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…