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Sep 17, 2009

English, German, French: what's the score?

My initial title for this post was going to be: The day the airplane replaced l'avion (airplane in French). This shift in Daniel's language happened a few days ago and it shocked me enough that I knew I needed to write about it.
"Avion" had been part of Daniel's vocabulary for at least 6 months, since we flew a few times early in the year. Since then, he would point to planes in the sky or in a book, and happily say "avion" (OK, actually it sounded more like "avi", but it was close enough for now). I felt that this word had to be anchored well enough in his brain by now, that it wouldn't go away. Well, I was mistaken. A few days ago, Daniel showed me an "airplane"! I was heart-broken! Gone with the French word!
In a way, I have to accept it. Daniel spends a lot more time at daycare, in an English environment, than hearing me or Guido speak in either French or German. It is inevitable that he is going to be most fluent in English. I just need to live with it, I guess.
However, as I was thinking more about Daniel's current language level, at 20 months, I realized that the picture is a lot more balanced. There is - still- hope.
Daniel's vocabulary in French and German is still growing quite fast. And, more importantly, he seems to start to distinguish which language belongs where. It's still too early to say for sure, but there were a few instances where Daniel seemed to have consciously used the right word.
Such as the time when we were visiting friends and Daniel had found a bus toy in the house. He came to me, showing me the "bus" (pronounced the French way), and then turned to the kid's mom and talked about the "bus" (pronounced in English). I have a hard time to believe it was coincidence, especially because "bus" has been a challenging word for Daniel.
Also, when I picked Daniel up at daycare today, he described to me pictures that hang in his classrooms, all in French ("tombe", "dodo", "camion" - a word that he also took a long time to learn in French). I am sure Daniel is not using these French words to describe the images when talking to his teachers. So he knows how to adapt his vocabulary with me.
So, at this point, it sounds like the score is still quite balanced. Let's see how this continues when Daniel makes sentences, which he is starting to do. Finding the right words from the same language will be even more challenging. Right now, we often hear things like "more eau", "big camion", etc... This phase promises to be interesting.

Update: Right after I wrote this post, Daniel demonstrated that he is actually doing very well in French, and really starting to differentiate between languages. His daycare teacher had offered us to borrow his favorite book for the evening, claiming that Daniel kept asking to read this specific book over and over at daycare. This was a "good night" book with pictures of various animals and their babies sleeping. Daniel loved reading the book at home too. But this time, he was the one reading the book to me. And while he was used to hearing about the animals in this particular book in English, he showed them to be IN FRENCH. He even called the book "dodo-book" and not "night-night book" as he says at daycare. And this happened completely naturally, without me having to model anything. I was so proud and relieved!


  1. I am so awed. I had the best of intents to speak french to my children and I failed miserably. The only two french words we still use consistently around here are "dodo" and "tetine."
    It's SO bad that when I use the french version of my daughter's name she thinks she's about to get into trouble.
    I wanted to raise bilingual kids, but in the end I didn't have it in me.
    We sing in French. Does that count?

    Jessica (from It's my life...)

  2. Thanks, Jessica. I think every little bit counts. Even singing will give your children a sense of French sentences, sounds and rhythm. Funny you use "dodo" and "tetine". These were literally Daniel's first 2 words in French (unless you count "wawa", which was is very first word). There must be something children like about these words.

  3. I think things will probably start coming together a few months from now as he forms longer phrases. Amy started combining words into 2-word phrases at 22 months, then 3-word by 25 months, then was up to 20 words by 30 months! She has bilingual English/Spanish exposure, so she was a few months behind her peers. With three languages, your son might be a month or two later for some of those milestones (then again, daycare may actually speed things up).