learning in a foreign language

After a brief hiatus, I’m now back home. My week with Tamara and her children was fun and exhausting in equal measure, so I didn’t have any spare time to blog.

Although I was mostly supposed to be helping with baby Harry, it was great to be able to spend some time with Daisy, Tamara’s eight year old daughter from her first marriage. Daisy was five when I first met her, just after I’d moved to Paris, and last week was the first time I’d spent any decent amount of time with her since I left.

I really enjoyed playing the “cool auntie” figure (sadly my brother won’t be having kids any time soon, so I have no nieces or nephews of my own to spoil) and I think she enjoyed it too, as all her own aunts are much older than me. We went out shopping, and I even took her to get her ears pierced.

One of the things I love about spending time with Daisy is the hilarious things she says. For example, when we were in town one day:

Daisy: (extremely loudly) Is that a man or a woman?
Me: (whispering) It’s a man dressed as a woman. Don’t shout, it’s rude!
Daisy: (still very loudly) Is it for Halloween?
Me: No! Shhh!

Oh dear.

She also made me smile when she was talking about her grandfather.

Daisy: How old is your grandpa?
Me: He’s ninety.
Daisy: Ohh… lucky!
Me: What do you mean?
Daisy: Because yours is only ninety and you’re twenty-seven, and mine’s ninety-three and I’m only eight, so you get to spend more time with him!

How sweet is that? And as her grandfather is unlikely to live another twenty years, I can’t fault her logic.

But then a couple of hours later, Tamara said “Daisy, go and sit with Grandpa” and she said, “Oh Mum, do I have to? He’ll only start a long conversation about something!”


One thing I’ve really noticed is how Daisy’s English has changed. When I first met her she sounded like any normal English five year old. But since then, she’s been doing her education in French, which means that her French pronunciation is amazing, but when she speaks in English she comes out with some odd phrases, such as “I’m so impatient to be next Thursday” instead of “I want it to be next Thursday” or “I can’t wait for next Thursday”, and “it’s not the good one” instead of “it’s not the right one”. She’s obviously learned phrases in French from her classmates and is translating them literally into English. She also knows a lot of words in French which she doesn’t know in English, and her spelling is a lot better in French because she’s never really learned to write in English.

Her younger brother is nearly one and a half, but he isn’t saying much in either language. (Although I did accidentally teach him to say bum… oops!) Tamara says she’s heard that bilingual children often take a bit longer to start speaking because they need more time to process both languages in their heads.

I find all this fascinating on an intellectual level, because I’m interested in linguistics and language acquisition, as well as the differences between English and French. But for me it’s also interesting for personal reasons, because if Olivier and I ever end up having kids together, they will grow up speaking English and French from birth, and they will be educated in the language of whichever country we happen to live in at the time.

I’ve always thought that children who grow up speaking more than one language are incredibly lucky, as it’s so much easier for them to learn languages as young children than it is for older children or adults. But until this week, I’ve never really given much thought to the potential disadvantages, particularly for a young child from one country being educated in another, and learning all their school subjects in their second language.

I’d love to hear more about other people’s experiences with this.


2 thoughts on “learning in a foreign language

  1. Pat(ricia)

    I think it generally is easier for most children to learn a second language when they are younger – provided they aren’t saddled with learning difficulties. People who generally struggle with languages will, for the most part, continue to do so throughout their lives, to some degree or other. “Learning disabilities” exist for everyone, even those who are capable of learning a language with ease. The primary difference is that most of us are capable of -self-correcting quickly enough that the brain doesn’t register a “problem.”

    I can understand how striking it must seem to you to see the incredible difference in Daisy’s vocabulary and translations, but the truth is it’s to be expected. The longer she is exposed to learning, thinking and be educated and immersed in a “foreign” language, the more it will become second nature – and then first nature for her to “literally translate.” The very same thing happens to adults as well. If you spend enough time living a second language, no matter how strong your skills within your maternal language, you will lose bits and pieces. Apparently the only area where this transcription/translation doesn’t happen is when it comes to math. Supposedly the human brain is wired to always revert back to the maternal language in which it first learned basic math skills, i.e. counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, etc. There is some trip wire that, triggers this “innate” response, even if one has spent the better part of their lives learning and living using a secondary languages.


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