Monday, August 14, 2006

Profile: Madeleine (learning French and sign language in Colorado)

I recently had coffee with my friend Jessica, who is finishing up her masters degrees in French and Teaching English as a Second Language and working on a thesis about young children's use of sign language. She's also been using French and sign language with her 18-month daughter, Madeleine, from birth. Here are two anecdotes she shared with me about Madeleine's language acquisition:

Jessica recently informed her daughter that it was time to prendre le bain. Madeleine replied by saying "Bath!" in English and doing the sign for bath. While at first Jessica was disappointed that Madeleine seemed to be choosing English over French, she thinks it's pretty neat that this toddler can translate among three languages.

Jessica's husband, Rich, has never formally studied French, but he's been picking up a lot just listening to his wife and baby daughter. The other day, the three of them were walking down some stairs with Jessica carrying Madeleine. She wanted to get down and walk by herself, but her maman told her, "Il faut porter des chaussures pour marcher sur les escaliers!" Rich concurred, saying "Yes, you need to wear shoes if you're going to walk down the stairs." While he probably couldn't have produced the sentence in grammatical French himself, he understands the basics now and has learned lots of vocabulary along with his daughter. (I'm hoping this will happen with my husband too!)

In general, Jessica says that her daughter understands everything said to her in English or French, responding appropriately to questions and instructions, even though she does not speak much yet. Jessica also confessed that during this summer, it's been harder for her to keep speaking French with her daughter due to many trips disrupting their routine. She's enthusiastic, though, and is planning on continuing to speak French with Madeleine--and with Madeleine's baby brother or sister due to arrive early next year. (Félicitations!!!)


  1. I'm hoping Spanish will rub off on my hubby, too. But I heard that if one person is bilingual and the other is monolingual, the bilingual person should speak the monolingual person's language when they are both present, so as not to confuse the baby. Comments?

  2. My first reaction is that in general the bilingual should speak the monolingual's language around his/her spouse so that person doesn't feel left out, especially in situations like family get-togethers. But when there'a baby in the equation, that complicates matters. What I've read seems to indicate that consistency is better for the child: each parent always speaks his own language with (or in front of) the child. This helps the child identify the language with the speaker, instilling in her the fact that certain people have different languages. But I honestly don't know yet how this pans out when the parents aren't fluent in each other's language and thus won't understand what their spouse is saying to their child. This seems like it would be a fairly common situation for would-be bilingual children. I'll see what I can find out! Amy, how does it work in your family? Does your husband feel marginalized when you and the kids speak French together? And since your kids know that you speak English too, do they have a preference for which language you choose? Did you ever notice confusion?

  3. Hi Estela and Sarah,
    Ohh, that's a good question. I'm trying to think of how I handle this issue. Mostly, if I'm talking to the children, I'll speak in French, even if my husband is around, unless it's something he needs to understand too, or sometimes I'll say it in French and then say it in English, though I try not to do that too often because I don't want the children to get used to ignoring the French and just clue on the English afterward.

    I don't really think there's a problem about the child being confused. . . and I don't quite understand how that relates to having hubby in the room or not. Perhaps I'm not understanding. But if the baby is in contact with both languages, there's really no confusion. Even very young infants can recognize the differences between 2 different languages and distinguish between people speaking them.

    Since my children know I speak English, they also don't feel the necessity to speak to me in French, so most of their communication with me is in English, I'm sad to say, but that's just easier for them. Typical. They speak French only when we're making a concentrated effort to do so.

  4. There is a theory in bilingual language acquisition called, "one parent, one language." It indicates that if one parent speaks one language exclusively and the other parent the other language, the child will pick up both. As Sarah indicated, my daughter Madeleine is learning both English and French from my husband and I (and sign language as well). I started out thinking I would follow the "one parent one language" path, but it's difficult to speak French when others are around and I know only she and I are participating in the conversation. This discomfort may be due in part to my own insecurities about being a non-native speaker of French, I don't know. But I do need to work on getting over these insecurities if I want Madeleine to continue speaking French. A book recommendation: Growing up with two languages written by Una Cunningham-Andersson and Staffan Andersson.

  5. Thanks for joining us, Jessica! Mary recommended this book to me too, and I actually found it at the library earlier this summer and plan on reviewing it for the blog.

    I know what you mean about feeling a bit insecure about teaching a language that we're not native speakers of. But hey, even if we're imperfect, it's still better than nothing, I think. Some of the researchers disagree, but I figure if we can still communicate very well with occasional grammatical errors and mispronunciations, our kids/nephews can too!