Helen DeWitt has a wonderful post at paperpools, quoting a Russian reader who was given a copy of The Last Samurai (for description, see my enthusiastic burble from 2003) by someone who said “You know, maybe, being a single mom of a five-year-old girl, you will find this stuff interesting. It is about how to teach kids foreign languages. I think you’ll enjoy it.” The story she tells is touching and should inspire everyone to teach their kids something of a foreign language or three. Read the post, then (if you haven’t already) buy the book!

(Incidentally, you can see the Yo-Yo Ma quote cited in the title of this post, and on page 44 of the novel, here, towards the bottom of page 8.)


  1. That was a good post from 2003, Language. It’s not many bloggers who provide links to Dagbladet — not many writers who do interviews in English, I guess.
    Helen DeWitt, we love you.

  2. As you say in your old post, one of the best books ever. I picked it up completely by accident because I was in Japan and really thought it was about Samurai and was wondering why it had a Tom Cruise connected title. Read it twice, and wish I hadn’t lent it out to someone unreliable so I could read it again

  3. Not completely off the topic, there’s a really interesting new blog about the French language as it’s spoken in Mauritius. Lots of new words and expressions. It’s by Siganus Sutor. You can check it out here — he only started it yesterday.

  4. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, AJP, and well done, Siganus!

  5. What great news! Excuse me while I dash off and post about it.

  6. You may want to read my latest post while you’re about it. I got it from Sig and it’s about language.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Coupez la difficulté seemed ill-formed as well as unclear to me until I read Helen DeWitt’s post. The problem is that it should have the complement en quatre, since it is based on the phrase couper les cheveux en quatre (as a commenter pointed out), literally to cut [single] hairs into four pieces, an equivalent to the less specific English “hairsplitting”. But this is not something a French speaker would think of doing with difficulties, since splitting hairs into four pieces is something much too picky or fussy to be of much use.

  8. marie-lucie says

    It depends how you “teach” them. The best way is to speak to them in the language (the way you are “teaching them” English), but that would have to be done on a consistent basis (not for instance alternating French and English), something which is easy to do if the parents speak different languages and each speaks their own to the child.
    The person who contributed the anecdote on Helen DW’s blog was not teaching her daughter to speak Greek or Russian: that child learned the alphabet and some words, not how to speak. That approach worked to some extent with a school age child but would be totally useless with a 2 or 3 year old.
    Not too long ago I saw a video about a woman “teaching” her child, who was just beginning to walk and did not yet speak, American Sign Language (since it has been suggested that small children would learn to communicate earlier through sign than spoken language when still at the pre-language stage). She was asking “How do you say bye-bye?” and similar questions. In other words, she was using spoken language not to communicate with the child but to make him respond to English clues in a totally artificial situation. Children learn to produce language from hearing it used repeatedly in concrete situations which have practical meaning for them. (This is also how adults “pick up” a foreign language when immersed in a foreign situation).

  9. SnowLeopard says

    We’re going to be teaching our daughter some ASL vocabulary once she hits six months or so. As I understand it, it’s not entirely contrived but allows the infant to articulate some basic needs, with less frustration and more sleep for all concerned: “Hungry”, “Scared”, or “X hurts”, for example. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it may assist acquisition of spoken language to some mild degree. Beyond that, the poor child will find herself passively exposed to dozens of dead and living languages because that’s just one of the ways I relax, and maybe she’ll play along with the CDs like I do, or else she’ll heckle me like her mother does by calling out the correct response but in the wrong language — Arabic instead of Cantonese, for example. (Pimsleur follows more or less the same script for all its language courses, and I have seven of them in progress at the moment.) When she’s older, we’ll have to see how many languages she’s interested in pursuing, but the priority will have to be on emphasizing the fun of it.
    This post as well as Ms. De Witt’s have finally gotten me to order The Last Samurai, which I look forward to reading with interest, hopefully soon.

  10. Do let us know how you like it! And my grandsons got taught some basic sign language, which seemed to enable them to communicate their thoughts earlier than one would have expected; I have no idea whether it helped with acquisition of spoken language.

  11. marie-lucie says

    LH, How were your grandsons taught ASL (or a few signs of it)?
    It is difficult to know whether using some form of sign language would help with acquiring spoken language, since individual children differ in the exact age at which they start to speak. One would think that if sign language was easier for them (and was used by fluent signers, as opposed to parents who had only learned a few simple signs), that would delay rather than stimulate the acquisition of spoken language. Besides, all non-deaf children eventually start speaking without specific teaching, but sign languages (as opposed to just a few homemade signs) are artificial constructs. A blind but hearing child learns to speak just as well as a seeing child.

  12. marie-lucie says

    SnowLeopard: the poor child will find herself passively exposed to dozens of dead and living languages because that’s just one of the ways I relax
    She might not like it at all if she never knows how you are going to try to communicate and how she is expected to reply. It won’t matter at the very beginning, before she realizes that the words do mean something, but after a while it will matter to her when she won’t know which word or expression she should choose among what appear to be a bunch of synonyms. “The fun of it” is valid for older children or adults, not for a preschooler.

  13. m-l: I wish my recall of names worked better than it does, but maybe I can give enough clues for someone. I read a book by a man who was raised by a German father and an English mother in Paris. They alternated all three languages, one each day. He couldn’t recall which one he spoke first, but all three were his ‘mother’ tongues. He became professor of English language and literature at the University of Geneva.

  14. m-l: We taught our son a few signs when he was around 12 months old: “More” and “help/please” were the two he used most. I taught him very simply, by repeating the word verbally while signing, prompting him every time the context was appropriate. At 12 months, he was obviously already understanding a fairly large vocabulary, so I wasn’t teaching him the concept, just a way of communicating it to me. He learned “more” in the course of a flight from Toronto to Chicago, as I fed him Cheerios; he immediately modified the sign, making it a little easier for him (I assume) but it was distinct and recognisable. He used it, and “help”, almost up until he was 2 years old — past the point at which he was able to say “more” and “help” perfectly well, often using them for emphasis together with the words.
    He also developed, independently, quite an extensive range of idiosyncratic gestures and sounds which were fixed and specific in meaning — we understood them, but no one else did. (This is presumably normal in toddlers). But all of these — the signs, the sounds, the gestures — disappeared within 3 months of him developing the ability to string more than two words together (i.e by his second birthday he was only using English words, and didn’t recognise the signs when I showed them to him).
    I have no idea if the signing helped or hindered his language development (of course, we didn’t do very much signing with him — there are other parents who do much more) but at 2.5 yrs he’s now a very, very (maybe too!) verbal child. I do know that he seemed happy to have a way to tell us what he wanted, inasmuch as he used his signs ALOT, and got quite frustrated when other people didn’t understand them.
    Just to chip in my 2 cents…

  15. maybe I can give enough clues for someone
    That sounds a bit like George Steiner, the literary critic and author of an interesting, if quirky, book on translation theory. He was raised trilingual in German, French, and English in Paris between the wars and then New York during WWII. He was professor of English in Geneva. But his parents were Viennese Jews.

  16. That’s the chap! And the book was on transation, all right.

  17. Thank God for MMcM!
    Aven’s description of how signing worked for them is really interesting to me, and I wish someone had thought of this earlier so we could have tried it.
    Snow Leopard, our daughter is bilingual in English and Norwegian (and getting pretty good at Spanish, now, at fifteen). We were told when she began to speak that children need to start with one language, rather than two or more, simultaneously, which (we heard) is confusing for them to separate. These theories change all the time, but that in fact is how it played out. She started with a bit of Norwegian and then caught up in English. I can’t remember the length of time each sequence lasted, unfortunately, but it wasn’t very long.

  18. Snow Leopard, I’m 100% behind what you wrote about a certain Schubert Scherzo, even though I don’t dislike it myself. I’d suggest as compensation you do as I just did and listen to the Scherzo in Beethoven’s Cello Sonata Op. 69.

  19. LH, How were your grandsons taught ASL (or a few signs of it)?
    It’s very common these days (at least among middle-class Americans who follow the trends in child-raising); I don’t know when it became popular, but I became aware of it around the time of my older grandson’s birth in 2004, because his parents were discussing it.

  20. SnowLeopard says

    marie-lucie: She might not like it at all if she never knows how you are going to try to communicate and how she is expected to reply.
    I wasn’t suggesting that I would be speaking to my daughter in Korean, Farsi, etc. and expecting her, without warning, to respond in a different language depending on the day or hour. That sounds cruel and highly distressing. But she will hear those languages playing on a CD and me responding as I go about my ironing, mealy-bug massacres, and so forth. Formal language instruction, like music instruction, would come later. My wife once made a comparison to Darwin’s young son, who upon visiting a playmate’s house reportedly asked in all earnestness where his friend’s father studied his barnacles. There’s no suggestion that the child himself was forced at an early age to partake of the study.
    AJP Crown: Thank your for the recommendation, as well as for apparently taking pains to find something worthy of comment among the half-wit ramblings on my homespun little site. Your earlier description of the Shostakovich Preludes & Fugues inspired me to include them in the same order as Ms. DeWitt’s book and the two Beckwith tomes.

  21. You won’t be disappointed, Snow.

  22. marie-lucie says

    LH, I did not ask why your grandsons where taught ASL, but how, meaning by what method. As I mentioned earlier, the one I saw demonstrated on the video (or perhaps YouTube, it was in a student’s presentation) struck me as not only amateurish but useless.

  23. I work in a language acquisition lab, and while I myself only study first language acquisition, I have definitely noticed the baby-sign trend. Parents tell me that their kids pick up on it pretty quickly and that it seems to relieve some of the communication-frustration that toddlers often have. I’m sure that the less frustrated your toddler is, the better!
    The only thing that bothers me about it is the number of people who are under the impression that it *is* sign language in the same way that ASL is. As marie-lucie points out, it’s really just a collection of vocabulary. That said, even a few simple vocabulary items can be very useful to a toddler.
    I’ll go back to lurking now. 🙂 Great blog, by the way. Keep it up!

  24. Little Boris van ‘t Blad is getting the old skool one language per parent treatment, although it is often alleged that this leads to starting to talk later (and indeed at 15 months there are only unconfirmed hearings of possible word candidates from him).
    The signing stuff hasn’t reached this corner of Yoorp, although I probably shouldn’t be quite as relieved as I am to say so.

  25. how, meaning by what method
    Oh, sorry. As far as I know, the parents just learned some signs (e.g., “all done”) and used them with him, and he picked them up very quickly. Obviously, as CL points out, it shouldn’t be taken as actual sign language, but people being what they are, it’s not surprising that that’s a frequent misapprehension.
    (No point trying to lurk, CL, I can see you behind that armchair!)

  26. The only thing that bothers me about it is the number of people who are under the impression that it *is* sign language in the same way that ASL is. As marie-lucie points out, it’s really just a collection of vocabulary. That said, even a few simple vocabulary items can be very useful to a toddler.
    Of course — the signs I taught my son were no more a “language” than the few words (mama, dada,”brrm” for car) he was using verbally were a language. They were vocab items — but that’s how verbal language starts with children, too. We didn’t pursue the signing once he could speak reasonably clearly, and so he never learned it as a language. He very quickly realised that spoken language was MUCH more efficient with us (since we don’t actually know or use ASL, but had learned only a few words) and so abandoned any development of the few vocab items into real language.

  27. David Marjanović says

    They alternated all three languages, one each day.

    I’m quite surprised that that worked.
    The at-least-one-person-per-language method can easily go up to three, however. There are two such cases of in total five trilingual children in my extended family.

  28. marie-lucie says

    My concern with the little video I saw was that the mother seemed to want to elicit signs outside of any context. The child seemed to be trying different motions to see which one would satisfy his mother, again out of context. I would not object to signs for useful vocabulary items, used in suitably meaningful contexts.
    What confuses children is having the same person using different languages in what seems to be an inconsistent manner. I have personal experience with this: my daughter (bilingual in French and English) was raised with each parent speaking their own language, but I also had friends in a similar position who either started with English (making it very difficult to switch to another language later) or used the two languages in an inconsistent manner: the latter can cause problems for the child, and the result is usually that once the child realizes that most other adults, and all children, speak only one of the family’s languages, the child takes the most economical route, sticks to that one language and refuses to speak the other.
    The one-language-per-person method worked very well (although inadvertently) in India when high-level Britishers lived surrounded with servants who did not all have the same language and spoke to the small children of the family each in their own language, so a child might speak one language with the gardener, another with the cook, etc., sometimes conversing thus in 4 or 5 different languages with different people. Unfortunately, once the children (especially boys) were sent to school in England and did not come back for several years, they usually forgot their earlier multilingual fluency.
    We all know that very small children pick up on adults’ moods and behaviour without rational thinking or the medium of language. I think that the way an adult speaks to a small child is an unalyzable part of the total relationship between them (like for instance the way each parent holds the child), and that is why, when it is time to speak back to the adult, the child speaks in the same adult’s language. At about 2 or 2 1/2 years my daughter used to be quite upset when other adults tried to speak to her in French: “My mommy say that!” (in a tone like “Don’t you dare try to be my mommy!”).
    Little Boris van ‘t Blad is getting the old skool one language per parent treatment, although it is often alleged that this leads to starting to talk later (and indeed at 15 months there are only unconfirmed hearings of possible word candidates from him).
    Since it is impossible to know in advance at what age a child will start to walk or talk, I am skeptical of the possibility of evaluating the influence of bilingual acquisition on the age at “the first word”. A relevant factor in this case is that is very common for boys to start talking later than girls, only to catch up with girls very rapidly once they do start talking. A 15 month-old boy who is not talking yet is not at all a rarity even in a monolingual environment (some don’t say a word until 2 1/2 years or even later). Enjoy what your boy does, not what he does not do yet. One day he will surprise you!
    For concerned parents (and others) I recommend the fascinating book Comment la parole vient aux enfants by Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies (which has been translated into English as “How language comes to children” or a very similar title). I am not sure if the author mentions bilingualism, but the book is great for any parent nevertheless. The author’s intuition and empathy for babies are amazing.

  29. Marie-Lucie: Thanks for the book recommendation. I did look a while ago to see if I could find anything sensible on the subject, and I couldn’t.
    And we don’t worry about any dimension of his cognitive developments, except the one time he had exceeded government benchmarks for skill in Putting Things Inside Other Things. There is now a Dutch benchmark for this and just about every stage of child development, but from our perspective the only worrying possibility is for him to be designated as a prodigy and have the corresponding schooling inflicted on him. (The serious benchmarking doesn’t start till 3 anyway.)

  30. It doesn’t always work, either. Our daughter didn’t get her dyslexia diagnosed until she was eleven, because she was able to cover it up really well. Norwegians being so conscientious, everyone at her school was then completely mortified that they’d got it wrong; but there will always be holes in any safety net.

  31. Given the shifts in sense and connotation from couper les cheveux, could this also have been influenced by Descartes’ méthode?

  32. marie-lucie says

    MMcM, perhaps! but applied to hair, it refers to pushing the method to ridiculous extremes.

  33. I second des’s thanks for the book recommendation. Here‘s an interesting review of de Boysson-Bardies’s How Language Comes to Children: From Birth to Two Years (alongside another similar book by Paul Bloom); I’ll quote a paragraph:

    De Boysson-Bardies is particularly talented in relating the importance of crosslinguistic data. As her book was first published in France, readers in other parts of the world will benefit from her perspective. Readers in the United States, for example, will be interested to read about the “vocabulary illusion” among many U.S. middle-class parents — the tendency to attribute meaning to early, underarticulated utterances. French mothers, on the other hand, see the child as having plenty of time to develop language and are more concerned that they will learn to “speak nicely” (pp. 179–188). Exposure to different languages and to different pragmatic conventions leads even very young children to “specialize” in learning their own language. Chapters two through four provide a particularly informative review of the crosslinguistic data on speech segmentation, language input, and the rarely mentioned subject of prosody. The author’s own work contrasting French and Japanese five- to seven-month-olds’ terminal contours in babbling is almost enough to convince one that babies must be born with innate capacities for analyzing speech. Still, even if one does not subscribe to the “instinctive tendency” perspective, de Boysson-Bardies provides enough crosslinguistic data to inform any view on the necessary language mechanisms needed to account for development of not only “language,” as a proposed cognitive domain, but also “all languages,” as they are acquired by real children.

  34. SnowLeopard says

    Yes, I had looked as well and also thank marie-lucie for the recommendation. These recent discussion threads have been a gold mine.

  35. John Emerson says

    Even supposing that kids learning 2 or more languages simultaneously do develop slower, someone with native-speaker fluency in 2 or 3 languages knows more. Supposing for example the bilingual kid enters college a year later, his bilingual fluency is worth a year of college.

  36. Des: In kindergarten the son of a friend flunked Hopping On One Foot. I can’t remember if the kid had to take remedial Hopping classes or not.
    He may still be poor at the hopping. It reminds me of my driver ed. Either I missed the backing-up part, or didn’t pay attention, or whatever, but 45 years later I still hate backing and am very poor at it. This should be a lesson for all of you.

  37. It reminds me of my driver ed.
    Not all of us are rich enough to employ a driver john.
    Unless you’re concerned about fees I think it’s absurd to rush through one’s education as fast as possible.

  38. In kindergarten the son of a friend flunked Hopping On One Foot.
    I am quite literally agog to know what other forms of hopping they tested.
    (I don’t think Dutch universities allow skipping years, though, however many feet you can hop on.)

  39. David Marjanović says

    I don’t think Dutch universities allow skipping years, though

    French ones certainly don’t, and they also don’t allow taking longer than expected (except, under some circumstances, for the thesis).
    To Austrian ones the whole concept is alien. Completely apart from the fact that there is no such thing as a year, time being counted in semesters, there’s only a (ridiculously low) minimum duration; once you’ve got all exams under your belt and sat through the minimum duration, you’re done, so that you alone determine the speed at which you study. (Assuming, of course, that there are always things like places for compulsory lab work available. Ha, ha, ha. Thanks, I’ll be here all week, try the waitress, tip the veal, and so on.)

  40. Dave: Take the very common question “are you done eating yet”. It is hast du schon fertiggegessen.
    Dave: try the waitress, tip the veal
    Why the sudden detours into the workings of restaurants, Dave? Are you writing a play?

  41. He’s just hungry. I’d offer him a ham sandwich, but I ate it.

  42. The Dave. Went out for a coffee and a ham sandwich, and was never seen again.

  43. I should think that Hopping On Two Feet precedes the above-mentioned course in the kindergarten curriculum.

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