t been on my urgent to-do list but I have noticed it, especially around her peers who don’t seem to have the same problem. Until recently, I didn’t know if it was an issue or not, and I had no real way to figure it out on the sly. When can you start talking about language delays anyway? Is there really no correlation between language development delays and bilingualism? These are real questions and it’s not that easy to see the wood for the trees when you are in the thick of it. Information isn’t exactly readily available unless you notice a problem yourself and take it to a specialist. As a parent with a basic understanding of biology and an even better knowledge of how to use Google, I didn’t want to blow it out of proportion but I didn’t know where to turn either to get some basic information without committing a crime against my brain by going on Wikipedia.

Then about a month ago I got an email from our local family centre advertising a Speech and Language Therapy drop-in clinic and I jumped at the chance to get it checked-out.

The observation was very laid back; Little Girl was presented with pictures of objects and animals and asked to describe them before putting the cards in a big red post box. The therapist went through a lot of words, most of which Little Girl knew (phew) and I was even more gratified when she saw a picture of a frog and said ‘grenouille’ (‘she can’t put a French sentence together but she does know some words!’). At the same time I was gradually getting twitchy watching the therapist write something down next to 90% of the words. I had never noticed before but Little Girl pronounced almost all of them a little bit wrong. It was mostly bog standard stuff like poon for spoon, tair for stair, wabbit for rabbit, bruss for brush and soo for shoe. And all the ‘th’ sounds, which are typically English and even I don’t know if I say them right all the time, so I wasn’t surprised to hear her mangle them a bit. Still, seeing this on the page was concerning.

It turns out that her development is completely normal and appropriate for her age, including all the ‘sh’ and ‘th’ stuff. And the therapist was very positive about the fact that we were trying to raise her with both French and English; she had no concerns at all. She did say that considering the pool of words and sounds she has to learn, a little delay was possible but nothing to worry about.

What I didn’t know, and I suspect most parents don’t either, is that a lot of pronunciation doesn’t settle until a child is five or even six years old! Not only was all of this information completely new to me, but it also felt like something I should be aware of without needing to go to a special clinic because I am worried. This sheet below is the most helpful thing I’ve seen all year.

Normal language development 0 - 6 yrs old

Normal language development 0 – 6 yrs old

In which a French person replied to me in English

International Market

Not bad, but not quite French

The French Market was back in town this weekend. It was advertised as such but it would be more accurate to call it the International Market, as there were Italian and Spanish stalls too. There was no bakery either, which is near sacrilegious and not very French at all!

As per usual I lurked around the dry sausage stall and settled on a Rosette de Lyon: 100% pork, dry and oh so tasty. I then made my way to the cheese van, and this is where I embarrassed myself in the worst possible way for a French person. I made a grammatical mistake.

It will make you happy to know that French people do not possess any magical skills when it comes to knowing whether a word is masculine or feminine. We are not able to sniff them out. I occasionally get a feel for a word but I am wrong 50% of the time, as I will now illustrate.

I asked for a particular cheese with the words: ‘Je voudrais un Vignotte, s’il vous plait.’ At the back of my mind, I thought I might be wrong because Vignotte looks and sounds like a feminine word. It rhymes with Charlotte, une cagnotte (money = a kitty/pool), une peutiotte (a little girl) and is also very similar to une vignette (a sticker), which are all feminine words. I literally had this conversation in my head at the time and despite this I concluded it was most likely masculine because cheese is masculine (Un fromage). The seller responded much louder than the situation warranted if you ask me, ‘UNE Vignotte! It will be £2 pounds please.’ To which I responded in my best French voice ‘merci!’ and scuttled away in embarrassment.

I was thinking about it this morning and remembered another time when I made such a mistake and really stood out among French people. In the late nineties/early noughties, dvds became standard and as I was living in the UK by then, I realised that I’d never used the word in France and didn’t know whether they said une dvd or un dvd. Aside from the fact that I did a quick search and can confirm that omg dvds came out in Europe in late 1998 (doesn’t that make you feel old?!), it took me a long time to get used to saying ‘un dvd’; for some unknown reason it doesn’t feel quite right and so I fumbled for ages between the two.

 

I suspect I am not alone in making such mistakes. Do any of you expats have particular words that cause you trouble time and time again and make you to look stupid in conversations with your compatriots?

Dodgy French in books

Kindle

Warning: Contains Language

Novel writers occasionally like to use foreign language to convey the fact that their character is in or from another country. Unfortunately these writers often don’t research said foreign language in any depth before sending their work to the printers – or so it seems to me. Some you can tell have tried hard to get it right and only fail occasionally, usually getting the gender wrong but others clearly have never seen, heard or studied French in their life and it is very painful to read. I came across one of those yesterday and it put me off the book straight away.

The book I read yesterday had some weird and sometimes plain bonkers sentences such as these:

“Très bien! Je vais être droit il y a,” a woman yelled.

“Quel est votre pressé?”

Whatever that woman yelled in the author’s head, we shall never know. I was more than a little pained when I read the second one which, as far as I can tell, translates as ‘What is your pressed?’. And I might have forgiven Paris’ Sacré Coeur Basilica being spelt ‘Sacré Couer’ once, but it was spelt wrong throughout the entire book. OK so it was a freebie Kindle book, not War and Peace but even so it is hard to take a book seriously when sentences make no sense whatsoever. Despite 5 years of studies and an A-Level, my German is non-existent and I wouldn’t dream of putting German in a book without checking with a native speaker. Not being a writer, I don’t know how these things are done but it shouts lazy writer and pretty much discredit the author (and editor) to me.

I am genuinely curious to know how writers deal with foreign language in books. And if anyone has funny experiences of dodgy foreign language in books, please do share!

Noises animals make

I have started reading to my daughter and her favourite book tells the story of a butterfly who wants to play but none of the other animals want to (it does end well by the way, the ducks are quite keen). We don’t yet have many French books so I have been translating it as we go along. It’s easy enough; there aren’t that many words, however it requires me to make the animal noises based on what is written down, some of which are totally baffling to me.

For one thing, in my adult life I’ve had little need for this kind of skill, and now I don’t actually remember what some animals are supposed to sound like. I also definitely don’t know what they’re supposed to sound like in English so the book has thrown up some challenges.

The Good:

Cow goes Moo Moo or Meuh Meuh; I think I produce a mean heifer noise.

Sheep goes Baa Baa, or Beh Beh; it’s a real easy one.

Duck says Quack Quack, or Coin Coin, and although it doesn’t look it, it sounds pretty similar (apart from the ‘ck’ sound at the end).

Dog says Woof Woof or Ouaf Ouaf; Cat goes Meow or Miaou, no problem there, it’s pretty much the same

The Bad:

Pig goes Oink Oink apparently… I have no idea what Pig says in French, but anyway, it grunts right? I definitely sound pig-like, but Oink is a bit of a stretch.

The Ugly:

The Cockerel goes Cock-a-doodle-do. Does it? Really? Hubby says it in his best posh voice and it sounds hilarious, but nothing like the real thing. In French, well, let’s just say that ‘Le Coq’ doesn’t translate particularly well but it’s easier to go Cocorico! and feel like the morning has indeed come.

The Weird:

The butterfly goes Flutter! Flutter! I don’t know what to do with that. I ended up translating it as ‘Flap, flap!’, which works as some sort of onomatopoeia, maybe?

Frogs go Ribbit Ribbit; shamefully, given the name of this blog, I have no idea what they say in French!

 

I can’t think of any others, but suggestions are welcome.

Say it Like it’s Written Dear

It’s one of those embarrassing things that must happen to everyone when they are not speaking their mother-tongue. There are some things I just can’t say. Like ‘rabid’. Does it rhyme with rabbi? I never remember. Thankfully it’s not a word I use regularly.

Letter A for Apple Alphabet

A is for Apple Image by Pink Poppy Photography via Flickr

There are others that I have to use on a daily basis that cause me just as much trouble. Take ‘muslin’ for example. When I used it the first time, I thought it would be so simple. It looked simple. Unlike plough, which I now know doesn’t sound anything like drought, but rhymes with cow (I mean, how does that even work?). And don’t talk to me about ‘sauce’, it took me months to master that one. And Thompson. I worked for a bank in my early days in England and had to call someone called Thompson. They were a bit confused when I asked for Mr Thump-son…

Back to ‘muslin’. I picture the word in my head, imagine myself saying it, and I still can’t figure out how it goes. And believe me, we have a lot of muslins around what with the Babykins puking and dribbling all over the place. I get lots of practice. And yet every time, every single time, I say it wrong.

‘Pass me the muslin, hubby please, the Babykins has dribbled milk on my black sleeve again!’

‘The what? The Muslim? We don’t have one of those around but I don’t think he’d be able to help.’

Some words are just there to confound me.