Thursday, August 30, 2007

conversing with Carl

As I mentioned last week, Carl is now nearly 19 months old. Over the past couple of months, he's been saying 2- and 3- word phrases, and more recently longer complete sentences in English. And now in the past month, he's started to put two and three and even four words together in French. Here's a recent conversation:

Carl: Carl mange yaourt. (~Carl ate yogurt.)
Tatie: Oui, Carl a fini le yaourt de Tatie. (Yes, Carl finished Auntie's yogurt.)
Carl: Carl fini yaourt Tatie.

Sometimes he's repeating what I've said--a process he's done all along--but now, in response to "Tu veux aller au parc?" (Do you want to go to the park?), he'll reply "aller au parc!" (go to the park) instead of just "parc," as he would say at the beginning of the summer. Or like today, when I pointed to an object and said "c'est un stylo avec de l'encre noir" (it's a pen with black ink), he agreed and repeated "stylo encre noir." This is interesting in two different ways--one, he had probably never heard the word "encre" before, but he said it pretty clearly with a nice gurgly French "r," and two, he seems to realize which are the salient words--nouns, adjectives--and keeps them while dropping articles and prepositions when he repeats. Here's another example of his understanding a new noun and dropping the article: when I noticed him looking at his parents' swords, I said "Tu regardes les épées?" (Are you looking at the swords?) In French, the "s" in "les" slides over to the vowel "é," so "épées" is pronounced "zépées." In response to my question, Carl said "regarde zépées." (On the other hand, one article that he always keeps is "de l'" in "de l'eau" ["some water"]).

He has also started to narrate his activities in French: "Carl mange" (Carl's eating), "Carl monte" (Carl's climbing up stairs), "ouvre Petit chien" (~ I'm opening Petit chien--the name of a book), "écris noir" (~I'm writing with a black pen), "pousse poussette" (~I'm pushing the stroller).

Carl likes to describe what he sees and identify objects, using the French as the equivalent of pointing a finger. The majority of times he uses single words--"pierre" (stone), "poubelle" (trashcan), "pain" (bread). But now he's beginning to get more precise: "courgette jaune" (yellow zucchini), "chaise rouge" (red chair), "tomber hibou" (~owl fell down), "Tatie porte chapeau" (~Auntie's wearing a hat), "Tatie mange pastèque" (~Auntie's eating watermelon), "photo Carl" (~you're taking a picture of me), "voiture Tatie" (~Auntie's car), and even "voiture Tatie dehors" (~Auntie's car is outside),

Carl can also use phrases in French to make requests, like "encore biscuits plaît" (~more crackers, please). We were having a snack a few weeks ago, me with grapes and him with crackers. And he was coveting my grapes, reaching for them, saying "encore"--which by the way always cracks me up, because how can you ask for "more" of something when you haven't had any of it to begin with? Anyway, I shook my head, and said "Carl mange des biscuits, et Tatie mange du raisin." (Carl's eating crackers, and Auntie's eating grapes.") With his hand still outstretched, he corrected me: "Carl mange raisin" (Carl eats grapes). So what could I do but give him a few?!

At times, Carl will describe what's going on around him, which often involves manipulating what he's heard, rather than simply repeating what I tell him. Upon hearing the question "Qui est dans la chaise bleue?" (who's in the blue chair?"), he responded correctly, "Carl dans chaise bleue" (missing the verb and article, but replacing the subject.) One day, I put him in his high chair and went to get food out of the fridge, narrating what I was doing, as usual. "Tatie cherche ta nourriture. Voilà le fromage! Voilà mes pâtes! Tatie va manger aussi." (Auntie's looking for your food. Here's the cheese! Here's my pasta! Auntie's going to eat too.") Carl responded, "Tatie mange aussi." ("Auntie eats too.") Now, I can't say for sure if he was merely parroting my last sentence minus a few words, or if he was creating a new sentence of his own, but the fact of the matter was he changed verbs and conjugated the new one correctly ("Tatie mange," not "Tatie manger"). The most impressive occurrence, however, was when I hid behind a cushion and said "Je me cache" (I'm hiding). He quickly responded, "Tatie se cache!" (Auntie's hiding). This amazes me, because not only did he change the subject appropriately (from I to Auntie), he also correctly modified the reflexive pronoun from "me" to "se" (in French, we have to say "hiding myself," "hiding herself," etc.). Does he understand the grammatical structure, or did he just remember my saying "Cheval se cache" and "Carl se cache" when he or his stuffed horse hid, and then just changed the subject to Tatie? However it worked, it was still remarkable to hear from an 18-month-old who only hears me speak French once a week!

Finally, Carl is also learning to invent with French, saying phrases that he has come up with entirely on his own. This is the most exciting part--it's proof that he's doing more than repeating words and phrases he's already heard. It means he understands enough of what he hears to combine the words in unique ways! When he saw me take out my notebook to write down some of these sentences today, he reached for it and said "Carl écrit stylo livre" (~Carl writes with a pen in the book)--his longest original sentence in French so far! My favorite example of this phenomenon, though, comes from yet another mealtime. I've taught him to clink his sippy cup with my glass and say "tchin tchin" (as they do in France--it means "cheers"). He gets a kick out of it--occasionally holding up his cup in the middle of eating to clink additional times--plus his milk gets drunk (he's usually recalcitrant when it comes to moo juice). Well, two weeks ago he held up his cracker and said "tchin tchin biscuit"! He wanted to clink crackers with me! I can guarantee you that no one has ever said "tchin tchin biscuit" around the boy.

But just so you don't think that his progress is so mind-blowingly speedy that he's completely bypassed the normal developmental stage of mixing up his two languages, I'll conclude by pointing out that he definitely does use both languages in the same phrase, especially when talking to me. I think he just calls upon whichever word comes to mind first, even if he knows it in French too. This has brought utterances like "stylo bleu away" (~Auntie put the blue pen in her purse), "de l'eau go micro-ondes" (~put the water in the microwave), "car Tatie dehors" (~Auntie's car is outside), "Tatie write stylo noir" (~Auntie is writing with the black pen), "Tatie drink un coca" (~Auntie's drinking a Coke), and "Tatie chaise off!" (Auntie, get off the chair!)

As I wrote this post, I realized that lots of his communication has to do with eating. Yep, he's definitely part of this foodie family. I can't wait to hear what we'll talk about over our next meal!


  1. Heh. The boy knows what's important - food!

    He mostly sticks with English around the rest of us, since that's what he knows best. But he'll occasionally slip in a bit of French, the most common being "cache", "arbre", or "encore".

    You posted some darling photos in this entry, by the way!

    -Carl's mommy

  2. Sarah, thanks for the update! It's amazing how kids acquire a language.

  3. Two years (and one baby) later, I am amazed to look back at this and see that Carl could indeed express complete thoughts in French at 18 months! It seems like a tall tale, but those are all real examples. What a kid!