Je fais le bilan, tu fais le bilan, elle fait le bilan …

August 18, 2009

I wanted to set down for posterity, in amongst all the feel-good stuff, how The Plan is actually working out so far.

In terms of understanding, my honest assessment is that, in terms of what her parents say at least, Piaf’s languages are approximately equal. There may be odd words that she understands in one and not the other, but generally speaking she demonstrates understanding of what she hears to the same degree regardless of language. She gives the same response to “que dit le singe?” and “what does a monkey say?” (i.e. she says “oo-oo-oo” and pretends to scratch her armpits); “fais-moi un bisou” and “can I have a kiss?” both get a moist, gentle pressure of lips on cheek (or, sometimes, just “no!”); “tu as fait caca?” and “have you done a poo?” both produce a resigned, matter-of-fact, “yeah.” The same is true with other English speakers; she does not have enough contact with other French speakers to ascertain her understanding of them.

 Productively, English has very much the upper hand. This is, I hope, nothing to worry about – a convincing (to me) theory has it that, for a child of Piaf’s age, there is a single language system so the need to use different words with different people is not perceived. As Saunders points out, a similar phenomenon can be perceived in monolingual children – a toddler might respond equally to “horse,” “horsey” and “gee-gee” but only produce one of those words (probably whichever he or she finds easiest to pronounce.) And, when a child has far more contact with English speakers, it seems odds-on that, in most cases, the English word would be the child’s “choice” because it gets used more often.

There are a few words, though, that she does produce in French (it is worth noting, too, that there have been a few others that have since ceded to the English – “bou,” [hibou] for example, was used but never got fully established; she now says “ow” [owl] instead, though still responds to the French.)

Here, then are Piaf’s French words, aged 18 months and a bit. Where she is a bit “off”, the pronunciation is based on spoken English (for the non-linguisticians amongst you) rather than any formal phonemic transcription system. I have also omitted – “in the interests of prudence,” as we accountants say – words which sound the same or similar in both languages, on the assumption that she is saying them in English, not French.

She says                       French word                 English translation 

dada                             dada                             gee-gee (as in, “horse”) 

bateau                          bateau                          boat

tahn                              attends                         wait

tick                               tigre                              tiger 

gaga                             caca                             poo (as in, “faeces”)

loor                              lourd(e)                        heavy 

beh                               bê                                baa (noise a sheep makes)

gak                               glace                            ice cream*

azo                               oiseau                           bird* 

The last two (marked with an asterisk) are too new and/or tentative to brag about, but still. Much as it otherwise pains me to quote that wrinkled old fascist Le Pen, “tenez bon – on arrive!

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