Learning Mandarin at 0, English at 10, French at 22

By: Jingshu Helen Yao, Master of Museum Studies student / Summer Intern at the CLM

Language acquisition is my area of interest and I am fascinated by the theories about the connections between language learning and age, language distance, and level of exposure.

Sometimes I observe people and ask questions to draw connections between what I learned and real-life scenarios, but the best subject to study is always myself. Since I decided to challenge myself and pick up French, I started to reflect on my experience learning other languages.

Linguists believe that everyone with regular cognitive ability is able to acquire their first language effortlessly under normal development. The abilities to comprehend and to speak are considered innate, similar to the ability to walk or run. Like many, I have no memory of the acquisition process of my own first language. I am a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese and the knowledge I have regarding Mandarin is mainly unconscious knowledge, or competence. I could easily distinguish grammatical sentences but would have difficulty explaining the exact grammatical rules. On the contrary, when I learned English in school, I learned systematic information about English clause types and conjugation rules, or what is commonly referred to as grammar by non-linguists. Even after more than a decade of study, I still make mistakes speaking or writing English, but if I need to lay out the rules of the English language one by one, I might do better than many native speakers who didn’t study linguistics or English grammar. This type of knowledge is conscious, like solving a math problem or citing a verse. I need to actively think about what I need to say and whether sentences are grammatical before producing them, whereas the same process is more intuitive for a native speaker. Even though the task became less demanding as I became more fluent, it was almost impossible to ever process English as a native speaker does.

“Le nouveau taxi!”, beginner’s textbook for learning French as a second language, Chinese edition. (Photo: Jingshu Helen Yao)

Learning French this summer reminded me of the initial stage of learning English. I struggle to produce every sound, pause for long times to think about what I need to say and how to say it. However, learning a foreign language as a child and an adult is rather different. On one hand, I have a big advantage of having studied linguistics and understanding terms such as “tense”, “aspect”, and “grammatical gender”. If I had been exposed to French at a much younger age, the complex verb conjugation rules and the masculine and feminine genders of nouns would have completely throw me off, since none of them were in my first language Mandarin. I would have asked questions such as “Why are the chairs feminine and why are the walls masculine?”, to which the answer could only be “That’s how the language works.” That definitely wouldn’t have satisfied the mind of a child. As an adult learner, I am more comfortable with just remembering the genders rather than trying to figure out why. On the other hand, I didn’t feel as much pressure when I tried to pronounce English words as a child. I wasn’t aware of “having an accent” and wasn’t as embarrassed about making mistakes as I am now. Even though I understand that making mistakes is a natural process during learning, I find myself less expressive and less willing to speak out loud, which is a barrier in language learning.

Aside from age difference, language distance is another factor that I think about. Mandarin is very distant from English geographically, historically, and structurally. Learning English meant learning completely different phonological rules and morphological structures. For example, a syllable in Mandarin usually contains only a consonant and a vowel, whereas an English syllable can have several consonants together in a cluster, and a syllable can end with consonants. English also has a larger vocabulary than Mandarin. On the other hand,  French and English are much closer, since they are both Indo-European languages and French heavily influenced English in its development. The two languages share many words that were either of the same origin or borrowed from one another. Even before I started learning French, I could figure out part of the French information on a snack package using the knowledge I already had in English.

Closeness of French and English shown in the Indo-European family tree.
Source, emphasis by CLM.

I was often asked how many languages I speak when people learned that I study linguistics. The question frustrates me from time to time since linguists are not human-shaped Google Translate. Rather than learning languages themselves, they study everything about languages. However, learning a new language as a linguistics student is a fun experience and my journey learning French has just begun.

French and English Collide

This week’s post concerns a variety of French (actually a variety inside a variety of French) that represents our two national languages very well. Chiac is a fascinating meld of French and English, and although it was not studied for many years, it has recently become the subject of linguistic research.

One of the people stepping up to study Chiac is Emilie LeBlanc, who is herself a native speaker. She was kind enough to explain to me what Chiac is, and why studying it is more than just about research: it is about changing public perceptions.

Emilie LeBlanc of York University

Emilie LeBlanc of York University

Michael Iannozzi : So I suppose, to start, what is Chiac?

Emilie LeBlanc : Chiac is a variety of Acadian French. For those who don’t know, Acadian French is a dialect of French that is spoken in Atlantic Canada, which is distinct from Quebec French and its offshoots, such as Ontario French. The difference is mainly due to the isolation of Acadians from other speakers over the course of several centuries: Acadian has retained a lot of the older features which have been lost in other French dialects. Chiac is a variety of Acadian which has been spoken in the Moncton, New Brunswick area for several decades. It is characterized by use of traditional Acadian dialectal forms in combination with code-switching (switching between French and English) and borrowings from English.

MI : Where is Chiac spoken?

EL : It is spoken in the Moncton area. However, it is important to note that not all Francophones in Moncton speak Chiac. Moncton has a diverse francophone population including people originally from the northeast and from all over la Francophonie, in part because the Université de Moncton is located there. It is also important to note that Chiac is not that different from varieties of Acadian French spoken in other parts of Atlantic Canada where there has been long-term contact with English.

MI : What caused it to develop separately from French and English?

EL : The Moncton area has been about 40% francophone and 60% Anglophone for several decades so almost all speakers are bilingual. Code-switching and borrowing are common in situations of intense language contact worldwide so the development of Chiac is not that surprising. By the way, many linguists today regard Chiac as a variety of French which has been influence by English, not as a separate language.

MI : How many speakers are there?

EL : This is a very difficult question to answer because census data asks for whether you speak English and/or French, not what dialect you speak. We know that there are approximately 54,000 French speakers in Moncton; however, not all of these speakers are Acadians, and not all of them speak Chiac.

MI : What makes it unique?

EL : Acadian French in itself is very interesting as it preserves older forms not found in many other varieties. For instance, in Nova Scotia you can hear young people using the older forms of the past tense, which many scholars have claimed hasn’t been part of spoken French for centuries. In all of the Acadian areas you can hear present tense verbal morphology, such as third person plural –ont (e.g. ils dansont “they are dancing”) which likewise disappeared from most spoken varieties centuries ago. The most striking aspect of Chiac for outsiders is the code-switching between French and English. You have to be a really good bilingual to shift effortlessly from one language to another within utterances.

MI : What does it looks like, and what does it sound like?

EL : To the untrained ear, Chiac sounds like a French person using a huge amount of English. This is because English is unexpected and stands out. Lexically, certain borrowings from English have replaced the French forms: for example, the discourse markers ‘but’ and ‘so’ have almost completely replaced their French counterparts mais and alors.

Chiac has also borrowed many English verbs but conjugates them in French. For example, ‘to walk’ becomes walk-er, ‘walked’ becomes walk-ait, and so on.

To more clearly show this distinction, here is an utterance by a Chiac speaker who I recorded as part of my MA research.

Apparently y’a un guy dans la band qui garde exactly comme lui. Yeah comme mes friends watchait les Brit Awards pis i étiont juste comme ‘what the wow quoi?’ Comme I’étions super confused. Cause i pensaient actually que c’était lui yeah

As you see in this utterance, the discourse marker ‘yeah’ appears frequently [A discourse marker is just a word that is used during a pause, or to connect phrases, but doesn’t have much meaning on its own. A common English one is, “you know”]. Chiac speakers also use ‘well’ as a discourse marker. Chiac speakers also employ calques (translated expressions borrowed from English): for example garde in the example above is a shortened version of regarde which means “to look at” in Standard French. A Chiac speaker will use regarder in a general way [meaning “to look like” in this case] instead of using the Standard French verb ressembler.

However, Chiac has a much subtle variation which makes it quite interesting to linguists. I could do research on Chiac for my entire life and still not have uncovered everything.

MI : If someone speaks English or French, can they understand Chiac?

EL : Partly. English speakers can get the gist of simple utterances as the main borrowings are verbs and nouns. If a Chiac speaker says “J’vas aller parker mon car dans la driveway”, the English listener will hear ‘park’, ‘car’ and ‘driveway’, which can give him or her the sense of the utterance. French speakers who don’t know any English might have a harder time. French speakers who know English will understand most of the utterance but will probably miss some parts as Chiac is spoken quite fast. However, if a Chiac speaker says something like “Il avont back conté des menteries” an Anglophone is not going to understand but another Acadian will [“They used to tell lies”]. And Francophones from other areas will get the gist.

MI : Now turning to you, what first got you interested in the study of Chiac?

EL : I am a native speaker of Chiac and grew up thinking that the way I spoke was ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’. After studying linguistics, I realised that Chiac was actually incredibly interesting. To be a Chiac speaker you need to be fluent in both English and French, which actually tells us something about the linguistic competence of these speakers. Studying Chiac is very important to me, as speakers still believe that their speech is ‘bad French’. It is important that they realise how special it actually is.

MI : And your research on Chiac, how has it been conducted?

EL : I have interviewed students from the two French high schools in the area. As a native speaker myself, it is easy enough to do this. I am also planning on doing more interviews in 2015. In the future, I would also like to interview university students and adults since Chiac is clearly spoken by post-adolescents.

MI : What is the main goal of your research?

EL : I want Chiac to get more exposure. I also want to be able to understand the way it functions and its grammar. As it hasn’t been studied for very long by professional linguists, there is still a lot to learn about it.

MI : Do you find gender, age, or other factors that contribute to how much English or French a speaker uses?

EL : Since I have only looked at adolescent speech so far I haven’t found age or education differences. I also haven’t found gender differences. What I am really interested in is age-related differences: most of the work on Chiac has been with adolescents. We need to look across a wider age range.

MI : What is the public perception of Chiac?

EL : Chiac is a stigmatised variety in the community. The speakers are very aware of this, and they discuss it freely. In my interviews, the students often mention how they speak “bad French” and how they just aren’t good at French. They often compare their speech to other varieties that are “better”. Especially in the schools, these ideas are reinforced and students are chastised for ‘using English’ in their speech. Only recently has there been a surge of media that is created with Chiac, for example the tv show Acadieman, about Acadie’s first superhero, and with new bands like Les Jeunes d’Asteure.

MI : What do you think is the most important thing for the survival of Chiac in the future?

EL : If the stigmatization of Chiac ends, it would be great for the dialect. It would allow speakers to freely use the speech in any media and allow others to learn it.

MI : What has been your favourite part of your research? What do you love most about Chiac?

EL : My favorite part is discovering something new about Chiac that I didn’t know previously. Because I am a native speaker, a lot of aspects of Chiac come naturally to me, so when I begin thinking about the language linguistically, I find out really interesting things. Chiac is a part of who I am, and sadly I don’t get to speak it as much as I used to. I love listening to my participants, it brings me back to being a kid.

The very popular Acadieman, a comicbook character who speaks Chiac (Source: YouTube)

The very popular Acadieman, a comic book character who speaks Chiac (Source: YouTube)

A sincere thank you to Emilie LeBlanc for shedding some light on a variety of French/Acadian that I don’t think most people are aware of.

As she mentioned, it is important that, in every community nationwide, people feel validated for their dialect, accent, or speech variety. To feel that you speak “improperly”, or “the wrong way”, will affect everything you do. It is important that we emphasize that people speak in many different ways, but this should be celebrated rather than stigmatized.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi


Reading for a Mauzy Day

Professor Gerard Van Herk researches Newfoundland English at Memorial University, where he holds a Canada Research Chair in Regional Language and Oral Text. I had the opportunity to ask him all about this iconic part of the English of Canada.

Newfoundland had a much less diverse settlement history than other areas of Canada, which allowed for the dialect to become more distinct. There were large groups of immigrants from the more working-class areas of the British Isles, and they brought their vocabulary, and accents along too.

Newfoundland’s long history of isolation and stability rapidly changed in the last couple decades, and this has led to dramatic economic and social shifts in a very short period of time. This allows for linguists to research changes as they occur, rather than trying to work backward to piece together what likely happened.

Flag of Newfoundland-and-Labrador

Flag of Newfoundland and Labrador

MI: I think people in Ontario, and certainly in the southern part of it, think of Canadian English as having two varieties: Newfoundland and everywhere else. How do you see English in Canada? Why is Newfoundland so iconic in Canadian English?

GVH: I think linguists see it that way, too. I think researchers are finding more and more diversity within Canadian English, but it’s still a pretty coherent single dialect. Newfoundland, on the other hand, had a very different settlement history, and a long period of isolation, so it’s different. I guess it’s iconic because Newfoundland joined Canada recently enough that the dialect is still different and the place is still seen as being different. I remember coming here with my band, years back, and my drummer Tony almost instantly describing it as “Canada’s other distinct society.”

MI: Why is it important to study the English of Newfoundland, and how does it differ from that of the major cities that are often studied?

GVH: Newfoundland lets us find out stuff that’s hard to find out elsewhere. It was settled from a very small input area (southwestern England, southeastern Ireland), very early, then was isolated for a long time, then changed quickly. So you can easily study all kinds of things here – historical retentions, internal diversity, post-insularity – that would be much more difficult elsewhere.

MI: What are some defining features of Newfoundland English? And what are some features of being a Newfoundlander in both linguistic and social terms?

GVH: As with most varieties dealing with the competing pulls of globalization and localization, Newfoundland English (or its speakers) seem to be picking up on a couple of features and making them into the ones that matter, the ones that mark you as from here. Putting an –s onto the end of some verbs (I likes it!) is one example; saying dese tings instead of these things is another. Our student Rachel Deal came up with the concept of the Idealized Authentic Newfoundlander, “Ian”, to summarize the image people have of the best way to be a Newfoundlander. Somebody unpretentious, friendly, welcoming, honest… and local-sounding.

MI: Identity is an interesting topic in linguistics. How would you describe identity as it relates to a language or variety?

GVH: I think identity is something we’re going to need to account for more and more, because speakers of distinct varieties have much more access to knowledge about other varieties, and about how their own variety is seen. The old model of “people talk like that because they don’t know any better” doesn’t really make sense any more. I think if we can be aware of the archetypes and stereotypes and discourses of identity that people have available to them in a particular community, we can understand how speakers are using that material to create their sense of self. But I don’t want to turn into one of those researchers who say things like “in line 43, we can see by Melanie’s use of a stop variant that she remains ambivalent about the resettlement plan of the 1960s.”

Note: In the age of social media, and with almost everyone having access in Canada to an enormous amount of input, Newfoundlanders (and indeed almost all Canadians) can easily find out what others think of their dialect. This can have an impact on how they see themselves, and how they choose to react to their knowledge of the perception of others is important. However, Gerard Van Herk is also careful to point out that one can’t read too much into people’s identities based on their dialect. Often, many parts of the way a person speaks are not decisions nor reflections, and are completely unrelated to their conscious identity.

MI: Has the English of Newfoundland changed over the decades, and if so in what way? Has it moved closer to or further from what we would consider “Standard Canadian English”.

GVH: We don’t entirely know what changes might have happened when, especially in the early days, when vernacular speakers weren’t doing much writing or recording. We can more or less assume from the data available to us that the isolation of the place between about 1830 and 1930 helped old forms to stick around. That’s why you still hear Newfoundlanders say “ye” for “you”, or use features that are elsewhere found only in marked dialects (for example, “He’s steady singing” to mean “He’s always/regularly singing,” which American sociolinguists will tell you is “an African-American thing”). Research since then (all Sandra Clarke’s work, our survey data) suggests that the strong increase in contact with other dialects between the 40s and the 60s seems to have led Newfoundlanders to move a bit toward the standard, at least in the cities. That’s been followed by a cultural renaissance and an uptick in the use of the features associated with local-ness. One cool thing is that some features originally associated almost entirely with Irish Catholic speakers are now used by almost everyone, especially the after perfect (“I’m after doing that” to mean “I’ve just done that”).

MI: What is your favourite word(s) that is uniquely Newfoundland that you’d like to share?

GVH: One word I like is mauzy, which means something like ‘damp, warm, misty, soft, gentle’, and is used to describe weather.

MI: Finally, is there any perception Newfoundland English speakers that you’d like to clarify or change?

GVH: I think the perception of Newfoundland English speakers among outsiders has changed so much, for the better, over the past generation or two that there’s very little left for me to clarify. There is still a perception among some within the community that heavy dialect speakers are somehow rough or sketchy, and that perception works in fairly unpleasant ways to maintain inequalities based on class or region. But it’s been my experience that when you point out people’s prejudices to them, they rarely respond, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I’ll change right now.”


Thank you very much to Professor Van Herk for his very interesting answers, and for helping to illuminate the part of Canada’s English that most of us are aware is different, but aren’t sure exactly why.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi