Friday, January 15, 2010

Further adventures with a bi-lingual child

Originally uploaded by Morgane McIntosh.
The other day Mr B and I took our granddaughter out to lunch. We allowed her mother and her French grandmother to come too, and you can see from the photo how at home Catriona is in a restaurant. What fascinated me, however, was a further exploration of the life of a bi-lingual child as her vocabulary and understanding expand at an incredible rate.

When we arrived, she was playing on the floor with Peppa Pig and company - and Mamie (French for "Grandma"). Every word of the conversation was in French. And then we arrived - and were addressed instantly in English. No hesitation, no trying out French on us: it simply wasn't appropriate.

During lunch, the same easy switch, depending on the person addressed: restaurant staff and ourselves in English, Mum and Mamie in French - unless Mum was speaking English. But when we had returned to the house and were being shown a new book I realised something else that has recently begun to dawn on me. The book in question was the story of the Three Little Pigs - in French. Like the first Babar book I ever owned, it had text written in a cursive style - lots of it. Now, I must admit that Catriona is currently more interested in the pictures of le Grand Méchant Loup - and yes, that's the order the words came in and this apparently happens, for I asked - with a mere paraphrase of what's happening to him. But I was fascinated to note that the subjunctive of a verb was used - of course it was! - without any fuss. Children don't know it's the subjunctive; they just use it because that's what you have to say in certain circumstances. And I thought of the wretchedly small number of subjunctives I actually know in French, and how late on in my French learning career I picked them up, and reflected on how good it was for my continuing education to read these books to my grandchild.

Add that to her precocious enjoyment of a silly voice I once used to say "Hello" - very deep and English-accented - and her ability to mimic it perfectly, and you have a wonderful five hours of exploring language. She, of course, was just having fun. And so was I.


  1. If only we could replicate that self-conscious ease of absorption with older learners of languages!

  2. Anonymous12:37 PM

    It's a fascinating subject. I work just around the corner from the Lycée Français Charles De Gaulle in London and often on the tube you can hear the pupils speaking a complete hybrid language between themselves, switching fluidly from French to English mid-sentence. When they need to, they will speak perfect English or French, so it doesn't seem to be a case of not being able to find a word in one or other language.

    As a very basic French speaker myself, (with a French boss!), I really envy them!

  3. I'm taking the unusual (for me) step of deleting a comment, for two reasons: 1. It has absolutely nothing to do with this post 2. It is, I'm afraid, spam - even if not of the usually pornographic or self-advertising type.