Monday, December 01, 2014

myth-ing the point

For the last Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival of 2014, Annabelle, the host, challenged us to explode the myths that many people hold about bilinguals--are we truly confused?  Are our kids condemned to a childhood of code switching and strange looks from their classmates?  Will our efforts isolate us from our monolingual in-laws?



But not really.  (So if any of those things do happen, don't blame the second language!)

Here's the best list I've encountered which enumerates and quickly dispels common myths about bilingualism, courtesy Prof. François Grosjean, author, linguist, parent, and all-around expert in this area: Myths About Bilingualism.

For today, I'd like to address the intersection of these two myths: "bilingual children experience language delays" and "being bilingual requires equal fluency in both languages."

Once upon a time, I was a French teacher, an aunt, and a part-time babysitter.  My sister-in-law had suggested that since I knew French, I might as well speak French to my nephew, Carl, while taking care of him one afternoon a week.  So I made the effort to learn vocabulary that had never before appeared in my French conversation or reading ("bouncy chair," "put the pumped milk into the bottle warmer," "what in the world is that foul odor?", "Can't I just cut the onesie off him after a diaper blow-out?") and spent many happy hours reading and singing and taking walks with Carl, all in French.

Tatie and Carl, 2006
And, by golly, at 18 months that brilliant baby was regularly making two- and three-word utterances in French. (I'm not exaggerating even a little bit--I took careful notes each time I was with him, which led to his first four-word sentence at 18 months: "Tatie écrit stylo livre"--Auntie is writing with a pen in her book!)

Clearly, being exposed to two languages from infancy didn't delay his language acquisition (nor did it impede his English ability).

Now, let's take a look at the other end of the spectrum: my daughter Gwyneth.  She's almost three and a half, and her speech in English is often nearly as unintelligible as her French.  

She has a lot to say, mind you, but chances are a stranger would have trouble deciphering it, what with the consonants she mispronounces ("ewewewatow" for "elevator") or drops altogether ("et" for "yet"), the sounds she transposes ("smoothie" becomes "soomie"), her occasional French words ("I a loup and my brover a loup"), her occasional missing words ("I no" which means "I don't know"), her even-less-frequent Spanish words (mostly numbers and bits of songs that she picks up at her Spanish immersion preschool) and the family-specific ideas she tends to reference (such as zerberts, sleep-unders, and tuck-tucks).

Gwyneth, 2014
Thus, when Gwyneth announces, "My wittle eye sawt wit wew!", we know (but no one else does) that she wants to play I Spy.  (She's heard her brother say "I spy with my little eye something that starts with B" and "I spy with my little eye something that is red," so she makes a valiant attempt to express "I spy with my little eye something that is vert," green.) 

See, we know what she means because we speak English, French, and Gwynese.  My wittle eye sawt wit wew.** (Doesn't that just make you want to give her a big squeezey hug?!  So cute.)

Given the fact that she was barely talking at 18 months, and not saying much as a two-year-old, I might characterize Gwyneth's speech as "delayed" (or perhaps just "confusing"), but there's no reason to attribute it to her hearing two languages from birth.  And for the record, both her pediatrician and her preschool teacher have reassured me that her language development is age appropriate, if perhaps on the low end of normal, and she did have an auditory test earlier this year just to make sure that she's hearing her consonants correctly.

Griffin's linguistic development, on the other hand, fell somewhere in between his sister and his cousin--neither astonishingly early nor a little late.  Again, I don't think that had anything to do with the languages he was hearing at home.

I did hear a lot of code-switching from Griffin as a toddler, though, particularly with nouns.  His sentences usually consisted of pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions in English, plus nouns in French.  I'm sure that this is because the majority of books he knew were in French, and we encounter words in books--volcano, hedgehog, leprechaun--that tend not to appear regularly in conversation.

(Code-switching, by the way, is neither a myth nor improper speech, but a normal stage in language development.  It doesn't occur because kids are confused, but rather because some words are easier to access in a certain language and those are the ones that come out first.  Later on, code-switching can be a deliberate choice when a person wants to use a word or phrase in the other language for emphasis, humor, or to identify herself as a member of a group.)

Griffin, 2012
Both of my children understand French as well as English, at least in the situations I've observed, although they both have a clear preference for English.  When prompted, Griffin will speak French, but haltingly.  (Unless we are discussing a book we're reading together, and then his French feels more organic, probably because the phrases and ideas from the story are surrounding us.)  As for Gwyneth, she usually refuses to do anything we ask her to do, so I've stopped encouraging her to reply to me in French, saving my requests for important things like brushing teeth and wearing pants.  (Hey, maybe I should start telling her she has to speak English from now on!  She would almost certain embrace the language just for the sake of rebelling against me.)  

(By the way, the thought of Gwyneth the teenager terrifies me.)

So I can't say that Griff and Gwyn are bilingual, right?  Despite my efforts and their passive understanding of French, they simply are not as fluent in their second language.  In fact, I often suspect that my own French isn't strong enough to be considered fluent--talking on the phone can reduce me to caveman-like stammers, I miss a lot in movies when the characters are speaking fast, using slang, or not facing the camera, I can't engage in political discussions,  some of the literature I studied in grad school reduced me to tears, and my accent immediately betrays me as a Anglophone.

I learned not to dwell on these perceived inadequacies, however, when I started speaking exclusively in French to my infant son.  I didn't want to feel self-conscious, so I kept reminding myself that even if my kids ended up speaking a second language imperfectly, that would still be much better than only speaking one language, period.

G&G, 2014
However, it appears that Dr. Grosjean would disagree, would insist that the fact that my kids and I are not equally fluent in both languages does not detract from our bilingualism:

"Some bilinguals are dominant in one language, others do not know how to read and write in one of their languages, others have only passive knowledge of a language and, finally, a very small minority, have equal and perfect fluency in their languages.  What is important to keep in mind is that bilinguals are very diverse, as are monolinguals."

In other words, non-native speakers like me can achieve fluency in our second languages, and we can proudly call ourselves--and our children--bilinguals.

ma famille, 2011
*Note to Griffin and/or Gwyneth: "Condemned to a Childhood of Code Switching" would make a great title for your memoirs one day.

**Whereas an autobiography called "My Wittle Eye Sawt Wit Wew" probably wouldn't make the bestseller lists.


  1. I loved Grosjean's article. I would add one more myths: quite often people around us think that becoming bilingual doesn't require ANY effort. Being fluent in a language implies a lot of work. You are doing a great job for both your kids and your readers!

    1. Right? It requires lots of work and enormous commitment on the part of the parents! True, language learning seems to come very easily to some people, but when you're both the teacher and the parent, it doesn't matter how quickly or slowly your kid acquires the language--the process of raising children bilingually keeps you on your toes.

      Thanks for the compliment!

  2. Great post, Sarah! Like many others, I used to think that "Bilingualism" meant complete, unimpeded fluency in two languages (comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing). It's nice to see a more forgiving and realistic definition! There's no doubt in my mind that you are a very talented bilingual, and that your kids are doing a fabulous job with three (!) languages.

    I was so interested to read more about code-switching, too. I love the franglais we all have going on, but it's nice to see that it's a completely normal phenomenon, not a sign of confusion.

    Oh, I dream of a day when I could watch a French movie and not have to work so hard to understand what's being said!

    1. Merci, Carol!

      Besides, little kid code-switching is too darn adorable. Yesterday Gwyneth asked me to read her the "nouveau book." Irresistable!

      I know what you mean about the incomprehensibility of French movies. Stop muttering and look straight at the camera, already! (Sometimes I display the French subtitles to accompany the French dialogue, and that helps, though they don't always correspond 100%!)

  3. Hi Sarah

    I've been away from my own blog and also from keeping up with my beloved blog roll for a while due to the business of life. But this morning I woke and decided, as I feel altogether more connected to the why's of non-native bilingualism when I am in the 'company' of like minded people, I decided I would carve out time to get back on the blog reading and (hopefully) blog writing horse.

    I'm a great believer that the right book appears just when you need it and, frankly, the same must be said for blog posts. When I read this article today I wanted to reach out and say 'thank you" for being so honest and detailed in your storytelling and for making me realise that I'm not the only one feeling the inadequacies or questioning my successes. You have made me feel that this is normal life and the fact that although my two little tykes understand everything that is said to them in French, they now have a clear preference for English, speaking French when the mood takes them but certainly not just because i want them to, but this does not mean I have failed or that my children are not bilingual. Thank you!!! And yes, the code switching, franglais and cute back to front phrases they say is super cute and makes the whole process more fun. I kind of enjoy the fact that sometimes its only the four of us that really 'get' what is being said because we have the French, English and little tyke expressions and it bonds us as a family.

  4. A great interview with François Grosjean