From the Mouths of Bilingual Babes #11

Just this year, my six year-old daughter cracked her first bilingual joke. By which I mean, she had to draw upon her knowledge of both her languages (English and French) and find a mismatch between them which was humorous, yet comprehensible. And she nailed it. You need to be bilingual in both these languages yourself in order to understand this joke, but allow me to explain it for the benefit of those who are not.

The joke: “What do you call a car stuck in a jam jar?

– a jam of bottles!!!”

She was so proud of herself. She knew she’d said something really clever. And she certainly had.

She has taken her knowledge of English that calls a line of cars all stuck in a row a “traffic jam” and her knowledge of French that calls the same thing an “embouteillage” (or ‘bottling’), seen the fact that they overlap enough to create a play on words but also mismatch enough to make their association funny. She has also inadvertently added to the humour by using the word jam in its literal sense, meaning a sticky substance you can spread on toast.

Her brain accomplished an exceptionally complicated series of operations to concoct this completely unique moment in language. In order to devise her joke, she needed to know what each language called this common concept, but she simultaneously needed to understand what a speaker of each language does NOT know about the other language’s understanding of the world. This is very sophisticated.

This demonstrates some of the playfulness and creativity bilinguals can bring to the mixing of their languages, which is one reason why code-switching (i.e. mixing your languages) is not always a bad thing and can in fact be an expression of a much higher level of language sophistication.

I was very proud of my little bilingual that day, she is a skilful wielder of her two languages and she is only 6!

I’ll post more another time about mixing languages, but in the meantime if this is an issue in your family, get in touch or book a consultation. Every family is different!

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