Thursday, July 30, 2009


I particularly like Helena's hair when done up — braided to crown her — in the fashion of a medieval princess, and I tell her so. She takes offense at being called an evil princess.

I'm revelling in Helena's language lately. It is an endless source of both awe and amusement.

We no longer simply use language; we can talk about it.

Helena named her stuffed cat toy "No-one." I can't decide whether it's more weird or clever.

I've corrected Helena's "human bean" to "human being." "What's a being?" I'm not sure my explanation hit the mark. Days later we're talking about Batman, for some reason; she tells me he's human, but stipulates he's not a human being — because he doesn't exist.

From time to time I worry that her English isn't as good as it should be — some odd vocabulary choices, and still trouble with irregular verbs — but hey, I remind myself, she's completely bilingual! So what if she misses a conjugation here or there!

(Some errors are initially mystifying. I puzzled for some time over "He's not being have" (pronounced "hayv"), finally to realize she meant he's not behaving.)

I'm in no position to judge her French, but I suppose it must be similar. (Certainly for some time now her French is superior to mine. I almost trust her when she supplies a missing word or assures me that I have the correct construction.)

I've favoured reading English books to her only because it's far easier for me. At school, her books are in French, of course. Helena herself doesn't show a consistent preference for one language or the other. When she suggests a book to read, she does not readily recall what language it's in and has occasionally recalled incorrectly (my point being that the language in which it's communicated is secondary to the story being told).

So. Completely bilingual. Which has tremendously complicated the reading situation.

I explain that certain sounds are represented by these letters in English, but the same sounds in French use different letters. Times I've thought it was hopeless, and hoped it would sort itself it out. And it mostly has.

I'd say she can read now, finally. Helena won't say it yet, cuz she's a bit of a perfectionist, but she'll say it soon. In two languages.

Children do become bilingual easily, and scientists are starting to understand how:

"You're building a brain architecture that's a perfect fit for Japanese or English or French," whatever is native, Kuhl explains — or, if you're a lucky baby, a brain with two sets of neural circuits dedicated to two languages.

It's remarkable that babies being raised bilingual — by simply speaking to them in two languages — can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.

Italian researchers wondered why there wasn't a delay, and reported this month in the journal Science that being bilingual seems to make the brain more flexible.

Helena's brain is flexible indeed; she plays with English, with French, and various combinations thereof. But bilingualism, and the problem of translation, brings its own class of errors.

Helena persists in flatting the kitty — the kitty likes to be flatted, we should all flatte the kitty. Flatter is to pet, but the English "to pet" just won't stick. We have French roots with English inflections.

Helena tells me a story, posits an alien, from another planet, "like March." Since the French month mars is March in English, quite logically she assumes the planet would be translated in the same way.

When something does not go according to Helena's expectations — be it a person's reaction, verbal or physical, or the work of the cat or of gravity — she regularly stops to remark, "C'était pas prévu." In recent weeks she's come to translate her commentary to English: "That was not prévu." And refined it further, "That was not previewed." I've explained that that simply doesn't sound natural in English, no one would say that, "preview" just doesn't work. With my input, she's modified her translation, and uses it often. "That was not foreseen." Which is just interminably cute coming out of the mouth of a 6-year-old.


Cipriano said...

Your blog reminds me of a time just prior to last Christmas when a friend asked me to explain the Christmas story to an eight-year old child. I no longer BELIEVE in the Christmas story, [in a literal sense] and the person asking for my help believed that I DID believe the story [literally]. And so I passed.
Then I listened to this person explain to an 8 year old how Jesus was "conceived of a virgin".... [even my eyebrows were becoming chevrons!]... suffice it to say, if you ever want to realize how CRAZY that whole story is [if taken literally]... listen to it told to an 8-year old, as they say to the storyteller, "But I thought his father was supposed to be God!"

Suzanne said...

I really like the distinction between Batman as a human character vs. human being. Astute.

Kids are amazing sources of information and endlessly entertaining.

Bybee said...

My ESL/EFL heart is warmed by this post.