Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Where we’re at: inside the bilingual brain

Puce has officially strolled out of toddlescence and has hurried on to embrace the heady heights of being 5.  Her communication skills in both languages seem to grow by the day, and she continues to switch with ease between one language and the other, from one parent to the other.  I heard her using a French subjunctive verb the other day and couldn't help hissing to Monsieur R that I was in fifth year at high school when I started learning subjunctives… It was recently pointed out that she even changes her non-verbal communication, depending on who she’s talking to, using more gesticulations and facial expressions when talking to Monsieur R, à la française.

We recently went to a talk by Professor Antonella Sorace of Bilingualism Matters, all about bilingualism in children.  We don’t need any convincing of the benefits of bilingualism, but what is really fascinating is how far-reaching the impact of bilingualism can be and just how early babies (newborns!) can distinguish different languages.  For bilinguals, the notion of language as a means of communicating, rather than an end in itself is obvious.  They “notice” how language works and can differentiate between form and meaning, knowing implicitly that an apple is a pomme, is a manzana, is a mela…it doesn’t matter if the word changes, we’re all still talking about that nice, juicy piece of fruit hanging in the tree.

There were clarifications as well: bilingual children aren’t necessarily more intelligent (or more confused – depending on which piece of unsollicted “advice” you listen to), but they are more efficient at certain tasks than monolinguals.  They can be more precocious readers, but (I felt relieved to hear), they tend to manage to transfer reading skills across alphabetic languages.  I have often wondered whether learning to read in English would disadvantage Puce when it came to French, leaving her with an indelible anglicised edge to her reading in French.

But the real light-bulb moment was when Professor Sorace addressed the thorny issue of language mixing.  This is the sign that most parents of bilingual children look for as being the beginning of the end for the minority language battle.  I remember trying to stamp out French words that cropped up in English sentences, worried that it meant Puce would be unable to communicate “properly” with her English family without recourse to a dictionary; family members who felt the need to learn French so they would be able to “help” her in later life would then be proved right…

Whereas the calmer, more removed and certainly long-term view is a lot more optimistic.  Put in context, language-mixing often arises from being in a situation and using words that pertain to that situation – and it’s something that the parents often do.  I will raise my hand as being guilty straightaway; despite trying to speak to Monsieur R only in English for the last year before we left France (for both Puce’s benefit and his), it’s often easier just to refer to things that are franco-français (oops) in context, in French, rather than wasting 2 minutes looking for the English approximation.  An eavesdropper would have a hard time following my side of the conversation as it meandered from one language to another (I always prefer swearing in French though – much more satisfying).  It all comes down to the expectation that our children will Do As I Say, Not As I Do, which is the recurrent snag when it comes to most aspects of parenting.

The second thing to remember is that their language mixing is unlikely to be random.  Bilingual parents will probably know what I mean – your child says a sentence which is grammatically correct, but there may be a couple of words “borrowed” from the other language.  I always felt a bit torn over this; when people asked me if Puce mixed languages in the early stages of speech, my gut reaction was to say No, as this somehow didn’t feel like the arbitrary grasping at words that “mixing” seemed to imply.  It felt more sophisticated than that.  So now I have my explanation – I wish I’d had it years ago.

The other element to language mixing takes us into uncharted territory as Puce is an only child: how do bilingual children interact between themselves?  They probably use the same word-appropriate tactics that we adults do, especially with other children who have grown up in similar configurations.    When I ask Puce about how they chat at La Petite Ecole, the best I can get is a gallic shrug and an “it depends, sometimes English, sometimes French”.  I quelled the desire to start on about the reasoning for going all the way to French school in Edinburgh at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning to just end up speaking English…when the calmer, more long-term view took over and reminded me that actually, this is a subject I know nothing about.  I’ve never grown up bilingual, constantly shuttling backwards and forwards between two different worlds, much less playing in carefully constructed linguistic environments designed to favour language development with other children.  I have become bilingual through choice and hard work, but I will always be on the outside looking in as these little ones whirl through their games and songs.

There are so many other experiences and configurations out there…what do you think?  Is language mixing a risk or a skill?  How do your little linguists adapt?  I’d love to know…


  1. Hi Jenny,
    so glad I found your blog (from a comment you did in Design Mom blog). I'm argentinian and my husband is brazilian and we live in São Paulo, Brazil. We have a baby boy of 3 1/2 months and since today I haven't met anyone that had the same experience of raising a bilingual child. I would love to hear all your advice. Are there any reading that you recommend? Tks. Felicitas

    1. Hi Felicitas!
      The best advice I can give you if you want your little boy to be bilingual is to keep talking your language to him! It's hard in the beginning, especially when your baby is too little to answer, you might think that it's not doing any good, but it is! Reading and doing things are the best ways of actively sharing your language and making it fun. In my experience, as long as you and your husband are consistent in the languages you use with your child, he will get used to it; it's much harder for us, as parents, to figure out how to do that (what language you talk in the park when other children are around, what language you talk in front of your husband's family, etc). I have always spoken English (my language) to my daughter, even when we lived in France, even if sometimes I had to then repeat things in French for other people to understand. The result is that my daughter, at 5, is perfectly at ease in both languages and is aware of the differences, passing from one language to another in the same sentence if she is talking to both myself and my husband. I hope this helps
      I'll do a post about a book that I read that was very interesting, as someone else asked me about this too...Good luck and keep in touch!