Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What’s your Family Language Strategy?

In a seafood restaurant in Boulogne-sur-Mer, on a warm September Saturday evening, Milo was attracting the attention of patrons by loudly repeating his new word "fish," both in Italian ("pesce") and Dutch ("vis"), at the request of his mum and Belgian grand-parents.
The owner, a middle-aged French lady, asked me:

"In what language do you speak to him?"

I proceeded to tell her about our quadri-lingual experiment and relative fears and hopes. The lady shared some of it: she was married to an Irish man and had two children, a 7 year-old girl and a 3 year-old boy. They were both born in Ireland, and moved to France when the kids were aged 5 and 1.

Today they speak English at home, as the father does not speak French, but when they were living in Ireland, she tried to speak French as often as possible, to ensure that the kids could learn it [this method is known as the Minority Language (spoken) At Home (a.k.a. mL@H)]. As a result the girl is fluent in both languages and has no accent, she’s a native speaker of both. The boy, on the other hand, understands English perfectly but refuses to speak it, even to his dad. When he does utter some words in English, he speaks it with a thick French accent. For him, French is his one and only mother tongue. The lady has no doubt that, thanks to consistent exposure to English, the boy will eventually start using it, but she feels sorry for the anxiety he experiences using the language.

This case illustrates very well the Family Language Strategy concept, as described by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa in her book "Raising Multilingual Children." She claims that a multilingual family should determine its language strategy (i.e. which language will the parents speak at home with the kids) early and stick to it, despite the change in circumstances or environment, for the sake of the children’s consistent language development. Our strategy so far has been the classic "one parent, one language," (a.k.a OPOL).

But I am particularly intrigued by accent development:

  • My Italian friend Francesca, who is married to a French man and lives in Paris, has a 4-year old boy and 2-year old girl. The kids are perfectly bilingual, and when speaking Italian, showcase a French accent.
  • My Portuguese colleague Joaquim, married to a Portuguese woman, has two boys, born and raised in France, both perfectly bilingual. They are now learning English and they speak it with a French accent.

What determines these accents in early multilingual kids?

Dr. Steven Weinberger, director of the Linguistics Program and the Speech Accent Archive at George Mason University explained that accents are a natural phenomenon as a result of acquiring a second language after a certain age (approximately age 6). When learning a second language in adult age, the range of sounds we can produce is limited; often the sounds of the second language do not exist in our native language, so our best effort to imitate them, determines the accent.

Professional linguists say that people who start learning a new language after puberty can never completely get rid of traces of their original tongue.

But for kids who are multilingual from birth, their story is different: their language acquisition resides in a different part of the brain, and their attitude to language learning is completely different, less self-conscious, more playful.

So, why would they develop an accent? Stay tuned for the reality behind early accent development, in one of the next entries…


Eddie Lin said...


Excellent post. Really fascinating. Your stuff is getting more intriguing. I particularly like how you start off with an anectdote from your daily life and segue into your column and then back it up with expert opinion. Professionally done. I think you've hit your stride.

Juliet said...

You really give me a lot to think about as the parent of a biracial child. Due to Dumpling's speech delay, right now we are only teaching him English and sign language, but I speak Chinese freely around him, and we intend on putting him in a Chinese class when he is older. Interestinly enough, I speak more chinese than my chinese husband. heh
Also, my late aunt and her husband, who is Iranian, spoke to their sons in both languages, but they only respond in English. Same with my Chinese friend who has a white husband.

By the way, I responded to your questions in my blog. :-)

Alice in Austria said...

Very interesting! I'll make a link in my blog if you don't mind? We're a trilingual family German-Spanish-English, with an Austrian mommy, Ecuadorian daddy living in Austria. I show up as "kalise" on the Bilingual Babies Bulletin Board. Will try to check in here frequently! :)

Clo said...

thanks for your mentorship and continued support! I wish I had also your sense of humor!

I am sure dumpling will catch up later with Mandarin. Find him playpals whos speak Mandarin and that will spur his motivation!

thanks for the link, I am enjoying reading your blog too. Haven't checked the board in a while but I will do! Would love to known more about your experience with languages and schooling in Austria.

Have a great week, all!

Helene said...

Salut Clo,

Je suis francaise mariee a un Australien et nous vivons en Australie. Nous avons une petite fille, Gabrielle, de 22 mois. Nous avons adopte, des la naissance de Gabrielle, la strategie une personne-une langue. Vers 18 mois, nous nous sommes apercu que Gabrielle ne disait que des mots anglais. Nous avons donc change un peu de strategie: notre langue commune n'est plus l'anglais mais le francais que mon mari apprend. Une fois que Gabrielle est au lit, nous reparlons anglais entre nous. Le tout agremente d'une visite de 3 semaines en France et Gabrielle parle francais maintenant. Au sujet de l'accent, les francais disent qu'elle parle francais avec l'accent anglais et les australiens disent qu'elle a un tout petit accent francais quand elle parle anglais! Je suis trop proche d'elle pour m'en rendre compte. Bref, ca demande de l'energie mais c'est fun ! Les autraliens, bien qu'etant monolingue, sont tres ouverts. Gabrielle va 4 jours/semaine a la creche et est encouragee a parler francais (ils lui ont appris a dire merci!!!!).

A Bientot


Clo said...

Merci pour ton témoignage, Helene! Quelle chance de vivre en Australie! Et quelle chance pour Gabrielle de grandirez bilingue! Est-ce que il-y a une communauté d'expatriâtes français ou vous habitez? Ça serait intéressant de trouver des copains de jeu pour Gabrielle en français! Bonne chance et bonne continuation!

Helene said...

Oui, oui, on voit des expats, le probleme est que les enfants parlent tous anglais entre eux (meme les 6-7 ans qui viennent d'arriver)!!! Mais c'est bien pour Gabrielle de voir que d'autres maman parlent aussi francais et que je ne suis pas "bizarre"!!!
Je reviendrais de temps en temps pour suivre les progres de Milo dans ses 4 langues!
A bientot!

DUSIE said...

wow...I followed a link here and I'm already hooked! my daughter is growing up in Switzerland and so will speak German, Swiss German and naturally English. She is only 20 months now, but still seems to prefer Swiss German! I am her 'primary parent' meaning I am with her all day and speaking English, but somewhere along the line she has figured out that everyone else here is speaking Swiss German... anyway, I look forward to reading more. your multi-linguality sounds so Swiss! My h. speaks, um 'only' 5 languages! Learning a second language as an adult has been very tough, but it is such a wonder when you are talking and only later realize it's just coming out, without that self-censure in your head sort of thing...there must be a word for that in some language! anyhoo, more soon...and how weird is it to have known the professor you quoted in this article! small world. i did my grad studies at gmu. he has collected quite an archive of accents...