Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Language gaps

The other day we went out for a family bike ride. Jacques has just taught Gabriel to ride. He is enthusiastic and desperate to ride on a real road. Jacques goes first, followed by Marc, Nina, Gabriel and me at the end (presumably to pick up any children who might fall off). It all goes well until we set off down a hill and Gabriel picks up speed. Too much speed though, and he starts rapidly overtaking the others. I call out ‘Gabs, brake a little!’ He calls back ‘Break what??’ I reply, breathlessly, ‘Brake…the bike.’ ‘Break my bike? Why, Mummy???’ and he starts looking behind, rather dangerously, to see what I am talking about. ‘Brake, NOW!!!’ I shout, getting nervous as he spins his wheels. ‘Break my leg? Break my head? Break my arms!’ he sings, with no fear in his mind. One little bump on the road and he will be in the hedge, with a broken arm or leg.

I mentally imagine the trip to the local hospital. As I think, in French, how I will explain the accident to the doctor (‘I told him to brake and he ignored me!’) it hits me that maybe he doesn’t know what brake means. He only knows frien, which Jacques taught him, naturally. I never got to explain the English translation. But this is no time to start translating. If I mispronounce frien or put it in an English sentence he might not understand. It sounds a bit like Friend and that might distract him. If I talk to him in French he will be surprised and might turn around to ask me why I am speaking French. Default language use eventually comes into action, my brain automatically finding a linguistic solution.

‘STOP!!!!’ I scream. That works. He stops. We all stop. Everyone understands Stop.
‘Nothing broken!’ smiles Gabriel ‘Why did you say break, Mummy?’

Ah, the joys of parenting in two languages!!

Down on the farm…

On a recent long car journey to our holiday destination I suggested an easy game that all three children could play. It was called ‘Guess the Animal’. One person had to make an animal sound and the others guess what kind of animal it was. Gabriel had just visited a farm recently with the school, and learnt the names of animals in both languages. They could use either French or English when they answered. But we soon found out that all animals don’t always speak the same language…

Marc went first. ‘Scrontch-scrontch, groin groin…’ he said. The children quickly identified it as a pig. ‘How can that be!’ I said from the front seat. ‘A pig goes oink oink, like the pig called Babe in that film.’ I was quickly out-voted.

Nina was next, she cooed ‘hulluh hullah...’ and it took a while for us to guess that it was an owl, not a pigeon as I predicted. ‘No way’ the boys protest. ‘An owl says Twit-tu-whoo- tu-whooh’.

Gabriel chose a donkey, most likely inspired by Winnie-the Pooh, and said: ‘Eeyore, eeyore’. Marc and Nina guessed correctly, but disputed this hotly, arguing that a donkey usually says ‘hi-han hi-han’.

We gave up on the game, since no-one could agree on which sound was ‘right’ and ran through all the animal noises in both languages. With the help of the French storybook we had in the car about a farmyard, where the noises are written down, and my childhood memories of English animal talk we compared notes. Down on the farm some fields of French and English animals would not be able to talk to each other. Did you know, for example, that an English sheep goes ‘baa baa’ while a French sheep goes bêêêê? A duck in London would naturally say ‘quack quack!’ while its cousin in Paris says coin coin. A tiny chick would go ‘cheep cheep’ in Manchester, and piou piou in Normandy. Thankfully, cats miao, dogs woof, cows moo, and hens cluck in both countries.

Around the world there is whole orchestra of different ways of translating the same animal’s noise. For example, a male chicken, or cockerel, can ‘say’

Kho-kho-hou-hoûûû! (in Morocco)
Co-co-ri-co! (in France)
Cock-a doodle-doo! (in England)
Qui-qui-ri-qui! (in Spain)
Koké-ko-kôôô! (in Japan)

This is the kind of language use that you don’t see in a dictionary; or learn in a language school, it is often hidden in young children’s nursery songs or books. But it seems logical that a child attending pre-school or primary school would need to know the animal sounds in both languages or it could be very confusing. While this might all seem rather irrelevant in the wider scheme of helping your child become bilingual it is worth bearing in mind, especially if you plan to sing together the well-known children’s nursery rhyme ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm…’