Seeds in Soil: What You Should Consider Before Choosing a Language.

Lately, the benefits of bilingualism seem to be cropping up everywhere from mainstream news to a host of new blogs and websites. For many of us from multi-cultural backgrounds, the choice to raise our kids with two or more languages usually comes from a desire to have them be able to communicate with family as well as developing a deeper understanding of their cultural heritage. The IQ, creativity, resume et al advantages are just icing on the cake. But for those parents who aren’t bilingual themselves but want to reap the benefits of bilingualism for their children, the key question is what language should they choose?

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my attempt to raise my girls trilingual, it’s the undeniable importance of hearing the language spoken around them and by that I am referring to actual people, not multi-media.

I was once told by a friend, who is renowned for his thorough research, that children learn much of their language from watching others speak together rather than the actual exchanges between parent and child. I’ve never taken the time to verify this academically but I will say that in practice, I’ve definitely found it to be true in our household.

We use the OPOL approach: I speak French to my daughters, my husband speaks Spanish to them and they hear English spoken between us. We were living in NYC for the first 2+ years of P’s life. When she was 15 months old, my husband became the sole carer for her. This lasted until we moved to Singapore about a year later. She heard Spanish from him day in and day out and yet when the time came to speak, English was her choice of language.

Of course there are a number of factors that affected this and for a long time I ascribed English’s dominance to these various reasons. Our move to Singapore where English is the official language of education and business only reinforced it. However, our recent move to Bangkok has led me re-consider the influences on her lingual development. For example: She now barely sees her father due to his grueling work schedule and for much of the last 18 months, he has spoken more English to her than Spanish. We had a couple over for one afternoon who spoke Spanish to my husband and a mix of French and Spanish to their son and by the time they left the house, P was attempting to answer her father in Spanish and much more willing to speak French to me.

Now living in Thailand, the girls hear Thai all the time. The Thais are notoriously behind their South East Asian counterparts when it comes to speaking English, which translates into more environmental Thai and a genuine effort on my part to learn and use conversational Thai. In addition, our wonderful Burmese Helper (Interesting to note that all the people I meet from Myanmar refer to themselves as Burmese) speaks fluent Thai and very little English. P, who up until recently didn’t really show much of an interest in her other languages other than necessity, has now suddenly become extremely aware of Thai and often says she would like to speak more Thai. She also has a renewed interest in Spanish helped by her super-Papa who has climbed back unto the OPOL wagon.

I know I should be overjoyed, and to a certain extent I am since, coupled with this new-found desire, she seems to be demonstrating a genuine interest in languages overall and how they can each be useful in their own way. But I can’t help but feel sad at times that we aren’t somewhere we can immerse her in Spanish more readily.

As we are settling into our life in Bangkok, we have started to try to find a Latin community in which to embed ourselves. This has proven to be quite a challenge. At the same time, I was sent a fun info-graphic on the state of bilingualism in the United States and it really drove home both the opportunity I missed in perfecting my own Spanish while I lived there, as well as giving up a rich Latin community for my girls.

In the same week I received the info-graphic, I was sent an article on 10 reasons why every child should learn to speak Spanish. Now I feel I should mention some caveats here since this is clearly a US-centered article and many of the reasons listed are general benefits of bilingualism vs. benefits specifically associated with Spanish. Also worth note is that Spanish is not the official language of the United Nations but one of six, the other five being Arabic, Chinese (presumably Mandarin), English, French and Russian. That said, the article, coupled with the info-graphic makes a strong case for choosing Spanish as your child’s second language in the US. More importantly, it is a reminder to look at the resources around you such as immersion programs and the cultural makeup of your community before making this kind of choice. Maybe Mandarin and Hindi are the languages of the future global economic super powers but if you don’t have ample support available, another tongue may be a better choice.

If you are going to plant the seed, you may as well try to have the best soil, light and water conditions available for growth! And now I must return to stalking innocent Spanish speakers on the streets of Bangkok.

Minotaurs and Merlions: P’s Very Un-Darwinian Language Evolution.

Pea’s evolving language never ceases to amaze and amuse me.  I know kids brains are supposed to be all pliable and sponge-like with an incredible capability to sort and slot all sorts of information but there are times when I feel even I am pushing the limits.

My poor child was subjected to a number of waves of different dominant languages from English to Spanish to French, back to English with quite a bit of Mandarin in the last few months. Lately, her exposure to Spanish has fallen to a record low.

How I would portray P’s Spanish since moving to Singapore

Given P’s linguistic history, it’s no wonder her languages are a bit all over the place. Even following OPOL for the most part, the variation in exposures has fluctuated so much. I find it interesting that the words that seem to be sticking in French are verbs and she has fought again and again the use of french pronouns. I’m curious if that is a pattern in kids who mix. I expected nouns to be the first words to change since you don’t need to conjugate them. I’ve definitely noticed her avoid articles like Le and La, replacing them in stead with The.

Some of her linguistic concoctions:

Fading like a Dodo bird
She systematically used the Spanish word for with i.e. con. I loved hearing her say ‘i go con you’  and long to hear her speak con me that way.

Rising in numbers like Singaporean mozzies after a rainstorm

You plie it

‘You fold it’ AKA my toddler ordering me to clean up after myself. I blame her OCD father

 I mélange it

‘I stir it’ AKA my control freak toddler ordering me away from her yogurt and honey.

 I don’t want baby Claude to dérange me

‘I don’t want baby Claude to bother me’ AKA ‘I need you to both stay seated next to me while I colour, paint, play, etc and simultaneously take baby Claude away to another room. I don’t care if they haven’t figured out cloning. You are omnipotent so make it happen.’

My sirene goes under the water

‘My mermaid goes under the water’  Yes well she’s half fish so she would wouldn’t she. And now if only you would go under the water; I’ve spent a freaking fortune on those swimming lessons.

Finally my favorite category – the bilingual hybrid.
Please meet Tiny. Tiny is P’s Perroque. (half Parrot half Peroquet)

Sometimes, she really amazes me. Just when I’ve given up on the idea that she will act as my interpreter when we visit my lovely Mexican Mother-in-Law, she’ll point out a random object like a crane and say “that’s grua in Español”.

My heart soars!

So like any good parent, I offer her some gateau. “No Maman, I want cake! That’s pastel in Español”.

Two steps forward, one step back. Even sponges reach saturation point. I trust someday these languages will work together.

“Por Favor LAH” : Singlish, Ebonics, and the role of different dialects

Out of the mouth of my babe came Singlish. I knew it was only a matter of time.

I am really torn by this. Part of me would LOVE for Pacifique to be able to slip in and out of as many languages as possible and having a creole as one of them would be cool albeit not terribly useful unless she wants to be a standup comedian and/or plans on spending lots of time in SouthEast Asia.

I do find it quite funny when she has little Ang moh friends over for play dates. At this point, all of them attend local daycares and nurseries so lots of them have totally taken on the Singaporean accent with bits of Singlish interspersed. And yet deep down something inside of me screams NOOOOOOOOOOO. I don’t know why. It don’t know that it is a rational feeling especially given that I think this famous ‘Winglish” kid is AWESOME. Click here for more. Perhaps it is my perpetual worry of not being able to expose the girls to enough of our “heritage” languages -in my case French and husband’s Mexican. Perhaps it is the worry that in addition to not having great French or Spanish, they won’t end up having excellent English.

And the concern about English isn’t just shared by expats. I have some local friends who are concerned as well though they appear to be in the minority if the commenters on this article written about Singapore’s Speak Good English Movement are an accurate reflection.

I think, though my position is still a work in process, that I embrace dialects and creoles as long as they have their cultural place but that ultimately in a competitive global economy, if you want to succeed you need to be able to speak proper English, especially if your country claims it as its or one of its official languages. I don’t think given what we know about multilingualism and children’s abilities to learn languages that we should dumb them down and not push them to do better or use it as an out for academic failings. The controversies over Ebonics comes to mind here.

Ok there is a lot more to be said, read and researched on this topic and this post was initially only going to be a three-liner. So I’ll leave you with this question: What do you get when you cross Spanish with Singlish?

Spinglish? Sipanglish?

And for a quick Singlish tutorial click here: Singlish 101

Persistence pays off

When we first moved to Singapore at the end of July 2010, Pacifique was  suddenly spending all this time with me and her French started to blossom. Fast forward to Claude’s birth and the arrival of Cherry our wonderful helper from the Philippines and English resumed its pole position but I could still get a lot of French answers from her.

The final nail in the coffin – or so I thought – was the new local nursery.

My daughter came home to me speaking English and it seemed as if French had completely fallen off her radar. It isn’t as if she hadn’t answered me in English in the past but once I would repeat her answer in French, she would then repeat it in French as well. Now I would repeat her answer in French and she would repeat it in ENGLISH.

What can I say, totally totally disheartening.

Please is a word that gets used a lot and it isn’t the easiest thing to say in French “S’il te plait”. It was never something I could really get her to say though she always signed it (ASL) and once she learned it in English, I was happy she was using it and willing to overlook the fact that she used it if the rest of our exchange was in French. (We have a lot of replacing words in one language with another when needed). I’ve probably been trying to coax her into saying this phrase in particular for nearly two years and really working hard over the last year. I had actually reached a point lately where I was starting to wonder whether I should even bother… yes one of those momentary lows.

And if I thought French was falling behind, Spanish appeared to be non-existent with my husband’s long working hours. Sometimes he would say something to her in Spanish on a Sunday and it seemed obvious to me that she was no longer understanding him as she was so out of practice.

I know this seems increasingly dire but when you least expect it – and isn’t it always that way with kids?!- we seem to have turned a corner. My husband started taking her to school every morning on his way in to work and insisting she answer back in Spanish. I was hesitant about the insistence part but it seems to be working. The benefit to me is that she suddenly seems more willing to answer in French. Not as often as before but it is coming back and then…the icing on the cake is that she turned around the other day and when I asked her to say please (I am mortified to admit that I even think I asked her this in English!) she responded the golden phrase

“S’il te plait maman” and I heard angels sing.