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

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 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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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!

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.
http://www.redcross.org/
http://www.volunteermatch.org/

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!