It is often said that the best way of acquiring a language is to be immersed in it. This is what happened to two boys, Cyril (10) and Pierre (5) when their parents moved from Cambridge, MA, to a small Swiss village in the French speaking part of Switzerland for a year.
Although the parents had originally come from France, their boys only spoke English and they did not understand the simplest of French utterances. In addition, they were culturally American; for example, Cyril had just finished his second year in Little League and was getting ready for another hockey season.
A month after their arrival in Switzerland, both boys were enrolled in the village schools - Cyril in the primary school and Pierre in kindergarten. Their teachers spoke very little English but were welcoming. Cyril's teacher even told him, "You'll learn French and I'll learn English"!
What was striking from the start was the approach adopted by each child to acquire French. Cyril threw himself into the language and communicated as best as he could, using set expressions, body language, a bit of English here and there - and a big smile! His new friends, in turn, did all they could to help him out. One of the ways was by simplifying their French considerably. Thus, concerning an animal toy Cyril wanted, one of his Swiss friends was overheard telling him in broken French, "Moi avoir alligator, te donner" (literally, "Me get alligator, I give you") when he would have used a much more complicated utterance normally.
Cyril was a perfect fit to the natural second-language learning model proposed by Berkeley Education Professor Lily Wong Fillmore. She stresses the importance of social processes whereby, among other things, language learners have to make the speakers of the language aware of their needs, and get them to make accommodations and adjustments so that they can acquire the language. Cyril was a master at this. For example, his teacher would regularly give him, in advance, the text of the weekly dictation (the infamous French "dictée") which Cyril simply learned by heart the evening before. He would then come home the next day proudly stating that he had got full marks once again!
Pierre's approach to French was quite different. He was much more reserved than his older brother and, at first, he did not talk to his schoolmates or his teacher. Instead, he used a lot of body language. He was busy acquiring the language, however, and he would show his parents what he knew (songs, rhymes, set expressions, etc.) when he came back home from school.
When Pierre did start speaking French spontaneously, the language he produced was much more grammatical than Cyril's. He even had the nerve to correct his older brother at times. For example, the latter said "formage" one day instead of "fromage" (cheese). Pierre corrected him, "C'est fromage, Cyril", much to the latter's annoyance.
Both children would reflect, from time to time, on their languages, a well-known effect of childhood bilingualism. Pierre one day told his parents, "I can't speak Chinese yet, because I've never been to China, but I could speak all the languages in the world ....(pause) .... but it would take a long time to travel around the world"!
Of course, both Cyril and Pierre intermingled their two languages a lot, both with their parents and among themselves (see here). This said, they remained as happy and as mischievous as before; the only difference was that they talked and teased one another in "Franglais" and no longer only in English.
At the end of their year in Switzerland, Cyril spoke very fluent French but still controlled English quite well, although hesitantly. (The family language had switched over to French some eight months after their arrival). Pierre, on the other hand, was on the verge of becoming a French monolingual; he never spoke English and had a hard time repeating simple English sentences.
The family returned to Cambridge, MA, at the end of the school year and very quickly English took over again as the dominant language although the family remained bilingual in English and French. (The strategies adopted by the parents to keep French alive the following years are discussed here).
As the years went by, both Cyril and Pierre were to acquire other languages. As adults now, Cyril is trilingual and Pierre regularly uses five different languages, but not Chinese.....yet!
Wong Fillmore, L. (1991). Second-language learning in children: A model of language learning in context. In Ellen Bialystok (ed.), Language Processing in Bilingual Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.49-69.
Grosjean, F. Acquiring two languages. Chapter 2 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/blog_en.html
François Grosjean's website: www.francoisgrosjean.ch