Trilingual adventures with three mice (not blind) – one mouse, une souris, eine Maus

Last week was an exciting time for me (and Andrew, though perhaps he didn’t feel it as much as me!) because my (no longer) baby suddenly started to show me that he recognised some words. That’s not to say he didn’t recognise them before; it’s hard to know exactly how much babies perceive from speech before they can physically respond to show they know what you’re talking about. It can be done though, in ‘lab’ conditions – experiments with babies have been designed, by getting them to turn their head to stimuli like speech sounds, or to suck on a dummy which is hooked up to computers that work out how fast they’re sucking and how their speed changes with the introduction and exit of stimuli. From these kinds of experiments, researchers have been able to figure out some of the earliest abilities to hear speech, even at just one or two days old. For example, we know that newborns recognise and prefer their mum’s voice to another similar female voice (de Casper 1980), and recognise and prefer listening to their ambient (to-be-native) language from others that are rhythmically different (Mehler et al. 1988, Nazzi et al. 1998). They’re not understanding specific words and their meanings at this age, of course, but rather the overall rhythm and intonation of the speech. They were hearing this for quite a while in the womb you see. This kind of research sounds fascinating to me, but hard work – it must take them ages to collect enough data whilst working with babies! Just think about all the times they’d need to stop for feeds/naps/nappy changes/just wanting to be with mum etc. Respect to those researchers, I say!

This little diversion into infant language recognition research (apart from showing you how cool it is) was to make the point that just because Andrew can’t speak recognisable words at the moment, it doesn’t mean he can’t understand anything. Last week was when this understanding was finally clear for me to see. We were sitting reading some Usborne Touchy-Feely ‘That’s not my…’ books. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading these, firstly let me highly recommend them. They’re brilliant for reading with babies and toddlers, as there are ‘touchy-feely’ patches of fabric or other materials for them to explore with their fingers. Secondly, let me tell you that they all have a little mouse on each page, blending in with the pictures (for example, he has a snorkel in one of the Penguin scenes…!) This means you can ask your toddler ‘Where is the mouse?’ each time they turn a page, and it gives a consistent point of reference for them to learn. This is exactly what I’d been doing with Andrew for a while, and pointing to the mouse myself. Last week was the first time that he consistently pointed to the mouse on each page himself! It was a proud moment 🙂

Us reading 'That's not my penguin...' - an Usborne touchy-feely book

Even more so because I’d been doing this with him in three languages, and he not only pointed at the mouse, but also la souris and die Maus on each page. As I studied French and German for my BA, Masters and PhD, I’d always said that I would introduce these languages alongside English to my kids. During the research I did for my Masters dissertation, which was about adult bilinguals living in Switzerland, I learnt that it is easier for young kids to learn multiple languages than it is for adults once a native language is well and truly acquired. Some people do learn other languages to a near-native standard in adulthood, but this is less common than kids who pick up more than one language in childhood and speak them to native standard (for their age at every point).

Andrew pointing to the mouse (in a snorkel) on the bottom left of the left-hand page

As we live in the UK, and Tom only speaks English, of course Andrew is going to get much more exposure to English than he will to French and German. Whenever the two of us are home alone, I speak some French, some German and some English to him. When we’re playing with something, for example the ball, I will say to him things like ‘That’s a ball’, ‘The ball is blue’, ‘Where’s the ball?’, ‘Can you throw me the ball?’ in one of the three languages. I usually concentrate on one language for each period of time that we’re playing, but I do mix them up a bit too. For example, if we’re sitting looking at an animal book, I’ll say the word for the animal in the three languages whilst we’re on that page, and then the same for the animal on the next page.

Andrew's right hand was pointing to the mouse on the penguin's back, but he moved too fast and our camera shutter speed couldn't cope!

Does this confuse him, you might wonder? Well our adult brains might think it’s confusing, as they have been shaped and molded into what they are today over several years; they’ve become set in their ways. The baby and toddler brain, however, is still being shaped and molded into what it will be one day. It has no concept that there is ‘ONE’ language or ‘TWO’ languages or any other specific number of these things we call ‘languages’, but rather it’s hearing all these sounds coming out of people’s mouths, and trying to figure out what it all means; for all it knows there could be a gazillion languages that it has to figure out. Why should a toy have one particular name and not three? That’s a monolingual adult way of thinking, which has been cemented into the brain over years of only knowing one word for that toy.

Listening to some French nursery rhymes on the stereo

Will Andrew be trilingual? Maybe, maybe not – it partly depends what you mean by trilingual (perfect native speech in three languages is one extreme of a continuum of multilingualism). I do not personally claim to be native in 3 languages, so he’ll only be getting native-like input in one, and fluent input in the other two. My main aim is to give him an awareness that there is more than one of these things called languages out there in the world. By the time he gets to school, I hope he will have a more open outlook on languages than the view I was often confronted with at school – ‘Why do you want to study languages when everyone else speaks English?’ (actual comment by my GCSE Maths teacher who wanted me to take his A-level). Yes lots of people in the world speak English, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make an effort to learn other languages too, and shape my brain differently from many native English speakers. In fact from a global perspective, bilingualism is more normal than you might think. There are more bi- and multi-linguals in the world than monolinguals, and many of these will have learnt two or more languages in childhood (another thing I learnt during my Masters research from a book called The Bilingualism Reader).

Most importantly in this language development adventure of Andrew is that I’m making it as fun as possible, as with all areas of development that I can play a part in. He loves singing, clapping and dancing to songs and rhymes, so I bought a CD of French nursery rhymes and kids songs, and we’re about to be given a German one by some friends, though I’ve been using YouTube in the meantime. Just like he can listen to English rhymes and songs at the various music and play groups we go to, he can hear other languages blasting out of the stereo at home. We were also given a bilingual French-English toy piano that plays tunes and talks about colours and shapes when you press the keys. He loves playing with that, especially now he’s really into pressing any button he can lay his fingers on! Another option I have is reading books in French and German to him, which we bought on Amazon, were given, or borrow from the library, for example Monsieur Bavard (Mr Chatterbox from The Mr Men and Little Miss range) and Die Kleine Raupe Nimmersatt (The Very Hungry Caterpillar). His attention span is still quite limited, so at the moment it’s more effective to just read his simple English board books with things like numbers, animals, shapes, toys etc. to him in French and German. My translation skills are good enough for that!

Dancing to some French nursery rhymes, but suddenly spotted the camera and got interested in that

Is anyone out there raising their kids bilingually? Do you find other parents generally view it positively or negatively? I haven’t had much discussion either way with others yet. Apart from with our friends who are Swiss and German living in the UK, so their child (a bit older than Andrew) is in full swing with acquiring three languages: Swiss German and German at home (believe me, they are different languages) and English at nursery and playgroups. We meet each week to speak English and German with our kids. It’s great fun all round, and needless to say we’re all very positive about mixing and matching our languages 🙂

One week, five Christmas parties

It was the week before Christmas,

and all through the city,

toddler groups partied with festive songs,

wearing outfits that were oh so pretty.

Well I think my poetry leaves a lot to be desired, but this certainly sums up the week Andrew and I (and Daddy) have just had. It started last Monday morning, when we went to our usual group at Chesterton Children’s Centre. We eased ourselves in gently to the party week, as this was not so much an organised party, but rather the refreshments had a Christmassy feel to them, some of the toddlers wore Christmassy outfits, and we sang Christmas songs at the end. Back home for some lunch and a power nap (Andrew that is), we then headed out to Rhyme time at Barnwell Road library for a proper Christmas singing session. But when we arrived, complete with a tub of oat and banana muffins to share, it came to my attention that the Christmas party was in fact the following Monday! Thankfully I wasn’t the only baby-brained mum who’d got mixed up. Oh well, not to worry, we joined in with the usual, all-seasonal songs.

Playing with (jingle) bells (jingle) bells on Monday morning

Tuesday’s party fun is reported here second hand, because that’s when Daddy and Andrew time happens each week. My two boys toddle off together to Little Music Makers, a music (obviously!) group run by Chesterton Parents’ group. According to my music group correspondent / photographer (aka Tom), great fun was had by all at the Christmas special. There were toys and party food (including some oat and banana muffins – they get everywhere!), as well as the usual singing and dancing (I’ll say more about that in another post sometime). Father Christmas even turned up, with presents for all the little ones. Andrew didn’t seem too fussed either way about this strange man with a white beard in a red cloak, and proceeded to use the nicely wrapped up book he was given as a teething toy!

Meeting Father Christmas - Andrew didn't seem too bothered either way!
Playing in the tent

Wednesday arrived and I woke up feeling excited because I had the afternoon off work so that we could go to the much-anticipated Little Sheep Christmas party. (Before I went back to work, Little Sheep was our regular Wednesday afternoon group – it takes place at Holy Trinity Church (Cambridge), and is a little different from most baby/toddler groups, because as a mum (or dad) you get to do an activity each week like craft, wine tasting, Zumba, hearing a talk, learning infant first aid etc, while your baby has fun with the other babies in the creche provided.) We clearly weren’t the only ones who had heard about how amazing the party would be. When we arrived 10 minutes before the advertised start time, the church hall was already filling up, and I heard later from a friend that the queue to get in just 10 minutes later snaked back into the busy shopping street on which the church is located. As more and more babies and parents/carers/family/friends piled into the hall, the singing began, led by a very enthusiastic lady called Rebecca. There were all sorts of songs – Christmas classics as well as the usual favourites, some of which were adapted to make them more seasonal (I thought ‘Father Christmas had a sack, ho ho ho ho ho… and in that sack he had a cow, ho ho ho ho ho… with a moo moo here and a moo moo there…’ was quite ingenious!). After a couple of quieter songs to finish off with, my friend Cat (who organises Little Sheep) gave a short ‘thought for the day’. She shared with us the lyrics of the song ‘What if God was one of us’ – here are a few lines…

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face? …

If God had a face
What would it look like? …

We (Cat and I, and other Christians) believe that answers to these questions were given over 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born – God’s name is Jesus, and God’s face looked like that of a human baby boy, who grew into a man. That’s the reason for all this celebration at Christmas – all the parties are for Jesus’ birthday! No party is complete without special food and drink, and the Little Sheep party was no exception. There were all sorts of yummy cakes, biscuits and mince pies, as well as some mulled cranberry juice, which we tucked into while the little ones played and the big ones chatted. Father Christmas managed to turn up again; he must be so tired with all this travelling round to different parties every day. Andrew was less impressed this time as I sat him on the big red man’s knee (oh dear!)

Andrew shakering to and me singing 'Away in a manger' (click picture to play video)
Andrew fascinated by Rebecca as she danced around and led the singing (photo courtesy of Hannah Duffy Photography)
More shy on this occasion with Father Christmas - Mummy had to sit in on the photo too (photo courtesy of Hannah Duffy Photography)

Come Thursday we needed a rest from our packed Christmas social schedule, but by Friday we were raring to go again. Andrew and I joined the Cambridge babysigning group a couple of months ago for 5 weeks, but then I went back to work and we couldn’t commit to every week before our routine settled down. (I’ll definitely do a whole post sometime on babysigning.) But Bethan, the tutor, kindly invited us back for the Christmas special. We learnt some seasonal signs like reindeer, sleigh, Father Christmas, angel and Jesus, and had lots of fun singing and signing to Christmassy songs.

Eating Father Christmas' hat at babysigning (I had just offered him some pastry from a mince pie!)

The weekend arrived, along with time for some rest at home. Monday saw the last of our Christmas parties; this week really was the Rhyme time Christmas special. As we entered, damp and soggy from the rain, we were greeted by cheerful Bobby and Ruth, who were dressed up in costume and tinsel. The songs we sang were specially selected for their Christmas theme, and then we heard a story about a pirate (not so Christmassy). After all the musical and rhyming fun, there was plenty of food to share, and Andrew had his usual excitement looking at all the books, which he absolutely loves (clearly my son), and pulling himself up on the perfectly-sized mini cat-face chairs!

Looking at the books after the Barnwell library Rhyme time Christmas special

One week, five parties, many songs, lots of food and stockingfuls of fun! Have you had fun at Christmas parties that you’ve been to? Did Father Christmas turn up at yours too?! (He gets around, you know.) I think it’s fantastic that there are so many parties we can go to in celebration of Jesus’ birthday, because he was a special little baby who went on to do amazing things. This is Andrew’s first Christmas, and he’s certainly had a great introduction to what a fun time of year this is. As he grows up, I’m going to make sure he learns about the reason why he has so much fun at Christmas.

Balancing act

My day starts when our alarm clock (aka Andrew) goes off at about 6am. I get up, play with Andrew for a while before giving him a milk feed around 6.30am, and then it’s family breakfast time at 7am. After that, it’s time to get washed and dressed. When we’re ready, it’s at that point that things have to be done differently depending on the day of the week. My brain is (usually) conscious of the next step:

  • it’s Monday/Friday = no rush, play with Andrew some more before putting him down for a morning nap, then do some things around the flat and get ready to go out for the rest of the morning;
  • it’s Wednesday/Thursday = pack up some lunch for Andrew and myself, put nappies in the change bag, wrap us both up warm in coats/gloves/hats etc., and walk round the corner to Tracy’s (our childminder) to arrive as she’s leaving for the school run at 8.25am, then cycle to the office;
  • it’s Tuesday = leave Andrew in Daddy’s capable hands and head straight off to the office for the morning;
  • it’s Saturday/Sunday = have some family time, then do some housework or go to church.

We’ve been in this routine for over a month now, since I started back at work half-time after 9 months of maternity leave, and it seems to be working. Two and a half days a week I work as a post-doctoral research associate (fancy name for the fact that I do research and have a PhD). I’m based in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, as the resident phonetician in a lab of psychologists and neuroscientists. The project that I’m working on is looking at how children with a language impairment perceive rhythm and pitch in language and music. I should go into that in detail in another post, but for now I’ll stick to the balancing act of being mum and going out to work.

Before I went on maternity leave, I loved my job and felt very privileged to have been offered it, given the competition for academic jobs when funding is relatively limited. I planned to go back part-time after 9 months, though I found it hard to return once those months were up, because I enjoyed spending so much time with Andrew when on leave. There was a feeling of being torn between two jobs I loved doing, and there still is most days. Being with Andrew all day really makes me happy, but I do see advantages to going out to work too. I thought I’d share some of the things I like and don’t like about splitting my week in half.

At the office I get to drink hot cups of tea, eat my lunch when I like, and there’s not a nappy in sight. As I work in town, it’s very handy to pop out at lunchtime and go shopping for a few bits without the buggy. I have such lovely work colleagues who are great friends and make the office environment a happy, sociable and productive one. It feels good to know that I’m taking part in research that ultimately aims to get to the bottom of something that affects many kids, and one day may make a positive difference in individual lives.

My computer is easy to spot if you know what Praat looks like on screen 😉

People talk about being able to ‘use your brain’ again and get ‘mental stimulation’ at work after having a baby, and that is true to the extent that I get to put to use my ‘training’, i.e. the skills for research that I gained by doing a PhD and continuing in an academic job. But I would say my brain gets put to good use looking after Andrew too. I mean there’s no training for being a mum, so you figure things out as you go along, and that uses a fair amount of brain power I find. All the things that I’ve started to think about and get interested in since having him certainly keep me mentally stimulated. An example is doing my own ‘research’ on baby-related matters, by reading up and talking to other parents about issues like breastfeeding. I can do this either at groups when Andrew is with me and happy to play with the toys and other kids there, or at home when he’s asleep and I need to put my feet up. So I feel like I get enough brain usage on both Andrew days and office days.

Big boy on a trike - at a group where there is a great outdoor play area so Andrew can unleash all his energy

My Andrew days are fantastic because I get to see him develop and start doing things he couldn’t do the week before. He is such a good-natured baby, so I get lots of smiles and cuddles. There’s never a dull moment as he’s so active too, making me and himself laugh at the latest thing he’s managed to find/do/get stuck in or under. We go to fun groups where he can toddle around, play with different toys, sing, hear stories, make things and get messy, whilst I get a cup of tea made for me (which might go cold admittedly) and can chat with other mums (and dads) about the joys and woes of parenthood. I get lots of fresh air and exercise, which comes naturally in our routine because we walk everywhere.

Wrapped up warm for a ride out in the buggy to get to a group

So that’s a lot of good stuff so far. The hard part is having to split my time between the two jobs. I worry that I’ll miss out on one of Andrew’s ‘firsts’, that I’ll be impatient with him because I’m too tired after a day or two in the office, that he’ll miss me either lots or not at all when I’m gone (the former being detrimental to him and the latter to me and my identity as his mum). I also worry that my heart might not stay in my research like it was, that I’ll be too tired to function properly, that I’ll not do my research to the highest standard I set myself. These worries on both sides basically come down to the fact that I’m a perfectionist, and by splitting my resources it might not be possible to do either job at 100%. So far I’m pleased to say that none of these worries have actually been an issue, but they are always in my mind.

Look at me, I'm so good at standing. Mummy loves watching me grow up and do things like this for the first time.

When I think about it, I’m not splitting my week exactly in half. In fact I’m a full-time mum, and always will be, as I do my mum thing before and after going out to the office (including in the middle of the night if he wakes up – what am I supposed to say? ‘sorry Andrew, work tomorrow, no soothing back to sleep for you tonight’); walking out the door to go to work doesn’t stop me being mum. I just do interesting research for about 19 hours a week on top of that. I’m happy with the way things are for now, but it’ll be interesting to see what’s in store for the future, especially as my contract ends in December 2012 (the research one that is – I don’t think Andrew will terminate my contract as mum anytime soon 🙂 )

Andrew loves 'helping' me hang the washing up to dry