Thursday, September 21, 2006

Profile: Maylin learning English, French, and Chinese in France

Caroline is an American living in Paris with her husband and her three-year-old daughter, Maylin, who is attending l'école maternelle (preschool). (You can follow their adventures on her blog, Caroline in Paris.) They speak English at home--plus some occasional Chinese--and Maylin has heard lots of French all along, especially at school. Caroline recently tried to find out what she thinks about the various languages she is exposed to: "I asked Maylin over dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant which language she preferred, French or English. She readily responded, 'English.' I asked why. She replied, 'Because it’s not French.'"

Maylin seems already to have very clear ideas about who should speak which language with her and is growing more comfortable with both. Caroline explains: "When it’s time to read bedtime stories, she always requests to be read to in English – sometimes requiring me to translate from the original French....Maylin speaks French easily with her schoolmates, new playground buddies, and even her teacher. What a remarkable change from last year when she hardly breathed a word of French (or English) to her teachers. She’s a shy girl to begin with, so a new language made it more difficult to communicate with adults. But she has never had a problem talking with French children."

Maylin's opinions about language also extend to Chinese. Caroline reports that recently she said "I love you" in Chinese to her daughter. Maylin knew right away was it was and reacted quickly:
"Stop talking Chinese! Only English and French!"

"Which one do you like better, Maylin? French or English?"

"French AND English."

Caroline adds, "But I think she likes Chinese, too. She frequently asks me to translate the Chinese children's songs she hears on CD."

Caroline can tell when Maylin makes a mistake (common ones typical of any language learner) in her French. In fact, Maylin herself recognizes that her home language of English is stronger than her French. But her mother is not concerned that learning two languages simultaneously will reduce her abilities in either one. "I know eventually her French will catch up. I’m not worried."Caroline has noticed a behavior that Maylin uses when she doesn't understand something in French--one that is common when speaking a second language (I've seen this a lot in my tutoring of kids who speak English as a second language, and indeed in myself as well): "She does have a tendency to feign comprehension, which I do all the time, unfortunately, to avoid too much discomfort on my part. For example, at the park yesterday, Maylin’s schoolmate’s very cute big brother was explaining to her the rules for his simple game. She gave a resounding 'oui' with a big smile, but when it came time to play, it was clear she hadn’t understood."

Based on my research and observations, it seems like Maylin's language use, preferences, and strategies are similar to those of other children acquiring a "home" language and an "outside" language simultaneously, right down to not wanting her mother to speak the "outside" language. I'm curious to hear from other readers about their bilingual children's ideas about the languages they speak--please click on "comments" to share your experiences and observations!

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