Thursday, March 01, 2007

Carl's first mot in French

For eleven months, I spoke French to my nephew whenever I saw him. This felt awkward and unnatural at first, especially since I'm a native speaker of English and not used to being around babies. But after I started taking care of Carl one day a week, I got more used to providing long monologues in French interspersed with songs and nursery rhymes ("comptines," in French). For eleven months, Carl didn't really respond; often he wouldn't even turn his head when I said his name, much less follow directions or make noises that sounded like words.

But then around the time that he acquired his first words in English (owl, banana, light, cat), I realized that he really was understanding some of what I said in French. One night while my husband and I were watching him at our house, his socks slid off while he was playing, as usual. "Carl, est-ce que tu as encore perdu tes chaussettes?" Did you lose your socks again? "Va chercher tes chaussettes et donne-les-moi." Go get your socks and bring them to me. Now, this is the sort of thing I say to him all the time, not expecting him to process it, but knowing that it's still important to give him lots of input in French. But this time he looked up, stopped pushing his toy train, crawled over to his socks lying about eight feet away, picked them up, brought them to me (another eight feet away), and let me put the errant socks on his cute little feet.

My husband and I were dumbfounded. "Did you tell him to go get his socks?" asked my husband, who doesn't speak French. All I could do was nod. Not only did Carl understand the question and the commands (one with two object pronouns!), he actually did what I had asked! This had never happened to me before. And Carl was so matter-of-fact about the whole situation that I suspect he had been understanding words like "chaussette" and "donner" and "moi" for quite some time. Even if he didn't know all the words (for example, "perdu" doesn't come up very often while babysitting), he used the context (cold feet, knowledge that his Tatie keeps trying to put socks on him, my pointing to the abandoned socks) to figure out what I wanted. In other words, he's acquiring language!

So far I've only heard one word clearly enough to say for certain that it's French. And it's not a word we would have expected--it doesn't convey a need (like "milk" or "juice" or "more"), it doesn't name a person or toy or animal he's very close to (like "mommy" or "cat"), and it isn't a word he's acquired in English. What's the magic word? Tête ("head")!

But "tête" is a word that he hears a lot from me, for two reasons. One is that it appears in several of the songs I sing to him, and I touch his head every time it occurs in the song ("Tête, épaules, genoux et pieds" and "Savez-vous planter les choux"). The second reason is that Carl really likes to touch people's faces and heads, and whenever he touches my head, I say "la tête" and touch his in return. I can surmise, therefore, that the combination of frequent repetition in musical and playful contexts reinforced the word and made it important to him and easy to learn. Plus, two of his earliest words in English end with /t/ (cat and light), so that's a sound he already knew how to make.

So now we have a little ritual: identify the body parts. I'll ask him "Où est le pied, Carl?" and he'll touch my foot. ""Où est le nez, Carl?" and he'll touch my nose. "Où est la bouche?" and he'll stick his whole hand in my mouth. And finally, "Où est la tête?"--and he'll take his palm and plant it firmly over my eyes and forehead and say "tête!" all by himself.

As you can see from these stories, Carl recognizes a lot of words in French now--body parts, objects in a room, names of his toys, and more. He also associates groups of words with what's supposed to happen next. For example, I recite a comptine about a horse that first walks, then trots, and finally gallops. I bounce him on my knee as I recite it, speeding up the bounces with the horse's movements. Carl absolutely loves to bounce up and down--and has since he was an infant--but the comptine goes slowly until the very end. Whenever I say "au pas, au pas"--step, step,--he starts bouncing vigorously and giggling on his own because he knows that "au trot" and "au galop" come next! Same thing with counting--I'll count to three and then toss him up in the air, drop him onto a beanbag so he can slide down, turn him upside down, or spin him around. His facial expression when I get past "deux" but pause before "trois" shows me that he knows something fun and exciting is coming next.

Carl's also already learning about the arbitrariness of language, that words are just signs that indicate an idea or an object. (This is one of the benefits of raising children with more than one language.) One of his books is called "Mon Papa"; it has pictures of toddlers with their fathers and sentences describing what they do together. Both Eliazbeth (Carl's mom) and I read him this book in French. Now Carl will pick up the book and say "Daddy." To me, this indicates that he knows that "Papa" and "Daddy" and the guys in the pictures all refer to the same type of person. (On the other hand, he's been calling Elizabeth "Daddy" too!)

One more story: I've been teaching him the word "bisou," kiss. I'll tell him in French that I'm going to give him a kiss, and then I do. Then I give Pooh Bear a kiss with a loud smacking sound--mwah!--then his small stuffed owl, and so forth. Then Owl kisses Pooh, then Pooh kisses Carl, and so on. Each time, I say "Je te fais un bisou," or "Hibou me fait un bisou," or whatever. Finally, I tell Carl to give Pooh a kiss. Carl's doesn't say "bisou" yet, but he tries to make the "mwah" sound. Only he can't make the plosive noise with the lips at the end of it, so he just says "ma" when he kisses the animals. But the funniest part is when he kisses his owl--the owl's head is so tiny that he just sticks it in his mouth and says "ma" around it. Adorable!


  1. He definitely has lots of words in English now. The ones I've heard often include: Daddy, Mama, nana (for banana), owl, no, and cat, but I think his parents are keeping track of everything they've heard. Maybe Elizabeth or Steve can share a more extensive list with us?

  2. That is so great - you're a fabulous aunt and we'll never tell him he was a lifelong linguistic experiement. Ha! Just kidding...

  3. Oh geez, Carl's English has definitely been exploding. He says cheese, bye-bye, hat, Pooh, meow, and uh-oh. I think I've heard kiss and up as well. He also signs milk, hat, food/eat, and recently thank you (though he's still clearly vague on the concept of thanks).

    -Carl's mom