Saturday, June 1, 2013

One Hundred Years of Ronjat

Parents and other family with bilingual children must have noticed since time immemorial that their children could translate. However, the first study of the phenomenon by a trained linguist was published just a century ago this year in French. It was Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue (Language Development as Observed in a Bilingual Child) by the Franco-Swiss linguist Jules Ronjat.

Ronjat was French but he taught at the University of Geneva. He was therefore a contemporay there of the great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, but there's no indication that they knew one another.

Ronjat’s speciality wasn't child language but the study of Occitan, a Romance language still spoken in Southern France and in Catalonia. Indeed it doesn't appear that he ever published again on the subject of child language. We owe this pioneer work, therefore, to the chance circumstance of his having a bilingual child himself.

The child was his son Louis. Louis Ronjat was born in 1908 at Vienne, on the River Rhône in France, and observed by his father from birth until fourth year. Louis considered himself trilingual, because besides fluent French and German he also knew a little Franco-Provençal (which is closely related to Occitan).

It was not only the first study but the first longitudinal case study of language development in a bilingual child. Its focus is on phonetics, which was a flourishing area of linguistics at the time. However, it contains many interesting examples of translation and related phenomena (e.g. bilingual lexical pairing) produced by Louis at an early age. Louis acquired French and German simultaneously from his parents, their families and their household. His mother was German speaking. Ronjat and his wife followed the one person one language (OPOL) principle, which Ronjat had learnt from fellow linguist and child language observer Maurice Grammont (see references). The method requires that each parent speak only their own language with the child; the rationale being that infants associate languages with the people who speak them and that OPOL therefore helps them keep their two languages separate. In the same spirit, the Ronjats abstained from making Louis translate for them; therefore his translations were as spontaneous as possible. There was a good deal of personal communication between Ronjat and Grammont, but the latter didn't mention translation.

The translation data begins with Louis' earliest translations, at  1 year 9 months, preceded by even earlier 'pretranslation' phenomena like pairing words with the same meaning in his two languages. It continues until, by four years old, he was performing language brokering within the family circle, and Ronjat says of him at that age,
“Son habileté de traducteur… est… remarquable quand il s’agit de trouver une équivalence d’idiotismes… Ce n’est point de la lexicographie courante, mais de l’excellente stylistique instinctive. (He shows remarkable skill as a translator when it comes to finding equivalents for idioms… it is far more than everyday lexicography, it is excellent intuitive stylistics.” (p. 95)

An appendix links Louis’ language development to his general cognitive development.

I'm trying to see what can be done to make the book available again outside the libraries.

  • Jules [Antoine] Ronjat (University of Geneva), 1864-1925. Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue. Supplementary dissertation for Doctorat ès Lettres, Faculté des Lettres, Université de Paris. Paris: Champion, 1913. 155 p. Édouard Champion was a celebrated publisher and bibliophile. He died in 1938 but his publishing house lives on.
  • Maurice Grammont. Observations sur le langage des enfants (Remarks on Child Language), Paris, Klincksieck, 1902. By coincidence, Klincksieck now owns Champion.
 I first learnt about Ronjat from a reference in a paper by the Canadian educational psychologist Merrill Swain. Then I was extremely lucky: I found a copy of it almost next door to me in the library of the University of Montreal. It hadn't been borrowed for over 20 years. It was probably there because the U of M was already established as a French-speaking university when the book was published and because, being Jesuit, it had a good linguistics department. Later I was able to acquire a copy of my own from a second-hand bookseller. It bears an inscription in Ronjat's own hand, "Bien cordial souvenir (With best wishes) – Jules Ronjat," but I don't know who he sent it to. The image above is from my copy.


  1. As a parent of a child that will grow learning two languages at a time, I find this topic fascinating. Lots of other studies have been published by now, but I'll still see if I can find this book somewhere.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Ronjat hasn't been given enough credit as a pioneer. The lesson of Ronjat is to let bilingual children develop their translating ability naturally, not pushing them to do it but understanding that they are capable of it, and it will progress along with their other language skills. As I'm sure you know, the OPOL way of learning two languages isn’t recommended by everyone, but in the case of Louis Ronjat it seems to have worked well and it was a natural stimulus to translating.

  3. Translation has become a huge industry.The fictional language of the Star Trek franchise, among its more than 40 language pairs.

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