Thursday, September 22, 2011

look who's circumlocuting!

No, not Gwyneth yet.  She's just cooing.

It's Griffin!

Perhaps he's been doing this all along, but lately I've noticed how skillfully he handles mystery words.  If he doesn't know the appropriate word in French (or English), he substitutes a short (or long) description of the item or idea, in whichever language seems most convenient (usually both, if he's talking to me, but he also doesn't hesitate to throw in a French word or bust out his creative Franglais with others).

Oh yes, I have a few examples!

Out for a Saturday morning walk, we passed a house with several tree stumps in its front yard, and I realized that I didn't know how to say "stump" in French. I told Griffin that we'd have to look up the word in the dictionary when we got home. But several hours later, my sleep-deprived brain couldn't remember which word we needed. Griffin reminded me by saying, "L'arbre que quelqu'un a coupé et quelqu'un a laissé qui est petit" (the tree that someone cut and someone left behind which is little).

Another time, Griffin was telling his daddy that he wanted dessert from the freezer, but he could only remember the French word (congélateur), which didn't make sense to my favorite Anglophone. Barely missing a beat, Griffin explained that he wanted something that was in "the rectangle with a door on top of the réfrigérateur."

A song that we enjoy singing together ends with the line, "Et l'on se taît" (and we shush up). Curious if Griffin understood that idea, I asked him what it meant, and he replied, "It's when on ne parle plus." Wow! "We don't talk any more." Most of my first-year (and plenty of my second-year) college students couldn't use the ne…plus negative construction to convey "no longer" instead of simply "not," and they rarely felt comfortable with the third-person pronoun on which can signify "one," "you," or "we," depending on the context.  It seems like Griffin has simply internalized utterances like these, whereas we adults have to study and memorize them!

The linguistics student in me loves watching him figure out how to communicate, and the non-native speaker in me is thrilled that he's developing these circumlocution skills.  (And the maman in me thinks he's brilliant!)

I am also realizing that some of the games we play--I Spy, 20 Questions--must be helping Griffin learn how to "talk around" ideas and define things.

Now you, dear readers--in what fun ways have your bilingual kiddos circumlocuted? What strategies do you encourage to help them rely less on word-to-word translations between their languages?


  1. What great examples! And I agree with the maman in you :) He's brilliant.

    We've been busy with family visiting from Bolivia and I'm loving that my kids have to talk in Spanish to be understood. The family was impressed with the two-year-old's I give myself a little pat on the back for keeping it up even though we're surrounded by English all the time.

  2. I agree, too - definitely brilliant!
    This is just amazing to me! Circumlocution can be a tough task for students learning a language. But to these little ones, it seems to be a more natural part of their language development. How fabulous! And thought I don't speak French, I can appreciate your explanation of his use of advanced skills - amazing! (Hence, brilliant!)
    As my little one is only just saying his first words, we are far from this advanced skill ourselves. His idea of circumlocution is to point and grunt :) And then grunt louder when Mama doesn't understand :)

  3. Yes, our (trilingual) children do this too! I can't remember any examples off hand but I know we've commented on it admiringly before now.
    By the way, I was wondering how you are pronouncing "Gwyneth" in French? Does it come out roughly as
    "Guillenette" if I transliterate it into French spelling?

  4. @medina--Sounds like your family is doing so well! Congratulations! I am envious that you have family members to speak with so that the kids can use the language for real communicative purposes. (But I'm also sure that it's difficult to live so far apart.)

    @German--yes, I agree that circumlocution is challenging for a lot of language learners, especially the older ones. When I was teaching college French, I ended up requiring my second year students to learn a list of a dozen or so expressions like "it's when you X" and "it's the opposite of Y" to try to move them away from using English words in their French sentences or constantly asking got translations. They had to come up with definitions like these for all their vocal (and rarely enjoyed it, I'm afraid).

    But with the kiddos, they don't need explicit teaching of strategies like these--they just do what they would do naturally in their first language when they don't know a word!

    @Jen--Circumlocution must be such fun to observe in trilingual kiddos!

    A couple of the mamans at French playgroup call my daughter "gwee-nette" (pronouncing the W).

  5. OOOh, love it! I am a new follower and can't wait until we hit that stage =) of understanding!

  6. WOW! I'm struck by the similarity of their open-mouth look! How sweet!

  7. @Lovingmama--Thank you! I have just visited your blog and am blown away--I found a dozen projects I want to print out and save and try with Griffin. Would love to hear more about your non-native bilingualism--perhaps you'd be willing to answer some questions on my blog? You can check out the posts with the label "profiles" to see some examples. (I'm sure you're crazy busy right now, so no hurry.)

    @Tamara--Gwyneth is such a happy baby. I love her wide-eyed, open-mouthed smiles of joy!