On Friday, I sent an e-mail to François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of Psycholinguistics, from the University of Neuchatel, about my 6-year-old daughter, Marion, and her tri-lingualism. Within hours François had emailed me a very personal reply of which I was extremely appreciative and had me mulling over the characteristics and quirks of her tri-lingual nature for the rest of the weekend (briefly suspended when we were stopped at gun point by 6 Guardia Civil with spiked chains and pistols on our way down from the mountains in Etxalar!).
The subject (and initial reason for the e-mail), was an article by Francois on the person-language bond between bi-lingual children and other bi-linguals.
The object of my dilemma (and luckily not that of the Guarda Civil’s) is my Spanish partner, Iñaki!
Until now our farmhouse in the Basque Pyrenees has been the strong-hold of Marion’s linguistic identity. We have lived alone since she was 6 months old when I made a decision to establish the whole house culture in English; BBC TV, the 101 Dalmatians and Pride & Prejudice videos, her Famous Five and Black Beauty Stories, her Heidi audio books etc. Everything is in English. (Admittedly, the pantry shelves of Horlicks, Marmite and Early Grey Tea bags have had a welcome sprucing up with Spanish tintos, chorizo and olives!).
Now, I stress, this has nothing to do with any reluctance to adapt to the local Basque/Spanish community, to which we are so deeply and inextricably connected. It is because we live in such a remote part of the Pyrenees and I know of no other English (let alone foreign) people in the area. The only native English Marion ever hears (apart from the odd trip back to the UK) is the English she hears at home. Her schooling, friends and local village life are held in Basque. Any social life she has with me (as I speak better Spanish than Basque) is in Spanish as are all her interactions with our wider circle of friends from Pamplona and San Sebastian (AND Iñaki!).
Marion now spends the greater part of her time in the Basque-speaking world, however, as soon as she walks into the house I have noticed a complete change in her and even think – although I cannot be sure – that I detect a vague shift in the way she holds herself too. Not only does she automatically speak in English when she opens the door but her internal dialogues switch languages too. Her ‘ay!’ when she hurts herself changes to an ‘ouch!’. Her ‘eh’ when she ponders over something changes to an ‘uhm’. In fact this was very notable the other day when I asked her for the Basque word for butterfly. She started off pondering to herself in English with ‘uhm’ and then, after a couple of seconds or so’s uncertainty, her pondering sounds shifted to the Basque ‘eh’ where upon she promptly retrieved the word ‘Tximeleta’! It was as if she simply had to change a radio – or language – frequency and tune in. At home she will sing English songs to herself and her dolls, and will also do her maths in her head in English. At school, and with her Basque friends from the plaza, all this will be done in Basque (and occasionally Spanish).
I have also known her to dream in 3 different languages in the same night.
Although Marion quite clearly associates me with the English-speaking world, I am also pretty sure that she associates it with location, namely that of our family home in Ituren in the Spanish Pyrenees. That was until recently when the English oasis we have created here was put in jeopardy. Enter Iñaki.
Until now Iñaki lived in San Sebastian. Marion has always spoken Spanish with Iñaki although he does speak English competently. Now he has started to live with us at our home in Ituren, Marion naturally wants to speak Spanish to him too and, although both Iñaki and I speak in English when Marion is around in a unified stance to uphold the English house culture, Marion finds it virtually impossible to speak to him in anything but Spanish. We insist, she utters a few words words in English but, by the end of the sentence, she is speaking Spanish again. She is not angry or defiant, it is simply that her conditioned response to Iñaki – whether it be his presence, his face, his aftershave – I am not sure – is in Spanish and she seems totally unable to associate him with any other language no matter how hard we try. One interesting observation is that if I ask her to turn away from Iñaki while she is talking to him, and to look at me instead, then she does appear to find it easier to speak to him in English! My experience only confirms François´s findings on the person- language bond.
However, I would like to take this thought a little further. My small company, Pyrenean Experience, runs Spanish language courses in the Pyrenees for adult learners of Spanish. Although a large majority of my guests come from English-speaking countries we often require that our guests speak Spanish exclusively during the lunchtimes and the walks. Marion often joins in and knows full-well that when my guests are joining us for lunch she must only speak to them in Spanish. Although she is fully aware that everyone speaks English far better than they speak Spanish, and that communication would be far easier for all concerned if they did speak English, she understands the nature of my work and seems to have little problem maintaining conversation with them in Spanish – no matter how laborious or confusing it may be. As Francois discusses in his article on the person-language bond, I think the only natural conclusion is that, where my guests are concerned, Marion has not previously formed any special relationship with them in one language or the other and so she has less of a problem establishing a relationship with them in Spanish, regardless of the artificial limitations it imposes on conversation.
That – I suppose – is one interpretation! The other may be that her sights are eagerly set on the 5 euro salary I often give her for helping me out!
Thank you, François, for your input and your time!
See: François Grosjean’s article in Psychology Today on the person-language bond.