Tuesday, 7 July 2009

On a child's view of English

A colleague writes from Switzerland with a nice child language story. Her German-speaking 6-year-old daughter picked up English very quickly on a visit to New Zealand, and has been keeping it up since. At one point her husband pretended he needed help with his English, so the little girl read a story to him, and he asked her questions about spelling and suchlike, which she tried her best to answer (e.g. why now and know sound so differently, despite being similar in spelling). In the end, she said Weisst Du, Papa, Englisch ist so schön klanglich. ('You know, dad, English is nice and soundly.') The adverb is a nonce formation in both languages.

This story made me think: I don't have many examples to hand of the reactions of young children to the languages they're in the process of learning. Descriptive statements like this one are especially rare. It would be nice to have a few more. Anyone recall any?

18 comments:

rip said...

Let me correct you, if I may: 'klanglich' is a perfectly acceptable German adjective. See http://www.dict.cc/?s=klanglich or http://wortschatz.uni-leipzig.de/cgi-portal/de/wort_www?site=208&Wort_id=4680908 (which gives you a couple of quotations, too).
A charming story, by the way, which leaves the language teacher wishing there were more children who appreciated the sound quality of other languages (and their own).

rip said...

P.S.: Sorry, I've just realized that you wrote "the adverb is a nonce formation". Well, it certainly isn't standard usage to have "klanglich" in that position. But it does make sense in German - sort of. In most contexts, 'klanglich' could be roughly translated as 'as regards (the) sound". What the girl meant is something like 'full of pleasant sounds'. Cf. 'musical': 'English is so nicely musical'.
But maybe you meant that anyway and my comment is superfluous ...

DC said...

Actually I was only reporting what my Swiss German informant told me...

Amikeco said...

In the world picture of my 3 y. o. there are five languages: Russian, Esperanto, English, Finnish and Ossetic. The first two of them she speaks somewhat (Russian is the main), the others appeared by mentioning. She rarely says her opinion about the languages, but often challenges my knowledge by asking "Whas is the Finnish/Ossetic/English word for that?"

Once she told her favourite language is English. I don't know if it was just a random choice or the influence of a regular „Let's Learn English“ TV programme on her favourite TeleNyanya smaller children channel.

DC said...

Nice to hear about her using the language names, which usually start being used by children at around 3 and a half.

Barrie said...

My Collins German Dictionary tells me that ‘klanglich schön sein’ means ‘to have a beautiful sound or tone’. It looks as if she may have got the words the wrong way round. On the other hand, if we take ‘schön’ as an adverb modifying the adjective ‘klanglich’, the construction doesn’t seem so very much out of the ordinary. We should perhaps also bear in mind that much is possible in the Swiss version of even High German that is not normal in other varieties, although the father would presumably have known that.

Rebecca Jackson said...

This is great - I'm trying to engage my 4 year-old nephew in discussions about language. He is already aware that the French speak French etc but I want to know what he THINKS about talking. I'm sure that he will be able to offer opinions - what could I ask him?

Charlie said...

"A nonce word"? What as used by paedophiles? Odd choice of word in a story about a child...

DC said...

In talking to my trilingual grandson (see an earlier post) I've found that a 'third party' is helpful. For example, Handy Manny (Disney Channel) speaks English and Spanish, as do some others in his town, and this can easily lead to a discussion of why, what each language sounds like, and so on. I'd be interested to hear of other elicitation methods.

DC said...

'Nonce word' is a perfectly standard piece of linguistics jargon, and will remain so, regardless of other uses the word may have in the language. As Charlie is evidently unaware of this, let me explain: it derives from the Elizabethan usage 'for the nonce' (meaning 'once') and refers to a word that has been invented by someone to solve an immediate communication problem. There's no intention that it should ever become a permanent part of the language.

There's a general point here. When one encounters an unfamiliar word in a technical context it is likely to mean something different from what it might mean elsewhere, and one should always take the trouble to check. These days, a quick Google search will usually bring the specialised meaning to light. I wouldn't get very far in reading an article on atomic physics if I interpreted such words as 'charm' and 'down' as having their more familiar meanings.

outerhoard said...

I too was touched by this story, having often wondered how English tends to be perceived compared to other languages by people hearing it for the first time.

However, the rational side of my mind has some questions. Not knowing what other languages and dialects this child has been exposed to, hypotheses open to me range all the way from: (a) That the child has a novelty-seeking personality that would be entranced by any new language just because it's different and therefore wonderful, to: (b) That the child likes the sound of New Zealand English in particular and wouldn't care so much for the sounds of other dialects.

aj.lacy said...

Hi everyone,

I found it interesting with my girls as they started to show metalinguistic awareness. I remember an occasion when my daughter, aged about 2 I think, was chanting "ship, shop, shik..." and I just knew which word she was going to hit next!!

Anonymous said...

As the mother of the child (and colleague from Switzerland) I would like to comment on the idea that our daughter particularly liked the sounds of New Zealand English. She started out having a New Zealand accent (obviously) but lost that very quickly on our return to Europe. She has been exposed to American English and various other accents since (the mother of her best friend at school is from Ireland, but has a very slight accent, only) - so much so that I find it very difficult now to locate the accent she has now. We only moved to Switzerland last year, and she is also in the process of acquiring a second dialect (Swiss German), but that is a story in itself (also in terms of attitudes etc.). Dialect awareness is another really interesting area to look at.

cmg said...

In the United Kingdom and Australia, the term nonce (sometimes spelled "nonse") is a slang word used to refer to a sex offender and/or child sexual abuser.

I didn't know what the word 'nonce" meant. The above represents one of the definitions, albeit a slang definition. I just thought it was odd.

DC said...

Yes, I'm aware of that. People might be interested in the etymology, which is, in fact, unclear. One suggestion from the team at the OED is that it is related to nance, from nancy for an effeminate male. Another suggestion is a relationship with nonse meaning 'a good-for-nothing fellow', recorded in the English Dialect Dictionary Supplement from Lincolnshire. Either way, we are talking about a recent development: earliest usage in the OED is 1971.

Susanna said...

When my little sister was about four or five years old, the following conversation took place between her and her mum when they were wrapping up a birthday present for a friend:

Mum: Ooo, that's a nice wrapping paper, that'll make Sophie happy.

Sister (thinking): Mum... you can't say "that _made_ Sophie happy", because then it sounds as if Sophie already got the present.

As a linguistics student, I was very proud of my sister's awareness of the function of different tenses!

DC said...

Sounds like a born linguist!

Andy said...

I am currently in Finland staying with a Finnish family. While I was speaking to their mother in English, their 3 year-old daughter turned to her mother and said in Finnish, "Mummy, stop speaking Swedish!". With Swedish being the second official langauge of Finland she must have seen and her heard it a lot and is obviously aware of its existence, but I found it interesting that in her perception of the world there is Finnish and any other language that she doesn't understand is Swedish!