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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.