A Bilingual Child: Pronunciation interference

English: stamp with the words "Fail"...


A while ago I was talking to a good friend of mine who used to be an English teacher, but who has now moved on to other things.  We were talking about how frustrating it can be teaching young children English and, despite only ever presenting them with ‘correct’ models of pronunciation, they still insist on saying them with a distinctive Brazilian accent.

One example of what we were talking about was the pronunciation of the word ‘red’ /red/.  A typical Brazilian pronunciation would be to say something that sounds like ‘hedgey’ /ˈhedʒɪ/.  There are three things going on here that give rise to the Brazilian sounding pronunciation: the first is that the letter ‘r’ /r/ is usually pronounced as the letter ‘h’ /h/ would be in English.  The next thing is that the letter ‘d’ is much softer in Portuguese than in English and so usually sounds like the letter ‘g’ in ‘gin’ /dʒ/.  And finally there is the tendency in Portuguese for some consonants to always be followed by a vowel.

Fortunately, I don’t have a class of three-year-olds to deal with, but I do have one two-and-a-half-year-old who we are bringing up to hopefully be bilingual English and Portuguese.  Obviously he would never say any English words with a Brazilian accent, would he?

Of course he would.

Prainha beach at São Francisco do Sul island, ...

Prainha beachy (Wikipedia)

Life’s beachy

During our recent summer holidays we spent 10 days at the beach in Sao Francisco do Sul in Santa Catarina.  It was baking hot with temperatures up around the 40 C mark so we had to ration the amount of time at the beach so we didn’t get burned to a cinder.  Our son, Mr. T was not too enamoured with this idea and kept demanding to go to the beach, or, as he said it, the beachy /ˈbiːtʃɪ/.

I was distraught.  I corrected him and said it was the beach, not the beachy.  I used exercises that have been useful with my students.  All to no avail.

I had failed.  Both as an English teacher and as a father.  My son is speaking English with a Brazilian accent because he is determined to add a vowel at the end of the word instead of just ending with a consonant.  He even seems to enjoy my displeasure now and shouts out beachy at the top of his voice.

I am glad, though, that at least he has got the long vowel right and isn’t saying /ˈbɪtʃ/

Other Brazilian pronunciations:

bike /bɑɪk/ is pronounced bikey /bɑɪkɪ/

watch /wɒtʃɪ/ is pronounced watchy /ˈwɒtʃɪ/ or washy /ˈwɒʃɪ/

hot /hɒt/ is pronounced otchy /ɒtʃɪ/

The Ramones /rəˈməʊnz/ is pronounced as Hamonees /hæˈməʊniːz/

Further Reading

After a couple of long journeys to Rio and Blumenau I am now in the middle of the third book of the ‘Foundation’ series by Isaac Asimov.  So far, it is almost as good as the first two.

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A Bilingual Child: Aha!

Alan Partridge

AHA!  (Benabomb on Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0)

For a long time Mr. T has been saying ‘dah‘ for ‘yes’ or ‘sim‘, as I might have mentioned before.  And then last week it changed.  I had half expected him to start saying ‘‘ which you hear a lot in Portuguese as a way of agreeing and sort of saying ‘ok’.  Of course, he could have started to say ‘yes’, which he can produce when urged to imitate, or even ‘sim‘, but no, he came up with something else instead.

Instead of ‘dah‘ we have ‘aha’.  It seems that we have the son of Alan Partridge living amongst us.

If you ask him any question now the answer is usually ‘aha’.  So far I have noticed two different types of ‘aha’, one is the bored, uninterested ‘aha’ he uses when he knows he has to give you an answer to make you shut up and go away.  I have no idea where he got that one from as I know I have never been guilty of doing anything like it.  Stupid questions like ‘Did you go swimming today?’ are met with this ‘aha’ that seems to mean, ‘Of course I went swimming daddy, you were with me, so why are you asking such inane questions?  Now leave me alone to bash this giant red truck against this tiny blue car for the 100th time today’.

The other ‘aha’ is much more enthusiastic.  ‘Would you like to go to the park?’ is met with a vigorous ‘aha’ accompanied by his eyes lighting up and then an immediate and enthusiastic babble of other words which I think mean he needs to get his hat, or he wants to go by bus, or he’d like to see a tractor as well.

Dah‘ hasn’t totally disappeared.  He still uses it in question tags and when talking to himself, but its use has decreased drastically in a very short time.

Chicken and the Egg

I know that I use ‘aha’ a lot, but not only because I get asked such boring questions all the time.  It is also  a great communication strategy when I am talking in Portuguese and I don’t know exactly what to say, but I need to say something, so out comes ‘aha’.

Since Mr. T has been using it, though, we have noticed how much everybody in the house says ‘aha’.  Whenever mamãe or vovó says ‘aha’ we all pass knowing looks and between us.  It has got to the point where we are no longer sure if Mr. T picked it up from us saying it all the time, or if we have picked it up from him and incorporated it into our own language.

I think it is also pretty smart on Mr. T’s part to have chosen a word or sound that works in both languages, so he can brush us off equally well in Portuguese or English.  Just so long as he doesn’t pick up the other Alan Partridge behaviour traits I’ll be happy.

Family Guy Meets Aha

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Bad Daddy

Darth Vader is a good dad

If Darth Vader had been a good dad. blurppy.com

I am a bad daddy.

My wife is a bad mamãe.  My dad is a bad do doe (granddad) and my mum is a bad nana.

How do I know this?  Because my son has told us all exactly how bad we are.  And the thing is I am very happy about it.

My parents came to visit for a couple of weeks (hence the lack of posts) and one of the upshots has been the change in Mr. T’s language.  In the week before my folks arrived he seemed to be experimenting a lot more with different sounds and words, but when they were here and giving him their undivided attention he really started to use a lot more words.

One of the interesting things has been his sudden use of adjectives.  He was already using the words ‘big’ and ‘ninho‘ (little) but now he uses them for more abstract ideas, like a big burp or a big fart.   He will also  occasionally call somebody silly.

He has also started to say that things are hot by saying ‘too hot’.  I love this phrase because he is using ‘too’ to mean ‘very’, which is exactly what a lot of my Brazilian students do until I tell them that ‘too’ actually carries connotations of excess and so doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘very’. His pronunciation of ‘too hot’ is also interesting as he says ‘too wot‘, changing the /h/ sound for a /w/.   This is actually a feature of connected speech because if you drop the /h/ sound you are left with two vowels from the end of ‘too’ and the beginning of ‘ot‘.  In order to move between the two sounds without having a pause we make a small linking  /w/ sound.  I was fascinated to hear him saying this as it shows he is picking up on minor sounds that as adult speakers of a language we would probably just miss.

Anyway, to get back to why I am happy to be a bad dad. Mr. T’s new favourite adjective is ‘bad’.  Everything is ‘bad’, even when it’s good.  He knows what it means because he corrects you when you say something is ‘good’, although he hasn’t said ‘good’ yet.

So if you are playing a game with him he will suddenly stop and say, with the biggest and most beautiful grin, ‘Bad daddy!’ and then repeat it over and over again.  If you are tickling him, in the middle of one if his belly laughs he will sneak out a ‘bad mommy’ which will set him off all over again.  If you are being a bit naughty he will tell you so in no uncertain terms.

I am happy with this because he has picked up a new word and is experimenting with it.  He is checking out how it can be used with different nouns and seeing the reaction he gets.  And he is  having great fun in doing so.

So that is why I am a happy bad daddy.

Further Reading   I have now moved on to ‘1974’ by David Peace.  It is the first in a series of detective stories that take place in the north of England.  It is brutal, but eminently readable.  I’ll be reading the rest of the series, but I think I deserve a break first because this first one is all bout extreme violence and pedophilia.

Ups and Downs

ArrowImage: jscreationzs / freedigitalphotos.net


Thomas and I were talking on Skype to my parents back in the UK the other day when they mentioned something that I had noticed in passing before.  Although he doesn’t have many words and he babbles a lot, it sounds as if you know what he is trying to say.

When teaching my English language students, one of the things that often comes up is the importance of intonation.  I give them made up statistic of how most of what we communicate is through our intonation rather than the actual words.  I say made up because I don’t know if there are any actual real statistics around, but it is very important.  I give a few examples of how intonation can change the meaning and most of the time my students are receptive to the importance of intonation when learning English.

This is probably because Portuguese and English intonation patterns are similar.  There are obvious differences; the use of the auxiliary in questions allows English to have both rising and falling intonation patterns; when people want to congratulate you on your birthday they sound bored to me because the intonation pattern they use would be more appropriate for a list in English.  The differences, though, are noticeable simple because they are so rare.

I think this is also the reason why it sounds as if Thomas is speaking, even though he is just babbling.  The intonation and the rhythm of his baby talk are similar to English or Portuguese.  If my made up statistic has any relevance at all, this is also what enables him to communicate despite not having many words.

One thing that he seems to be able to communicate perfectly well in this way is his complete and utter disdain for me when I am messing around with him.  I often do stupid things to get him to laugh and most of the time it works.  If it doesn’t work then I just get a ‘Oh daddy!’ which lets me know how ridiculous I am.

I would love to know if this is just me making things up, or if other people have noticed that their child sounds like he’s talking, even though he isn’t.

Listen and Repeat

In the world of second language learning there is quite a debate at the moment about the use of drills for language learning.  For the uninitiated, a drill is basically an exercise in which the learner repeats the target language a number of times.  There can be a number of objectives for using a drill, but the most common are either associated with a behaviourist approach to language learning (repeat something often enough and it will become internalised behaviour), or just giving the student to get the chance to wrap his or her tongue around a new set of words and sounds.

I must admit to using drills with my students occasionally.  It has therefore been interesting to see how T has used the equivalent of drills in his language development.  He has got to the point where he will sometimes hear a word that I have said and repeat it.  If I say it again, he will repeat it again.  This can go on for up to a dozen times before he gets bored of it.

One such example is the word ‘tractor’.  I think I have mentioned before how T seems to have become obsessed with cars.  Well, ages ago a friend bought a book with lots of little cars that are attached to the pages by velcro.  This lets the child pull the cars out, pay with them and try to put them back in the right place.  For months T was not interested in this book, but it has suddenly become of his favourites.

One of the cars is a tractor, so I asked him what it was and he said ‘abuda‘, as he usually does.  I said ‘tractor’ and, to my astonishment, he repeated it perfectly.  I was surprised because I thought the consonant cluster in the middle might be too difficult.  I thought it might just be a one-ff, so I said it again.  Once more T repeated it perfectly.  He did so another 5 or 6 times before turning his attention to other cars in the book.  Unfortunately, he was no longer interested in the names for the digger, ambulance, fire engine and so on.

Later that day I was on Skype with my brother and decided to see if T would show off what he could learn.  After an initial reluctance he did come up with the word, again with perfect pronunciation.  In the evening I showed my wife, but he was of course having none of it by now.

Since then, I have tried to repeat the exercise on a number of occasions.  Sometimes he isn’t interested and sometimes he repeats it.  There has been, though, a subtle change.  The consonant cluster in the middle has changed so that the /t/ sound is often missing and the word sounds more like ‘tracor’.  I am not quite sure why this has happened but my bet is that he is no longer paying much attention to what I am actually saying and instead is just saying what he thinks is the best word.

This tells me a lot about using drills with my adult students.  One of the main criticisms of drills is that they can get very boring very quickly.  If a drill doesn’t grab the student’s attention then they are likely to not say it properly and this defeats the object of the drill completely.

No, não, know, Noel…

One utterance with so many different meanings.  No, não (no in Portuguese), no (a preposition in Portuguese meaning ‘in’), know, Noel (my brother’s name).  I realise that in the adult world some of these have slightly different pronunciations, but it the baby world of T, they are all the same.

I am never quite sure which one he wants to say, but he says them a lot.  I am fairy comfortable with ‘no’ as he will usually shake his head at the same time just to emphasise the fact.  ‘Noel’ is used for any van or lorry, especially if it is white.  (When we were in the UK last month my brother would often take our son to sit in the driving seat of his white van.  It became something of an obsession and so every time he sees a white van he shouts out ‘Noel’.)

I am fairly sure T doesn’t use the word ‘know’ yet, but when he uses the schwa (as I mentioned in a prevous post) before before the word it can sound like he is saying ‘I know’.  Likewise, I don’t think he is aware of the use of a preposition in Portuguese.

He seems to like the word so much that he will just repeat it to himself over and over again, for minutes on end.  I love it when he does something like this as he seems to get so much enjoyment out of playing with the sounds and just experiencein them on his tongue.

‘A’ – prefix, article, random sound?

We are getting more and more chatter by the day now.  Most of it is random, meaningless (at least to us it is) sounds.  One thing we have noticed, though, is the use of ‘a’ before words.  Instead of just saying ‘mamãe’ for ‘mommy’ he seems to often say ‘a mamãe’.  He will often also say ‘a daddy’ and ‘a ball’.  The same is true for his made up word for car ‘a buda’.

The pronunciation of this sound is rather like the schwa  and so can sometimes seem to disappear if you aren’t listening for it.

There has been a bit of discussion about what this sound represents.  One theory is that it is an article: both English and Portuguese use ‘a’ as an article, in English it is the indefinite article and in Portuguese it is a definite article for feminine words.  Personally I don’t think he would have noticed this usage yet, especially as in both loamguages the ‘a’ is so weak that I don’t think he would have noticed it being used as an article.

Another theory is that he is using it as a prefix.  Quite what the prefix might be for, though, is anybody’s guess.

The finaly theory we have come up with, and my personal favourite, is that he likes to have some sort of vowel sound to start a word or utterance.  It might be that he finds it strange to start with a consonant and so use the ‘a’ or schwa sound before using a consonant.

The thing is, we are never going to know why he is really using this sound, but it makes for a good argument.