Wednesday, 12 April 2017

What's in a Word or Four!

Our 26-month-old fourth daughter is in a unique linguistic and cultural set-up.

She was born in German-speaking Switzerland, lives in a mostly English-speaking neighbourhood and is spoken to in Arabic and French by her mother, German by her father, English by her three sisters, and Swiss/German/English by the environment.

Despite (or thanks to!) all these linguistic inputs, it is fair to say that her speech has recently exploded!

Just for fun, we started listing all the words and sentences she can say.
She can name 27 people, three dogs and one cat.
She can request songs by saying: "Timber", "Aicha", "Chebba", "Let it go".
She can say simple words such as pipi, caca, dodo, oui, bébé, no, yes, quoi, oui etc.
And she can say the following non-exhaustive list of common words and phrases.

Arabic French German English
باب (door) Nutella heiss thank you
خبز (bread) fromage Brot what the heck
تشينة (orange) banane ab go away
كلب (dog) stylo guck again
قط (cat) pardon Auto cat
برا (outside) balançoire Mund come on
ضوء (light) encore Auge sleep
صباط (shoe) bus Kopf tractor
قعدي (sit) camion Kinn mango
وعلاه (why) manteau Backe seesaw

bêtise Hals iPad

gaufre Nase ball

crème Hand thank you

glace Finger please

compote Jacke gone

debout Lampe move

poubelle Boden TV

poupée Hund hug

Schuh what did you do








The influence of the environment via German and English is staggering already. I think I am doing well though, given I am the only source of Arabic and French.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Language and Cultural Identity

In the train from Switzerland to France, I overheard a woman and a man speaking English. Then I saw them: they were Asians. This made me wonder about their history. It also reminded me of this funny video and how Physical appearance is not necessarily a reflection of one's cultural identity.

My daughters, aged 11, 8 and 6 have fair skin and light hair. They speak British English between them with a Northern England accent. Anyone overhearing them would have no idea that their father is German and their mother is African

When people in Algeria first hear them speak Arabic, they usually react in three steps:
  • First, marvel at their ability to speak the local lingo, 
  • Then, make fun of their accent and how hard it is to understand them
  • Finally, denigrate Arabic as a useless language anyway.
This results in puzzled looks from my girls: "What? all those times you tell us to 'please speak Arabic', now it turns out this language is useless?" followed by utter silence.

This makes me angry. These are the very people who should praise our efforts and celebrate our achievements. It is hard to keep a minority language going, especially when only one parent speaks it, let alone with three more languages and two dialects in the mix!

So, how should you react when someone speaks your language whose physical appearance does not match the language in your mind?


  • Acknowledge one's genuine surprise - a dose of curiosity is healthy
  • Express whatever positive feelings you feel about this
  • Continue conversing in that language if both are happy to.

Do not

  • Ask where they are really from!
  • Make fun of the accent nor the language
  • Correct mistakes if you were not asked to do so explicitly

Cultural identity should never be bestowed from the outside. It is up to each person to decide what their identity is, that is if they wish to label it at all.

Take a look at the rest of the series:  A-Z of Raising Multilingual Children hosted on The Piri Piri Lexicon.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Of Multiculturalism and Colonialism

BK2, who will be nine in a couple of weeks, was asked to pick a country to research and present to her class. She chose Algeria.

She told her classmates how you could fit Switzerland 50 times in Algeria! (yes Switzerland is this small and Algeria is this big!)
She took with her Tamtunt, Baqlawa and olive oil from Kabylie to share with her classmates.
She wrote the names of a couple of her friends in Arabic.
She told her class how her great-greandmother was imprisoned and tortured during the Algerian War.
Her class re-enacted a battle during the War, where half her class was the Algerian Army and the second half was the French Army.

Her teacher gave her excellent feedback. She got top marks for her efforts.

At that moment, I felt we made the right decision to live 2 kms this side of the French-Swiss border.

Olive oil, Tamtunt and Baqlwa

I lived five years in France. I have close family and friends there. The south of France, where we started our multicultural and multilingual family, holds a special place in my heart.
But I doubt that BK2 would have felt so at ease to share this bit about her family history. I am not sure how well her choice of topic would have been received in a French school.

Her choice of topic and its reception show how she feels totally accepted for who she is. I think living in a country with four official languages, and where over a third of the population comes from an immigrant background, definitely help.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A car to sleep?

BK4 will be two on Sunday.

She and I usually snuggle on the sofa in the evening for her to go to sleep. So, when it's bedtime, she calls to me: "come, come" pointing to the sofa, then "auto" and gets the blanket.

Hang on. A car?

Well, a blanket is couverture in French, which rhymes with voiture, Auto in German.

The workings of a multilingual mind, go figure!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Trilingual Toddler

Here are two conversations my 22-month old toddler and I had recently.
Me: "Nrouhou letounoubil?" (shall we go to the car?)
Baby: "Oui! Auto!" (Yes! Car!)
Tot: "Berra!" (outside!)
Me: "Nrouhou berra?" (shall we go outside?)
Tot: "Oui, berra. Come. Sebbati" (Yes, outside. Come. My shoes)
There's so much going on in these few sentences.

First, my Algerian dialect clearly shows French and Spanish influences: the word for car stems from automobile;  the word for shoes comes from zapato.

Then my daughter says the Arabic berra, the german Auto, the English come and the French oui. Mind you, not really sure whether she's saying come or komm in German.

In any case, BK4 is officially at least trilingual!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Bilingualism has no Advantages!

It is estimated that over half of the world's population is (at least) bilingual. The majority of these people are not exceptionally intelligent, affluent or highly educated.

In many developing countries, speaking more than one language is the norm: the local dialect/language, the lingua Franca for reading and writing, and possibly a third language inherited from colonialism.

It is not unusual for a North African to speak three languages nor for an Armenian to know four idioms.

Another example is an Indian family we knew back in England. The father, from Northern India, speaks Punjabi. The mother, from the South, speaks Malayalam. They speak Hindi with each other and English to their son.

Monolingualism is fairly recent in human history. Its spread coincided with the birth of nations, to aid political, social and economic unity. Germany and France, two rather linguistically-uniform countries, used to have a large dialectal variety before the end of the 19th century.

Studies are rife extolling the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism: better health, better jobs, better prospects overall.

But, what if the human brain evolved to be multilingual?
What if it is biologically normal for humans to speak more than one language?
Is it appropriate to talk about the advantages of bilingualism?
Instead, should we address the shortcomings of monolingualism?

Friday, 2 September 2016

Six False Friends

Of course, languages borrow and steal from each other. That's normal. I've come to realise, though, that a language often adopts a word from another language only for it to mean something slightly or completely different.

Here are a few false friends in French, English and German.


An English word meaning something useful. German speakers, however, use the word to mean mobile phone. Go figure.


Another English word, used in French to mean a kind of a pocket knife used to cut cardboard and other thick materials. Otherwise known in England as a carpet knife.


In French, a costume usually designates a two- or a three-piece suit. In English though, a costume is what people wear to dress up, such as a clown, a witch, Superman etc.


This French word is used occasionally to mean a sheath or a slim-fitting case. In German, it is often used to designate any kind of small case: a pencil case, a wallet, a credit card holder. You name it, if its purpose is to carry any kind of small stuff then it's an Etui.


A French word meaning carrousel, German speakers use it to designate an arena, in particular, a circus arena.


When I hear that someone is being mobbed in English, I imagine somebody running away from a group of people who are ganging up on him. In German, though, mobbing is bullying.

And you, what are your most memorable linguistic false friends?