Thursday, October 05, 2006

Book Review: Baby's First Steps in French: Parents' Guide

Well, I suppose it's more like a booklet review: Baby's First Steps in French: Parents' Guide is a CD-sized 74-page book that accompanies a music CD of the same name. In it, the author, Erika Levy, a French-English bilingual professor of linguistics at Columbia, provides a compelling argument for raising children bilingually via a concise explanation of how children learn languages. Her book is very readable--little jargon, clear definitions, amusing anecdotes, related notes, and subheadings for every idea. While I was already familiar with many of these ideas, reading Levy's book reassured me that yes, I am understanding the research and aware of the issues surrounding bilingualism, and yes, I am doing a good job so far in trying to teach French to my nephew Carl.

Levy champions the idea of beginning a second language with a child when he is still an infant, citing research that has discovered that while babies are capable of hearing and distinguishing among all sounds at birth (such as the two "u" sounds in French which are so hard for adults to learn), this ability disappears by age six months if the child is not actually exposed to those different sounds.

By the way, I was fascinated by the description of how these studies are carried out on infants--how can researchers tell that, say, a Japanese baby hears the difference between "l" and "r" sounds when his parents can't? I haven't read much primary research myself. Well, it turns out that the babies are given "non-nutritive nipples" to suck on while a native speaker of the second language(s) says one word of a minimal pair over and over and over. (A minimal pair is two words that are almost identical except for one sound, like the French "vous" and "vu.") The speaker then switches to the other word in the minimal pair. The researchers, who are tracking the speed and intensity of the baby's sucking, notice a difference when the sound changes. This is apparently the case for sounds in any language, including African languages that involve clicking. However, if the baby is not exposed to these diverse sounds again during his first six months, that ability disappears: "When sounds do not exist in the languages of their environment, babies will lose their ability to perceive them" (p. 2). The research also shows, though, that if an adult heard those sounds as a baby, but not as a child, he will be able to hear and pronounce those sounds better than average if he starts studying the language as an adult. Speaking the second language with your baby really does train his ear! Levy's advice for parents? "Don't dilly-dally" (p. 15).

Levy offers other concrete advice for exposing your baby to the new language. While it all seems logical and reasonable (and in fact identical to what you would do with the child anyway in his first language), it is helpful to see that parents don't really need to do anything differently when teaching a child a second language. She recommends "engaging" your child in conversation, even if he is only babbling, and speaking motherese, which she refers to as "parentese," a simplified, exaggerated repetitive way of talking to the child about the world around him (drawing out the vowels and repeating items makes it easier for the child to understand). She also recommends reading to your children. Finally, she warns parents not to tell their children that they're saying something wrong and touches briefly on the fact that language delays or disorders are not a result of being bilingual. One concept she brings up that I wasn't familiar with, though, is that "a correlation exists between children who have speech disorders and those who had chronic middle-ear infections in their first year of life. It appears that these children's ears were blocked during the critical period when sounds are most easily learned, and as a result, they did not learn to master the sound system of their languages while the brain was at its most receptive" (p. 24). This underscores the fact that exposing the child to languages during the first year really is essential.

While Levy states unequivocally that "bilingualism does not cause language delays or disorders. Countries in which people are bilingual or even trilingual do not have a higher incidence of language delays or disorders than other countries" (24), she does address both the pros and the cons of being bilingual. Among the latter, which she terms "inconveniences," she discusses misconceptions, misspellings, and mixing languages, a slightly slower processing speed (0.2 seconds slower, according to a study), and feeling obligated to perform as a translator for others. Ultimately, Levy concludes that "if you raise your child bilingually, minor glitches may occur. But these usually resolve themselves quickly enough to allow your child to reap the linguistic, cognitive, social, academic, and personal benefits of multilingualism" (p. 35).

Levy concludes the book with a description of children's linguistic milestones (what they can be expected to say and understand at what age), suggestions of how to use the accompanying CD (with its folk songs, "comptines" or nursery rhymes, and parentese), some background on French pronunciation, and lists of resources and references.

Baby's First Steps in French: Parents' Guide serves as a fantastic introduction for parents who are curious about how and why to raise children bilingually. It provides an overview to the relevant issues and then encourages you to try it with French and keep gathering information that will help you understand the process. Plus, I like the CD too! To read a review of a more academic text on bilingualism, click here; to read a case study about a trilingual child, click here; to read a review of a short article which covers some of these same topics, click here.

Levy, E. S. (2001). Baby's First Steps (in French, Spanish, and Italian): Series of 3 books and CDs. NY: Living Language, Random House.


  1. I think we'll be looking into this. My French gf is expecting. :) Due end of May 2007.

  2. Sarah - I have come upon this booklet and CD whilst researching what books and cd's etc to buy to increase my knowledge of la langue enfantine. You mention that it contains some 'parentese' on the CD - can you give me a pointer as to what type of things I could expect to find in that section so that I can make a value judgement as to whether to add this to my collection?


    Bonne Maman

  3. Bonjour Bonne Maman!

    Sure, here is an example of their version of "parentese":

    After the song "Fais dodo Colas mon petit frere," a woman's voice starts asking who is sleeping in your house right now: "Et maman, elle dort? Papa, il dort?" and concludes with "Et papi, il dort? Oui, papi dort" (and then you hear Grandpa snoring).

    On this CD, "parentese" isn't the traditional idea of baby-talk with deliberate mispronunciations and "cootchy-cootchy-coo"s, but rather slowed-down speech and lots of repetition. It has been useful to me as a non-native speaker, so yes, definitely buy it for your collection!