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

Naughty Children and Using Words Wisely

grumpy face

I wrote the other day about how being labelled argumentative in my early twenties caused me to doubt myself and my ability to fit in. Even now, I sometimes catch myself after speaking and wild thoughts run inside my head: ‘I have literally no idea how that came across; should I have not said that? Do people think I was rude? I didn’t mean to be rude but what if they thought I was? Will they think I was rude on purpose? It sounded completely innocuous in my head before I said it and now I’m not sure. Something feels awkward, was it me? I can’t tell if it was me. We weren’t even talking about anything important! Aaaaaaarrrgh!!!!

If the words people use to describe us can have an impact on us as adults, who are at least marginally self-aware and able to pick up truth from falsehood, think what they can do to our children.

I was once chatting with a group of friends and the issue of naughty children came up. Someone was saying how their child was just so naughty all the time and they didn’t know what to do about it; all the while I just sat there open-mouthed, because we weren’t talking about toddler tantrums but a child under one, basically a baby discovering the world and making a bit of mess along the way. The word ‘naughty’ means badly behaved or disobedient. It is implied that you are able to be better behaved or obedient and you are choosing not to. I don’t think it is possible for a child who has not yet reached this developmental stage to be naughty. If you have no concept of right and wrong, how can you choose either?

Maybe you think I’m overreacting. It’s just a word! I know; ‘naughty’ is the go-to word to describe a child doing something they should not. My problem with how we use words like this one is that the first year is only the beginning of that child’s life, and that we need to take a step back and think about what we say about our children and to them and whether they reflect our intentions well. I may be more aware of this because English isn’t my first language and I often have to quite consciously think about what I want to say but maybe it’s no bad thing.

It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a child, especially when it comes to the impact words have on the way they view themselves. I sometimes recall specific things that were said to me as a child that I know helped (or not) shape my worldview and character, especially from around the ages of 10-11 years old, which is when you start to analyse every single thing your parents say. But by then it might already be too late. We may excuse our words with ‘I was only joking! He knows I love him’ but does he? Young children are more likely to take our words at face value and may not understand things said in jest and they will take to heart throwaway comments like ‘don’t be so stupid’, ‘why do you keep being so naughty’, ‘why do you always…’, ‘you never…’ etc.

How we act when pushed to the limit

It’s very easy to say to a child that they are being naughty. It may seem like throwing a small stone in a lake. The ripples are barely noticeable. But I would argue that how we say things matter. It may not matter much when they are very young but it will matter later. The words we use are powerful and can cut to the core of our identity so it is important to practice saying things in a way that will touch on the behaviour that needs correcting but not their identity.

I may talk a good talk now and sound all aspirational. Sure, I know in theory how I want to parent but it is no guarantee that it is what will come out of my mouth when my child has pushed all of my buttons so far that I can do nothing other than act and speak instinctively (for me, it’s around 6 am after being repeatedly kicked in the ribs and asked ‘we go downstairs now’ 10 times in a row at increasing volume). In these situations, we sometimes react in ways that would normally be totally foreign to us. Our go-to response, in the spur of the moment, will often come from what we already know, and this is the moment when you look back and go ‘oh my goodness, this is just what my parent used to do that I swore I would never do’. For some, it may be a more damaging behaviour than you’d ever thought possible. It is normal to want to parent differently from our own parents, taking the good with us and throwing away the bad; however, in exasperation, anger or sheer tiredness, we may repeat patterns modeled to us by our parents that we never thought we would perpetrate in a million years.

Addressing behaviour without damaging personhood

The key to changing our own response comes with practice. We need to practice saying what we want our children to hear when it doesn’t matter and they are too young to understand. Practice is habit-forming, and habits will become our go-to response when our buttons are pushed.

I know I have to be quite intentional in how I speak to my children. I want them to be secure in the knowledge that I love them no matter how they behave. I love them because, well you know, because they are. It is not dependent on them behaving well or performing well in their studies or anything that they do, and I need my words to convey this as strongly as my actions otherwise one might cancel the other. Some children are way more sensitive to words than actions, and in doubt I would rather cover all corners.

In practice, it will probably look something like this:

if my child has done something wrong and I am having a talk with them about it, instead of saying ‘You were really naughty when you did this‘, I will say something like ‘you did a really naughty thing back then‘. It is a subtle difference but I think a significant one. What it is doing is addressing their behaviour separately from their identity as a person. A child who is constantly told that he is bad or wrong or not good enough will come to believe this to be the truth about them. It may well be a subconscious belief that when said out loud sounds irrational and ridiculous to their own ears but it will have shaped them as surely as one moment of being singled out by a bully in front of their peers may shape how a person conducts all their future relationships.

We all know that no matter how well-parented we are, all human beings are flawed and a bit screwed up by whatever life throws at them. Being more careful about our language around our children is only a small thing and goodness knows I haven’t got a clue whether my kids are going to turn out OK or not. But I’d rather be more intentional about the things I do notice that are within my power to change, as small as they may be.

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


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!

French Literature Hurts My Head

The other day, my husband was wondering out loud if our four-months-old daughter would become an avid reader like her mother. I am responsible for the three-quarters of our bookshelves’ content at home and I always have a book on the go so I suppose he might be right about me. I have always loved reading. I love stories and I love words; I love being able to escape into another world. However being an avid reader has not led me to become a more discerning one by French standards.

Let’s start at the beginning. I knew how to read before I started primary school at age 6, and I was showed off by my teacher to other classes with the introduction ‘This is how to read properly’. I have no recollection of this, which is probably a good thing. I was a shy little thing in those days and it’s a wonder I wasn’t bullied at the time for being the teacher’s pet. In any case I have not stopped reading ever since those early days, and a lifelong love of books and reading is definitely a legacy I want to pass on to my daughter. I am planning to read to her and teach her, just like my mother did with me. Another reason I am keen to do this is to help her with grammar, punctuation and spelling; if there is something that winds me up, it is poor spelling in adults, and I believe this is partly due to a lack of exposure to books during the childhood years.

La Nuit Des Temps - by Barjavel

I found high school very dispiriting however when it came to introducing me to new reading material. I am not a fan of French literature and find it pompous, obscure, uninspiring and hopeless. At college, we were introduced to what felt like the most boring books I have ever come across and having to dissect and write essays on them did not endear them to me. One year we had to read a book by Emile Zola called l’Assommoir; I was ill and not sleeping well at the time and I remember the ending being so bleak that it made me cry. Maybe it’s a good book; it depicts the life of working class people and it is meant to be very realistic, which is fine but I do question the wisdom of giving it to hormonal and occasionally depressed teenagers. I found it so horrific that I nearly lost the will to live reading it.

France is proud of its literature and the masters of words it has produced, and is keen to force them down our throats through the school curriculum. I don’t know who decides what goes in and what stays out but they appear to go out of their way to find the most depressing books. It’s the relentlessness of the bleak subject matters, complicated sentences and obscure subtext passing for intellectualism of French novels that kills my spirit. When it doesn’t put French teens off reading altogether, it stops them ever wanting to read anything else by the authors that they have studied.

I don’t understand the kind of snobbery at work here but it is highly noticeable in book shops where there is a clear separation between ‘serious works’ and popular books such as, say, Harry Potter. For one thing, serious works have serious covers i.e. no picture, just a plain cover with embossed writing or whatever. Someone out there wants you to know you are about to read a serious book, one you can proudly show off to your intellectual friends. I personally think a book can be fun without selling out to the most common denominator. I am not going to argue that books like Harry Potter are a masterpiece writing-wise because they are not but they do not lack in heart and depth and there is a wealth of imagination to be enjoyed.

When I was a teenager, my favourite book was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It was funny and full of life, and basically a very cheerful read. It was a helpful reminder that not everything in the world is grim and tainted, because life at 14 was awkward, dark and oppressive for me, and I was in dire need of cheering up. It looks to me, and do correct me if I’m wrong, that the English-speaking world has a type of writing that does not exist in France, where misery is acknowledged but there is also hope and a happy ending is not a cop-out.

French authors and books I like

I cannot recommend this enough

Les Fables de La Fontaine, very clever stuff indeed

Pierre Gripari’s La Sorcière de la Rue Mouffetard et autres contes de la Rue Broca – a fantastic children’s book

Les Contes de Charles Perrault (classic fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, etc)

Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française

Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical retelling of her experience working in Japan in Stupeur et Tremblements is funny and chilling in equal measures.

Jean Racine, whose plays I prefer to Molière’s. Still it’s not Shakespeare.

Le Petit Prince d’Antoine St Exupéry is one of the few children’s book I can recommend

Victor Hugo gave us Notre Dame de Paris and Les Misérables – great stories

Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte-Cristo and The Three Musketeers

Most hated French authors, mostly because their stories are rubbish and everything is depressing and hopeless – a non-exhaustive list

Emile Zola – argh

André Malraux – hate hate hate

Gustave Flaubert – mon dieu but who cares

Fab and oh so accurate

A few non French-speaking authors and books I like (in which there is a lot of science fiction and fantasy)

Juliet Marillier, great re-workings of Celtic fairy tales

Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, possibly my favourite science-fiction/fantasy series

Madeleine L’Engle has a great way with words

J.R.R. Tolkien

C.S. Lewis

Anything by Bill Bryson (his History of Nearly Everything is fantastic and almost makes me wish I could go back to school to study biology again) and Stephen Clarke (of the Year in the Merde fame)

The 13 and a half lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers, completely crazy and possibly for kids apart from the fact that it is enormous.



You are welcome to try to change my mind, and to introduce me to new authors.