CHILD LANGUAGE ACQUISITION.

A reader writes:

My wife and I are both Americans and have been living in Germany for four years. I speak German well and my wife speaks it, well, reasonably well, though we speak English at home.
My son was born here 3 years ago. He goes to a German-only preschool and is fully bilingual. For some dumb reason, despite a strong (amateur) interest in linguistics I haven’t read anything at all on child language acquisition. We’re expecting our second child in September and I’d like to be better informed about what’s going on in my kids’ noggins and see what I can do to help them.
I’d be very grateful for some help finding the best books/articles on child language acquisition (both general stuff and things relating specifically to bilingual kids). I can read English, German and French, and probably Spanish in this area, if that expands the field.

That’s an area I know nothing about (except for the practical experience of watching two grandsons acquiring language), so I thought I’d toss it out there and get some recommendations from people who know about this stuff.

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    There is an excellent book in French, Comment la parole vient aux enfants: de la naissance jusqu’à deux ans, by Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies. It has been translated into English but I don’t remember the English title. The name of the author is unique though, so she is findable on the internet.
    Another excellent book, in English but by a Frenchman, is François Grosjean’s Life with two languages, which deals mostly with older children and adults. The author is French, went to school in England and lives in Canada (or at least he lived there while writing the book).
    There are probably more recent books, since this is an inexhaustible topic, but I can vouch for those two.
    Speaking partly from my own experience: in general, you can’t “help” your child learn to speak any more than you can help them learn to walk. It is a developmental process. For bilingual children, the best way is the “one person, one language” method: small children don’t analyze, and the way a person speaks is just part of them, part of how they relate to the child. Small children pay attention to what you say to them, not to what you are saying to other adults. Problems arise when the same person addresses the child sometimes in one language and sometimes in the other(s), something which confuses the child since they never know what to expect and how to respond. If your older child is hearing and speaking English at home and German at daycare, there is no possibility of confusion. Even if you have children’s books both in English and in German, the child will realize that when you read a book aloud it’s the book speaking, not you. Don’t forget songs and nursery rhymes too.
    Perhaps you are worrying about what will happen when they start school: if you keep English for the family and German for outside, and have books available in both, they will be well-prepared to attend school in either language, and you can supplement the schooling informally at home.

  2. There is a huge literature on bilingual development but for an excellent book which summarizes recent research (although written as a textbook rather than a parent manual) try: Childhood Bilingualism by McCardle and Hoff. There are a number of more popular books but the questioner sounds like he might enjoy a more sophisticated, in-depth approach.

  3. Christopher says:

    Grosjean wrote an updated ‘sequel’ to Life with Two Languages called Bilingual: Life and Reality, which is aimed more at general audiences. He has a good summary of the contents of his book at his website here.
    I would definitely recommend that book. In fact, I would recommend to anybody with an interest in linguistics but without much prior knowledge.

  4. Sometimes parents are too busy reading parenting-help books and online forums (which are awash in dated or fashionable but equally unproven advice) to play / read / communicate with their own children. My anecdotal evidence suggests that the most avid readers of parenting materials are among the least capable parents; and my theory is that, given enough reading, one always finds support for whatever one already likes or does. So it’s sort of like, the actual life may not be going too well, but at least one can find an echo chamber where everything sounds right.
    The kids are so bewilderingly different in skills and learning habits and in timing of developmental stages. Cookie-cutter methods don’t always work with them; no toolkit is is big enough to work for everyone, and my bilingual educator Mrs. searches for better solutions and approaches just as actively even after decades in the field. But if there is anything close to a universal advice, it’s this: keeping an active bond with the parents, and with their own play peers, is among the best things one can do for a kid.
    So my sage advice is not to read or to discuss too much *about* children, but to read and to discuss *with* them :)

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I can only speak from my experience with my youngest daughter, who was three and a half when we came to live in France 26 years ago. She was already used to being spoken to in English by me, and by other people in England, and in Spanish by my wife, and other people in Chile. By the time she was five she was completely fluent in English, Spanish and French (at the level of a five-year old, of course), and remained so ever since. Her French and Spanish are perfect, and thus much better than mine, and her English also. While she was growing up I always conversed with her in English, and my wife in Spanish, and of course her friends at school in French. She never showed the slightest sign of being confused. Sometimes she would use a French word while speaking English if she didn’t know the English word, but the very slight pauses before and after the foreign word made it perfectly clear that she knew what she was doing.
    Small children have a strong sense of what is appropriate. We had a Mexican friend who sometimes came to the house. My daughter didn’t mind if we spoke in English among the three of us, but she wasn’t at all happy to hear my wife speaking English to the Mexican friend if I wasn’t there.
    I think the main thing I learned from these experiences is that children don’t get confused (if they’re treated consistently), and they can pick up three languages simultaneously, adding to their three vocabularies at the same rate that a monolingual child adds to their one vocabulary.
    Small children notice small differences in pronunciation that their parents are deaf to. We chose a name for our daughter that worked as either an English or a Spanish name and was pronounced, we thought, in, the same way (we weren’t thinking about French then). A few years later I noticed that she pronounced her own name in three different ways, according to who she was speaking to (strong initial and penultimate stress in English, weaker penultimate stress in Spanish, very little stress in French, with three different sets of vowels and consonants.
    One other thing: small children don’t like being asked to translate. If you ask “how do I say this in French?” you may systematically get the answer “I don’t know”.

  6. Anthony says:

    Problems arise when the same person addresses the child sometimes in one language and sometimes in the other(s), something which confuses the child since they never know what to expect and how to respond.
    My wife and I are nearly monolingual in English, but we both have some Spanish. My mother, who helps with the kids a lot, is a native Spanish speaker who also speaks English very well, albeit with an accent. Our daycare provider is a native French speaker who speaks English quite well, but with a stronger accent.
    My older daughter (now almost 6) has had no trouble knowing when we were reading to her or talking to her in Spanish instead of English, nor with Dora the Explorer shifting languages. My younger daughter (3½ years old) has also not shown any confusion. Both have had phases where they don’t want us to use something other than English, though Dora has brought the younger daughter out of that phase. Neither has shown much interest in learning French from the daycare person, though they both picked up a little baby-French (“dodo” and “avoir un bese”).

  7. One other thing: small children don’t like being asked to translate. If you ask “how do I say this in French?” you may systematically get the answer “I don’t know”.
    Yes, they hate it! I wonder why?
    We’ve had very a similar experience to Athel’s except that my daughter is bilingual in Norwegian & English, my wife’s Norwegian and we live in Norway.
    I really don’t think you need to do anything to help them apart from being consequent: Americans consistently talking English to them and Germans German, in other words. At bedtime I read a lot to my daughter in English and she saw English-language cartoons on TV on Saturdays. The latter allowed her to hear a larger range of accents and voices than she would have done otherwise, however, I’ve no evidence that it was helpful to her.

  8. One other thing: when they get just past kindergarten age and they want to blend in with their classmates and not have weird parents, you should make sure they visit an English-speaking country. Then they can see you in an environment where it seems natural, and possibly even cool, when you’re all speaking English.

  9. I am a bilingual speech-language pathologist and I work in a heavily bilingual area of the US, and I see a lot of degrees of bilingualism in children.
    The most important factor to help children achieve true bilingualism (ie, native-level fluency in both languages), in my experience, is good models of each language. Rceiving good grammatical and vocabulary input in the languages they hear helps immensely.
    PS. Some mixing and code-switching is normal for bilingual speakers. It will not harm them if they hear one person speak two languages.

  10. dearieme says:

    “Rceiving good grammatical and vocabulary input in the languages they hear helps immensely.” Oh dear, I knew that Prescriptivism would rear its ugly. Tut, tut, CC.

  11. Not good as in prescriptive, good as in native or native-quality speaker. The last thing you want is for your kid to learn broken X from you because you always speak broken X instead of native Y to them.
    And kids typically can’t translate because they know different things in each language: there’s no common core yet. My mother spent only 12 years in Germany and more than 40 in the U.S., but she could no more do arithmetic in English than I could do it in German, and I don’t even speak German.

  12. I stand by that. It doesn’t mean you drill your 5 y/o in English and German grammar, or that one dialect is wrong vs. another dialect. It means you give them good models (and most parents do, because all parents have a native language) of their language dialect. If you’re a native speaker of X, speak to them in your version of X! That’s it.
    You are ascribing the prescriptivist label to something that is not.

  13. I too have heard the one-parent, one-language advice, but it seems Grosjean disagrees. In any case, I can’t follow it: I’m in a similar but more complicated boat than the original questioner.
    I’m American. My wife is Danish but speaks outstanding English. My 12-year old Jack speaks nothing but English (so far). My 11-month-old baby, Henry, hears Danish from his mom all day, only English from his half-brother, and a mix from me. And we’re now moving to Germany in July, for probably 3-4 years. My ideal outcome would be a trilingual (English-Danish-German) Henry and a bilingual (English-German) Jack.
    But there are so may choices, especially on my part, that it’s driving me crazy. I’m the only one who speaks all three well. The wife has rudimentary German. Henry will go to a Kita (preschool) and be surrounded by German all day. Great. But that means a lot less Danish from my wife, once she’s not with him all day. She and I speak about 90-10 English-Danish together. We only speak English with Jack. We try to speak to each other in Danish around Henry. It is *very* important for her and me that he speak Danish and be bicultural, so I try to support his Danish.
    I’m in constant worry whether
    1) I should reinforce Henry’s Danish with a mix of Danish and English, or keep things consistent with English-only. Would a mom in the evenings and on weekends be enough to make him fluent in Danish?
    2) Whether we should send him to a bilingual (German-English) Kita in Berlin, or just a German-speaking one? (Jack and I would be enough to guarantee he learns English at home; but if I speak Danish at home, that’s less English for Henry, and maybe the bilingual Kita would be best.)
    3) How hard to press Jack, the older boy, to learn German? (He will go to an international school with instruction in German and where, apparently, German is the “playground language”). I *really* want him to learn it while it’s still easier, but I don’t want to make him hate foreign languages, or I will kill myself.
    Nobody probably has a great template for this exact situation, but any thoughts would be helpful. It’s a great opportunity for both boys, but it’s stressing me out!

  14. (Jack is the Danish wife’s stepson, by the way, hence no Danish.)

  15. Sorry, and another mistake: Jack will go to a school where *English* is the language of most instruction, German as a foreign language is mandatory, and about half the kids (and the playground language) are German.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    One other thing: when they get just past kindergarten age and they want to blend in with their classmates and not have weird parents, you should make sure they visit an English-speaking country. Then they can see you in an environment where it seems natural, and possibly even cool, when you’re all speaking English.
    Absolutely. We tried to spend as much time in England and Chile as we could afford (not just money — other commitments too), so that our daughter could realize from her own observation that her weird parents weren’t the only people who spoke these languages that no one else spoke. Curiously — or maybe not — she was the best in her class in French for a good many years. Probably she realized she wasn’t going to get much help from her parents so she needed to do it alone.

  17. des von bladet says:

    We inflict some English on our (Dutch-English bilingual children) via TV and DVDs. (Preferably ones bought in Engerlnd so they can’t cajole me into switching it to mama-speak.)
    I have nothing sensible to add, but I have found that three(3)-ish year-olds can be immensely annoyed by my favourite bilingual game, viz when I say “Daddy says ‘vliegtuig’, mama says ‘airplane’” (etc.). (We use the one parent, one language system.)
    Also, #1 son (now 5) is a fierce policer of linguistic boundaries: he tells me off if I speak Dutch, unless it is strictly necessary (i.e., with Dutch people he thinks are monolingual). He is equally stern with Dutch people who think they are not monolingual.
    #2 daughter (who recently turned 3) has so far stuck with speaking almost exclusively Dutch, although her passive English is fine.
    I still haven’t got around to reading the book marie-lucie recommends, although if I ever read anything on the subject it should probably be that. Slightly to my surprise, I find that I don’t actually seem to be very interested in the literature on the subject: the conclusions just seem to be reassuringly unremarkable.
    There are occasional debates where irritated experts remark that (e.g.) Turkish-speaking parents would be far better off speaking good Turkish to their children than bad Dutch, which is apparently what most politicians would prefer, but I am in the luxurious position that everyone thinks my children are lucky to be getting in on English on the ground floor.
    Teachers are always explicitly pleased when I bring #1 son to school and read (as ritual demands) a book in simultaneously translated English. (I could read aloud in Dutch and it would be, in principle, fine, I know, but it would defy household tradition and small children can be very conservative about household traditions.)

  18. des von bladet says:

    I also used to subvert #1 son’s English by adopting the Dutch “ui” diphthong for the English “ow” in say “allowed”. He started using it when he was tiny and I copied it to reinforce the pattern, which I found and find charming. Eventually he replaced it with the correct English wovel, and he has never actually rebuked me for this yet.
    (If you do this to your own children you will be a terrible parent too.)

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Marie Lucie: unfortunately the only review of François Grosjean’s book at Amazon is useless: “Bilingualism is a complex and very entrusting subject, I recommend this book for who wants to know more about it!” That’s it.

  20. Breffni says:

    Here are some book recommendations:
    Informed practical advice in a question and answer format:
    *Baker, Colin (2007). A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. 3rd edition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. (Baker has some caveats about the one-parent-one-language (OPOL) strategy, which you can read in Google Books.)
    Surveys of the psycholinguistic research on bilingualism:
    *Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: language, literacy and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (One of Bialystok’s main interests is the cognitive advantages of bilingualism.)
    *De Houwer, Annick (2009). Bilingual first language acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
    This next one is structured around case-studies representing some of the most common bilingual child-rearing situations. Although it’s aimed at parents, as I remember it, it describes patterns of development rather than giving advice:
    *De Houwer, Annick (2009). An introduction to bilingual development. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
    Two titles that are more tips-and-tricks oriented (but well informed):
    *Raguenaud, Virginie (2009). Bilingual by choice: Raising kids in two (or more!) languages. London:
    Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
    *Steiner, Naomi (2009). With Susan L. Hayes. Seven steps to raising a bilingual child. New York:
    AMACOM.
    In your correspondent’s situation, with English the home language and German the language of school and society, acquiring spoken English, in the sense of what Jim Cummins calls ‘Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills’ (BICS), is not likely to be much of a problem. But encouraging English literacy skills and ‘Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency’ (CALP) will require a more systematic strategy. What’s needed for a start is lots of reading with the kids in English from as early as possible. If they can be encouraged to engage (eventually) in independent reading in English, they’ll be exposed to more complex grammar and a wider vocabulary, and they’ll be able to access the language independently of family and relatives, into adolescence and beyond. I’d recommend Baker for realistic guidance on issues like these, and Raguenaud and Steiner for concrete tips.
    We’re raising our daughter (5 yrs) in English and Spanish (my wife’s language). So far so good. One piece of advice that shaped our attitude a great deal is something De Houwer emphasises: systematically encourage the use of the minority/weaker language, have a family language policy, BUT don’t let language become a battleground. We don’t have much of a language policy beyond trying to do what comes naturally – which includes me speaking Spanish when the spirit moves me, and my wife speaking English when it seems appropriate for whatever reason – but ‘what comes naturally’ is obviously a matter of habit, and it’s much easier to cultivate healthy linguistic habits before the child starts school.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    ACB: the only review of François Grosjean’s book at Amazon
    Too bad. I don’t know the second book, but if it is of the same caliber as the first it will be very good too.
    CC: About “code-switching”: it is true that many bilinguals do this, and perhaps children raised in a family that does it all the time adapt to it, but in general what counts is not what adults and older children speak between themselves but what they say to the child and expect to hear in return. “Exposure” to one or more other languages, meaning hearing others speak them, is not enough to learn them, since a small child will turn a deaf ear to what is not spoken to them. Any child (or older person) has to be in a position where they have to respond in the other language in order to learn it.
    The experience of the British upper-crust in India is very instructive: those people usually lived in large houses with gardens and had numerous servants to look after the household. In a city the servants were often from various origins and several different languages could be spoken in a single large household. Of course when talking to a baby or toddler who is not yet speaking, an adult tends to use their own language as they don’t expect an answer, and once the child is able to answer back (in baby talk) the adult goes on in the same language, so in this way many small English children learned to speak several Indian languages (appropriately to their age). Unfortunately, since the boys were usually shipped to England once they reached school age, they often forgot the Indian languages they had formerly been able to speak well enough to help their parents communicate with servants and shopkeepers.
    ACB: small children refuse to translate
    It’s because the words or sentences are presented out of context and the child has no personal need to say them at the moment, and also does not understand why you (who speak your own language A) would now want to speak language B which “belongs” with another person. If you must, try asking: “What do you say to X if/when ….?” but it might not work either, so save translation for much later.
    AJP: Going to a country where everyone speaks your language: yes, it’s quite important for your school-age child to see that you and they are not the only ones to speak “weird”, but if going back home for a visit is not possible for the parents, other relatives may be able to come and visit, or you could seek out other expatriates.
    Lane: English/Danish
    Your wife does not have to be with the child all day for him to learn Danish, if she has always spoken it with him and continues to do so. If you want him to speak both Danish and English, she should speak Danish to him and you English, even when the three of you are together. He is still young enough that he won’t care what you and your wife communicate in. Get some children’s books in both languages, each parent reading the ones in their own language (for instance if you take turns reading bedtime stories). You don’t need rigid “equal time” for each language.
    How hard to press the 12-year-old to learn German?
    You should not press him if he does not see a reason to learn it, but once he has German classmates and German is the “playground language” things will probably be different. In the meantime, do you have German friends, neighbours etc who have children about the same age and with similar interests? Lots of games can be played without much oral communication, and any necessary words and phrases which occur most often in the spoken exchanges will be learned quickly. This boy is also old enough that “How do you say X in German?” will be natural for him to ask.

    Taking a peek at later comments since I started mine, I see books that are much more recent than the two I suggested. Nobody has to read them all, but each one will give some good suggestions and explanations. Thanks Breffni for those books and your comments on them.
    About the one-parent-one-language method (which is what I used with my daughter), its usefulness also depends on your social circumstances: if one parent is the only person known to the family who speaks a certain language, that person is more important than if the parents live in a community with many similar bilinguals, including children.

  22. I speak from my own experiences and my own academic readings, in that code-switching is a common thing in bilingual individuals.
    And I didn’t even use the term ‘exposure’ or mentioned that it was enough to learn a language, so I’m not sure why I’m getting it explained.

  23. CC: Here at Language Hat, comments are addressed to the whole community, not just to individuals. Saying “CC:” as I have done here just sets the context; it doesn’t mean other people won’t read and respond to this message.

  24. I speak Yiddish to the kids, and expect (nay, demand!) they respond in the language to me. Their mother (my wife) knows Yiddish well but speaks 75% English to them.
    My 9-year-old daughter reads quite well, though behind her English reading level, and can write fairly well, I think at grade level, with terrible spelling. Since Yiddish is a minority language she has no model of standard literary language instruction besides weekend/evening teaching by her father. We also have several families nearby who speak Y. to their kids too.
    On the other hand, my 5-year-old son has a lot more English in his vocabulary than his sister. I don’t know whether this is developmental, a fluke of personality/Sprachgeful, or something else. I worry about this a fair bit, probably to no good end.
    The baby is 7 months old, and I’m curious to see where she will fall on the spectrum!

  25. marie-lucie says:

    CC: if we only wanted to write a comment for one person, we would probably try to email them or message them privately on facebook. I think most of us here read all the comments, and if we have something to add, we do so expecting that it will be of interest to at least some other people. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding because of the initials: they mean that the person so identified raised a point, not that the answer is only for that person.
    It is true that you did not use the word “exposure”: what you wrote was (about code-switching): It will not harm them if they hear one person speak two languages. “Hearing” the two languages would qualify as being “exposed” to them. (For instance, in an immigrant family where the parents speak the traditional language with their own parents but English or other dominant language to their children: the children sometimes develop a passive knowledge of the grandparents’ language, but not a speaking knowledge). But for the child to be negatively affected, this child would have to be addressed indifferently in either language, never knowing what to expect (unless the two were used in quite different circumstances). Some children might be OK with that, but some others would react badly, for instance by starting to stutter.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Z: my 5-year-old son has a lot more English in his vocabulary than his sister.
    What language do they speak to each other? with schoolmates and playmates? It is common in such a case for the oldest child to learn the parents’ language quite well but for the younger ones not so well because of their perception that “all children speak English”.

  27. You are arguing semantics and ascribing a lot of meaning based on a single word. Using common sense, I meant the languages children hear that are also directed to them, as children do “hear” the languages their parents speak to them. It’s a big leap to go from “hear” to “exposed” to “CC is arguing that pure exposure equals learning”. I’m not sure why this is a point of discussion since I did not write or see anyone else write anything claiming otherwise. Your statements are true, I was just confused about the correcting tone of the comments.
    I will however disagree with your comment about stuttering, as a practicing professional in that area. The causes of stuttering are not well known and it’s preposterous to argue that a certain mode addressing them might cause it.
    But to get back on topic, I will try to dig up some articles regarding bilingualism and language acquisition in children, and hopefully some of the interesting research articles will have public access!

  28. My six-year-old, who has been growing up with the ‘one parent, one language’ approach (I speak English with him, his mother speaks Malay; we live in Malaysia), refuses to speak English at school, even when his teachers prod him to do so…simply because most of the other kids speak only Malay.
    Another thing I find interesting is that when he and his three-year-old brother speak to each other, it’s almost always in Malay, even though they both have native fluency in English.
    Having grown up monolingual, raising bilingual children is an endless source of fascination for me. Watching how they learn both languages (and eventually separate them — and mix them when necessary or convenient or just because) is really interesting.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    CC: It’s a big leap to go from “hear” to “exposed” to “CC is arguing that pure exposure equals learning”
    with “hear” and “expose”, perhaps you and I understand “expose” differently. For instance, from living on the West Coast I have heard a lot of Chinese spoken, so I can say I have been exposed to it, but not in a way that would allow me to learn it. And I don’t see how you can take the last part of your sentence here as anyone’s conclusion about your statement.
    The causes of stuttering are not well known and it’s preposterous to argue that a certain mode addressing them might cause it.
    I am not “arguing” this, I have only read it, so I will defer to your professional expertise.
    Jordan: I have heard a similar story: a bilingual Japanese-Canadian man married an English-Canadian woman, they had two children, then decided to move to Japan while the children were still quite small. After some time in Japan the children refused to speak English any more, only Japanese, even to their mother, since Japanese was what all the other children spoke. I think that by that time the mother had probably learned some functional Japanese, and since the children were no longer limited to English with her, English was an unnecessary complication. (I don’t know what happened later, these people were friends of friends, not my own friends).
    In your child’s case, I think that speaking English to the teacher would mark him as different from the other children, and that’s why he refuses to do it.

  30. I think it also had something to do with the fact that his teachers assumed he didn’t speak any Malay (children of ‘expats’ tend to go to international schools, or at least private schools, but we send him to a public school) and for the first week spoke nothing but English with him. Even his Bahasa Malaysia teacher only spoke to him in English. I’m pretty sure he felt like the proverbial sore thumb. Finally one day a teacher heard him speaking Malay with a classmate and was shocked.

  31. Having brought up 2 tri-lingual children and read and written widely on the subject, my advice is: hands off; leave well alone.
    ie don’t try to help, interfere or manipulate their language development in any way.
    here is one article I wrote: http://www.kidsinfrance.com/2012/02/bilingualism-childs-play.html

  32. Marie-Lucie, the 5 year old and 9 year old speak about 40/60 English/Yiddish together. Code-switching galore. It’s actually fun to listen to. She speaks Yiddish to him, and he mostly speaks English back unless I’m around.
    Miranda Ingram: with all due respect, if I were to adopt such an attitude to my children, they would be speaking English only. Minority language transmission requires a different kind of involvement, at least in my limited experience.

  33. for the first week spoke nothing but English with him. Even his Bahasa Malaysia teacher only spoke to him in English
    School teachers have to make assumptions, and they often don’t get it right at first when the students are bilingual. Two of our 3 bilingual children read in English but couldn’t converse fluently when they entered US public school. The initial mis-perceptions of the teachers, and the swift corrections, were quite instructive IMHO. One was placed in ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) group, then quickly transferred to a regula classroom. Another was denied placement in a gifted program, then readmitted after they realized that she’s just barely started speaking English (hence the mismatch between the written and oral parts of the admission test)
    BTW sustaining then 2nd language which isn’t the school is especially hard. If at all possible, it’s really helpful to teach you children to read and write in the “lesser” language _before_ they acquire literacy in the school language (thus pushing the “lesser” language beyond the ‘Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills’ threshold where it remains at risk of stagnation).

  34. marie-lucie says:

    My daughter, who grew up bilingual in English and French, knew her letters and could have read early but was turned off by the following incident: once, when she was not quite four years old, we were waiting at the post office (which is legally obligated to post notices in both languages), and I vaguely noticed some odd items on a rack saying on one side GIFTS and on the other CADEAUX. She pulled me towards the display to attract my attention to this funny word, saying triumphantly: “ka-dé-ox”! Obviously she could read, since she had actually read the word! I praised her and added that yes, it did look like “ka-dé-ox”, but it was actually “ka-do”. She did not like to be in the wrong, so she stopped trying to read then and there, in either language. She learned to read in English two years later in grade 1 (this was in an English part of Canada), but still did not want to try reading French, and I did not try to teach her although I still read aloud to her while she followed the words on the book. A couple of years later she and I spent the summer with my family in France, and now she not only was among monolingual French-speaking children but discovered a pile of Tintin books, from which she taught herself to read French, without help, in order to know what the characters were saying. Back in Canada she went to a French-language school for another couple of years and learned to write French there.
    In that school (which had very few students), most of the children were bilingual in varying degrees but spoke to each other in English outside the class. At one point there was a new boy from Belgium who spoke only French, and he ended up picking up English from his bilingual classmates.

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    For lane’s situation and the older child, I would think one signficant wild-card factor will be the general attitude and practice of the other Anglophone kids at the school: are they affirmatively trying to learn German as best they can for their own purposes (not necessarily to get good grades in the formal classes, but to be able to function well in “playground language” and/or be able to function well on their own in the city in general at an age where they are beginning to be interested in being as independent as possible and/or even just to watch local tv to the extent that’s still relevant in this youtube etc era) or do they want to do as little as they can get away with on the grounds that a) they’re in an expat situation where they’ll predictably be going back to an Anglophone country in a few years anyway and b) pretty much everyone they will need or want to interact with in Berlin already has better English than they have or can immediately acquire?
    Beyond that, I don’t have much insight into the adolescent social dynamics of an English-language school where half the kids are native speakers of the local language. When I was a student at an English-language school in Tokyo way back in the ’70′s, only a handful of kids were Japanese-as-L1 speakers — certainly not enough to affect the playground language.

  36. How hard to press Jack, the older boy, to learn German? (He will go to an international school with instruction in German and where, apparently, German is the “playground language”)
    Lane, my experience in Vienna is that if you send a 12 year old English speaker to an international school he will not learn German. This is my observation based on numerous American families I know. In Vienna the playground language at international schools is generally English (or maybe Russian in some cases). Most of the parents really don’t care if the kids learn German in school – the non-native English speakers (including the Austrians) badly want their children speaking English, and the native English speakers are mostly a transitory population and don’t invest much energy in German. Probably for that reason the “mandatory” German instruction seems to be mediocre at best, and shockingly bad at at least one of the schools. Maybe your school is different, but there’s also a good chance your son would do just fine in a local school.
    We wanted our kids to learn German – so we put our 12 year old straight into the local gymnasium, and a year later he is a decent German speaker and doing very well in school (although he had some preparation – he spent a year taking classes at the Goethe Institute in Boston before we moved). I know of an Irish family with an 11 and 13 year old that threw their kids into the local schools without the slightest preparation and somehow that worked well for them. I also know a family who took a less drastic route – when they moved to Austria they simply took their kids out of school for a year, put them in intensive German courses and then sent them to local schools.
    But there are no perfect solutions – there are other considerations in choosing a school other than language.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    There are a couple of relevant comments on Language Log today (post is about code switching – see the comments):
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4562#more-4562

  38. Isn’t it funny how we just started from discussing the same question of bilingual childhood – but in XIX c. – in a neighboring thread? Franco-Russophonic dualism, and here even the character’s name is Sophie as well :)
    Чацкий: …
    Здесь нынче тон каков
    На съездах, на больших, по праздникам приходским?
    Господствует еще смешенье языков:
    Французского с нижегородским?
    София:
    Смесь языков?
    Чацкий:
    Да, двух, без этого нельзя ж.
    София:
    Но мудрено из них один скроить, как ваш.

  39. Dmitry: What is meant by “ж” here? Google Translate mysteriously renders it as “f”.

  40. If at all possible, it’s really helpful to teach you children to read and write in the “lesser” language _before_ they acquire literacy in the school language (thus pushing the “lesser” language beyond the ‘Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills’ threshold where it remains at risk of stagnation).
    Actually we did that. The preschool program we put him in had a heavy emphasis on English. And I’m not really worried that one language will suffer. He seems to be equally interested in reading books in both languages, for example. I just found his experience during the first week of school interesting.

  41. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Marie-Lucie: your story of “ka-dé-ox” reminds me of the first occasion when I was sure that my daughter could truly read. Well before that she could recognize particular words. At one and a half she could recognize “KLM” (if you call that reading) and later she could recognize “Sodim” (then an important supermarket chain in France, now defunct). However, one day when she was approaching four we passed a motocycle shop called “Midi Moto Pogolotti”, which she read out perfectly, despite the absence of much meaning, and an utterance she had never heard. (It’s still called Midi Moto, but they have dropped the Pogolotti.)

  42. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Marie-Lucie (replying to AJP): Going to a country where everyone speaks your language: yes, it’s quite important for your school-age child to see that you and they are not the only ones to speak “weird”, but if going back home for a visit is not possible for the parents, other relatives may be able to come and visit, or you could seek out other expatriates.
    I’ve sometimes wondered whether it was coincidental that the first occasion when my daughter spoke French at home was at the dinner table when my monoglot parents were visiting, when she declaimed something she’d learned at school. (It started “c’est le capitaine, le capitaine, du bateau”, but Google doesn’t know it.)
    She could clearly understand French well before that. Only two or three months after we came to France her École maternelle (kindergarten) had a kermesse at which she had to participate in a sort of dance. We were worried that she wouldn’t know what she was supposed to do, but she not only knew, but had to drag around her partner, a little boy who clearly did not know what he was supposed to do. I imagine she was speaking French at school long before she uttered a French word in our presence. We shall always be grateful to her teacher Mme Bruno (institutrice), who was so successful at making this little foreign child feel at home that she loved going to school from the very beginning. We used to run from where I’d parked the car to get into school as quickly as possible. This made a stark contrast with another little girl, whose mother was a child psychologist, who used to stay every day at the gate in tears until it was about to be closed.

  43. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Where do people still speak Yiddish as a living language? Apart, perhaps, from New York, I thought it had largely disappeared.

  44. It started “c’est le capitaine, le capitaine, du bateau”, but Google doesn’t know it.
    It might be a “rain in Spain” thing for pronouncing French Ts properly. My wife (Norwegian) knows one from when she learnt French. Hers goes on to say “le capitaine a acheté un paquet de thé” or something similar.

  45. Where do people still speak Yiddish as a living language?
    Aren’t there still a few pockets in Ukraine?
    There is a Yiddish language podcast from Australia, but the native speakers seem to be primarily middle-aged or elderly immigrants from Europe. I have no idea whether or not there is a viable younger generation.

  46. John Cowan: ж or же here is a particle adding force to preceding words. A bit like you though or then at the end of the sentence (let’s go then, can’t do without that though).

  47. My children are trilingual, they switch codes effortlessly but do trip over faux amis occasionally.
    There’s another side to this. I was swapping experience with friends, a quadrilingual family (Dutch, Italian, French, and English). I asked the father, a Dutchman, what language he thinks in. His answer seemed striking to me: people don’t think in a language, thinking is a much wider process, than speaking, even to yourself.
    I wonder what others think?

  48. J.W. Brewer says:

    Athel/Vanya: Yiddish is a living language in a variety of communities in and near New York City – nowhere near what it was a few generations back (but still maybe 100K+ people who could carry a conversation), but on the other hand the Yiddish-speaking population (mostly Hasidim these days) has an unusually high birthrate. Americans of German ancestry in general have lost their German, but the Amish and similar distinctive/insular groups have retained German (sometimes in a nonstandard dialect) after 300+ years living amidst Anglophones and there is no reason why the Hasidim will not be able to do the same if the Messiah tarries. You can not infrequently overhear Yiddish being spoken on the street, in elevators, into cellphones etc. in midtown Manhattan (although almost uniformly by people who are identifiably Hasidic by their clothing), and can also occasionally see traces of it farther afield. Last fall I was at a rest stop off the Northway near Saratoga Springs (i.e. on the major highway you would take if you were north of Albany headed toward Montreal) and the only non-English signage was in Yiddish. Dr. Berger apparently lives these days in Baltimore, where I would think finding a critical mass of local speakers outside ones own household would be much more of a challenge. Similarly the non-Hasidic Yiddish-enthusiast community is I would think demographically unstable, in that it requires a lot of self-consciousness to keep it up and exogamy (linguistically speaking, at least) in the next generation is highly likely as a statistical matter.

  49. Well, I think I do think in specific languages. If I’m sitting there (or walking along) thinking in one particular language and someone asks me a question, I’m likely to blurt out something in the language that I’m thinking in. Of course I’m not a true polyglot since all my languages were learnt after adolescence.

  50. The point is that not everything you think consciously requires language to do so, but some thoughts or ways of thinking seem to: for example, some people, particularly older women in my experience, enjoy talking to themselves or “thinking out loud”; this seems mostly to take the form of a commentary, and that’s obviously not appropriate to all kinds of conscious thought.
    I can’t speak any other language as well as English, but I often find myself thinking in Norwegian.

  51. “ж” here? Google Translate mysteriously renders it as “f” :) that’s because it’s followed by a period: ж. – so Google Translate plays a linguist and sees a gender designation: ж. for женский = f. for feminine LOL
    I scratched my head for a second trying to come up with the best equivalent of “ж” in this passage from Griboedov’s “Woe” … and discovered that Wiktionary translates it as “after all”

  52. LH you struck a 2nd version of my msg with a corrected HTML links – any chance to have the corrected tags restored? One of the closing “>” characters was inverted there in the first (and surviving) version. Sorry for the trouble…

  53. :) that’s because it’s followed by a period: ж. – so Google Translate plays a linguist and sees a gender designation: ж. for женский = f. for feminine LOL

    I scratched my head for a second trying to come up with the best equivalent of “ж” in this passage from Griboedov’s “Woe” … and discovered that Wiktionary translates it as “after all”

  54. PS nevermind, most of the missing stuff was still present in the page HTML source

  55. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe: I’m not a true polyglot since all my languages were learnt after adolescence.
    What does the timing have to do with it? You speak several languages, that’s the definition of a polyglot.

  56. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    More about Yiddish. How much is it spoken in Israel? I have the idea that the original Zionists didn’t encourage it and wanted it to fade away, with everyone speaking Hebrew, and that to a considerable extent they succeeded. True?
    How intelligible is it to speakers of standard German? A bit, or not at all? If written in Roman characters can a German speaker understand it?
    I think I’ve only heard Ladino on YouTube, but then I’ve been surprised at how much like modern Spanish it is. For the written language (in Roman characters), if you ignore the weird spelling it is essentially Spanish as it might be if the Latin f- to Spanish h- transformation had never happened. I have found it fairly easy to understand the spoken language, and completely easy to understand it when written (apart from the occasional words that appear to be of Hebrew or Yiddish origin) — easier than written Portuguese, for example, and much easier than written Catalan.

  57. Hofstadter has a section of Le Ton Beau de Marot called “How Jolly the Lot of an Oligoglot”. He has native English, rusty French, good conversational Italian with some French interference (*mucca for mosca, based on the analogy vache:vacca::mouche:X), and some idea of Chinese.

  58. marie-lucie says:

    Athel: Ladino … is essentially Spanish as it might be if the Latin f- to Spanish h- transformation had never happened
    Read Don Quixote, written not so long after the migration: DQ, an hidalgo of the old school, whose literary tastes are archaic, always uses f-, while the illiterate peasant Sancho always uses h-. I reread the book every few years, and I don’t think any other characters use f-, so DQ’s language was probably already markedly old-fashioned in his time, in keeping with the whole of his personality.
    Something else which Ladino did not undergo is the change of dj as in djudezmo/ or djudeo-espanyol to [x] (la “jota”).
    These changes would not make it too difficult to read Ladino but would interfere with immediate comprehension of spoken Ladino if one only knew Modern Spanish.

  59. Ladino … is essentially Spanish as it might be if the Latin f- to Spanish h- transformation had never happened
    This will appear in the next edition of Essentialist Explanations, but probably not for a while, as I have just published the 16th edition. It’s now a 75-page monograph with 1078 explanations. As it should well be, because it seems to have pushed the serious use of the phrase off Google’s first page, which means people will never know what it really means now.

  60. J.W. Brewer comments: “Dr. Berger apparently lives these days in Baltimore, where I would think finding a critical mass of local speakers outside ones own household would be much more of a challenge. Similarly the non-Hasidic Yiddish-enthusiast community is I would think demographically unstable, in that it requires a lot of self-consciousness to keep it up and exogamy (linguistically speaking, at least) in the next generation is highly likely as a statistical matter.”
    This is entirely correct. If you are interested in personal experiences of the accidentally Baltimorean Yiddishist, please see http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/92153/gilded [sorry, the comments keep eating my HTML].
    Athel Cornish Bowden asks:
    “More about Yiddish. How much is it spoken in Israel?”
    Not much. I don’t know how Israel collects language-spoken-at-home information. There are ultra-Orthodox in Israel who speak the language, and it is still used as a language of instruction in some yeshivot.
    “I have the idea that the original Zionists didn’t encourage it and wanted it to fade away, with everyone speaking Hebrew, and that to a considerable extent they succeeded. True?”
    More or less. Books have been written on the topic. For a full treatment read Yael Chaver’s “What Must be Forgotten: The Survival of Yiddish in Zionist Palestine.”
    “How intelligible is it to speakers of standard German? A bit, or not at all? If written in Roman characters can a German speaker understand it?”
    Watch this non-scholarly video for a stab at an answer. Short answer: it depends. Intelligibility is a moving target.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qQSAEMq5ko

  61. m-l: You are right.
    I was thinking of the difference between people who pick up languages as a child and those who learn them later, especially with regard to ‘what language you think in’.

  62. My mother (native German speaker, Germanist, essentially no exposure to Yiddish) had no problem reading and understanding a Purim play in a Latin-alphabet but non-Germanizing transcription. Admittedly, it was in Western Yiddish, and there were notes in English to help with the jokes. The name of the author is escaping me at the moment; it was edited by a colleague of hers at CCNY.

  63. Nathan Susskind was the editor, I’m pretty sure. I still can’t remember the name of the playwright, though.

  64. The name of the author is escaping me at the moment
    Does this sound Irish, or are my intuitions failing me?

  65. Not to me, but I am Irish-American after all.

  66. How intelligible is it [Yiddish] to speakers of standard German? A bit, or not at all? If written in Roman characters can a German speaker understand it?
    Watch this non-scholarly video for a stab at an answer. Short answer: it depends. Intelligibility is a moving target.
    Intelligibility is not an attribute but a relation. Depending on your standpoint, the target is moving, or the marksman, or both. I once believed that I could understand at least written Yiddish, but later realized that I could do so only with the archeologically reconstructive methods that I apply to unfamiliar dialects of English. Prominent among these methods is sheer guessing.
    Depending on the number of things you take into account (in bunches, or one after the other), you arrive at slightly different provisional conclusions. From the very start of the video I had the impression that the Yiddish-speaking guy did not speak fluently, but was hashing together bits and pieces he may have picked up from his grandparents. His scrumptious partner spoke “accent-free” German.
    But what is cute, what is homely ? Bavarian Heimattheater plays on TV are not hard for Colonists to understand, but woe betide the viewer who concludes from this that it would not be hard for him to live in Bavaria. He should take into account that the actors have probably buffed a shine on the rough dialect.
    I’m now working in Mannheim (“Mannem”), where I am confronted with various forms of Mannemerisch, Hezzisch, Schwäbischle and God knows what-all. To overhear a conversation in the trams yields less comprehension than when someone speaks directly to you. There is a kind of autocorrective sandpaper mechanism that often cuts in when people speak to someone who is known not to hail from their stomping grounds.
    In actual practice, “purely linguistic” features are difficult to separate from semantic components. Being on the trains a lot again these days, I hear snatches of conversation in German and English that I think I should understand but don’t. Maybe conversation is the wrong word, the speakers are not biffing the ball, but playing tiddlywinks. They snap short references back and forth regarding family and friends. After a few sentences I still haven’t figured out what they’re talking about, and my attention wanes.

  67. I mean that, in a sense, I become less able to hear what they’re saying, and so I am even less in a position to understand what they’re talking about.

  68. When I can’t connect the dots, the dots turn fuzzy.

  69. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly: There is a kind of autocorrective sandpaper mechanism that often cuts in when people speak to someone who is known not to hail from their stomping grounds.
    Great metaphor! This is also what happens when people speak to small children, even if they are not using “baby talk”.

  70. David Marjanović says:

    The part of East Yiddish that is of German origin is close to trivial to understand for a German monoglot, despite the Slavic vowel system – though the broader one’s exposure to vaguely southern dialects, the better. But often the subject of a sentence will be a more or less abstract noun, and those (“soul” as well as “family”) are seemingly all from Hebrew. This way it’s possible to understand everything except what they’re talking about.
    That must be why there was so much Yiddish in the German robbers’ argot Rotwelsch.
    ++++++++++++++++
    I haven’t even finished reading this thread, just wanted to dump this from a now-closed thread:

    But the Austrian use of the word “Kids” in contexts where “Kinder” would work perfectly well still grates on my ears. That, and the verb “chillen”, since “to chill” or “chill out” is already dated slang in American English.

    Chillen refers rather specifically to the aftermath of a party. Getting up to partying temperature (and alcohol level) is called vorglühen, literally “pre-glowing”.
    Kids is an attempt by adults to adapt to youthspeak. Like all such attempts, it belongs on Failblog.

  71. David Marjanović says:

    Hezzisch

    Hessian TV (hr, Hessischer Rundfunk) once self-parodized around Easter as “Häsischer [ˈhæːsɪʃɐ] Rundfunk”, as if from Hase “hare”, because that’s what the Easter rabbit is in German. I guess this means the Central German Lenition* must have happened after the loss of long consonants** but before the Early New High German lengthening of vowels in open syllables.
    * Binnenhochdeutsche Konsonantenschwächung.
    ** …which never happened in Alemannic or Bavarian dialects except Carinthian.

  72. @ Athel Cornish-Bowden – Yiddish is extensively spoken as a living language in some neighbourhoods of Montreal, especially where I used to live in Mile End.

  73. we also have a Yiddish language theatre company in Montreal that’s been going for a good 50 years.
    http://www.segalcentre.org/whats-on/upcoming-events/community/the-dora-wasserman-yiddish-theatre/

  74. This way it’s possible to understand everything except what they’re talking about.
    That’s exactly what I meant ! In other areas of endeavor the corresponding production technique is called fast-talking (politicians, consultants), or sweet-talking (anbaggern).

  75. David Marjanović says:

    John Cowan: ж or же here is a particle adding force to preceding words.

    It’s an emphatic fucking particle, it’s just not fucking obscene and goes be-fucking-hind the words it emphasizes. :-)

    His answer seemed striking to me: people don’t think in a language, thinking is a much wider process, than speaking, even to yourself.

    Depends on the topic. There are things that I definitely don’t send through Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas first. Others are clearly in a language; those tend to be the most obviously language-related ones, like when I think about what I’m going to say or write.

    That’s exactly what I meant !

    Yes, I hadn’t read that far yet.

  76. Chillen refers rather specifically to the aftermath of a party.
    Maybe once upon a time, but “chillen” seems to have acquired a more general meaning as it spread out of the club scene. Duden says it’s just a synonym for “entspannen”, and that seems to be the way most advertising writers and German speakers older than 40 understand it. Duden also claims it can mean “sich abregen”, which would correspond to the English usage in “chill, dude”, or “take a chill pill” – I haven’t seen it used that way, but then I hang with older people.

  77. David Marjanović says:

    Duden says

    I was talking about Vienna, more specifically about how my 20-year-old sister uses it.

  78. My primary informant in the Cologne party and drug scenes just told me this: first off, nobody has been heard to say chillen with the meaning reg dich ab. I don’t doubt that some Duden informant heard that as a nonce, someone’s attempt to introduce the English “chill, dude” usage.
    Otherwise, chillen is now essentially a synonym of relaxen – not particularly after a party, you can chillen by lounging on the couch watching tv, as my informant is doing as I write. He says hashheads will sometimes say lass uns mal chillen, meaning “let’s go smoke”, but other drug users (ecstasy, heroine etc) don’t use the word in that way.

  79. Nor heros either.

  80. But the Austrian use of the word “Kids” in contexts where “Kinder” would work perfectly well still grates on my ears.
    The word “kids” is being used more and more in Germany too, by with-it people at least. It’s not surprising in a way, since the English word derives from the German Kitz = a young offspring of deer or goat.

  81. the English word derives from the German Kitz
    Well, no. It’s a borrowing from a Scandinavian language, in which it’s cognate to Kitz. If it were borrowed from German it would take the shape kits or kit.

  82. I was talking about Vienna
    So was I initially, but I meant the unimaginitive way my sons’ 40-something teachers or Der Standard writers use it. Your sister’s generation seems to have developed a more creative adoption.

  83. It’s a borrowing from a Scandinavian language, in which it’s cognate to Kitz.
    Ah.

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