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 lang-8.com 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!

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The Master Plan, Draft 1

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The basic gist of the plan is this: Speak French for 30% of his waking hours.  Why 30%?  Research has shown that to reliably become bilingual children need to be exposed for at least 30% of the time to the language.  An hour of lessons once a week may have some benefits (an hour seems to be adequate exposure to keep babies able to make and hear the sounds in a language, for example), but it doesn’t predictably produce a confident bilingual.  30%, if I can hit that target, will give Nelson the benefit of confident bilingualism as well as the neurological and psychological benefits of bilingualism (I’ll talk about these in a later post, I am sure).

So how to speak to my child for 30% of the time?  First, I will note that this has been a lot easier for me in these first two weeks than I ever imagined.  Speaking to a baby you can slow down if you need to, and you naturally speak slower anyway.  I also am very happy to say to him (in French) “Oh, I don’t know that word!  Let’s go look it up.”  I am finding that my vocabulary and fluency already expanding pretty quickly as well.  But I also have some tricks that I have been using already.

A central part of my plan is to read, read, read.  I read children’s books, I read grown up books, I use first words books to give me a topic to talk about and say everything I can possibly think of to say about it in French.  I have raided the library, and will continue to make very good use of their stock of French language materials.  We read particularly while he is nursing and drifting in and out of consciousness.

Another source of language input is music.  He loves being sung to already, and I am planning to teach myself at least one new song in French a week to sing to him.  I was able to get some discs from the library and also to download a lot from Spotify.

The most difficult piece is that I hope to expose him to French in other contexts, so that he realizes that French is an important and useful language outside of the Mommy/baby relationship.  In the near future, once life has settled down again, I hope to enroll in a conversation class and to start attending a French language conversation group with him once a week.  I am also hoping to sign up at the French Cultural Center to make use of their library and to try to get involved with the francophone community in the area.  And at some point soon, everyone I know who speaks French is going to be harassed to speak to the baby in French.  I also hope to visit some francophone country as often as possible.  This might mean driving up to Quebec (not too far from Boston!) once in a while.  

I am trying not to obsess about the too distant future– preschools, babysitters, summer camp, pen pals, introducing him to alluring young women who only speak French.

I also am working to keep my own French improving.  Reading to him so much has really helped expand my vocabulary and my fluency with grammar, but there are still big holes.  I have been using the Pimsleur audio program, and am hoping to continue with that during his night feedings (if I have to be up for 40 minutes anyway, and can’t really play with him because we want him to get his days and nights straight, why not?).  I also hope to finish up my last unit of Rosetta Stone and do some review in that time block.  And I need to get back to listening to the news in French.  For something a little more fun, I’ve been watching Rome (the HBO series) with French dubbing and subtitles.

I will keep updating as all of this evolves!

Bienvenue dans le monde mon petit lapin! (Welcome to the world my little rabbit!)

Mon Petit Lapin

My baby boy was born March 26 at noon.  He’s a nine pound, twenty-one inch bundle of pure joy.  He is making things easy on me by sleeping, eating, and basically doing everything beautifully.  The lack of sleep that I fully expected would initially challenge my goals for French speaking time has not materialized, shockingly.  I am nervous to talk about it in public, for fear that the fussy baby fairy will come and give my baby the memo that he’s supposed to be challenging us instead of just being adorable and easy.

It wasn’t my initial plan, but I have fallen in to a rhythm of speaking French to him while I nurse him and we are alone.  In the early days nursing time makes up the bulk of mommy baby time, and definitely the bulk of alone time with him.  This has felt surprisingly natural for me.  Sometimes I have to slow down and think in order to say the things I want to say, and I am correcting my own grammar a lot, but still I can speak with him for hours.  My speaking to him this much in French is facilitated in part by a sizable pile of French children’s books that I have been hoarding from the local library.  Sometimes I just read them, other times I use them as cues to keep the language going.  I also have been singing the French children’s songs I taught myself while he was in the womb (Spotify has lots in French, and is a great free resource!).  So far, so good!

The experiment begins

My due date is five days from now, on March 29th.  My little boy could be here, in my arms, any moment.  This of course brings a wash of emotions, many I am sure are common to extremely-soon-to-be parents.  Excitement, a calm sense of confidence that I am ready, and I can do this, tempered with moments of self-doubt, impatience, delight at the prospect of tying my shoelaces without the huge belly in the way, and an overwhelming sense of love for this tiny person who I’ve never seen.  Many of my thoughts and emotions, however, surround just one parenting decision we’ve made.

We are planning to raise our baby bilingual in French and English.  This in itself is no revelation.  My little cousin has been raised speaking French with her Parisian mother and French family and English with her father and American family.  But I am no Parisian.  I am not a French teacher, I didn’t spend a year in a francophone country perfecting my language, my French is far from perfect.  I’ve read many books that assure me that “You don’t have to be bilingual yourself to raise bilingual children!” These books are always pretty sparse on details, the discussion being mostly geared towards native speakers of the target language, who comprise the vast majority of people who raise bilingual children.  So I turned to the internet, figuring there must be some information about someone who has done what I hope to do, improving their not-so-advanced language skills through the process of speaking the target language with their baby.  I found shockingly little, so I am hoping that through blogging about our experiences I can help others who might be considering a similar path.

I have no idea if this experiment will be a success.  I have a lot of hopes, a lot of fears, a lot of reservations.  Already it has been both delightful and frustrating.  I am quite certain that it is one of the greatest challenges I have ever undertaken.  I also firmly believe that the gift of bilingualism is one of the greatest things a parent can give a child, and if it is possible for my child to be bilingual then I am happy to put in some work to make it so.