Sunday, March 02, 2008

Est-ce que it pokes?

Now that he's four years old, my little Léo has figured out the trick for speaking both French and English: The overlap in vocabulary is huge, so if you don't know the French word, just say the English word with a French accent (and vice-versa), and you'd be surprised at how often that works. (For his early language development, see bilingual babies).

Léo's English doesn't seem to be affecting his French very much, but he's definitely enriching his English by translating stuff literally from French, with some funny results.

The first one is "Est-ce que...?" That may look daunting to non-francophones (it means "Is it that...?"), but it's two simple syllables (pronounced "Eska") and it's just a trick for turning any statement into a yes/no question. We don't have any such convenience in English (we have to do that whole messy inverting the subject and verb thingy), so Léo just carries it over wholesale, producing questions like "Est-ce que it pokes?" That question was meant to be something like "Does it sting?" but was clearly influenced by the French version of the question: Est-ce que ça pique ?

Another funny one is the redundant pronouns. Instead of just using stress for emphasis (as in "I saw him" vs. "I saw him"), the French like to throw in redundant pronouns (as in "Moi, je l'ai vu"). Léo likes to do this in English too, so rather than saying "I did it" he'll say "Me, I did it."

But I think my favorite Léo-ism is "But sure!"

In English, it's tricky to contradict a negative. If someone says "He's not here," you could say "Yes, he is," or "Yes, you're right" -- so "yes" alone can have two opposite meanings in response to a negative. French gives you three choices: oui and non (corresponding to the usual "yes" and "no"), plus a third option si -- just for contradicting negative statements! Cool huh?

Once you've gotten used to using si, it's hard to go back to not having it (you'd be surprised how useful it is!), so Léo has decided to equip the English language with its own version of this useful word: "sure!"

And since why say oui, non, or si when you can say mais oui !, mais non !, or mais si !, Léo translates the mais as well.

So the correct response to a statement like "You can't have any" in Léo's language is "But sure!" :D


MoHoHawaii said...


English does have an equivalent to si, if my own experience with four year olds is to be trusted.

Here's an example:

You don't want any of this delicious cake, do you?

Uh-huh!!!!! (emphasis on the last syllable)

Uh-huh has the added benefit of being a intensifier. It can be used by four year olds to win passionate arguments or just to be contrary.

Unfortunately, the equally powerful nuh-uh can refute any affirmation, and this sometimes results in stalemate:

Uh-huh, nuh-uh, uh-huh, nuh-uh....

James said...

Wow, that's hilarious. I'm incredibly fascinated by the process children go through to learn language. (My interest comes from a computer science view in the hopes of getting robots to copy the same trick.)

Bilingualism only makes it that much cooler.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoHoHawaii!!!

That's a good point -- I hadn't thought of that one...

Hey James!!!

Yeah, language development is fascinating by itself, and watching the interplay between the two languages in bilingual kids adds a whole new dimension.

I was telling these same phrases to some French friends of mine, and they started wondering whether the language itself (and what can be easily expressed) affects the way you think. From my own experience with two languages, I'd say there exist phrases that are simple and common in one language but a little convoluted to translate literally, so people are likely to just say something else entirely (if that makes sense...). I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, but maybe one will come to me.

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. to James: I see you're in Utah. Do you want me to add you to Outer Blogness?

Anonymous said...

Hi CL,
I 100% agree with your friends, especially in the realm of engineering. I fought that battle (along with some French Canadians) a couple years ago. Every once in a while, I still run into something and think "well, that's an interesting way to look at it".

Example: Bearing, it emphasizes a static load carrying device (like load bearing column), but in the case of wheel bearings, they do carry a load, but most importantly, allow it to roll. Roulement emphasizes the wheel/rolling action (the important part).

Lars Larson said...

That is great stuff, Ms. Hanson. I love "si" as well and the funny thing is I do the very same thing as Leo.

One of my favorite vestiges of French that I made up while on my Mission 25 years ago was this little ditty...

"Bon ban dedonc mais oui alors quoi"

Got to say it really fast.

Kind of like saying...

"Uh, sure, ya know, like, so uh, yeah"

Found anything like it in Swiss Deutsch yet?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MXRacer652!!!

That's a good example.

Hey erlyBrd!!!

I could see a French person saying something like that.... ;^)

My Swiss German is coming along slowly, unfortunately. I'm interested in understanding it, but I already have so much new stuff to learn for my job that it's hard to make it a priority to study this as well...

Anonymous said...

I love it. That is sooo cute.

I always used to say but yes and but no...but it got old coming from a so-called grownup.

Maybe I should try but SURE! :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Wry!!!

Try it, it might work! :D

Anonymous said...

Cute. Kids are clever.

King Aardvark said...

There is definitely something to the idea that how a language works influences how people think. It's similar to the famed "the medium is the message" stuff from Marshall McLuhan - new mediums allow for different messages, or new takes on old messages. It should be similar with different languages, too.

In other words, if all you've got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. If you get a screwdriver, things look like screws.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Chaplain!!!

Hey King Aardvark!!!

You're probably right. It would be interesting to see some books or articles on this with specific examples from different languages.

Craig said...

German has the same thing (more or less). The word "doch" [dɔx] is used the same way "si" is in French. It has other meanings as well, but it is a primary usage.

I've been looking for a suitable English substitute for some time. That's one of the "problems" (or joys) with learning a different language, inevitably one language is better at expressing a certain concept than another.

I have a dream of raising bilingual children. Being myself a linguist and absolutely fascinated by both first and second language acquisition, I love to hear anecdotes about others' experiences.

What your son does with the "est-ce que" phrase (and other mixed languages phrases) is called "code switching", another of my interests.

Also, while I speak German fluently, I know nearly nothing about Swiss German (Schwytzerdütsch) - it is a entirely different language. Or are you referring to Swiss Standard German - a variant of the Standard German spoken in Germany?

Say hi to Europe for me. I miss it terribly. (Mostly the food - Oh GOD the food!)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey [kɹeɪ̯g̊]!!!

Yes, it's fascinating. I've found that Leo mixes the two languages more than his older brother Nico does, and that he mixes the two in a few distinct ways:

On the one hand, there's the trick I mentioned above about just taking a French word and pronouncing it as though it were an English word (when he doesn't know the equivalent English word). They both do this to some degree. An example would be this morning when Leo said that if we get off the bus at the zoo, then "we will rat school," using the French verb rater, which means "to miss" (as in "to miss the bus").

On the other hand, they also try to translate French structures literally into English. In Leo's case, he almost always constructs the past tense in English using "have" as a helping verb. So he'll say "I have do it" instead of "I did it." I think this is pretty clearly a carry-over from French. Another one is using indefinites like "anyone" and "anymore" as though they're inherently negative. So Leo will say things like "He is anymore here" to mean "He isn't here anymore." Again, it's clear he's translating literally from French.

Another funny one is the use of "chez." In French, chez is a preposition that means at someone's house (like "chez moi" is "at my house"). But the word "chez" ends up having a more extended meaning in French, which you might predict by thinking of an English sentence like "This is how we do things at my house." There is really no equivalent word in English, so a lot of sentences with "chez" that are perfectly simple and natural in French just cannot be translated literally into English. That doesn't stop my kids from trying though. There was a nature documentary Nico was watching about primates, and there was some explanatory sentence that went "Chez le singe [things work a certain way]." When Nico was explaining to me what he'd learned, he told me that this is how things work "at the monkey's house." ;^)

Regarding Swiss German: The thing is that I've recently moved to Zurich, so I have to learn Swiss German. I want to be at the level where I'm noticing all these fun insights about the nuances of the language, but I don't know any German, and I'm having a little trouble surmounting the initial hurdle of basic vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. There's this big, boring memorizing basic stuff phase, and as far as the necessary study is concerned, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak... ;^)

C. L. Hanson said...

Here's another one while I'm thinking about it:

Léo sometimes says "he" instead of "it" -- probably due to the fact that all French nouns have a gender.

We also had a funny example of non-code-switching last night, though. We asked Léo if he wanted some huile d'olive on his pasta. He took one look at the bottle and said that it's called huile d'olive because there are pictures of leaves on the bottle. Keep in mind that huile d'olive is pronounced "wheel-doe-leave" whereas the French word for leaf is feuille.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, Chanson. Professional linguists tend to agree with you, that language structure affects the way a person thinks. It's called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and comes in two versions: strong (you can only think what your language has words for; not very accepted) and weak (the words you have available influence your thoughts, but you can expand and learn new languages and new ways of thinking, too). I'm actually doing my dissertation on the way having a shared language affects peace between countries.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Patience!!!

I think you're right about language and how it affects thought. As I was saying above, there are types of phrases that are easier to say in one language than another, and I think that affects not only what you say but also the thought behind it.

And, wow, that sounds like a fascinating research topic!!! I've wondered more about the related question of how having more than one language region within a country affects its culture and politics. Switzerland is a particularly interesting case, and I'm keeping my eyes and ears out for what the people here think of the other language groups.