Je traduis, tu traduis, elle traduit …

January 26, 2010

“Why are you always saying ‘cous cous’?”

This question came from the child who once asked me, “why don’t you talk properly?” so I was instantly on my guard. But, when I gave it a minute’s thought, I realised what he was getting at. He heard me every morning asking Piaf questions. “Qu’est-ce que tu as?” ” Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” “Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” And, not being a French speaker, but being very bright and middle class, he heard, not ” qu’est-ce que,” but the word he knows that it most resembles – cous cous.

Children, I am learning, are sense makers. From hearing a half or even a quarter of a message, they will infer that a message is there to be found, and they will find it; and, like a drunk singing along to a juke box, they will make up the bits they don’t know. They do this even before they can assess the importance of the message – Piaf is still occasionally exclaiming “‘appy NEW year!” She does not know that this message’s “value” changes according to the date – she just knows that it is something that adults say, so it is worth saying. She and her friends already understand that everything important in this world gets done through language and they want a piece of that action NOW.

They are also great pattern makers. It seems to be one of the ways they learn so much so quickly, by grabbing onto one thing and extrapolating. Incidentally, if anyone’s got a slightly older monolingual child and is frustrated by hearing “I goed there,” “I doed it at school,” don’t be – it’s a sign your child has successfully mastered the “pattern” of the past simple; so strong is this urge to make patterns that they will find patterns even when there isn’t one or when the pattern doesn’t work any more.

Piaf is also exhibiting this in a variety of ways, which has led me to a slight tactical modification. One of her “prêt-á-hurler” expressions is, “papa parle français, maman parle anglais”. Of course, this is excellent, and sometimes gives the illusion that she really knows how sentences work, rather than just having a few she has learnt (her English is much stronger in this respect, as you might predict given her relative exposure to the two languages.)

But, if maman speaks English and papa speaks French, what does Alice speak? Lest she starts defining herself as purely an English speaker, based on the balance of probability from the evidence, I have ceased to ask her, “maman dit ‘trousers,’ que dit papa?” Instead, I know try to remind her that she is as much a French speaker as I am. “Tu sais le dire en français?” “Je ne comprends pas très bien – tu peux m’expliquer ça en français?”

English still has the whip hand, of course – such a strategy might help her move from “I like mole” to “I like taupe” – but it is a beginning, however humble; it is turning her considerable vocabulary from passive to active, a word at a time; and, most of all, it is giving her a fighting chance of becoming, one day, someone for whom “cous cous” can be a question as well as lunch.

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8 Responses to “Je traduis, tu traduis, elle traduit …”

  1. Emmanuel Bavoux said

    At least you don’t get a “arrête de dire n’importe quoi !” when you speak english to your french daughter…which I get.

  2. I’m continually amazed by the sponges that small children are and how they absorb even things we don’t realise – having seen friends at the weekend (she’s French and he’s Welsh) and seen their little boy (now 3) talking French and English I think you’re doing a great thing – I hope she continues to grow in both languages

  3. charlotte said

    Arthur (4) seems to get a strong sense of identity from the fact that he speaks English and German. There was never any “mummy says this, daddy says that”. Both languages were always his languages and it is part of how he defines himself.

    I think he thinks it is inextricably linked with actually being German and English because when I told him he was also a quarter Turkish his little face fell and he said, “but Mummy, I don’t speak turkish! Why not?”. I told him to take that up with his Opa (“he’s too young, I’ll teach him turkish when he’s 10 or 11 if he wants me too”)

  4. nicole said

    I’ve just discovered this blog, and although I don’t have kids yet I would love any future child of mine to speak French (I learnt Russian too, but I’m just not good enough at that). Your blog has so many useful little tips hidden away – just hope I remember them all! As I’m not a native speaker either it does seem rather daunting – although I’m currently in France that doesn’t mean I’m learning acceptable baby talk/ everyday language. So, thank you for showing that it can be a success 🙂 and good luck speaking the “cous cous” language!

    • papaetpiaf said

      Thanks Nicole – I had to choose between Russian and French too! although by the time I made it, it was an easy choice – like you, I can’t imagine doing this in Russian, French is hard enough!

      As for the baby talk, I found I picked up a lot of that from the books we read together and the DVDs we watch, plus French friends and a French playgroup we attend. In other words, it’s not easy, but in many areas of vocab “backfilling” is more than possible!

      Are you at the university? I was at the “other place” …

      • nicole said

        Ah yes you noticed the email address, yep I’m there. I did consider the “other place”, but I like where I am better I’m afraid. Not that there’s much rivalry between the two anyway nowadays! Only at Boat Race time.
        Thanks for the advice! Shall bear that in mind.

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