Saturday, March 06, 2010

Enforcing the bilingual rules!

Since we've moved to Zürich, I don't have much opportunity anymore to speak French. My husband speaks to the kids in French most of the time, but they often respond to him in English. (And we're all learning German in school.) Naturally, I've tried to increase the amount of French I/we speak at home, but it's an uphill battle.

Just the other day, a colleague stated that if you put your kids in a situation where they have to learn too many languages (and don't follow careful rules about it), then the kids will never learn language correctly, and will spend their lives speaking some sort of pidgin. I'm very leery of such ideas. Kids are programmed to learn language without any special instruction. As long as they have a reasonable amount of human social interaction, they'll learn to use language correctly. So I don't agree that it's critical (for their development) to strictly follow the rule that I always speak to the kids in English and my husband in French.

That said -- even if I want to break that rule -- my eight-year-old son Nico is quite intent on enforcing it. (Leo is less picky, and is OK with speaking to me in French, even though he prefers English.) Nico complains whenever I speak to him in French. And the other day, he gave me an intriguing explanation of why:

"It's like you're not my mom -- it's like you're a different person." [when I speak French]

It's interesting. It seems like kids sometimes have a strict mental sorting of which person goes with which language.

Nico is willing to switch languages occasionally, though, if we're specifically making a game of it -- playing school or something.

Out of the blue, on the bus on the way to school, Nico said to me, "I understand why you don't want speak English all the time. It's because it's so ordinary and boring to just speak English."

"Yes, exactly," I said.

So Nico then devised a game where we'd speak French for a week and then German for a week and the English for a week (and came up for an elaborate point system for what to do if you use the wrong language). Since French was first, we discussed all the rules in French. It was fun!

By that afternoon, he'd forgotten about the game, and I didn't bother to remind him.

If the kids want to speak to me in French, fine. If not, that's OK. For my own sake, I just signed up to take yoga in French. :D


Holly said...

it just sounds like it would be so fun to have you for a mom, in any language. Your boys are really lucky.

Anonymous said...

Wait. What language do they speak in Switzerland?

I had to learn English when I moved to England as I only spoke American ;)

MoHoHawaii said...

I understand Nico's point of view on this. I felt something like this when I was a Mormon missionary. Our mission president had a rule that the missionaries had to speak the local language to each other, even in private, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was basically a no-English-ever rule, even though 99% of the missionaries were native speakers of English.

Of all the mission rules, this one drove me nuts the most. It made me feel lonely for reasons that Nico would understand. It's hard for a conversation to be intimate unless you are speaking your most naturally intimate language. Usually this language seems to be the one that you and the other person speak best, but it can also be the language you are used to speaking with this person (for example, if your best languages aren't the same). I can absolutely see why Nico wants English from you.

Back to my mission... one day, the mission president needed me to drive him for a long errand. It was just the two of us for perhaps 3 hours in a car. He started to chat with me in English. I was incensed that he could so casually ignore a rule that had made me so miserable for months and months! So I answered him back in the mission's language (at this point I was more fluent than he) and continued in that vein. He didn't have a leg to stand on, so he switched out of English. It was a formal, painfully correct kind of conversation, and it went on for three hours. We chatted about my parents back home, everyday life, his kids, etc. I think he got the point I was making, but he didn't change the policy. When his term was over, his replacement had a much a saner view about this.

Your kids are still a bit young, but what are you going to do to make them fully literate in all three languages? There are so many words that you can only learn from reading (not to mention the issue of spelling). Are there bi- or trilingual schools? Would you do this at home?

P.S. Your kids are going to kick your butt in German soon. Isn't that humiliating?

Oh, and by the way, my mission president's unreconstructed views on language resulted in an interesting phenomenon I called Missionary Creole. In order to restore intimacy, the missionaries came up with their own private dialect that was an idiosyncratic blend of both languages. One of its features was the inclusion of cross-language puns. (This also drove me nuts because I was hardcore about trying to acquire the local language, and the last thing I wanted to learn was some kind of pidgin.)

Varina said...

Actually a number of friends who are bilingual have mentioned feeling like they have a slightly different personality in each language. I don't know if this has been your experience, but a roommate of mine who was Spanish mentioned that even though she felt comfortable speaking English the language did not really allow her to express herself in the same ways as Spanish did. Maybe Nico is picking up on a subtle change in mood or feeling in you between the two languages.

Anonymous said...

My mum used to insist that we speak English at home, and with all my relatives, which bothered me a lot as a kid - especially as Mum spoke French much better than English, so communication was undermined in a reasonably significant way. When we came here, though, I was grateful for all the English practice I'd had as a kid!

Ivan Andrus said...

Nico and Sabayon might be right, maybe you are a different person. at least in some sense. Anecdotally, my personal experience seems to back this up as well. I was much more outgoing in Spanish than English during and shortly after my mission. I'm out of practice enough now that I am self conscious, so it's no longer true.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks everyone for the insights!!!

I'd assumed it was just Nico's perception, but there may be more to it than that!

Xuxana -- they have four different language regions in Switzerland, but here they speak Swiss German.

Darthandrus -- very interesting study!!

My one criticism was their (apparent) assumption that any personality difference when switching is due to expressing the culture that corresponds to the language.

I think it would be very reasonable to conjecture that people's personalities evolve over time, based (at least in part) on experiences. I would suspect that personality differences when switching from one language to the other are based on the bilingual's individual, personal experiences in each language more than on expressing external cultural norms.

If I were designing a study, I would spend less time on worrying about how the bilinguals' traits line up with the culture at large, and more time analyzing how far a given bilingual's personality responses diverge, depending on the language of the test.

Ivan Andrus said...

Chanson, I think you are probably right: I bet it has more to do with your experiences in a language then the culture per se. I suppose one could argue that the culture largely frames your experiences, so there may be some validity to it.

Regardless, I decided to take a few minutes and write up my personal experiences with respect to language and personality/belief which I am shamelessly linking to here.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Darthandrus!!!

Wow, that is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking of!

I agree that there is probably some validity with correlating personality traits with the traits of the ambient culture. However, I think it would be even more interesting to see how the individual's personal experience influences their personality in each language.

I think it would be interesting to do a study that groups different types of bilingual experiences (eg. kids who spoke one language at home and another at school, people who learned a new language sometime after adolescence and speak the new language to a native-speaker spouse, Mormon missionaries, etc.). Then they could study whether (within each group) there are parallels in the way their first-language personality diverges from their second-language personality.

Ivan Andrus said...

That would be a very interesting study (or series of studies). It would also be interesting to see if over time the different "personalities" converge or diverge.

Nathaniel said...

I wish I could speak another language. Unfortunately, I am terrible at learning new ones. Its pretty awesome that you're making sure that your kids maintain their knowledge.

Off topic, when are the last bits of your book going online? It says March 2010.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Nathaniel!!!

Thanks for pointing that out -- I have to update it.

The thing is that I am working on a new edition -- one that's not too expansive and includes the illustrations -- and it's not done yet. It was supposed to be available by March, but it's a little behind schedule.

Once the new edition is ready, then I'll post the last chapter online as part of the fanfare. :D

Anonymous said...

Ha! The French yoga is obviously just a deutsch dodging exercise. ;-)

- wry

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wry!!!

I think the two are related:

I'm only working part-time, and I'm taking an intensive German class two afternoons per week. But I really don't want my German to interfere with the other languages I've learned. So my Deutsch plan includes a lot of review of French and Italian.

She said...

I had a French professor who was also a Russian professor and apparently he spoke to his young children in English, French and Russian. I'm not sure how that has worked out for him. I always wondered if the children knew the difference between the three languages, or if they would use them interchangeably...

I kind of wonder if you could be a different person in a different language... If the second language was stored in a slightly different part of your brain... Of course I have no idea what I am talking about.

Unknown said...

Hi! I found myself connecting to this post, wierd as that sounds. I come from a family where my sister, who is 5 years my elder, and I were taught Russian and Ukranian from birth, since we lived in Ukraine, where Russian is good to know and Ukranian is taught in school. When I was 4 and she 9, we moved to California, where we both learned English. Soon after (I in 2nd grade, when I was around 7 or so, my sister a few years before), we started studying French through school. I can honestly say that even if your kids hate a language now or do not understand the point of speaking one language at home and another at school, they will learn to be thankful for it. I believe it helps with learning to understand different languages to know multiple ones from a young age, as well as giving one a basis for good accents should he or she learn yet more languages. I am now 13, my sister 19, and we both have a firm grasp of Russian, Ukranian, English, and French (and I Italian), and I feel that being multilingual from a young age is a good thing, one that your kids will probably love you for later in their lives. Although, one word of advice: get them to read as many books in varying languages as possible. That's perhaps the best way to keep up language, and grammar, spelling, and fluency come easily with that. :)
-Yelyzaveta Tashkevych
a.k.a. Annabeth Patele

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey She!!!

Re: I kind of wonder if you could be a different person in a different language... If the second language was stored in a slightly different part of your brain...

Yeah, I was kind of wondering about that as well. I've been reading some stuff by Oliver Sacks, and it seems that the more they study the brain, the more your consciousness looks like a blurry collection of neural firings all over your brain. So, if you're using a slightly different batch of neural pathways when you think in another language, then you're, in a sense, a slightly different person...

Hey Annabeth!!!

Thanks for commenting! Sounds like you and your sister have a really great situation -- it must be fantastic to be fluent in such languages at such a young age.

Again, regarding the idea that kids who are exposed to too many languages too young will never speak one well -- people say that, but I've never seen any evidence for it. All the evidence seems to indicate that kids' brains are capable of sorting the languages out.

The one situation that seems to lead to not speaking any language well is to be monolingual up to adulthood and then at adulthood move to a new country and cut all ties with speaking your first language. Then it may happen that you have a permanent accent in your second language (and never really speak it "like a native"), and then after thirty or forty years without speaking your native language, you will no longer be able to speak that one like a native, either...