On rude words.

You swear. A certain amount.

Mainly in the car. You say ‘oh BUGGER!’ quite a lot when driving around London. Also, ‘BOLLOCKS!’ and sometimes ‘You unprintable numpty! Don’t you honk at me/ cut me up/ steal my parking space/ drive at 2 miles an hour when the traffic is unusually light!’

The Star has picked up on this. You have been called aside by his teacher for a quiet word. The Star, she said, dropped his scarf on the floor. And then he said (whispering) ‘oh BUGGER!’. You looked innocent, shook your head sorrowfully and taught him to say ‘oh PANTS!’ instead. Well hey, it always worked on teenage language students.They found it hilarious enough to actually use.

Sure enough, since four year olds think ‘Poo!’ is the last word in comedy this was very successful, until your cunning came up against the difference between language learning and language acquisition.

Language acquirers extrapolate rules based on examples and apply them to new bits of language. Children go through a phase, for example, where they take the rule for Past Simple regular verbs (add, broadly speaking, ‘ed’) and apply it to all verbs, little realising that the English language is sneaky and will require them to learn off by heart whole swathes of other irregular, largely unpredictable past tense forms too. Children say, in short, ‘He writed…’ rather than ‘He wrote…’

So it should have come as no surprise that given the example of ‘oh PANTS!’, you caught your son saying ‘oh COATS!’ the other day.

And perhaps it wouldn’t have, except in the mouth of the Star, and given that comprehension is in part made up of us hearing what we expect to hear in any given context, the expletive ‘oh COATS!’ sounds a lot like…..

Yes, quite.

You hate to think what his teacher will say.


On babies who say ‘Ne!’

The Comet has started to copy the sounds other people make. You noticed this when on a farm visit recently. There were pigs. Many pigs, many piglets, all happily grunting away. The Star was enthralled and the Comet tried to suck the fencing. As you snatched her up and carried her off, you noticed that she was doing an excellent pig impression. Since then she hasn’t looked back and so this week you have been entertaining yourself by seeing how many more animal noises you can get her to do. The horse is both your favourites. ‘Neigh!’ you whiffle, throwing your head up and flicking your mane. ‘Neigh!’ ‘Ne!’ the Comet counters sticking her chin in the air and sneaking you a look to see if she is doing it right. ‘Ne!’*

To be honest you nearly missed this development, because the Comet’s desire to have a good gossip definitely transcends her ability to form the actual words, and as a result you feel as though you have been having conversations with her for quite some time now. In addition to expert turn taking, she has also added perfect intonation, speaking eyes and descriptive hand gestures to her repertoire, and many times a day she will turn to you and ask what is clearly a question, tilting her head enquiringly, shrugging up her shoulders with her palms spread wide, raising her eyebrows and ending on a rising tone. Sometimes, if she feels you are being particularly obtuse, she points, but mostly she just listens intently to your answer, frowns a bit, makes a few comments, often asks another question, and you both can keep this going for quite some time. All in all you do wonder how her version of your little chats is going. You know you are enjoying your half.

You could do without the loud, high-pitched shrieking, mind. But to be fair to the her, she does it when she wants to get across, emphatically, that something is unacceptable. Usually, a lack of food.** It’s not easy getting your point across when you are the youngest in a house full of forceful personalities, but luckily the Comet is able to rise to the challenge.

She is also learning the gentle art of standing up for yourself. Does the Comet stand quietly aside when the Star removes all the toys she is playing with to his side of the room, tries to hug her once too often or steals her last strawberry? Does she heck. No, she marches crossly over to you, hides behind your legs and gives that Star a thorough ticking off.

Such language. Ah well.

*Diphthongs are difficult. They were difficult for the Star too. Interesting.

**Girl eats a lot. She is definitely her brother’s sister, because then she does not rest until she has run it straight off again.  It turns out that the Comet is pretty much as energetic as the Star. Yes, I am exhausted. No, I do not want to contemplate the fact that they are only four and one respectively.

On the fear of fur coats mark two.

OK, so you’ve had your third blog post published by the BBC World Service, this time about the difference between the way your son and daughter have acquired sounds. This is a sort of follow up to the post you wrote about your son many moons ago, but also arose out of you making an amusing but ultimately totally wrong assumption, which you totally got called on on everybody’s favourite website, h2g2, a conversation which ended up being an interesting discussion of first words in general.

My daughter started making consonants sounds a while ago, which was, of course, very exciting. They were not very recognisable consonant sounds at first, and this was more exciting still as it meant I could play a second round of ‘guess what order my child will acquire sounds’.

My son’s first proper syllable went ‘Gagagagaga’ closely followed by ‘Dadadadada’. This was rather disappointing. We were using ‘Papa’ for the father-figure at this point, rather than the English ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’, but on the other hand I had been regularly chanting ‘Mamamamamama’ at him since birth.

In fact my son went on to produce ‘Babababa’ and ‘Papapapapa’ well before anything like an ‘Mmmmm’ crossed his lips, and I consoled myself by looking at the International Phonemic Alphabet, which I am sure is much more familiar to Russians struggling with the eccentricities of English spelling vs pronunciation than it is to British people. I noted that my son was working his way along the top row from right to left, and starting with voiced sounds.* I also couldn’t see that his potential bilingualism would have much to do with it, the top lines being much of a muchness for both English and Russian.

When my daughter’s first syllable turned out to be ‘Mamamamama’ I was, therefore, quite surprised and revisited the issue.

Of course, a friend of mine claims that first children tend to say ‘Dada/Papa’ before ‘Mama’ because mothers spend so much of their day talking about this exciting person who turns up just in time to read the kid a story at bedtime. The second child just hears the first child saying ‘Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama!’ all day.

That said, it turns out there is research on the order of consonant acquisition out there. And low and behold, across a number of different languages the top two lines of the phonemic chart seem the easiest for children to make and are therefore the first said.

Both Russian and British parents will probably also recognise that it is the group of sounds in the middle of the chart that cause problems, the sounds such as ‘th’ or ‘sh/ш’ or ‘ch/ч’ or‘ц’. Interestingly, and this is the point my son is at now, both the English and the Russian ‘r’ gives the most trouble, despite the fact that they are rather different. I am told that mastery of the rolled ‘r’ may not come until my son is closer to five than four, although he also has problems with ‘l’. Is the inability to say, for example, ‘la’ and say ‘ya’ instead also common for purely Russian speaking children too?

I ask because I am fascinated by the idea that their bilingualism could show itself at the most basic levels of their language. Because although the most definite results for the order of consonant acquisition are for groups of consonants rather than precisely which consonant will come in which order, most English speaking children at least tend to go from right to left, from the ‘Mamamamama’ to the ‘Gagagagagagaga’. So totally opposite to the way your son did it.

I find this interesting as the reason given is that ‘m’ and ‘b’ and are made at the front of the mouth whereas ‘d’ and ‘g’ towards the back. And I often think that Russian is a very back of the mouth language compared to English. In fact, the musical director for a British choir I used to sing with once suggested that when we had to sing in Russian, we should imagine that we were also trying to swallow a watermelon, and laugh all you want, my husband was actually quite impressed by our efforts to sound Slavic when he came to the eventual concert.

Of course, this does rather open the question of why my daughter seems to be following the classic monolingual English speaker route.

Perhaps my son was simply showing his innate perversity rather than his deep Russian soul. But then since my daughter is always with me, my son talks to me in English and my son talks A LOT, perhaps, this is just a version of the first child influencing the second child’s first sounds after all.

*Put your hand on your throat and say ‘vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv.’ Feel the vibration? That’s a voiced sound. Now try ‘ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff.’ That’s not.

On the exploding Star.

You’ve spent nearly fifteen years of your life around adults learning English now. You feel quite at home with the mistakes they make, the concepts they have difficulty with and the way that they fail comprehensively to get to grips with articles.

So you find the way the Star acquires language completely fascinating. Mainly because it really is not quite the same, and you’ve never really had the opportunity to compare taught learning with full on just picking it up before. Or at least not in someone who doesn’t know anything about language when they set out.

Now of course some of that fascination is at just how quickly small human minds develop. The Star, for example, understands the concept of time. You feel this a big achievement for a two and a half year old. He says ‘Babushka go shopping’, ‘I did it’, ‘Where going?’ and ‘It gone!’ Notice that not only does he have the basic present and past tenses (present simple for ‘Babushka go[es]…’* and past simple for ‘I did it’**), but he has also mastered the continuous aspect (‘where [are we] going?’***, which you are assuming is present continuous given that he hasn’t shown much awareness of the concept of future time yet), and the perfect aspect (‘It [has] gone!’, present perfect****).

Believe me, any adult language learner who can differentiate between the simple, continuous and perfect aspects in English without conscious effort is well on the way to fluency. Particularly the perfect, which seems to defeat everybody, no matter what their language background

However, the interesting thing is that when he first started using them, you do not feel that the Star had really grasped tenses in any Chompskian way. It was not, you felt, that the Star had assimilated structural ‘formulas’ into which any relevant verb can be inserted in order to express the same concept. The Star used the phrases above correctly it is true, but almost exclusively in those words, as fixed chunks of language.

There are definite signs of breakthrough now though, with the –ing forms coming thick and fast and still entirely correctly now (‘Look! Doggie walking!’). He has also just started to invert subject and verb ( ‘is it…..?’ rather than ‘it is…’) to mark a question rather than a statement, which really is a pretty impressive piece of language engineering.

It’s the same with articles (a/an/the). He puts them in, while leaving them out is practically B’s only remaining grammatical deficiency in English. But only in phrases he knows and loves like ‘shut the door’ and ‘where the keys?’****

The Star in fact is like a little walking example of the lexical approach to English language teaching, the argument that fixed phrases are much more important that we usually give credit for and teaching discrete items of lexis and endless formulas is rather missing the point.

Of course, chunking is not just about grammar, but includes a lot of collocations – words that go together. For example the way that we say ‘a tall man’ rather than ‘a high man’. It’s noticeable that the Star says ‘fast asleep’ not ‘asleep’ when he is about to prod you and shout ‘wakey wakey’ in your ear of a morning, and ‘flying high’ (delightedly) when he is on the swings.

Unfortunately, the Star’s adjectives are mostly in Russian, and god knows you Russian isn’t sophisticated enough for correct chunks. Luckily, the Star’s Russian already far exceeds yours for the Star understands verbs of motion. He remembers to correctly distinguish between the verb you need to talk about going on foot and the one you need to talk about movement via car/ train/ bus, although you are forced to admit that he has only got two of the full variety of words to describe the different states the journey maker is in at the time of speaking.

He also does not use ‘na’ (‘here, take it’) to mean ‘die’ (‘oi, give it here!’) or vice versa. You are immensely impressed.

Even more astounding, though, is the Star’s ability with prepositions in English.

Prepositions are the bane of non-native speakers.

It’s not the ‘on the box/ in the box/ next to the box’ ones that give them the nervous twitch, or even time ones (why ‘in the morning’ but ‘at night’? Why ‘in July’ but ‘on Junly 23rd’? And so on). There are rules for those. Well, tendancies at least.

No it’s the completely arbitrary ones assigned to certain words for no reason whatsoever (‘succeed in’,, ‘good at’, apologise for’, ‘keen on’, etc etc etc. Etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc etc.). And as for phrasal verbs, the whole point of which is to take a verb, take a preposition (or, ok, an adverb) and slam them together to make a new work which bears no relation to any meaning its component parts have ( ‘get on’, ‘get down’, ‘get off with’, ‘get along’, ‘get over’, ‘get out of’, ‘get it up’, ‘get into’ ‘get through’,  ‘get back into’, etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc. Etc).

The Star uses phrasal verbs as though he is born to it. It is extremely disconcerting for you to hear someone with barely coherent English command you to take it off, turn it on, wake him up and put me down.

Luckily for your nerves, the Star is utterly pants at negatives.

Particularly amusing is the way he just doesn’t bother with any negative indicators at all. There he is, red faced and glaring, shouting ‘I like it! I like it!’ at the top of his voice. Or flinging his food crossly across the room with the words ‘Nada. Nada! NADA!’ [need].

When he does remember to add something, it’s usually ‘ne’ or ‘not’ before the verb. Which works perfectly in Russian, but isn’t quite there for English. That auxiliary verb problem again.

Despite this triumph for the Slavic language, you are not telling B at the moment that the Star is mainly still at the level of individual words in Russian, rather than actual coherent sentences that he is beginning to produce in English.

It might be a good idea if the MiL came back from her break soon.

* Used, correctly, to express routine, habitual behaviour.

** Used, correctly, to talk about a finished action in a finished time period. Usually when Papa asks him who broke the remote/ listened attentively at Russian class/ scattered Rice Crispies all over the floor/ helped Mama make the muffins/ pooed in his nappie instead of his potty/ drawn that beautiful picture after Mama has given Papa her daily report when he arrives home from work.

***Used, correctly, if repeatedly, to ask about an action in progress at the moment of speaking whenever you have both set out somewhere but have not yet actually arrived.

****Used, correctly, and with an expression of great surprise, to comment on a past action with present relevance. In this case why the toy duck/ apple/ piece of paper/ potato/ remote is not where he left it a few minutes ago.

*****The Star has the very Russian habit of leaving the verb ‘to be’ out. The astute reader will also have noticed the lack of auxiliary verbs in the examples of tenses. The interesting thing here is that none of these verbs have any serious lexical meaning. They are just there to convey the grammar, not the content of the utterance. So in ‘That doggy is walking’, ‘walking’ is the main verb, and ‘is’ is the auxiliary verb, for example.

Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism February 2011.

I am pleased to announce the February edition of the monthly Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.

What follows is a list of posts, written by bloggers from around the world, dedicated to the topic of bilingualism, multilingualism, language learning and raising bi (or multi) lingual and bi (or multi) cultural children.

If you would like to find out more about it, sign up for a newsletter, read previous carnivals, or find out how you can get more involved, Letizia Quaranta of Bilingue per Gioco is the organiser and the Carnival page is here. Regular Carnival goers should take note! This page has moved!

Without further ado…

For anyone setting out on the journey of raising bilingual children or for those thinking of changing their approach, Vanessa at Language, Music and More has written a very useful post summarizing the different approaches parents can take in raising their child bilingually, including a discussion of factors that might make one method more suitable than another. She has also taken the time to explode many of the myths surrounding bilinguals and bilingualism.

The curious incidents of polyglot children’s habit of making up languages in an attempt to make sense of the language systems they hear around them, as well as advice about how to cope with this is the subject of Maria’s post at Busy as a Bee in Paris.

Steffi from Mummy do That! also has some useful advice about the problem of fostering literacy in bilingual children, particularly those ‘at risk’ bilinguals who grow up in a bilingual home but in whose community only one of the languages is used.

Difficulties are also the topic of Smashedpea’s post at Intrepidly Bilingual, specifically the problem that playdates intended to allow children to use their minority language can be scuppered when you have two children who are determined to use the other language with each other.

For all those raising children bilingually who are not themselves native speakers of their target second language, Tamara at Non-Native Bilingualism has written an uplifting post about the difficulties of forming an emotional connection with your child if you are speaking to him or her in a language which is not your mother tongue – but how she has ultimately managed to do this herself.

Jen of Trilingual Trio is also interested in the difference between her expectations and the realities of the emotional bonds we form through language, both with respect to talking to our children and changing the language we speak to our significant others in.

And on a similar topic, we have an inspiring interview from Douglas Hofstader at Letizia’s Bilingue per Gioco blog, a man who raised his children bilingually in English and Italian, speaking only Italian to his children, despite not being  native speaker of Italian himself.

There is another profile of an Italian/English bilingual family, this time one  still in the process of raising bilingual children, and of their experiences of multicultural living at Sarah’s Bringing up Baby Bilingual.

In a moving post, Mamapoekie of Authentic Parenting focuses on the children’s perspective, specifically, her three year old daughter’s experience of culture shock when moving between Africa and the Belgium.

And Lauren of Hobo Mama has summarised her three and a half year old trilingual boy’s progress in each of his languages to date.

Her assessment if probably more generous than Lalou’s son’s idea of his competency in German at Laloulah, whose post also details her approach to building his confidence in his own abilities.

And a number of children this month are working on their own versions of that great children’s classic, Incy Wincy Spider. We have the Spanish version here at Tyeisha’s Tongue Tales and Babelmum’s children are mixing Arabic and English to produce Incy Wincy Ankaboot here at BabelKid.

But we also hear from an adult. Reinaldo of Life & Bits writes about the fact that there are different degrees of bilingualism and his own journey along the road to an impressive fluency in two languages.

This is also the subject of my post for this month’s carnival at Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things, although I wouldn’t pretend to have achieved Reinaldo’s level of competency (yet).

Next month’s Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism will be hosted at Multilingual Mama‘s blog. Looking forward to it already!

On personal pronouns.

The Star is supposed to find pronouns confusing. Someone who is ‘she’ in one situation, can suddenly start being ‘you’ or ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘they’ or possibly even ‘he’ in another. “But my name is ‘you’,” the Star is assumed to be thinking. “What’s going on?”

So you have spent the last seventeen months sounding as though you are commentating someone else’s life, as if it wasn’t enough that you are now forced into talking constantly about every last detail of the weather. The colour, texture, smell and taste of food on its way down and up and out. The movement of squirrels, dogs, passers-by, cars, buses, taxis, vans, motorbikes, trains, boats, planes, helicopters and leaves. The shape of your ears. The exact amount of pain you feel when the Star yanks your hair, bites your leg or pinches your cheeks. The reason why crapping on the carpet or widdling on the kitchen floor is not a good idea. The correct method of washing up. How to separate clothes for washing. Why books should not have pages ripped out. The fine art of putting toys away. And the importance of sleep.

By this time the Star has heard his immediate family’s names ever and over and over again. Yet oddly enough, despite being able to respond confidently and accurately when asked to point to any number of everyday objects, the three words the Star seems to have trouble with are ‘Mama’, ‘Papa’ and ‘Babushka’.

He can be relied upon to point at B when asked where his Mummy is and you for his Daddy. Or sometimes at you for both or B for both. Sometimes he just points at his Babushka. Sometimes he points at you when asked where his Babushka is. Or B. Very occasionally he gets it all right, but you can’t help but think it’s a fluke.

You wonder whether it’s because he just sees you three as interchangeable food and fun producing units.

Or whether it’s because he can’t separate each of the people around him out because you are using names, which doesn’t allow for a clear distinction between self and others.