Friday, May 21, 2010

All about....Growing up with two languages and cultures - Monday 7th June in Civrary

The time has certainly flown this year and we are already at the final seminar in our popular "All About...." series for 2009/2010! We've covered the basics of the education system from Maternelle through to Collège as well as an introduction to bilingualism.

For our final seminar, we're looking at the implications for children growing up in a second (or even third) culture and language, particularly where this is away from the parental cultural background. We'll be focussing on culture in schools and at home - how to balance the needs of both, especially as children grow and are exposed to increasing peer pressure. If you've ever wondered how your children would adapt to life outside France, whether to watch French or English television or how to introduce your own culture into the lives of your children, then this is the seminar for you.

We'll also be having a general Q&A on all aspects of bilingualism and multiculturalism so please send in any questions you have before the day.

You can send questions via this blog, email me at or via the Accents facebook page.

And of course, this will all be rounded off with the opportunity to have a light lunch at the Café and chat with the other parents. Hopefully the sun will be shining and we can make the most of living in France!

Look forward to seeing you all there!


Friday, May 07, 2010

10 Little Words

Did you know you can measure the average number of words a child uses to compare their levels of language knowledge and usage? The calculation of number of words spoken over a period of time gives the mean length utterance (MLU). For my Masters course I had to calculate the MLU of a young child. Conveniently my own son, Marc, was then aged two and a half and I diligently noted and counted his words for a week.The results showed that our English conversation was heavily overloaded with ten words. Marc said No! Yes! Why? and I want! frequently, and I replied with Stop! Don't touch that! and Because.

Looking at the results I couldn't imagine how on earth this child would become bilingual with such a limited vocabulary. When I told my mum she laughed and said it was him being in the Terrible Two's phase and that things would improve. Over time, Marc did become a great conversation partner. By the time he was four I couldn't possibly count his daily word-count.

Now Marc is an official teenager, and we seem to have returned to the 10-word-count days again, which is not enough to support his English. Our daily after-school conversation goes on the lines of:
'How was school?'I ask,
'Any homework?'
'No.' (not true). Marc says, 'Can I go on the computer?'
I say 'No!' and he asks 'Why?'
An argument breaks out between him and his siblings and I shout 'Stop!' It's déjà-vu, but with a child who is now 160cm tall....

I heard on the radio that the best place to talk to teenagers is in the car. It's true if they are alone with a parent (if Nina or Gabriel are there he'll hook up to his Nintendo and ignore everyone). Car journeys are the place where we talk in long sentences. The twenty-minute trip to drop him off at tennis, or at school when he has a late start, are the rare times when he is chatty, interesting and thoughtful. Can the car be a useful tool for maintaining bilingualism? I think so, and it's worth trying at least until your child gets his own drivers licence...

Do-It-Yourself or Translate-It-Yourself

Most bulky items are sold in neat flat-packs to be magically assembled at home; climbing frames, bookshelves and even a whole kitchen from Ikea. To successfully put it together one needs to be able to read the instructions, tricky in your second language if you are living in another country. Lacking knowledge of French DIY terms I made a simple metal towel rail back to front, and mixed up all the screws until the boys came to help out and put it together in five minutes. 'How could you misunderstand it? they ask. But there's no time for translation when you are rushing to get the new product finished. Who learnt the conjugations of twist, screw or hammer at school?

There's often a part or tool missing and a trip to the DIY store is unavoidable. Not knowing the right word I feel stupid making a noise like a chain-saw or miming rope for a swing while staff gaze on wondering what I might want. The vocabulary is a black hole of jargon, because if you manage to get a staff member to understand the product you want, they'll ask you ten questions about the material, size, model or price range, until you walk out with anything just to escape.

Some electrical items from major brands come with a handy 200 page multilingual book of instructions. No matter what the linguistic mix in the family each person has their section. The older kids love this instant world language course and flip through the pages saying, 'Look how Hungarians say Plug it in!' or 'That's Chinese for Recharge the Battery'.

I hope that the translators did a good job from the original version, and didn't just cut and paste it the text into one of those free translating websites to save time. Although multilingual instructions are a lifesaver for the OPOL family, there is just one technical problem, flicking from the French version to the English pages to check the translation wastes time. While I'm painstakingly learning new words, 'A screwdriver is a tournevis...', my husband is left holding up one end of a cupboard with his shoulder and is not amused. So we revert to a more simpler communication 'Pass that red thing over there!'

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Big Bad Words - Older Children

What happens when you move to a country where another language is used and your children are enrolled in a local primary of secondary school? Chances are high they'll pick up a few swearwords as they become bilingual. It's part of fitting in and sounding 'right'. But do you actually know any French swearwords? How do you know if the neighbour's child is just being silly or really insulting you? Which words should you ban your children using?

My lack of knowledge was highlighted when my sister gave my youngest child a set of washable pens to doodle on the bathroom tiles while in the bath. My two older children and their two French cousins 'borrowed' the pens and wrote French swearwords on the bathroom wall. I was furious because I was unable to deceipher the messages. The cousins sniggered that their English aunt was so naïve, and my children saw a chance to misbehave and say rude things to each other or me without being caught. Their punisment was to give me a basic grounding in gros mots, (or Ten Things Not To Say In Front Of Your Parents Or Teachers). Here are the results. They are listed in order of seriousness and vulgarity.

Dégage! – Get out of my way!/Get lost! (often used between kids)
Ferme ta geule! – Shut up!/Shut your gob! (rude)
Chiant – a pain/annoying/boring (mildly insulting)
Emmerdeur - nuisance/annoying (mildly insulting)
Imbécile/Cretin/Idiot – idiot (can be insulting)
Con/conard – stupid (offensive)
Salope/pétasse/pouffiasse – bitch (offensive)
Pute/Putain - slut/tart (offensive)
Merde! - s**t (offensive)
Je m’en fous! – I d'ont give a f**k! (offensive)

There are also some words which have become a 'lighter' alternative to an offensive word, like the way we say 'sugar' or 'shoot', in place of a stronger curse.

Punaise! – literally a 'drawing pin' or 'bedbug' (to replace putain)
Puree! - literally 'mashed potatoe' (to replace putain)
Mince! – literally 'slim' (to replace merde)
Je m’en fiche! I don’t give a damm! (cheeky)

For parents of children growing up in France I would recommend listening carefully to your children, particulary when they are talking to their friends. If you are not sure about new words ask your child's teacher, or a French friend to tell you which words are unacceptable for your children.

See also:

Titeuf - a cartoon character based on young adolescent who knows several gros mots (see comic books/dvds, available in all good bookshops)
Useful dictionary website, which gives translations of colloquial French/English words and has an excellent forum for questions on language or swearing in context.

Big Bad Words - Little Children

Young children love French 'naughty words' or gros mots...For bilingual English/French families living in France the most commonly heard are body words:

pipi (pee or wee-wee)
caca (poo)
zizi (willy)
fesse (bottom)
prout-prout (literally the sound of farting)
crotte de nez (snot)
crotte de chien (dog-poo).
caca-boudin (poo-black-pudding-sausage),
Beurk! means ‘yucky’, or a nasty smell or taste
Conjugating verbs like ‘to fart’ (péter) and ‘to burp’ (roter) are popular!
To insult each other young kids can say grosse vache or gros cochon (fat cow/pig).
pouet-pouet camembert is a silly phrase that young children say, something like 'na-na-ni-na-na' in English.

Words which your child should be careful of using in front of sensitive adults, neighbours and teachers are Dégage! (Get out of my way!), and Ferme ta geule! (Shut up!) Some words should be avoided, for example, cul (stronger word for bottom/arse), which can be considered vulgar, and con (stupid/idiot) is insulting.

If you are not sure about rude words your child is using do ask your child’s teacher or a French friend whether they think their vocabulary is suitable. Parents do need to be clear about the difference between ‘naughty’ words used between friends or in the playground, and words which should not be used in front of the teacher or adults

*See The Connexion newspaper (May 2010) for full version of swearwords for young children and Questions from parents about swearing.

See also: les-gros mots des- tout-petits (Titou le Lapinou)
A silly song about gros mots for little children.
Useful dictionary website, which gives translations of colloquial French/English words with a forum for questions on language or gros mots.

Caca boudin’ by Stephanie Blake (5 €,
A story in French for young children about a rabbit who likes the word caca-boudin…