Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Griffin's Frenchified English: a good influence? a bad influence?

Yes, he really is reading while sitting
criss-cross-applesauce on the toilet lid.
I don't know why--we do have couches.
Bon, mauvais, it doesn't matter!  It's just really cool to realize that my son's knowledge of French affects his vocabulary and syntax when he speaks English.  Over the past year, I've noticed more and more examples of this.

Here are some recent Griffinisms that show that he's internalized how French works:

  • Calls the stroller a "push" (in French, la poussette is from the verb pousser, to push)
  • Uses the word "blocker" to describe the orange cones that separate the lanes of traffic from construction workers (he has heard me say that the cones are there to bloquer the lane)
  • Says that the car "rolls" on the road (from rouler
  • Tells people who are bothering him that he is "occupied" rather than "busy" (thanks to occupe in French)
  • Disagrees with people who say they don't want to do something with "Me, yes!" instead of something like "Well, I do!" (in French, we'd say moi, si! to contradict)
  • Tries to work out how idiomatic expressions correspond in the two languages; I'm thinking specifically of the time when he was muttering "Queue.  Tail.  We do the tail" while waiting in line (queue can mean the tail of an animal or a line of people, with the idiom faire la queue for "to wait in line")
  • Expresses pain with "I have hurt," rather than "I hurt" or "it hurts" (the expression in French is avoir mal, to have pain)
  • Confuses prepositions of place, such as "at the trash" instead of "in" (a la poubelle) and "at Denver" in lieu of "to Denver" (a Denver)
  • Tosses an adjective after the noun from time to time, like "that's my shirt red" (chemise rouge--in French, most adjectives follow the noun instead of preceding it as in English)
  • Refers to cornbread as "bread of corn" (thanks to pain de mais in French)
  • Has used this same structure to show possession, such as "the truck of Granddad" (la camionnette de Granddad)
  • Also indicates possession with "it's at me" to mean "mine" and "it's at you" for "yours" (one way to expression ownership in French is with the preposition a plus a disjunctive pronoun--a moi, a toi)
  • Asks for an ice cream or a steamer "at vanilla" (blame it on une glace a la vanille)
  • Occasionally uses a masculine or feminine pronoun, instead of "it," to refer to an inanimate object, as seen in "The car is rolling as fast as she wants" (la voiture is feminine in French)
  • Also shows awareness of gender via pronouns, as seen in the following exchange:
  • Maman: Qu'est-ce que tu vas lui dire? (What are you going to say to her [in preparation for a visit to the pediatrician])
  • Griffin: Is Dr. Black a boy or a girl?
  • Maman: C'est une femme.  (She's a woman.)
  • Griffin: Mais tu as dit "lui"!  (But you said "he"--lui as a disjunctive pronoun means "him," while the indirect object pronoun lui means "to him" OR "to her," depending on the context)
And these are only the examples that I took the time to jot down!  I wonder if anyone else who hears Griffin speak picks up on these quirks--after all, most preschoolers and toddlers use imprecise or incorrect vocabulary and grammar from time to time.   Does your child's speech ever show the influence of another language?  Is the child aware that this is happening?  I'd love to hear how it works in other families!


  1. This is so intersting from a linguist point of view. Reearchers love examples like these.

    1. It's times like these that I miss working in academia!

      Have you seen this book about the linguist who did a longitudinal study of his multilingual son? It sounds like he spent his son's childhood taking notes on everything he said!

    2. There are quite a few linguists who have done so: Leopold, Ronjat, Saunders, Deuchar (more recently) with their bilingual kid.These studies are interesting but also very citicised...

    3. Criticized why? Are there any linguistic studies of one's own children that are considered important and reliable?

      Have you considered doing this sort of thing with your daughter?

      (I realize that these questions could take several paragraphs--even pages!--to answer, so the short version would be fine. :) )

    4. Citicised because some say you cannot be completely objective with your own kids (participant/observer paradox). Also they are single case studies, so can never be generalised, etc.
      I would say from recent ones Deuchar's study is pretty good, very thorough and reliable.

      I have considered it (and everybody always asks)... but I thought, no. I want to enjoy her, not spend her childhood analysing her (even though I do it informally). I would love for someone else to do it though!!!

    5. Yes, all that makes sense. I'll have to try to find Deuchar's study. (And maybe an applied linguist to analyze my own kids' language acquisition!)

  2. Oh what a wonderful way to look at this. I have to admit I just get frustrated when my kids mix things up like this, but I will remember this from now on and enjoy their linguistic acquisition. Maybe it will bring my blood pressure down. ;)

    1. Jenn, I have the same reaction as you. We need to lighten up!

  3. Sarah-

    This is Hillary who emailed you from Cincinnati. I am salivating at this entry at the idea that my baby could be making these same mistakes someday!! :) That would mean I had arrived in my goal!!! :) Félicitations! (And by the way...I took the plunge!! A week ago, I started speaking exclusively French to Mallory unless we are having a conversation with my husband, who is not a French speaker. I'm figuring it out!!)


    1. Felicitations to you too, Hillary! I'm delighted to hear that you're now using your non-native French with your daughter, too.

      And, hey--I'm *still* figuring it out!

  4. Bonjour,

    I'm a first-time commenter. I just wanted to thank you for making me smile today, as many of your son's comments reminded me of my grandmother! My grandparents were francophone Belgians who moved to Montreal and then to Florida in their early 50s and never lost their French syntax and grammar, even after decades in the United States.

    I'm sure your son will pick up on the correct English syntax and grammar in time, although as you know, some things are never completely translatable. My boss, a French Canadian and former French-English translator, used to frequently exclaim, "Well, that's what it is!" as a counterpoint to "C'est comme ça!" We all knew what she meant, so just saw it as endearing rather than as an English mistake.

    1. Bienvenue, Maggie, and thanks for sharing! Your grandparents sound charming. You're absolutely right that this type of speech is endearing--perhaps that's why I don't correct Griffin's French-influenced utterances!

  5. We live in France doing well on both fronts. But he is saying me and moi instead of I and je. Any thoughts on this? Or advice? He is 2 yrs 10 months. Hehas been saying sentences since around his 2nd bday.

    1. My immediate thought is that you don't need to worry about that. I remember learning in a long-ago linguistics course that the objective case is the most frequently used and thus can be the first one acquired (not the nominative, as I had expected). It's his version of "me Tarzan"! Your son's "me" and "moi" will probably soon give way to "I" and "je."

      And how cool is it that he is already making sentences in both languages?!

  6. His first sentence was "Il est parti" and "Il est là" about 2 weeks before his 2nd bday. Then first English sentences were 2 months later "I did it!", "Théo farted too" that one is going in the baby book! And "Théo so funny". After those sententes its been non stop. It is very amazing. We were worried he'd be a late talker as some bilingual kids are but not this guy!

    1. Yes, do write them all down! I haven't done baby books for either one of my kids, but I figure this blog counts. :)

      Today, over a breakfast of cinnamon toast, Griffin informed me that "sugar" and "booger" rhyme.

  7. Hello,

    I am French and my husband is American.
    I have two bilingual teenagers and I can relay to a lot of things you are talking about.
    They are both fluent in English and French (we live in the US) but they still make some mistakes in French. They have especially a hard time with the "lui" issue for women you were pointing at.
    I tried accross the years to be very patient and positive. Sometimes I explain the rule but what works best is humor.

    When my daughter tells me what happened to her in the morning when she was "sur le bus" to go to school I joke with her on the fact that this is a very dangerous place to sit. The next time she will correct herself with a big smile and a wink.

    1. Bonjour Emilie! Thanks for sharing your stories (and I followed the link to your website--I wish Griffin and Gwyneth could take classes with you!). It's encouraging to hear that your children are so comfortable in both languages.

      You're absolutely right--using humor to gently correct works very well. Citing the rules for preposition use (in any language) will only get you so far. We need context and comedy and repetition!

  8. Hello to all! I am bilingual (french and greek) and I'm amazed to see how much you parents talk about that stuff today!! There was certainly not so much attention around us when I used to be little and I'm glad to see that you take the topic seriously. I'm sure you're doing a great job considering all the thinking and anlyzing you put into it! Anyway, I just wanted to share with you my humble experience and tell you that I'll never be grateful enough to my father who always made sure I would not mix the 2 languages (he's a translator himself). He used to be very flexible about everything in my life, except for that. When I began a senetence in a language I had to finish it in that same language. This helped me to fully master both french and greek and to build a strong basis to learn many other languages. I am 33 today and I consider myself to be fully bilingual... unfortunatly, most of my my "bilingual friends" continue to speak this invented franco-greek language and have difficulties communicating when one does not understand both... "Voila" my contribution and good luck!

    1. Welcome, Urban Bilingual Milan (though given your facility with English, it looks like you're actually trilingual)!

      While mixing languages is a normal part of language acquisition for children growing up bilingually, I can see that having a parent who insisted on consistency would make it easier in the long run.

      Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing Griffin a disservice by not requiring him to reply to me in French. However, I want to keep it fun, especially since he's at a stage where he automatically resists when he can tell that his father or I really want him to do something.

  9. We have two kids both under three who are learning English and German at home. Having grown up in Switzerland, I also speak French, so they get some exposure to French too. Living in Australia, my wife has found it difficult to keep up the German-speaking with the kids in general day-to-day life, when not around German friends.

    Finding access to bilingual learning materials has been tricky. To help our kids with this, I decided to create an iPhone/iPad app which covers basic vocabulary, in seven different languages. We'll continue developing it if enough people are interested in it. Both my children have easily picked up the vocabulary.

    Our approach to teaching our kids about being bilingual is to explain to them which words are German and which are English. So for example, we'll say 'In English, you say The Hippo, and in German you say Das Nilpferd'. It first it took them a while to understand that. But now they can easily differentiate between the two languages.

    Whether this is the best approach, I am not sure, but we seem to be making pretty good headway. Both kids are beginning to understand that they speak two languages.

  10. Thanks for sharing your story and for letting us know about your app!

    I bet your kids now instinctively know the difference if you tell them a new word in English or German and you don't even need to label which language it is any more.

    Since they're still quite young, you might not be able to answer this question yet--but what language(s) do they use when speaking with each other?