Slow motion

Tummy time

If Nelson can get through tummy time, the bilingual experiment can survive this week.

This week was the first time since I became a new parent that I felt really, truly, tired to my bones.  Alex was in the midst of final exams and papers, so I was on full time baby duty while Daddy pulled all-nighters in the computer lab.  Had it been a normal week it wouldn’t have been so bad, but has been a needy little one this week, in need of constant consoling.  I laugh at myself reading the bright-eyed optimism of my last post.

I don’t know how to feel about this past week.  The first couple days after my last post I was an engine going full steam ahead.  I was writing journal entires to get corrected on, I was listening to an hour of French talk radio a day while he napped, I was pounding away at French flashcards, and at night I would watch an episode of a TV show in French.  I felt like a superhero.  It was great, though probably not sustainable even in the best of conditions.

From that starting point, I felt like the past seven days had been a disastrous backslide, though now taking stock for the blog I feel more like we are just moving in slow motion.  While I have been alone with him he only hears French, except the occasional sentence I let slip out because I am too tired to notice which language I am speaking.  But where before I was constantly chatty, this week I’ve spent a lot of time just staring at him or saying simple and repetitive things:  “Je t’aime toujours mon petit lapin.”  “Ce ne’est pas le fin du monde ma puce.”  “Ciel, quelle moue !”*  Where I once had many topics of conversation, this week I struggled to describe what we would be doing that day or what items of clothing I was putting on his (very unwilling) little body.  I also spent a lot more time out with other mommies, speaking English.  Not for the English, but for my overall sanity– one can only spend so much time cooped up in an apartment with an unhappy baby, and for some reason the little rabbit is a lot happier when we are out and about.  I brought a book with us, and would sometimes read to him in French if I found myself between new parent support groups and coffees with friends, but still some days I would barely manage two hours in slow, repetitive, zombie French.

I don’t know wether I should regard this week as a success or a failure.  I fell short of my most recently stated goal for sure.  I keep trying to remind myself that I far exceeded what I would have thought possible 8 weeks ago while I stared at my very pregnant belly wondering what the future would hold, when I thought I would speak French for maybe an hour a day and build up from there.  But I also feel like those old goals are outdated, based on insufficient knowledge, and established before I experienced the joy and frustration of living life with my baby in a language in which I can’t fully express myself.  I guess in the end this week doesn’t really matter, what matters is the general trend, the slow compounding of hours on hours until him and I either wind up fluent or drown in a sea of linguistic dispair.  I think I am sounding melodramatic– I assure you, it is mostly the lack of sleep.

I am trying to make myself accept that there will be ups and downs.  Really, it won’t just be this past week where the bilingual project is in slow motion.  Tuesday Nelson and I fly to Florida for my best friend and cousin’s graduation, and to get out of Alex’s hair while he prepares for his qualifying exam for his doctorate.  I’ve never heard anyone say that traveling with an infant is easy, and we’re going to be spending another week without Daddy’s help.  The trick will be coming back to full speed after the world settles down.

So for now, I am focusing on the small triumphs.  Even zombie French is French, and I did manage to get through some flashcards!



**”I love you, always, my little rabbit.”  “It isn’t the end of the world sweetheart.”  “My, my, what a pout!”


The language vacuum.

I realized this week that I need, pretty seriously, to get some input and feedback to my French beyond my gurgling baby.  I realized that I have been falling into incorrect use of a few false cognates.  I know better when I stop and think about it, but when I am talking to Nelson while he avidly protests the latest diaper change or 30 second delay before his declaration of intention to nurse and actual nursing, somehow those things fall by the wayside.  I am scared that we will get to a place where I am speaking some pigeon creole approximation of actual French that only Nelson and I speak.  Like those languages twins sometimes develop between each other.   Or how the laws of physics are different in a vacuum.

I realized that sitting around reading children’s books and singing children’s songs really isn’t what will benefit either of us most.  So I’ve switched gears a bit.  I am now reading more grown up books, and where I can get them books designed for language learning (the ones with nifty tricks like bilingual text, or translations of more unusual words).  I am also doing grammar exercises, and lots of them.  It is extremely strange, almost surreal, to do grammar exercises aloud in sing-song French.  But it also accomplishes all the things I want to accomplish– happy baby, more proficient (though maybe more grumpy) mommy.

I also realized that my written French has entirely gone by the wayside.  And as much of a pain as it is to write in French, I really shouldn’t let that happen.  So I’ve set myself a goal of writing at least 5 sentences a day in French.  Modest, but it will get me somewhere.  I’ve been playing with as a way to get corrections on my writing, and really I should start writing my French friends and relatives again.

I figure I probably have five or six months to brush up before he notices that grammar drills are ridiculously boring, even in motherese.  Hopefully that is enough time for me to figure out le conditionnel!

Whispering French in the Cafe


At home, I babble constantly in French to little Nelson.  He hears about every item in the house, everything I am doing, everything I am thinking.  I speak so much that I don’t have time to have an internal monologue in English– which is a strange sensation.  Has anyone else ever experienced searching for the word to complete the thought you are having?  It is really bizarre.  It is like throwing on the breaks to your stream of consciousness, then switching to another track to find the English word if the French one does not exist, then switching back.  Sometimes by the end of it you feel like the thought was too trivial to be worth the process– like when someone asks you to repeat a bad joke and you wish you’d just never said anything.  But despite these hiccups, he hears and I practice non-stop French.

Then we go out in public, and suddenly I am incredibly self conscious.  A few things happen.  First, I speak a lot more slowly.  This is to a large extent because I get nervous about saying everything I am thinking, so I actually have to think of things that are worth saying in front of my imagined audience.  Of course, there are rarely people who could hear a full sentence of my monologue, and if they do they don’t speak French, but this seems somehow beside the point.  I also get very slow because suddenly my grammar must be perfect, just in case one of the people in the cafe is an inappropriately judgmental Parisian linguist.  So I am speaking at a third of my normal pace.  Then, on top of that, my volume descends to just above a whisper.  Because even at my slow pace, checking every sentence twice, I want to be sure the invisible linguist doesn’t hear, just in case I somehow messed up– or perhaps he is trying to scrutinize the simplicity of my sentences, my repeated reliance on the same vocabulary, my accent.

In the end I realize that things would look a whole lot better to passers by if I just spoke like I do at home.  Then I would look like an (inappropriately?) obsessive mother rather than presenting the bizarre image that often results.  S now I am the less than optimally bathed woman (I try, but figuring out when to shower is still a challenge) with knotted, wild hair (Nelson has learned to swipe and grab, but usually can only manage to grab my hair), near delirious (who has enough time to sleep beyond basic functionality?) muttering slowly and adoringly in what sounds like a foreign language and seems to be directed at some mass under her giant coat (he loves being nuzzled up under a coat in the Gemini carrier).  Better for the judgmental linguist to hear me debating which 90’s dance song should come first in our afternoon dance party, broken French and all.

Too much French?


When little Nelson was born I started keeping a little log book of his eating, sleeping, play time and diapers.  I decided this week to start recording how much time he was getting in French and English as well.  What I found was pleasantly surprising, but also got me concerned about something that I entirely did not expect– is Nelson hearing enough English?

I have been speaking to Nelson in French for about four or five of his waking hours.  This is a huge triumph for me, I would not have expected that I could do that!  But it creates the conundrum.

Now, four or five hours may not sound like much and at first I didn’t think much of it, then I started recording his English exposure, which came to two or three hours a day.  The problem is that little Nelson, like all newborns, is very sleepy.  He’s like a sloth.  He sleeps about sixteen hours a day.  That leaves just eight waking hours.  One of those hours I nurse him while reading quietly to myself, because I want to keep his days and nights straight, and I do that by keeping nights dark, quiet, and boring.  So he gets seven total hours of language exposure.  And French is in the lead.

But still, why do I care?  This is a win, right?  Everything I have read indicates that bilingual children show a lot of cognitive gains and no cognitive deficits provided that they have a strong first language to anchor their language skill.  Basically, your language potential is largely a function of your strongest childhood language.  In these early years the mind and the physical brain are structuring themselves around language.  From what I can tell, it isn’t entirely well understood, but it is imperative that children develop a good sense of the different parts of speech, the way language is used, how grammar works, and all of those things about language that all proficient language speakers innately understand.  A big key to this is exposure to diverse speech with consistent adherence to rules.  So when Mommy struggles with matching adjectives and nouns in gender, and can’t manage to remember the gender of nouns anyway, that means he may well be missing an important piece of the puzzle that is language.  And when Mommy incorrectly favors more basic tenses that I am more comfortable with, Nelson may again be missing those pieces.  Now, he can find these pieces later, but his brain has to have the skill to understand the use of those pieces when he gets them.

In the end I don’t really care if his French is perfect.  I know whatever I give him will be so much more than what I started with.  But my baby should be capable of brilliant rhetoric in at least one language, right?

The ending to this whole conundrum is somewhat anti-climatic.  I reflected on the fact that our schedule now revolves around nursing and cuddling in the apartment, with a short trip out at some point in the day which he usually sleeps through.  Daddy comes home at night and he gets a little English, and on the weekends he gets more.  But this schedule won’t last, and soon I am going to have to get very creative and fight to keep his French exposure high.  And it is very early in the life of his language development.  He is learning about things like cadence, and where words start and end, and that I think he can get just fine with my French and my English.  And the final deciding vote not to dial back the French?  I think my French can use the practice right now!

Getting emotional

As a new Bostonian, I am grieving this week with the city.  This is a bit trivial in light of the bombing, but I learned something about our little experiment while I was watching the news and seeing the terrible reality unfold.

One thing I have wondered going in to this is wether I can laugh, cry, love, connect, mourn, fight, grumble and cheer in French.  It is one thing to speak, it is an entirely different thing to emote in a langage.  I have found it surprisingly easy to connect with Nelson in French.  I can love and adore him, comfort him– even when he sounds like his little world is shattering, laugh with and at him, and be frustrated that we have to change a third time before heading out the door.  But I learned Monday that I can’t handle strong emotions of my own in French.  As soon as I heard about the bombings, I could not speak French.  It just wouldn’t happen.  It startled me a little.  I have become adept in these past three weeks at expressing myself even when I don’t have the full array of words I would use in English, and in doing so with great fluency.  But this wasn’t about my abilities.  It just felt wrong.  I couldn’t be that upset, confused, afraid for my city, and worried about the location of all my loved ones in a foreign language.  I needed the comfort of English, and reverting to it felt like wrapping myself in a warm blanket.

I don’t know if that will change with time, of one day the association of French with my little boy might make it an even more powerful comfort.  I wonder if Nelson will one day find comfort in French like I did in English.


At times like this, there is always an inclination to help.  But a situation like this one is actually quite small in terms of the necessary response, despite the tragedy that worlds have been shattered and infinitely valuable human lives lost.  Please consider taking your positive energy and giving to a cause that may be neglected while the focus shifts to Monday’s bombing.  Volunteering your time, donating those things that you no longer need, or making a monetary donation to an organization you trust to use to fight suffering elsewhere in our world are all great ways to prove that while some lost individuals may be terribly misguided, humanity is beautiful.