“It’s true what they say,” muses financial analyst Sam, “children are like sponges – they soak up the language and then just start speaking it.” The mother of three saw this extraordinary ability at first hand with her own young children when her husband Neil, an accountant, accepted a job in France. Sam explains: “When we arrived in Lyon, my eldest son Matthew was four and joined the ‘maternelle’ – the village pre-school – in the middle of the school year, in April. He was completely bewildered in those first few months but we didn’t have tears and he went along each day without any problems. He didn’t converse much all day for the first few weeks but he was obviously taking it in – more than we realised. When he went back to school in September he was speaking it.”
Sam agreed to the move to France from their home in East Malling because it seemed like a good opportunity. Neil had been asked to head up the international division of his American employers’ new European headquarters. By the time they arrived in their farmhouse in St Jean des Vignes, a delightful village outside Lyon, Sam had three children in tow – Matthew, two-year-old Oliver and Sophie, who was just five months.
She says: “Neil did not speak French at all and I just had schoolgirl French. I studied it at `O’ level but I hadn’t used it since. We didn’t have time for lessons before we left although when we arrived in France we did ask a neighbour’s 18-year-old daughter to go through the basics with Matthew. The people in the village spoke to us in French and it was only afterwards that we realised they spoke English. Basically we had to get on with it!”
The younger children had less of a baptism of fire – they had longer to absorb the language and having his big brother in school helped Oliver to settle in. Sam says: “Oliver and Sophie had a bit longer to get used to the language. People in France said the children all spoke French with a local accent (not like me with my English accent!). In fact, some locals didn’t know the difference. Matthew’s teacher in France said he was better at French grammar than some of her native speakers. And Sophie spoke English with a French accent!”
In July 2007, the family moved back to England and settled in Blackboys. “Coming back, it’s been difficult to maintain the language as it is not seen as a gifted and talented subject. The children’s primary school did do French but not at their level, obviously. When Matthew joined Uckfield Community College, the school supported him in doing his GCSE in Year 7 and he got an A star. He’s fluent in speaking French, he can still read it well but he falls down in written French.
“The children all had this amazing talent but Oliver and Sophie were very self-conscious and they didn’t want me to speak in French with them. Although I became fluent myself, it’s not my first language and it became such a battle to keep it up. I’m sure if they were to immerse themselves in France it would all come back.”
Maintaining that fluency becomes a matter for the individual, explains former Cranbook School student Kristina Chapple, who grew up speaking Norwegian thanks to her mother. However, her sister is not as fluent. “When I came along, my mother, who was born in Norway, spoke in Norwegian to me, and my father spoke English. I started speaking more English when I went to nursery school. Having friends over after school meant that my mother had to speak English to them. Then my sister came along and she has learned less Norwegian than me. This is common in bilingual families because the younger tends to be less strong in the second language.”
Kristina took the dual language in her stride. She says: “I replied in Norwegian to my mother and English to my father, not realising I was speaking two languages. I spoke Norwegian before I spoke English! When we were living in Sussex Gardens in Lancaster Gate my mother took me to Hyde Park to release some energy. I saw a bus then said: So Mama ‘rød buss’, and then paused and said, ‘red bus’ – Mummy it’s the same! I suddenly realised I could speak in two different ways! I did take longer to talk than other toddlers but someone said that’s normal as I was learning two languages.”
Throughout her childhood in Frittenden, Kristina continued to improve her Norwegian, thanks to strong family relationships in Norway, forged by her mother Hilde, who visits her home country each summer. Kristina said: “My mother had spent some of her childhood in America and spoke English – partly because the Norwegians teach English at a very early age. She was working for a Norwegian company when she met my father Malcolm at a housewarming party in Brixton! My father had only just qualified as a barrister and there was no choice but to settle here. My mother went back to Norway briefly, then a few months later realised she was in love with my father and came back, which is when they got married.
“She does miss Norway and her family. I see her heart break every summer when we have to leave. It’s hard being away from your family. My father has not learned Norwegian – he knows some words! His pet name for me is ‘lillevenn’ which means little friend so he does know words but he can’t have a conversation!”
Now that she has moved to Clapham, Kristina still finds ways to use her language at her job in commodities at Morgan Stanley. She says: “I’ve never used it in my job but I certainly think it is an advantage. Even though I can’t do business in it, because the business vocabulary is different, I can make small talk and have made friends with people on my floor that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I have friends in Norway that I have in my own right that I keep in contact with. I probably feel more self-conscious as an adult than I did as a child. My Norwegian is probably better now than it was ten years ago because I make an effort to keep it up. For example, we have Norwegians in the office and they are very nice and always talk to me in Norwegian, it’s always there to practise.
“After a glass of wine it does get better because I lose my inhibitions! I feel more self-conscious because I learned it as another mother tongue and I know how I’m supposed to sound and I don’t sound like that, even though I have a strong dialect!”
As for passing on her language to any children she might have in the future, Kristina has reservations, adding: “It’s unlikely I will marry a Norwegian and I don’t think my language is strong enough to teach someone else. I feel sad about this because there is a part of me that feels, thanks to my mother, a bit Norwegian.”
While Kristina’s prediction about her own life may well come true, she will always have the knowledge and family ties to cherish. What is certain is that giving children the gift of a second language is a wonderful benefit – the trick is ensuring that they use it and maintain it.
- words: Lesley Finlay
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