My dear friend Amy and her three children (ages five and under) recently stayed with us for a couple of days during a visit to Colorado from Mississippi, and they delighted me (and confused my husband) with their mix of French and English and baby talk, narrative and songs and questions that filled the house during their stay.
Amy's been speaking French to them since birth, and she is well suited for this task: she majored in French as an undergrad, spent a year studying in Rennes, acquired a near-flawless pronunciation, and then received a Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language, so she knows quite a bit about language acquisition. She's also home with the kids during the day and is home-schooling Lily, age 5. (Lily will start learning to read in French a little later, about age 8.) Amy's husband doesn't speak French (but understands some), so their exposure comes exclusively from Amy, books, and music.
Lily is, naturally, the most bilingual of the three of them. She can carry on simple conversations in French, sing many songs in French, and pronounce words in French with a native-like accuracy (her English pronunciation reveals no French influence either). She also shows evidence of code-switching (alternating between French and English, sometimes even within the same sentence), for example, answering a question in English with oui and calling her mom Maman. Amy reports that Lily does less of this than she used to, though. I can remember exchanges like the following from when Lily was 2 years old:
Amy: Lily, tu te caches? ("Are you hiding?" This construction uses the reflexive pronoun te to imply "hiding yourself" rather than "hiding something else.")
Lily, sticking her head out of the closet: I te caches! ("I'm hiding!" She knew what the words meant but hadn't yet learned the grammar to manipulate the reflexive pronoun, and she wasn't cognizant yet of the fact that English and French were different tongues.)
Amy: Joue pas avec le micro-onde! ("Don't play with the microwave!")
Lily, punching buttons on my microwave, opening its door, and sticking her hand inside, surprised: Micro-onde hot!
Code-switching* is a natural stage that people go through when learning two languages. It can, in fact, become a conscious choice on the part of the speaker. I'm not sure that Lily is always aware that she code-switches. She does know now that English and French are different ways of saying the same thing and that she can't speak French with her dad. At one point, I asked her to sing me a song in French, and she asked Amy, "Is 'Fais Pipi' French or English?" So she can communicate just fine but can't always assign the labels to what she's saying. This will come soon.
Speaking of the song "Fais Pipi," three-year-old Gregory is already starting to invent with the language. This is a cute little song that they sing when they go potty: "Fais pipi sur le gazon/Pour arroser les coccinelles/Fais pipi sur le gazon/Pour arroser les papillons." (Go pee-pee on the grass to water the ladybugs, Go pee-pee on the grass to water the butterflies.) Well, Greg has his own version where he substitutes the rhyming word "garçon" (boy) for "gazon" (grass)! Very clever and funny, and he knows it. Greg talks nearly nonstop, sometimes in English, sometimes in French, and sometimes in an incomprehensible babble that seems to make perfect sense to him. (Amy had a speech therapist check him out, who said that they don't need to worry about him and that the gibberish should start working itself out by age four.)
My non-francophone husband, Ed, had the hardest time understanding Greg simply because he couldn't tell what was French and what was unintelligible English. And at one point at the dinner table, Greg counted confidently to 20 in well-pronounced French, while Ed, an engineer with a PhD, put his head on the table and said in monolingual dismay, "I've been out-counted by a three-year-old!"
One-and-a-half-year-old Lia doesn't say much yet, but she repeats a lot of what she hears, in English or French, including the songs that her older siblings sing.
I was very encouraged by Amy's family's visit. It showed me that with enough input, the kids can learn French, even in a small town in Mississippi and with a father who can't speak French with them.
*(Click here for a clearer and more accurate account of code-switching and other features of bilingual speech.)
Curious about Amy's kids' progress? Click here for an update a year later.