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. 

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Franglais

A friend of mine posted an article, How to speak Franglais, which so reminded me of my life these days.  The article is about a man, Miles Kington, who wrote a magazine series that taught French through the use of “Franglais.”  The article is written in his delightful mix of French and English that butchers both languages in a way that is unpretentious and immensely unintimidating. It is like learning French from your crazy aunt who can’t doesn’t know English well enough to keep her French out of her English– or maybe like learning French from your crazy Mom who doesn’t know French well enough to seamlessly describe every situation?   Always speaking a language that you are yourself still learning means that you default to the occasional English placeholder, though this situation is improving day by day!  And French being the language of motherhood I often throw French phrases into my English.  (I am still a bit disappointed in myself that I am that person, but it feels less pretentious and more silly when it is just what bubbles up when I get so excited about my baby’s cooing and is usually a pet name for his gros bidon.)  I am glad that someone found this to be an effective way to teach French!

Gougou Maman!

Monologue

My sister asked me the other day “What does baby talk sound like when babies hear French?” and I realized that while I can kind of imagine it, really I have no idea.  When does a baby get the ability to roll an R or pronounce a nasal vowel?  Will that show up in his babel soon?  And what happens to the baby babble of a baby raised bilingual?  And will his first word be in French or English?  I think the fact that I am so fascinated by our journey is a large part of what keeps me going day to day.  I can’t wait to find out what Nelson will sound like!

I also don’t really know how French mothers speak to their babies when they are not speaking.  I repeat his coos back to him, and say “mamama” “bababa” and “gugugu” because he has vaguely approximated those sounds, but have I not been trained to listen for the right French sounds to encourage him to repeat?  And how early do I need to get him around native speakers?  I have a sense that he still has time, and for now my approximation of the proper sounds is good enough, but I have so many sources I can’t keep the science from the folklore in my head.  And there just isn’t that much science yet anyway!  I also have a related but different concern– I think my accent deteriorates when I speak sing-song Mommy French.  I have never seen anything that models it for me, and I try to keep it accurate but dancing with pitch and volume on top of trying to maintain a proper accent is proving to be difficult.

I might head to YouTube and do some research tonight.  If I find some good French Motherese I’ll come back and share with you all.

Whatever sounds he ends up making, I know he is talking up a storm now, and already really trying to imitate.  I love our conversations.

Why do I work so hard to never use the language I work so hard to learn?

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I am perpetually posing this question to myself.  Over and over I run into a situation where I can easily use my French but somehow fall completely mute.

The other day I took Nelson for his first swim.  He was showing off his gums and being adorable, no surprise.  A woman came to the pool– which was small, and otherwise empty– and of course wanted to tell me how beautiful my baby was (I mean, look at him).  She spoke perfect but accented English.  And I tell myself “Oh, she probably doesn’t speak French.  You don’t really have enough experience to pick out a French Canadian accent.  Don’t bother her with French.”  A few minutes later, out comes her husband.  He also speaks to us, I ask where they are from, forgetting for the moment to be avoidant.   He tells me they are from Montreal and explains that Montreal is in French Canada.  Do I respond in French?  Tell him that I am obsessively plotting trips to Montreal so that my son can be somewhere where it is normal to speak French?  Or even tell him, in English, that I speak exclusively French to my son?  No, I respond in English, and with a blank stare, and they go off to the other side of the pool and speak French to each other, and I stay in the shallow end quietly speaking French to my baby.  But they definitely hear me.  When they help me open the gate to let me get out with the toweled baby and the diaper bag, I don’t even manage a “merci.”  Why?  I posted once about how my fear of speaking French in public was certainly making me look more crazy than if I just spoke my bad French.  This is certainly another one of those situations where my fear of looking silly makes me look so silly that I may as well have been wearing a gorilla suit in the pool.

I can speak French in France.  That is, to anyone who doesn’t speak English.  But to anyone who speaks English I can’t say more than “Oui, un petit peu” (“Yes, just a little bit”) when asked if I speak French.  I think in part I am in awe of the truly bilingual.  The gods among men who have really mastered two languages.  I can speak French to other mere mortals who struggle to speak another language, but not to the bilinguals.  Forget the fact that I could learn so much from someone who could listen and explain my mistakes, or who has struggled their way to real fluency.  Forget that I am in desperate need of French conversation.  Forget the fact that I am working my tail off to learn a language so that I can talk to people– real people, in the real world.  Forget the fact that it is downright bizzarre to be in the same playground as a Frenchwoman after telling her in English that you’ve been studying French for a couple years and speak French to your baby but not to her (another incident that I am not proud of).

I worry that this will be my Achilles heel.  But we can’t let this all be for naught just because I still have some residual middle school emotions.  So here is my challenge to myself:  Next time I find myself in this situation, I want to speak three sentences in French.  Just three.  Just to see what will happen.

Simulated immersion

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Nelson is becoming quite an engaging conversationalist.  He now gurgles and coos responses as I speak to him, which makes this whole project much more rewarding.  He also rewards me with big, wide gummy grins.  But even without these changes it is getting easier. The language flows better.  I have made peace with throwing in the occasional English word to facilitate fluidity and breadth of topics.  I walk him through the recipe of what I am making for lunch.  I tell him about Grandma’s travels this week in Cape Town, and her visiting the prison where his namesake spent so many years.  I complain about bitter coffee.  We read, a lot, but grown up books that interest me now.

Nelson is six weeks old today.  Taking stock of our little experiment so far, I am extremely pleased.  Since last week I adjusted to include some language learning materials.  I use Anki flashcards on my phone, making sentences in sing-song motherese with each new word.  I’ve been writing journals on Lang-8 daily to get some feedback on my French.  We listen to RFI‘s Journal en Français Facile every morning, and I talk to Nelson about the days news.  When he is sleeping I read books I’ve read and loved in English to myself in French.  Now I feel like I am making real progress on my French instead of falling apart in a lonely vacuum.

When I was looking for tools online I came across the idea of “simulated immersion.”  If you can’t live in the country and be forced to immerse yourself, the theory goes, you can create an immersive situation at home. My goal is to make my time with him immersive in this way as much as possible.  Once Daddy walks out the door in the morning, we live in French.  Anything non-urgent that needs to get done in English can wait until the evening.  The only exception is to socialize.  We’ll see how well I manage with being this strict, but I figure it is worth a try!

This post was featured in the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, along with a lot of other great posts full of tips, tricks, trials and successes in the great adventure that is raising multilingual children.  You can check out the rest of the carnival here:

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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!