Saturday, July 29, 2006

Profile: Lily, Gregory, and Lia (learning French in Mississippi)

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.


  1. Ooh, that is encouraging. When I was growing up, my mom spoke to me in Spanish and my dad in English (hmm... they *still* do that) and I code-switched quite a bit (Spanglish), but I grew up in Puerto Rico, and went to an English-speaking school, so I had lots and lots of exposure to both languages. Its a relief to know that fluency is possible in less than ideal circumstances.

  2. Or even if you don't attain complete fluency in the second language, at least solid communication skills in it, like what Faingold calls "balanced bilingualism" in his book about Noam.

    Estela, thanks for sharing about your background! I'm curious--would you say that you're as fluent in Spanish as you are in English? You sound like you are truly bilingual, and of course you speak and write English like a native. Oh, and can you give us an example or two of code-switching for you?

  3. Balanced bilingualism. I like it. A good goal...

    My vocabulary is significantly larger in English... partially because that's the language I did most of my formal schooling (and almost all of my undergrad and all of my graduate work), so I know more jargon in English, but also partially because of the brain rot that settles in when you've spent the past decade in a predominantly English-speaking country. ;)

    Interestingly, when I talk to my mom (who was born and raised in Cuba, has an accent in English, and has a PhD in Spanish Lit... in other words, Spanish is her stronger language) in Spanish, and I'll get stuck on a word and ask English "How do you say X?", half the time she won't know either. ;) Or, to be more accurate, she'll just give the Spanishized version of the English word (for instance, pronouncing "vacuum" with a Spanish accent, when in reality, the correct term is "aspiradora"). I'd say she speaks Spanish every day, whereas it's more of a novelty for me, and yet she still experiences brain rot.

    Alas, I don't recall any of my Spanglish babble, though even when I got the two languages straight in my head, there were some terms that I prefered in one language over the other, regardless of what I was speaking at the time (For instance, "peluche" sounds much gentler than "stuffed animal"... and some exclamations are just more fun in Spanish.) I'll ask my parents if they remember any specific code-switching on my part, but don't hold your breath.

  4. Hi Sarah,
    We had a lovely time with you.
    My favorite code-switch of Lily's is still--
    Me: Lily, est-ce que tu manges?
    Lily: Yes, I mange-ing banana.

    Can't wait to participate more and read your next blogs. It'll be a hoot to see how your little nephew comes along.


  5. Estela and Amy, thanks for sharing such good examples to illustrate code-switching! I often deliberately code-switch when talking about food, I'm realizing--like saying "haricots verts" instead of "those skinny French green beans"--but that probably makes me sound snooty. I also code-switch consciously when there's a more efficient or descriptive word in the other language. For example, in English, we have to say "the first day school," whereas the French have "la rentree." Or when speaking French and discussing, say, travel plans, I refuse to use the wordy phrase "les vacances du jour de l'action de grace" for "Thanksgiving vacation." It's a uniquely American concept and just sounds goofy translated into French.

  6. Speaking of Thanksgiving in bilingual families... we call it "merci-donnant"! A more or less direct translation of "thanks giving" into french... much easier than, however you said it, "jour de grace" je ne sais quoi!

    This is Rina... Tracy, Maya's mom, told me to give you a call about bilingual (french/english) babies and signing... My daughter is 4 1/2, totally bilingual though Papa speaks very little french... I signed with her as a baby, and I'm convinced it helped bridge the gap between the two languages.

    You mentioned elsewhere a desire to know how much Carlicot understands... teach him to sign and he'll tell you!

    I'll write more soon, but couldn't resist adding my favorite "franglishism"!


  7. Bonjour Rina! How nice to hear from you and meet you virtually. Would you consider letting me profile your daughter on the blog? Please let me know if you're interested!

  8. And "felicitations" are in order, by the way; Amy's family recently welcomed their newest member, future bilingual baby Elliot!