The 2nd language problem that doesn’t get easier with time

language problem

You would think that after 18+ years in England, I would have pretty much faced all the language issues I ever would and I’d be able to draw a line under ‘English language skills’. I dare say my skills are pretty advanced at this stage (apart from ‘mysterious accent that comes up from time to time’) and yet, I still regularly face this one particular language problem, thanks to the most confounding aspects of language-learning, how to pronounce people’s names. There’s nothing worse than getting someone’s name wrong and having to ask them to repeat it not once but several times over, and yet the pitfalls appear to be endless.

One of my early challenges was when I started to work in a bank’s back office taking calls about account problems, part of my grand plan to tackle big language hurdles in a gradual way. The first stage was ‘learn to understand people face to face’. This stage at the bank was the ‘talk to people on the phone’ (ie when you can’t see their face and body language to guess what they might be saying) and stop getting scared that they’re going to be Scottish and you won’t understand a word. I had to call someone called Thompson, and, you guessed it, made a real hash of it and must have sounded like a complete moron. How was I supposed to know you didn’t pronounce it ‘thump-son’?

At my next job, I had a colleague called Siobhan, who I avoided talking to for ages because I didn’t even know where to begin to try working it out!

Nowadays, you would think I wouldn’t have this struggle any more. Not true. I currently work for a lovely lady called Paula. She’s Dutch. Her name’s pronounced Paola, and I still occasionally forget this. And then there’s this other person that I mostly email but occasionally need to call and her name is Grainne. I can’t remember how to say it from one week to the next, and I’m positive I am actually going to have to make myself a phonetics note to keep for such occasions that I need to speak to her, lest I embarrass myself once again.

I guess the moral of this story is that you never stop learning, neither should you expect to or settle in thinking you have seen it all!


Language Development and Bilingualism

language development blog header 071114


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?

Fraises et framboises a la crème de whisky

Samedi dernier, amis à la maison, et comme j’aime bien cuisiner, je prépare un menu bien sympa.

Mais c’est le manque total d’inspiration pour le dessert et je décide donc de sortir mon ami le plus cher, le magazine de cuisine.  L’édition Juillet 2010 me vante les vertues d’un dessert, apparemment “le plus facile, mais le plus gouteux”, et je vous en partage la recette, parce que le magazine n’a vraiment pas menti.

Malheureusement, je n’ai pas de photo du résultat, d’une parce qu’il n’a pas fait long feu, et de deux, parce que samedi, je n’avais pas de blog, et pas trop de raison de prendre une photo. De temps en temps je prends des photos d’une réussite culinaire particulièrement impressionante (le homard thermidor de Noel par example), mais faut pas non plus exagérer.

Recette pour 6 personnes (dans des petites coupes) ou 4 bien remplies.

Préparation: 25 minutes plus 2 heures au frigo; Cuisson: 5 minutes


250g de fraises, coupées en deux

250g de framboises

3 cuillères à soupe de whisky (ou d’eau de vie)

2 cuillères à soupe de flocons d’avoine

2 cuillères à soupe d’amandes effilées

350ml de crème fleurette ou liquide

2 cuillères à soupe de miel liquide

  1. Mettez les fruits dans un grand bol. Versez 2 cuillères à soupe de whisky, mélangez et laissez mariner 5 minutes.
  2. Pendant ce temps, faites griller à sec les flocons d’avoine et les amandes dans une poile pendant 5 minutes. Une fois que c’est doré, mettez de côté pour refroidir.
  3. Faites une crème chantilly avec la crème fleurette. Ajoutez le miel et le whisky restant, et continuez de fouettez jusqu’ à ce que le mélange soit homogène. Ajoutez la moitié des amandes/avoine et mélangez légèrement (sans fouetter).
  4. Mettez la moitié des fruits dans 6 coupes à dessert (ou dans des verres a vin), recouvrez de la moitié de la crème chantilly et de presque toute la mixture d’amandes-avoine. Recouvrez encore de fruits, puis de crème (réservez quelques fruits pour décorer). Recouvrez les coupes de film alimentaire et mettez au réfrigérateur pendant 2 heures.

Pour servir, retirez le film alimentaire et décorez avec le reste des fruits et de la mixture amandes/avoine.