It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

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This summer Nelson and I have been spending a lot of time with Daddy, and it is wonderful.  I love that Alex’s doctoral student schedule allows him a flexible summer where he can really enjoy and bond with our baby.  The New England summer weather is perfection, and we have gotten to tromp around and revel in our role as new parents.  In English.

I had originally set for myself the goal of speaking French to Nelson when him and I were alone together.  That worked great when I was a bewildered new mother wandering aimlessly around town or alone in the apartment chattering away to my baby while he tried to tolerate tummy time.  Now I have lots of parent friends to meet up with (in English), and a rich schedule of sing alongs, story times and play groups that gives Nelson wide and varied socialization (in English). I am feeling happy and fulfilled and Nelson is thriving– but in English.  

So now I am starting to discover one of the real challenges of multilingual parenting.  I have carved out some specific times that are French only.  We always read French books when we nurse at home, though sometimes it has to be the news because children’s books are too distracting for him.  Now that he has started solids I generally give him his breakfast and dinner while explaining things about the food to him in French.  I keep up my own French by listening to podcasts and reading the news in French, giving myself an extra hour or so of exposure.  But at the end of the day we just don’t spend that much time alone, and often those times coincide with his still frequent naps.  The socialization is wonderful for me and for him, but it seriously erodes my simulated immersion project for myself and the project of exposing him to as much French as possible.  

So what to do?  I have started playing with speaking French to Nelson when Alex is around.  At this point, I speak French when Alex is in the room but not actively engaging with us.  One thing I didn’t really count on is how often speech to a child has two levels of communication– one to the child and one to the other adults around you.  When I move in to French that second level gets lost.  Alex is supportive and says he doesn’t mind it at all, but I often feel like we lose some of the mutual connection.

I worry if I start to move towards a more strict OPOL policy that a lot will be lost for both of us socially, and am realizing very quickly that I need to build some of our life in French before it completely gets squeezed out!  Maybe we should shift from having special zones carved out for French to having special zones carved out for English–perhaps English if we sit down to a meal with someone who only speaks English, otherwise Mommy and baby speak French?

I am constantly shocked by where the challenges pop up in this journey.  I thought I would struggle so much more with the language, but it is progressing faster than I expected and has been really fluid and natural feeling.  Given the huge amount of support I have from everyone around me, I never imagined that I would be having these kinds of problems about building French into our social life– though I think if i had really thought about it I would have realized this would be a huge challenge.  I also really want to avoid being in a situation where Nelson is losing out on other things that benefit his development– socialization, exposure to music and varied environments, love of reading and learning– because I pull him into a less rich but French heavy environment.  I know he is already getting lower quality language exposure than I could provide in English, which is a trade off I have deemed to be worthwhile, but I don’t want that to snowball.  

I would love to hear from other parents raising bilingual or multilingual children in families where one parent only speaks the majority language how you have tackled these problems. 

The lonely world of bilingual(ish) parenting

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One thing I struggle with a lot in my mission to improve my French and raise a bilingual child through speaking with my baby is that so much in the world of multilingual parenting– basically everything– is geared towards native speakers of the target language.  So much is the same that I often feel a large sense of community with these parents, but I am often left feeling the sting of comments that don’t take in to account that situations like mine even exist– and why should they?  I know of one other example of non-native speakers using OPOL, and that family has spent years living in the target language countries.

There are many things that native speakers protect against that I don’t remotely have the luxury to worry about.   A relative speaking the majority language and thus giving their child poor language exposure is a common topic for concern.  Native speakers often worry about the spouse who is fluent in the target language but not natively messing up the little one’s accent if they read bedtime stories to the little one.  I am sure the the corrupting speech in question is often much better than my French, and I have dreams about the day when Daddy will be confident enough in French to read a bedtime story (if a grandparent ever did I would do cartwheels for joy).   Language classes are often critiqued by native speakers– the teacher might be a non native speaker who often makes grammatical errors, and–heaven forbid!– doesn’t speak with a perfect accent.  Native speakers worry about forming playgroups that are exclusively in their dialect.  On my end, I could care less if Nelson sounds Senegalese or Quebecois– I’ll be delighted if anyone can understand him!  I sometimes feel like I am listening to someone complain that the price of first class airfare has gone up.

There is a lot of advice that is doled out that also can make me feel a little lost and alone– or in my better moments bemused at the audacity of what I am attempting to do.  Advice like “Each parent should just speak the language you are most comfortable with.”  I hear that a lot, and it is said without any thought to the fact that for that to be at all relevant to raising a bilingual child the couple has to speak not only one, but two or more languages that are not the majority language.  In my mind I imagine a family with a Daddy who was born in France to an Algerian mother and Italian father, but went to live in Austria for most of their schooling before moving to Japan where he met Mommy who studied in Argentina for a year in college to perfect her Spanish but is originally from Brazil, and they of course speak perfect English as well, because who doesn’t speak English?  So they sit down and say well, we speak French, Arabic, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and English between us, how can we possibly choose which languages to speak with our little global citizen?  I am not making fun– I aspire to have grandchildren with these problems.  But it is so, so far from my experience.  People ask me “Why French?” and I think “That is the only language I can speak a full sentence of that isn’t English!” (I usually manage to respond with something about French great grandmother and possibly working in Francophone Africa or possibly Geneva and French International Schools, which makes me sound more thoughtful.)  This kind of advice is rampant– “Here is how we are taking advantage of our visit back home to Sweeden!” or “You can really benefit from engaging with other people who are originally from China.”

The thing that stings most is the occasional look of horror I get.  It happens like this: I meet another parent, they say something in perfect native Korean to their child.  I say “Oh, that is so great that you are raising little Johnny to be bilingual.  I always speak French to Nelson.”  They are at first very supportive “That’s great!  Are you from France?”  “Oh, no, I am learning by speaking and reading with Nelson, and by studying on my own while he naps.”  Then I get the look.  The “what is going to happen to that poor child” look.  It is usually followed by a slightly more politely worded “Where on Earth did you get a crazy idea like that?!”  It is rare, but it definitely happens.  And I take a deep breath, and let it roll off, and remind myself that if Nelson makes it out of this adventure with any French at all I will be overjoyed.  And I remind myself that a native bilingual just can’t understand the frustration that I have felt being trapped in one linguistic world while living abroad, having international friends, and traveling.  They can’t understand the overwhelming sense of relief I felt the first time I successfully made a dinner reservation, read a newspaper article, and had a conversation in French.  Maybe from that perspective it is hard to appreciate why I am willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help little Nelson speak any French, no matter how imperfect, without having to struggle through years of classroom instruction.

I am slowly realizing that my mission is just entirely different from that of a natively multilingual parent.  I share the goal of raising a multilingual child, but when I dream about the future my best case scenario doesn’t involve having a little one who is equally French and American with a perfect Parisian accent.  I dream about a seven year old with an unidentifiable accent pieced together from interactions with friends from all over the Francophone world, with a slightly strange sound to his rolled R’s that never quite makes sense until you meet his maman.  He has one little American passport, but sees the world as a bigger place than that.

I want to make sure to end this post, to preclude any danger of sounding ungrateful, by saying that I am so happy to have my network of multilingual parent friends.  I have found so much invaluable support, advice, inspiration and community among other multilingual parents, and I don’t think I would have lasted this long without that.  So to all of you– thank you!

Histoires et Chansons avec Mme. Coco

Talking 18 weeks

The biggest bit of news in our bilingual journey is that I have decided to start up a sing along and story time in French.  I think I have found a home for us at a local school, and I am really excited for the idea!  It looks like it would start in September, which is a good amount of time to prepare myself.  Sometimes I stop and ask myself why I am taking this on.  What am I thinking?  I am struggling enough to teach my child French, why add another big group of little ones?  But I think, in the end, it will be a big help to me because it will force me to tackle so many of the things that are difficult for me in the process of leading a life with my child in this new language.

The monster problem is speaking French around other adults.  Usually children are accompanied by adults to the story time.  I will really, really have to bite the bullet and accept speaking– public speaking– in French for this to happen.  I think it will be easier for me because I find it so easy to engage with children, so I will just pretend the parents don’t exist for the first couple weeks.  Though I might be shaking with fear during my first story time.

Another issue I keep coming up against is that I don’t have a life history in French.  I don’t have favorite books and I don’t have an arsenal of nursery rhymes.  I don’t know the silly hand movements that go along with songs, and the songs I know come from CDs borrowed from the library rather than years of song with parents, friends, and teachers.  I stumble, trying to memorize lyrics quickly and making shoddy, on the fly translations of songs Nelson likes in English.  It somehow seems to make the little tyke really happy at this age, but I don’t think that will last.  Leading songs for little ones will demand a degree of polish that I haven’t yet achieved.  It will give me the imperative to research the best children’s books, songs, rhymes, dances.  I am really, really excited about it!

And finally, I hope we’ll meet some other francophone families.  I know there is a big Haitian community around here that I would love to tap in to, and being in Cambridge we are surrounded by universities with many international families.  I know that they are out there, but I have been too scared, too busy, too shy, and too overwhelmed to connect.  I feel like I would be a charity case.  Little lady who struggles with her French, and a baby who can’t speak, demanding French interaction from some family I barely know with perfect English, who could communicate with me much more easily in English.  I try to shy away from this mentality, try to tell myself that I can’t force anyone to do anything and there is no harm in asking, but these are my demons.  I am still working on my identity as a bilingual.

I hope I’m not biting off more than I can chew– though sometimes I find it is best to keep yourself busy enough that you don’t have time to complain.  That has been the French strategy so far!

I should go.  My husband is with my slightly grumpy baby on a walk, and I just couldn’t resist taking a few minutes for an update but he really ought to be working on being a doctoral student, and I ought to be marching around town practicing the verses to “Il était un petit navire” with my beautiful baby.