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Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The wonderful world of language

A friend of mine recently told me that her daughter, three years old, is trying to figure out what it means to speak a different language. She asked why she doesn't speak French, when her cousins do. Her comments and questions are a window into how the young child's mind works with language. It's one thing to grow up always hearing the same sounds, which then form words, which then form sentences. It's natural. The mind absorbs it and only later understands the grammatical rules, spelling and other components of language.

It's another thing to grow up hearing two or more languages consistently; and yet another thing to spend your first few years with a "maternal language" and then to begin to be exposed to another language or two. How does a young child understand this? How do they make sense of multiple sets of communication?

I'm now experiencing this with my son Noah, also three years old. He has taken a sudden interest in all things French. As a baby, he never said "more" but always "encore". We tell him "doucement" instead of "gentle." And there are a few other, random vocabulary words. He's probably always considered them part of his English set. But recently, he's started to ask, "How do you French?" He repeats it, with the sweetest accent, part Anglophone but also part Noah, as he has a slight lisp and some lingering baby pronunciation.

I wonder how all this is working out in his head. What does it mean to speak another language? Why aren't they always interchangeable? Except, in his world, they often ARE interchangeable. He can use them both and be understood. In fact, we often applaud his efforts, and strangers think it's cute, when he mixes the two languages.

Of course, it's not a new experience. Lots of people have grown up in multilingual environments, and they sort it out just fine in the end. They often have an ease with language that baffles unilingual people. They also have a greater ease with music and math. Those studies have been done. But I'd love to see an experiment that somehow measures and puts into words how a three-year-old quantifies and qualifies multiple languages in their head.

The beauty and wonder of it all is fascinating—that much I can see on my son's face.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Bonjour, Siri

My husband and I recently got iPhones. 4S, which I insisted on because I really, really, really wanted to talk to Siri. What does that say about my typical daily conversation?

Me: Noah, do you have to go potty?
Noah: No, the gate is closed.
Me: It's been a long time, sweety. Let's try.
Noah: No!!!!!! The gate is CLOSED!!!!!
Me: OK.
Two minutes later, he's dashing upstairs, ripping his pants off.
Noah: The gate is open! The gate is open!
Me: No!!!!!! Close the gate! Close the gate!
Noah, sits on the toilet and pees.
Me: Do you have to poo?
Noah: No, the poo doesn't want to come out. He's talking to his friend, pee. They're playing trains...
Me: Noah, that's enough.

So, can you blame me when I boot up the iPhone and say to Siri, "I could really use a latte,"?
She responds, "I bet you could." Hysterical laughter on my part, kids are fascinated by the voice coming out of the phone. Everyone's happy, right?

We ask her what her favourite colour is. She responds, "This is about you, not me." God, I love Siri.

When my husband and I were researching the iPhone 4S, we found that you can talk to Siri in any language. She will come to understand you better with time. We also read that she prefers native speakers. We had a good laugh about that. I opted to speak to her in English; so did my husband, despite the fact that his voice is very deep and accented.

We sat across from each other in the living room and "face timed" before we realised how ridiculous the whole situation was and put the phones away (ok, yes, they also needed to be charged...). But as soon as she's up and ready to go, I'll be practising my French with Siri. At least I know she'll give me honest feedback.