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. 

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!

Reflux, rest, and reengaging.

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It has been too long since I’ve written! Nelson has been battling with acid reflux which has been quite tragic for him, and his poor little parents haven’t been getting a lot of sleep or free time away from soothing our poor baby as a result. We were able to get him back to his happy self though, and aside from enjoying the flood of smiles he had been saving up, I should also have time to be back to regular updates.

While things were rough for poor Nelson and I was sleep deprived, my French speaking really dropped off. To some extent it is hard for me to tell if I was speaking less French, or just feeling like I was speaking less because it was so repetitive. I typically read him books and talk about all the different things we encounter, but in these past couple weeks I was instead always comforting him. I sang Au Clair de la Lune about two hundred times in two weeks, so there was French coming out of my mouth, but I got so delirious that I was smashing verses together and probably not even singing words at times.

These past few weeks were also the first time I noticed myself code switching unintentionally. I feel like that is a little triumph. Everything I read about raising bilingual children talks about code switching– the dangers, the joys, the utility. To me it seemed so impossible, I was so far from comfortable enough with French to slip in and out of it effortlessly. I would sometimes say things in English, but just because I really didn’t know the word or phrase at all. Now I flow between English and French without knowing it quite often– and surprisingly, more often than not, it is the French that encroaches on the English. When I am around other English speakers and trying to speak English to the baby (a policy that I am reevaluating, I will almost certainly post soon about that!) the French just marches right in. Aside from the feeling of really being a REAL bilingual parent, it also makes me scared. The English does sometimes encroach on the French, and as tired as I was last week I often wouldn’t notice. Before we had a diagnosis for Nelson’s reflux I was worried about the entire bilingualism project. I was so tired that sometimes I wasn’t capable of putting together sentences in French, and what I was saying was so repetitive that I was afraid everything I know would just disappear *poof* into a cloud of little baby tears.

I think I learned a lot from these past two weeks. There were times before where I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, but this round I didn’t even have time to pause and evaluate. Life just happened. I felt like I was being swept along in a very fast current, and I was grabbing on to anything to keep the language anchored. But things were also moving fast enough that there was no time for guilt. I felt good about what I could do and what I was trying to do and tried to remind myself that this too would pass. Once things got better, I got right back in to it, and it felt so good to be speaking and reading and challenging myself and progressing again. It doesn’t always have to be perfect. It is the baseline, the habits that will make or break Nelson’s bilingualism and mine.

One other fantastic thing came from all of this. I was so happy to be back to speaking French that on Monday I introduced myself, in French, to a woman who is also a regular at the baby singalong that Nelson and I go to at the library. She always volunteers “bon matin” into the good morning song, and I had been meaning to introduce myself to her forever (one of my many anxiety-provoking-I-should-be-speaking-French situations). We had a real conversation, in French. She’s from Haiti, she asked me if I was from France, we talked about raising bilingual children, and about how her grandson has four different languages between his parents and grandparents (lucky kiddo!) and they fight about what he should learn and how. Oh, and she asked me if I was from France. I’ve basically been smiles and sunshine since!

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.

Slow motion

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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 lang-8.com, 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!”

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!

Whispering French in the Cafe

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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?

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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!