Word Monkey

My nephew enjoying an icecream at Knowsley Safari Park

I spent the past few days with my sister and her family. Her son is just over 2 and a half years old and is speaking a lot more than the last time I saw him at Easter this year.

He has trouble pronouncing certain sounds, such as r and consonant clusters like st, but at long as you listen carefully, you can usually work out what he’s saying.

He also invents new words, or gives words new meanings. For example, he has several toy monkeys (see below), and calls one ‘monkey’ or ‘daddy monkey’, another ‘other monkey’ or ‘mummy monkey’, and a smaller one he calls monkeykey, which I thought was very cute. He also calls playing cards, dominoes and other parts of games current buns. I’m not sure why.

Up-date: it turns out that I misheard the name of the monkey – it’s actually Monkey Keith not monkeykey.

Monkeys / Mwncïod

Language acquisition

Language quiz image

I spent Christmas at my brother’s house and had a nice time. It was interesting to see how the language skills of my niece (4) and my nephew (1) are developing.

My niece speaks a lot, mainly in English, and sometimes in Russian (her mum is Russian), and is learning to read and write in English. She can recognise the letters, and with help can read and write words. When she writes some letters are back-to-front or otherwise not quite right. She hasn’t started learning to read and write Russian yet, I don’t think.

My nephew is at the one-word stage. He can say quite a few individual words in English, and sometimes puts them together into short sentences. He also understands Russian, but I haven’t heard say any words in Russian.

One Person One Language (OPOL)

An illustration of a bilingual family

This post is based largely on an article by Francois Grosjean: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual/201504/one-person-one-language-and-bilingual-children

One popular way to raise bilingual children is for each parent to speak only their native language with their children. For example the father will speak English and the mother will speak Spanish, and the children will acquire both languages. At first the children might mix the languages, but they will soon come to associate one language with each parent. There is also a belief that if the parents mix languages, e.g. the Spanish-speaking parent sometimes speaks English, and the English-speaking parent sometimes speaks Spanish, the children will get confused.

Problems with the OPOL approach
There are problems with the OPOL approach – children is likely get more exposure to one language then to the other, and one language is likely to become dominant. The children may come to prefer that language, especially if both parents speak it, and the children may be able to understand but not speak the non-dominant language. This is quite often the case with minority languages like Welsh and Irish.

It can also be difficult to stick to OPOL when other people are around who only speak one of the languages. For example, if a Spanish/English family is with Spanish-speaking friends, does the parent who only speaks English with the children stick to English, even though the friends might not understand, or do they switch to Spanish? Parents can find such situations stressful and might adapt their approach to context and be more flexible rather than sticking rigidly to OPOL.

Does the OPOL approach actually work?
There are have been a number of the OPOL approach, including a notable one of 2,000 families by Annick De Houwer, which found that children in a quarter of the families did not become bilingual, and that in families where parents mixed languages, as many children became bilingual as in OPOL families.

What is the OPOL approach based on?
Given the popularity of the OPOL approach, you might think that it’s based on sound foundations of research and testing. This is not the case. It has probably been around for a long time, but the first reference to it in modern linguistic literature is in a book from 1913 by Jules Ronjat, a French linguist with a German wife. In 1908, when his son was born, Ronjat asked his colleague, Maurice Grammont, for advice on raising his son bilingually. In a letter Grammont advised Ronjat to speak only French to his son, and for his wife to speak only German. Since then many other people have discussed the OPOL approach, and often cite a book by Grammont, Observations sur le langage des enfants (Observations on Children’s Language) which was supposedly published in 1902, however does not in fact exist, according to François Grosjean. So the OPOL approach is based on the opinion of Maurice Grammont, who published nothing on language acquisition, as expressed in a letter to his colleague Jules Ronjat.

Have you tried or are you trying the OPOL approach?
Did it work / is it working for you?
What problems have you had with it?

Life as a Bilingual: The reality of living with two (or more) languages (by Francois Grosjean, and Aneta Pavlenko)

Links to websites with information and advice about raising children bilingually

Articles about bilingualism

Language acquisition

I spent Christmas with my family at my brother’s house in Devon in the south west of England. His daughter is now 20 months old and it’s fascinating to see how she’s acquiring language.

The last time I saw her was at Easter this year when she was nearly a year old. At that time she was able to say a few words, but now she has a lot more words and little phrases, and understands more as well. Most of her words are in English, but she also uses some Russian ones (her mother is Russian) such as сок (juice), and even some BSL signs, such as thank you, picked up from baby signing classes.

As well as English and Russian, she’s picking up some French from the French nanny who looks after her a few days a week while her mother is working. So she is on the way to becoming a polyglot. Whether she’ll be as enthusiastic about languages as I am remains to be seen, but it will be very interesting to see how her language develops.

Do you have or know children who are being raised bilingually or multilingually? Do you have any tips and stories you’d like to share? Guest posts on this topic are very welcome.


I spent last weekend at my mum’s house, along with my brother, sister-in-law and their one-year old daughter. The last time I saw my niece was at Christmas, when she was making some sounds, but not really babbling much. Now she is babbling away all the time and sometimes says recognisable words, or at least utters sequences of sounds that might be words. Her mother, who comes from Russia, speaks mainly in Russian with her, while her father speaks only English with her (he doesn’t speak Russian). I haven’t heard any Russian words among her babbles, but there might be some I don’t recognise – my knowledge of Russian is somewhat limited. They also use some signs with her which they have learnt at baby signing classes, most of which look like standard BSL signs to me.

It’s fascinating to observe her linguistic abilities developing, and it won’t be long before she is using more words and starting put them together.

Sound instincts

According to an article I came across today, humans possibly have innate preferences for the sound patterns found in languages which might help babes to distinguish language from non-language and to acquire language.

An experiment undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences found that even new born babies show a preference for combinations of phonemes common in human languages over rare or non-linguistic combinations of phonemes. For example, it is relatively common for words to begin with bl, not very rare for them to start with lb. This suggests that the range of sound combinations found in languages, which though large, is limited by our brains innate preferences.

I found another report on this story on Science Daily which provides more details.

Babbling and motherese

Over the past few days I’ve been observing, and to some extent participating, in my niece’s language acquisition. She is 8 months old and babbles a lot to herself and to others. Some of her babbling can sound like possible words, like dada, but they don’t seem to be associated with anything yet. She is also starting to direct her attention at various things, and especially at people, who she charms with her smiles.

From her mother (my sister-in-law) she is getting mainly Russian, and from her father (my brother) she is getting English. When I first heard her mother talking to her in Russian I didn’t understand much, but when I listened more closely I realised that the same phrases where coming up frequently – as with motherese or Child Directed Speech generally. Two phrases I understood where Что ты хочешь? (What do you want?) and Всё (all, everything). There are also a lot of terms of affection, which in Russian are often diminutives like котёнок (kitten).

I found more examples of Russian motherese on: http://www.russianforfree.com/adoptive-parents.php.

Всё seems to be quite a useful word which appears in various phrsaes:

– вот и всё, это всё = that’s all
– чаще всего = most often
– мне всё равно = it’s all the same to me
– всё там же = still there
– всё же = all the same
– всё ещё = still
– а всё-таки = all the same, nevertheless

Spoken language is a special type of music

According to an article I came across yesterday music might be what enables us to acquire language, and spoken language could be thought of as a special type of music.

When acquiring language babies first hear speech as “an intentional and often repetitive vocal performance” and they learn to hear and mimic its emotional and musical components, such as rhythm and pitch, before they start to learn and focus on meaning. Being able to distinguish the different sounds of speech seems to be an essential first step for the acquisition of language. Newborn babies are able to distinguish phonemes of any language they hear, but gradually focus on the language(s) they hear most often.

The researchers also found connections between how the brain processes consonants and how it recognize the timbre of different instruments – both processes that require rapid processing.

These findings lend support to the idea that singing came before speech, as discussed in The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen.

I find that it helps to spend time listening to a language to tune your ears to its sounds, and to mimic those sounds, even though you don’t understand what they mean at first – a bit like a baby. If you spend plenty of time listening to a language, when you learn words and phrases it’s easier because they already sound familiar. I probably heard hundreds of hours of Taiwanese while I was in Taiwan, for example, so it sounds familiar, even though I don’t understand much. If I decided to learn more of it, I would find it easier than a language I haven’t heard so much.

Some would call this passive listening, but it isn’t passive – your brain is busily working away trying to make sense of all these strange sounds you’re filling it with and looking for patterns. You can’t learn a language simply by listening – conversational interactions with others are also needed – but I think listening is an important part of the learning process.

Ingrown languages

In an interesting book I read recently, What Language Is by John McWhorter, the author discusses why some languages appear a lot more complicated or ‘ingrown’ than others. He gives the example of Persian and Pashto, two Iranian languages spoken in a number of countries in western and central Asia. Whereas Persian has more or less regular and simple verb conjugations, in Pashto the verb endings and other aspects of the language are much less regular. This is because Persian was the language of a large empire in which many people learned Persian as adults, and few did so perfectly, so many of the irregularities and other complex aspects of Old Persian were regularised and simplified. This process didn’t happen with Pashto, so the language is still ingrown.

Other languages that are or have been used as colonial languages or lingua francas with many adults learning them imperfectly have undergone a similar process of simplification. These include English, Mandarin Chinese, colloquial spoken varieties of Arabic, Indonesian and Swahili. According to McWhorter, these languages could be considered abnormal as many of their irregularities and eccentricities have been levelled out. As a result they are relatively easy to learn, or at least somewhat less difficult than more ingrown languages.

One example a particularly ingrown language is Navajo, which even linguists find superlatively forbidding. Some even claim that it’s not possible to learn it after childhood. Apparently none of the Navajo verbs follow a regular pattern, and regularity is notably absent in other parts of the language.

So if you’re struggling to get to grips with Spanish or Mandarin, it might be of comfort to you to remember that you’re not learning Navajo or a similarly ingrown language.

Language evolution

Some interesting experiments on language evolution are being undertaken in the University of Edinburgh’s Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, and one thing they’ve found is that some aspects of language can develop in an afternoon.

They believe that language evolves culturally through being learned and used by people. They have demonstrated aspects of this process with computer simulations and with an experiment with real people. For the experiment they used pictures of alien fruit with names in a made up language which the participants were asked to memorise. They were then tested on what they could remember and their answers were used with the second group of participants, and so on.

The first participants found it very difficult to learn and remember the words, but with each subsequent ‘generation’ it became easier to learn them and they developed regularities in their structure, and eventually the participants were able to understand words they’d never seen before.

The researchers believe that many aspects of languages can arise through the evolutionary process of cultural transmission and do not need to be genetically encoded – the brain provides scaffolding for language but not necessarily all the specific details.