Nuns, tu and vous and other cultural oopsies!

I am currently reading “Growing up with Three Languages (birth to eleven)” by Xiao-lei Wang, and enjoying it a lot.three languages book

The writer is a linguist and studied her children (two boys) as they developed trilingually: she is a native mandarin speaker, her husband is a native French speaker, and they live in the US (english). These happen to be the three languages that I am working with at home with my son, so I am loving the examples of language learning, interactions, teaching etc. As a parent who is actually a native speaker of the majority language of North America, I am not living a situation of raising my child in a minority language at home, teaching a heritage language I am fluent in. And as a single parent, I certainly am not doing the one parent one language thing. Especially since the language I am LEAST versed in is the heritage language of my child (Chinese) and so need outside input.

But there is a lot which is very pertinent: how do you get your child enough exposure in each language? What challenges do you have teaching a language that isn’t learnt in an immersion environment, where the parent and home are almost the sole inputs? How do you deal with the attitudes and prejudices of others? What will your child’s attitude to the different languages be? What sort of development is expected in the languages? How about language mixing? What tactics can one integrate into daily life to increase language learning and skills? Indeed I love this book, even though I am only in Chapter Three.

One thing I found fascinating is the part about “Language Use in Context” (p80)… part of language learning is not just vocabulary and sentence structure, but using the language in context. In our first language, we learn language in context. Most of language learning is peripheral, ie when we see others interacting, not just speaking directly to us or with us. Thus we understand that we talk in a certain way to strangers or acquaintances, we speak differently to the priest at Church than to our grandfather than to our friends. Speech can be more or less casual, more or less personal, depending on the context. We usually don’t realise that we have this huge repertoire of roles we use in different context, with intonations, vocabulary, attitude etc part and parcel of different interactions throughout the day.

Until we learn a new language, NOT in context! I remember when I worked in an art supply store as a young adult and I very politely (I thought) served a French Canadian nun. She was very nice and left the store with her purchase… and I turned to see all the other employees gossiping with amused looks of disbelief! I had “tutoyé-d” a nun! In French you use the formal “vous” with a boss, nun etc… and in my interaction I had used the informal “tu” (I tend to forget the formal “vous”, and use “vous” mostly for plural). Not only was French my (newly acquired) second language, but also I had grown up in a pretty secular family, and gone to a protestant Church in early childhood: we didn’t have nuns or priests, and in fact our minister’s wife was my piano teacher… very casual and very different from the experience of most of my French Canadian peers who had gone to Catholic School, run by strict nuns! Fortunately for me, my nun paintbrush customer was very sweet and didn’t take offence at my lack of formality in my accented French.

Another example of knowing words but being dissociated from meaning is the ease with which one can swear in another language: the foreign swear words just don’t have the taboo emotional weight that they do in one’s first language.

I am sure that my son will be better versed in French culture than I am, as he is living here in Quebec as a child, and picking up his French not only from me, but from daily interactions on the street, with friends and neighbors, and from immersion at his French language daycare (and this fall, preschool)… he should pick up the cultural mores and roles as naturally as I did English ones. He may have more difficulty with appropriate roles in English, since we speak it at home, but not in interactions with staff in stores, restaurants, schools, churches etc.

But in Chinese, he is going to be lost culturally! Right now we are doing very basic Chinese. The little natural chinese he hears spoken is usually directly to him, or between mothers and children (ie a Chinese mother we know with two kids his age). He really has no call to see people, esp adults, speak to each other in different roles and social contexts. Of course this could change in the future if he ever ends up traveling to China, hanging with more Chinese friends or community etc, but at this point I don’t foresee that. I guess he’ll end up having a few funny tales about his own faux pas in the future!

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4 responses to “Nuns, tu and vous and other cultural oopsies!

  1. Thanks so much for sharing info about this book! It seems fascinating! I’ll have to look into it!
    Saludos,
    Elizabeth

  2. multilingualmania

    I’ve never heard about this book! Thanks for recommending it and I am definitely going to pick it up.

    I love the discussion that language is learned in context, because so many people learn a second language totally divorced from authentic interaction and communication. I myself have a had the instances when I have not known the pragmatics of when and where to use the informal “tu” in Spanish. As a school administrator, parents speak to me in the informal and I always ask myself if I am supposed to respond in the formal since they are using it, or the informal because I have respect for them as parents. But this isn’t even a skill that many native speakers possess-sometimes I think that students who have not been exposed to academic language and expectations for standard language usage also have the same problem, even though they are native speakers.

    Maybe your son will already be bilingual, and since bilinguals tend to be more sophisticated in communicative sensitivity, he will be much more adept at picking up the cultural nuances associated with Mandarin.

    -Melanie

  3. “Maybe your son will already be bilingual, and since bilinguals tend to be more sophisticated in communicative sensitivity, he will be much more adept at picking up the cultural nuances associated with Mandarin.”

    That’s an interesting thought… he IS probably already bilingual in that we are very English AND French in our daily environment: speaking French in shops, his dance class, preschool, neighbors, English with other friends, neighbors, home etc…

    I never thought about that! We’ll see how it goes!

  4. Hm hm.. that’s amazing but frankly i have a hard time figuring it… I’m wondering what others have to say….

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