Why are the kids bilingual and we’re not? 4


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By Jen

I so wish I had paid more attention to how our children became bilingual. When you are engrossed in putting together kilos and kilos of paperwork to enrol at a new school or get French car number plates it slips by unnoticed.

What didn’t slip by in the blur is the fact that they are MUCH better than we are. A little obvious perhaps, but why? There are 2 adults and 3 children here all wanting to speak French fluently. There’s a lot of research about second language acquisition, some of which I’m wading through as part of my teacher training, all proffering different theories, but here are some things we couldn’t help but notice, because it was right under our nose. Literally sometimes.

1. Adult vocal muscles are stubborn. They’ve had a lifetime of a mother language. Don’t get me wrong, learning that first language is pretty clever too. There are umpteen muscles which need to coordinate to say mama or dada or ‘I do’, a mastery of stopping and starting the airflow, a flappy tongue to control, a moveable jaw, the relative positioning of the alveolar palate……it’s incredible we can say anything at all.

We’ve been told many times that our kids have “no accent” when they speak French ie only a French accent – particularly the youngest at the start. In other words their little ears heard the sound exactly and their vocal apparatus got into perfect position to make the sounds.

Our vocal bits were exhausted. I had sore jaw muscles for a year moving into positions my mouth wasn’t used to. I still have trouble with the sound “ou” as many English-speaking French learners do. Not only do I have difficulty hearing the difference between bûche (log) and bouche (mouth), my mouth really doesn’t like it.

Adults can perfect their pronunciation. They just have stubborn muscles to fight against first, and ears which find it tricky to pick up subtle differences or unknown phonemes. Like the /l/ and /r/ in Japanese or the /p/ and /b/ in Arabic which to untrained ears sound the same and are interchangeable.

Malleable kids’ mouths are off to a flying start.  Wine can help an adult.

2. The kids were corrected. When adults talk in the street they tend not to correct one another as a matter of politeness. Adam, Matt and Katie, 9, 7 and 4 when they started school respectively, had school and a school maîtresse for 8 hours a day. Error correction is important. But it can be demotivating and embarrassing to an adult who becomes a baby again in a new language. Errors left for long enough fossilize. Neil and I are old fossils in language speak.

3. We all had a communicative need. The kids needed to communicate to eat or go to the bathroom or do their homework. We needed to buy bread or reregister the car. But I suspect the “need” was different, and was in fact need plus overwhelming desire for the kids. The best language learners are like most children – they want to fit in and be part of the gang – they have integrative motivation bursting out their ears. We adults first and foremost just wanted to get the job done. To take the bread home. The kids wanted mates and to be included in playground games.

Adults can have that same ultra strong integrative motivation, or perhaps the extrinsic motivation to pass an exam or get a promotion, but it’s rarely quite as strong.  And intrinsic motivation from within wins hands down.

4. The kids didn’t give a monkeys about grammar – to begin with. They learnt the language in chunks. Il faut que je fasse mes devoirs. I have to do my homework. It rolls off their tongue without thinking. Initially they don’t know or care that that sentence is made using the subjunctive form of the verb “faire” or that devoirs is always plural so the possessive pronoun needs to reflect that. It just is.

Later at school, sentences are broken down into grammar, far far moreso in French schools than in British schools. Generally we just know it’s right because it sounds right. It doesn’t mean that one way of learning a mother tongue is better than the other, but one glaring advantage of breaking down the grammar and learning the grammar “metalanguage” is that the same metalanguage can be used to decode new foreign sentences. If you’re taught what third person singular means when you are 6 – Katie did come home at 6 and chat in this weird grammar language – then you can identify and label it in a new language.

Knowing the metalanguage or how grammar works is only one weapon in the armoury of learning a new language. It’s sometimes, though, a weapon adults who have only spoken their mother tongue (especially English) don’t have.

Language-learning adults differ from one another. Some need to know how the language works (perfectly) before they will speak – often for fear of making a mistake – and some just learn chunks and don’t care about grammar. Many, and I’m here, want the chunks first to allow communication, and worry about the grammar later. The trouble for me now is that I can communicate with mistakes, those mistakes have fossilised and the necessity to get better has been lost. There’s a mild desire but it’s not coupled with a necessity. The desire+need force behind the scenes is not quite strong enough in the fight against the other time pressure of life.

Most native English speakers learn English without the grammar blurb. Its not necessary. Communication is what’s necessary. Even those people who speak English eloquently often do so intuitively – the chunks sound right.

The kids got stuck right into French without the grammar “barrier” or the fear of making mistakes. Or the taboo of correction. Adult can do that too, but it doesn’t come naturally for many.

We’ve come a long way from the grammar translation approach to language learning of days gone by (or in many schools today unfortunately) and whilst grammar is not entirely ignored, we are finding that learning fixed chunks automatically to give our brain space to process more fluid sentences is the way to go.  Notice the grammar when you are ready, or be guided in its discovery by a language teacher.  To me it’s not a case of not giving a monkeys about grammar, but to repeat pointless uncommunicative exercises in a book in the name of grammar is learning like a monkey.  Here’s a useless sentence, copy it.

“My tailor is rich” is one if the first phrases many adult French people will claim to have learnt in English at school (it came up in most conversations because our surname is Taylor).  What fat lot of use is a sentence like that?

5. Katie in particular just listened for a long time. She said nothing. As parents we thought – oh no! – she’s never going to understand or speak this new language. What we didn’t see was that her receptive skills were in overdrive, she understood more and more every day. She just didn’t have the need or desire to produce yet. That came later. I must remember that as a language teacher.

Katie’s first clear word in French was Oui-oui. That’s Noddy in French. She was big into Noddy books at the time. It sounded like an English word she knew well and said a lot. It was an easy beginning, although I do wonder if she wondered in her little mind why French people called Noddy urine.

6. Also more evident in Katie was the fact that she was a bit angry and possibly frustrated. Everyone around her was playing a language game and she didn’t know how to play it. As a little individual of 3 years she was just figuring out the power of language and her little identity as an English speaker. That was swept away to be replaced by incomprehensible burble. Language identity is an important thing. We often forget that the language we speak come inextricably linked to the culture behind it.  It might be easier to combine this new identity when we are younger, or have a strong reason to do so.

Adults are at an advantage in that they know the world is full of different languages and that, usually, the aim of another language is not so that you can’t play the game (although I remember vividly a trip as a child to the west coast of Scotland, where the language turned to Gaelic as soon as we stepped into a shop). But that knowledge doesn’t prevent the frustration or the feeling of being left out. Business people learning English are often keener to learn “social English” or chit chat for the very reason that it’s fundamental for us as humans to connect and fit in – even if it’s just to “do a deal”.

So is this bilingual thing impossible for adults?

It seems, from watching our kids becoming bilingual and us attempting it, that there are some important prerequisites. Being a child (apart from the bendy muscles/perfect pronunciation bit) isn’t one if them. It’s more down to the motivation to fit in (or whatever other strong intrinsic or integrative motivation you want to replace that with), the willingness to make mistakes, the willingness of listeners to correct those mistakes, and a need to communicate. All bundled firmly together. Don’t let the excuse of being an adult stop you. Ok, our brain slows down and cognitive pathways take a wee while to form. But they can and they will if you want it enough.

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4 thoughts on “Why are the kids bilingual and we’re not?

  • Bob

    I found a lot of this applicable to our situation – how our two boys learned German and how my 8-year struggle to speak German functions. It has been helpful for me that I learned French and Spanish academically, so I have the grammar language. I have also picked up the chunks. Struggling with learning German has been an inestimably important asset for me as an English teacher for Germans. Thanks for posting this.

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      Taylor Post author

      Hi Bob, thanks for your comments. “Getting by” has been my downfall lately – properly getting to grips with French is always being shunted down the priority ladder. One day!!!

  • Clare

    I remember clearly being desperate to be understood when I was in Italy – I suppose I felt I had something to say. Especially because I always wanted to have a joke if there was one available. In fact, when I think about it, that inability to resist a humour window pushed me to speak and learn quickly. Staircase wit is bad enough in your mother tongue but in a foreign language it’s tumbleweed. Perhaps therein lies a further barrier for many people – confidence that what you have to say when you finally say it, is important or interesting or funny enough to be listened to. Is it possible that confidence or self esteem is essential to language learning…it sounds like your children have it in spades. You have something to say! it’s here and it’s fantastic.

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      Taylor Post author

      Hi Clare, yes that desire to fit in and be accepted in a new community is so important. But it takes confidence too. I remember being so impressed at the ease with which you seemed to pick up Italian x

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