Our temporary sojourn in Brittany has brought with it the inevitable challenge of speaking French. My GCSE level French is rusty to say the least, and in reality I’ve not yet had to ask someone how to find the railway station, or if I can buy a kilo of bananas. I have however, mimed a chicken lying down for the night in order to obtain some wood shavings for the hen coop, and casually asked the assistant in an electrical store where I can find the weapons (‘fusiller’), only to be asked whether, in actual fact, I might be looking for fuses (‘fusible’)!
These minor embarrassments are all part of the learning curve, but there’s no doubt that some dedicated study is going to be needed to help me contribute more than a cursory: “It’s sunny today” at the school gates. My two and half year old daughter on the other hand, is becoming ‘au fait’ with basic words and phrases with relative ease – thanks to a couple of weeks at the local pre-school. Admittedly she’s not saying very much in French, but she’s comfortable uttering ‘bonjour’, ‘au revoir’ and ‘merci’ and more importantly, she’s following the teachers’ instructions and interacting confidently with the other children. Additionally, while playing on her own, she will sometimes imitate French speaking or read to her teddy in ‘French’, which is basically gobbledygook but with a distinctly Gallic melody. That, of course, is exactly how she began to speak English – by practicing different sounds until they gradually morphed into recognisable words and groups of words.
It’s well known that language acquisition is a natural part of development, much like walking; and that learning new languages comes more easily to children than adults. It is, however, a common misconception that the adult tongue somehow become less able to pronounce the sounds of another language. The key distinction is in ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’ – i.e. the gradual development of an ability in a language, through regular exchanges, as opposed to a more rigid classroom-based accumulation of vocabulary and grammar, which is altogether a more arduous process. Despite this uncomfortable truth, I must continue to try to re-familiarise myself with verbs and tenses learned by rote over 20 years ago, for fear of getting left behind as my daughter’s comprehension and vocabulary effortlessly grows.
Mulling this over, I consulted a few friends who are married to partners that speak a different language and are therefore raising children that are bilingual. Their experiences confirm the notion that learning multiple languages in infancy is a relative breeze. Their toddlers are not only learning two (or more) languages at pretty much the same rate as their monolingual counterparts, but in some cases, they actually act as a translator – taking one parent’s question and putting it to the other parent in their (the other parent’s) native language. Apparently, this ability to switch from one language to another has been proven to help the bilingual child to outperform monolingual children in cognitive tests. So an added benefit of my little one learning two languages at an early age is that being bilingual can actually make kids smarter, and I’m all for that.
For me, I think it’s definitely back to the proverbial classroom if I’m going to survive the forthcoming school trip, on which I’ve boldly offered to act as a help chaperone. My ‘Franglais’ simply won’t cut the ‘moutarde’.