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Bilingual children and sentence production.

Date of writing: 14th January 2014.
Age of subject: 4 years and six months.

Parents, teachers versus the bilingual child at the one-word output level.

Carmen at Christmas

The leap from one-word output (car, window, Daddy; Mummy, yes, me, etc) or rote-learnt phrases typical in young school learners (what's your name? I'm fine, thanks) to structured sentences in conversational interaction seems a huge one to the parent/teacher listening critically. In fact, if the language input environment is the correct one, full sentence production is just the next step in a natural language learning process. It is not only predictable but inevitable so if the child fails to reach a level where he or she can speak in sentence form in a reasonable space of time, the language environment may not be adequate. Unfortunately, in many school settings, the second language learning environment may never have been suitably developed in the first place for this happy event to occur. This results in schoolchildren who, year after year, find themselves in linguistic stagnation with poor communicative skills in the second language.

On the other hand, diligent parents who constantly use English at home with their children probably have a far greater chance of creating the rich linguistic environment required for full sentence output than many schools. This would be due to concentration on authentic communication, familiar context situations such as domestic life and simply because parents can spend more time (than schools are able) with their children inputting the second language. To me, these seem to be excellent reasons for the parents (or at least one of them) to take advantage of those early pre-school years and use English in the home.

The more complete set of dialoguing tools.

Carmen, at four-and-a-half is now starting to be able to dialogue with her father rather than just reply to questions with one-word answers. She can now take the initiative in a conversation and initiate dialogues as she does in Spanish although with a good deal less language accuracy. This is a gratifying state of affairs not only with respect to the language learning benefits but also because greater mutual parent/child empathy can evolve through discourse in English at a similar level as with Spanish speakers in the child's life.

Awareness of languages.

Carmen also employs interaction techniques that are obviously absent in discourse in monolingual children. This is her awareness of language as a communication tool; she realizes there are two languages in play and makes references to them (ie. through translation) as we shall see in these extracts below.

Carmen on Christmas.

Dialogue recorded at one session on 5th January 2014.

Listen to recording 1...

Me: (We're looking at a Peppa Pig book about Christmas.) What's happening in this picture here?
Carmen: Sleeping Peppa and George and Mummy is (??) tell to sleep.
Me: Right, ok. Why do they have to sleep?
Carmen: Because Santa... is going to put presents in the socks.
Me: Right. Ok. (Repeats). Now where are their socks?
Carmen: Here (she points to the picture).
Me: Yes, right. And did you... did you have a sock?
Carmen: Yes!
Me: Yes? What did we leave for Santa before you went to bed?
Carmen: Mince pies!
Me: Mince pies. Yes. And something to drink?
Carmen: Milk!
Me: A glass of milk. Yes.
Carmen: (??) very fat!
Me: Yes. Who's very fat?
Carmen: Father Christmas.
Me: (Repeats) Ok. And um. Did he... Did he bring you something? In the sock?
Carmen: Yes. Yes. Bubble make. Because look. Look here. (&l;he get's a can of bubble mix from her toy box.)
Me: What? Are these for blowing bubbles?
Carmen: Yes.
Me: You got some of that, didn't you? Bubble...
Carmen: ...make. Hello Kitty! (picture on can).
Me: Oh, right.
Carmen: Bubble make. It say Peppa (?).

Self-correction in pronunciation and translation during discourse.

Here Carmen uses a self-correction technique for a word she was not very familiar with. In other words, she learns during her own output. Another reason why output (compared with only input) is so important for progress in language cognizance and acquisition. On each utterance "tangerine", which she got in her stocking, is pronounced just a little better - even though she had a cold at the time! Secondly, note Carmen's reference to Spanish (she translates!) when she suspects she is not being understood.

Listen to recording 2...

Carmen: And tangerine, tangerine, tangerine.
Me: (??) (I don't understand.)
Carmen: (Resorts to translation in Spanish.) "Tangerine" is naranja. Tangerine!
Me: Oh, right. Tangerine! Yes. all right. Yeah! Ok. You got a tangerine. And more things... lots of things, weren't there?
Carmen: Balloons!
Me: Balloons. Yeah!

Natural morphological error or Spanish influence?

I'm still not certain whether the preference for the prepositional genitive (house of Peppa) instead of the Saxon genitive (Peppa's house) is just a natural morphological error of language development or influence from the Spanish.

Listen to recording 3...

Carmen: Eh?
Me: What's happening in this picture?
Carmen: Santa.
Me: What's he doing?
Carmen: (Imitates Santa's voice.) Oh! This is present of Peppa. I'm going to house of Peppa.
Me: (Laughs.) Yeah. He's going to Peppa's house. Right, yes. And what's he going to give Peppa?
Carmen: (Imitates Santa's voice.) A doll. I'm going to give a doll of Peppa.
Me: A doll. Right. Yes. Right. Who's coming tonight then? Who's coming tonight?
Carmen: Laurence. (Friend of mine and his family coming for Epiphany tea.)
Me: Laurence, my friend. But what special people... well, Laurence... what special people are coming, um...
Carmen: Hannah! (Carmen's cousin in England.)
Me: No, my darling. Hannah's not coming, my darling, no. But... that's your cousin, isn't it? Who's going to come and bring presents again?
Carmen: Santa!
Me: Tonight! No. There'oe other people. Three people. Who are they?
Carmen: Three Kings.
Me: Three Kings. Right. Yes. And, um. Do you think they're going to bring some more presents for you? Em. They only bring presents if you've been good. have you been good?
Carmen: (Nods.)
Me: What have you done that's good then?
Carmen: In my house or the... (school)?
Me: Yeah. All right, in your house. What have you done that's good in your house?
Carmen: Pues, (Spanish) Good... Something no very good.
Me: What?
Carmen: Something no very good.
Me: Something not very good. Why?
Carmen: Because I stay here to play the balloon.
Me: Mmm.
Carmen: And Mummy say to come in the bathroom.
Me: Right.
Carmen: And I come.
Me: Yes.
Carmen: I come. The bathroom.
Me: You went into the bathroom. Yes.
Carmen: And I a very, very good.
Me: OhIse. When she called you to the bathroom, you went to the bathroom. Have your bath. Yeah. That was a good thing, wasn't it? Ok. What else have you done that's good?
Carmen: Wash my hand(s). To say... to.. dry my hair...
Me: Dry your hair. Right. Mmm.

Asking about language.

Carmen frequently asks how to say things in English with the question "How do you say + Spanish phrase?" Sometimes, however, she confuses the two languages.

Listen to recording 4...

Carmen: How do you say, how do you say "wash the hair"?
Me: Well, that's right! "Wash your hair".
Carmen / Me: (laughs) That's how you say it, isn't it? You don't like washing your hair, do you? Ok. And what bad things have you done?
Carmen: Nothing!
Me: Nothing?! (laughs) Are you sure?
Carmen: No.
Me: So, the Three Kings should bring you a present. Tomorrow you'll get that, won't you? When you wake up tomorrow. (??) Are you going to say Happy Christmas then? For the recording. We'll put that on Daddy's website. Say Happy Christmas?
Carmen: Happy Christmas!
Me: And a...
Carmen: A Happy New Year!
Me: Happy New Year! All right. That's lovely!

All for now!

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