Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Carl's progress: from socks to signs to single words

My nephew Carl is almost 19 months old now. Everyone speaks English with him except me and occasionally his mom (when reading him books in French or making simple statements). Naturally, his English is better than his French--he is already making sentences, like "Green light go okay" and "Grandma help open littler pink box"--but his French is still amazing considering how little exposure to it he gets! (I take care of him one day per week.) In today's post I'm going to look back over the past year or so to show how his understanding and ability to produce French has developed.

As early as five months old, Carl's behavior seemed to indicate that he was noticing differences in the sounds that different people produced. (This idea jives with research that has found that babies can recognize and differentiate their parents' language from foreign languages and human speech from animal noises.) For instance, he would turn his head and stare at my mouth when I sneezed, blew my nose, made animal sounds, or answered the phone and spoke English. Therefore, I really do think he could usually tell from early on when the sound of the language changed.

By about eight months, Carl could sit still and listen to me read picture books to him in French (without trying to chew on them). He seemed to enjoy the songs I sang (particularly "Sur le pont d'Avignon") and the fingerplays I'd do along with nursery rhymes.

When he was eleven months old, I realized that Carl really "got" what I was saying some of the time when he started reacting appropriately to some of the statements or commands I made in French. Click here to read about the sock incident, proof that he understood a complicated series of directions!

By age 1, Carl was using gestures, facial expressions, movements, and sounds to show comprehension of quite a few words and expressions in French (though not as many as in English). Laughter, of course, was a clear indicator of what he enjoyed, and he got very good at scowling and pushing away food or toys he didn't want. But I also picked up on more subtle signs, like when he would bounce up and down faster during a French nursery rhyme about riding a horse, anticipating when the pace of rhyme would speed up with the words "trot" and then "gallop."

Carl's sign language came in handy, too. When feeding him before he could talk, I'd ask him if he wanted another spoonful of something or other, and he'd use the sign for "more" to let me know. In fact, he used the "more" sign regardless of what language the person feeding him spoke. The "more" sign also showed up outside of the kitchen--he used it if he wanted to be pushed in the swing at the playground or if he wanted me to reread a book we had just finished. Carl also signed "milk" when asked if he wanted milk or juice in either language. (I wonder if teaching a baby sign language while using two different languages at home helps the child understand what the words mean--does the sign act as a "translation" for him? My husband and I are hoping to use sign language along with English and French with Croissant, our baby due in January!)

Between 12 and 15 months, Carl responded nonverbally to commands in ways that made clear that he understood my directions in French much of the time. (At this point he was just starting to say individual words in English.) For example, I could tell him to pick out a book, and he'd choose one and bring it to me. Or when given the suggestion that he put the horse on the train, or one block on top of another, or the pot back in the cabinet, and he generally would. He could open and close doors on command, as well as turn the pages of a book. Carl even knew to wave "au revoir" when people left (although he had a tendency to wait until about 30 seconds after they'd left, or wave when he heard the car start up in the garage).

No doubt Carl's receptive vocabulary (what he understands but can't say yet) was growing all along even before he was a year old, and I just didn't realize it until around the time of the sock episode, as I spent most of my time with him singing and narrating rather than asking him direct questions or giving him directions to follow. From about age 1 onwards, when I have asked him where different body parts are, he'll touch them. In reply to "Où est le frigo?", he'll march into the kitchen and put his hand on the fridge. "Où est le hibou?" He'll grab his stuffed owl. When we play hide-and-seek and I say "Où est Tatie Sarah?", he'll find me and point and call out "Ta-tie"!

But the cutest of all was when I showed him how to give kisses. I'd been saying the French word "bisou" whenever I kissed him. Playing with his stuffed animals, I'd have them kiss each other and kiss him, always saying "bisou." He caught on, and then I could tell him to "fais un bisou à Winnie-the-Pooh" or "fais un bisou à Tatie" and he would. At one point, when we were looking in a mirror, I told him to "Fais un bisou à Carl"--give himself a kiss--an idea that I had never suggested before. Without a second's hesitation, he leaned forward and smooched his reflection and made a kissing noise! To me, this was proof that not only could he recognize and respond to questions and directions such as "Where is the cheese?" and "Give me the book" in French, he also understood what enough of the individual components mean to be able to react appropriately to statements that he's never heard before! At that moment, I was so thrilled and so proud that all I could do was laugh and hug him and give him another bisou myself.

Around 15 months, Carl could say 45+ words in English and produced his first word in French: tête (head). Tête was soon followed by Tatie (auntie), Tonton (uncle), pomme (apple), and atchoum (the sound for a sneeze).

Around 16 months, Carl could say about 18 words in French on his own without prompting (and would repeat many, many others). By then, he had definitely figured out that Tatie uses different words than the rest of the family. He doesn't know that it's a language called French, but he knows it when he hears it. Of the words that he knows in both French and English--"eat" and "mange," "milk" and "lait"--he tends to use the English terms with his family and the French ones with me. Then there's the one word he likes to say in both languages in a row: apple. When he's with his family, he says "apple, pomme," and when he's with me, he says "pomme, apple." One of his favorite books in French has a picture of an apple on the cover; he'll pick it up and say "pomme, apple" even if I'm not around. To me, this indicates that he knows that the book is in his Tatie's "pomme" language, not the "apple" language that everyone else speaks. Additionally, when his mom plays a French CD for him, he sometimes says "Tatie!", recognizing that it was music he hears when I take care of him.

Carl's mom, Elizabeth, can ask him questions like "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" ("What is this?") and he'll respond in French (if he knows the word). Occasionally he'll reply to a question in English with a word in French (like when he said "arbre" in response to his grandmother's question about a tree); more often he'll answer my questions in French with a word in English. (But it's almost always a logical response, showing that he understood the question correctly.) I rarely correct him explicitly in these cases; rather, I model the appropriate French word by using it in context in response.

The one word I tend to encourage him to use correctly is "oui"--yes--when he says "yeah" to a question in French. I'll look at him quizzically and say "oui ou non?" and he'll reply with "oui." I honestly don't know why I've focused on that--maybe because "oui" is such an essential word? However, this might be backfiring: Elizabeth has noticed Carl replying "yeah--oui--yes" to questions after I leave the house. Am I confusing him? Any thoughts?

You can probably tell how excited I was about his one-word utterances....stay tuned, because now he can put two and three words together in French! I'll post more about his linguistic inventions and adventures soon.

(If you want to read more about Carl in chronological order, click on the label "Carl" at the bottom of this post and you can follow the thread of all the posts and photos he appears in.)


  1. I don't think Carl responding "yeah, oui, yes" to Mommy's English question is a sign of confusion. I think he figures if he uses them all, then one answer will be found acceptable!

    Carl may be beginning to understand that Tatie's language is "French". When he picks CDs to listen to, I'll ask if he wants a French CD. He'll often repeat, "French," and then when it starts playing that reinforces that those words are "French".

  2. I told my Spanish 1 class about the sock incident today! I hadn't planned to, but was talking about how babies and children learn languages. they were all suitably impressed!

    And boy is he cute!

  3. This blog is I wish I could have had access to your experiences when my children were little......I was too busy washing diapers and taking care of our babies to do my own research! Thanks Sarah for sharing this with all of we miss you in our French Department!! Bisous :-)