Are we bilinguals?

For a long time, I’ve held lofty goals for my kids and for myself. I wanted us to all be “completely bilingual,” which I defined as nothing short of 100% fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension. I dreamt of accent-free French for my kids, and for me – maybe every tenth word or so would hint that I’m not French and give me a sexy, subtle accent that would earn exclamations like, “Oh, your French is so beautiful! Where’d you learn to speak it so well!” or “Don’t lose the last eensy-teensy accent you still have, it’s so adorable.”

That’s what you get when you’re type A. And have a husband who meets this “completely bilingual” criteria (albeit with a bit more of an accent. Ooh la la.).

My views have evolved. Matured? Grown more realistic? And while at one time I might have seen this as giving up, now I see it this way: we’re still pursuing something pretty awesome. I’m just more sane.

“Bilingual” means different things to different people. We’re certainly not monolingual, but we also haven’t attained my previous definition of bilingualism. So what does that make us?

All of us understand most of what is said to us in French. My kids spontaneously speak the language, sing songs, and watch cartoons in French. When thrown into a situation with people who speak only French, I don’t hesitate to use the language, and I’d say I’m pretty adept at expressing myself. My kids are at the point where they are able to use full sentences in French without needing prompting. Perhaps the most important thing: we are actively working on improving our language, every day, and have no plans to stop this work.

So I’ve decided to give credit where credit is due. Next time someone asks me if we are a bilingual family, I’m going to say, yes. Yes, we are.

April Fool’s Day, or, if you prefer, Poisson d’Avril !

I love a good prank, and April Fool’s Day has always been one of my favorite minor holidays. Despite the fact that my brother has, for decades now, tried to convince me I was actually born on April 1 (not April 3, as I count my birthday) but Mom and Dad didn’t tell me because they didn’t want me to think I was a fool. He still calls to wish me happy birthday on April 1. Every year.

And I still retain some level of paranoia that maybe he’s right, maybe my parents really have been lying to me all these years.

I asked my husband if April Fool’s Day is celebrated in France, and he said yes, it is. With a proud grin, he declared that he did his fair share of pinning paper fish on people’s backs when he was a kid.

Huh?

So, apparently, it really is a thing in France, See this link.

I don’t quite get it, but it’s all in the spirit of April Fool’s day. So more power to you Frenchies out there – I may never understand some aspects of your humor, just as you might not understand our American humor. On that note, here’s one of my favorite April Fool’s pranks ever:

chewbacca-roar-contest

So go out there and fool someone, and Happy April Fool’s Day!

Fruit for my Labor

When working with preschoolers, it can be difficult to see if my efforts are making any impact whatsoever. I faithfully show up at my kids’ preschool each week (although this winter I’ve been sick more than not, so several sessions have unfortunately been cancelled, and my blogging has clearly suffered as well) hoping that maybe the children will greet me with a “Bonjour!”, sing along with me, count with me, and repeat after me.

Several of them do seem to remember the songs we sing; it’s so fun when they sing along. After a session where we played hide and seek with plastic dinosaurs and the kids had to help me count them and sort them by color, one or two went home and surprised their parents with a little, “un, deux, trois,” and a “Do you know how to say ‘blue’ in French? Bleu!”

But this one made my day: Apparently a game of duck, duck, goose broke out on the preschool play yard last week. We’ve played it a few times together – I can’t resist going outside with the kids on some of these gorgeous Colorado days. It’s been several months since it was warm enough to play “Canard, canard, oie,” but still: a couple of students – and not ones biologically related to me – insisted that the game be played IN FRENCH! How awesome is that?

So – it’s working. Even with only 20-30 minutes a week, these kiddos are picking up the French I’m teaching. Best of all: they want to use French. To show off to their parents, and to play with each other.

That’s success, in my book.

In Support of Total Immersion

I grew up during the old-school era of second-language learning. We filled in the blanks, conjugated verbs, and memorized vocabulary lists. Entry level classes, and sometimes even intermediate and advanced classes, were taught in English. Speaking in the second language was a part of those classes, but not a huge part, and when we did speak, it was awkwardly and amidst classmates making fun of each other’s accents.

Today, language learning is (thankfully) progressing toward total immersion. In my college classes, and in the high school and junior high classes that I’ve observed, instructors use the target language to teach. Students are expected to participate by speaking, and by writing and reading in the foreign language. Oh, how far we’ve come! It seems so obvious that to learn a language, the best method is to be immersed in that language. After all, that’s how we learn our first language, right? Hearing it, using it, being surrounded by it, even bombarded with it (think of the way parents talk and talk to their babies, while the babies stare in rapt attention, taking it all in). So I was caught off guard when a parent in one of my preschool classes expressed concern that the class was being done all in French, without providing translations for the kids.

It’s uncomfortable to be immersed in a language you don’t understand. I get it. When I was in my 20s, I signed up for a conversational French class along with a friend. Neither of us had any prior exposure to French (other than “Lady Marmalade” lyrics; the Moulin Rouge version was very popular at the time). In the second class, our teacher started asking us questions. In French. I remember our reaction well: I looked at my friend and said, “What the hell?” and she muttered, “This is ridiculous.”

The thing is, we were able to find in our notes what our teacher was saying, and we were able to answer her questions by the time she came around the circle to us. As adults, we use resources (textbooks, notes, dictionaries) to follow along. A good teacher will be expressive and enunciate clearly, helping students to comprehend. For children, when they are provided with plenty of visual aids, gestures, manipulatives, and expressive use of the language, they will understand.

I’ve since become a big believer in total immersion. I do believe that for beginners, an occasional break into English to explain grammar rules or a difficult definition/concept can help. After all, as adult learners, we assimilate, compare, and use our first language to build on. But children don’t need this. They learn differently. They aren’t taking notes or trying to understand why we use le passé composé vs l’imparfait. They are making natural language associations in the same way they do with their first language.

The best way to learn a language is in an interactive exchange – regardless of the age of the learner. Lectures, vocab lists, conjugating verbs, all of these things have their place, but to learn a language, one must actively use it. By immersing in it.

A monolingual friend asked me if, when I write papers in French, I write them first in English then translate them. I know classmates who do this, but I consider this too difficult. Translation is no easy feat, and for me, it’s so much easier to write in French from the get go, to immerse my brain, my train of thought, my writing in the language that the paper must be written in. Learning by constant internal translation is a hindrance to language learning. Trying to formulate every thought in one language then translating it to another is far too much work. For so many things, no direct translation exists. There are turns of phrases, ways of expressing things, that are unique to each language. It’s not just a bunch of memorized vocabulary words: using a second language often involves a different way of thinking and approaching a problem, an explanation, a paper.

It’s uncomfortable at first, no doubt. But when you first realize that you are thinking in that second language as you use it, rather than translating from your native tongue, you’ve made a huge leap forward toward bi/multilingualism. And immersion is an essential component of this process.

French Immersion for Children 0-5 in Boulder, Colorado!

Once again, Sarah of Bringing up Baby Bilingual and I will be offering a French immersion class for preschool-aged children! Our classes are fun, interactive, and immersive. Tuition includes admission to Play! at Grandrabbit’s (a $10 value per class), and sibling discounts are also offered. Come join us for the fun! Sign up here.

 

 

 

Le Père Noël does what?

Like many Americans, I grew up with Santa Claus. As December progressed, the floor under our tree would fill with presents from and to all family members – parents, grandparents, kids, cousins, aunts, uncles. Then, on Christmas morning, we would wake early – usually at 5:00, unable to sleep, checking the clocks every minute, watching the minutes slowly tick by until the clock finally hit 7:00, when we were allowed to wake everyone in the house and get the day started. Christmas morning, our stockings would be stuffed and there would be new toys from Santa, waiting for us by the tree. We spent the morning opening gifts, from Santa and from each other.

Best year ever: Santa brought my brother the Millennium Falcon and a few Star Wars figurines. He brought me an enormous Strawberry Shortcake dollhouse. We were both in heaven. My parents remember that being the year that they were up most of the night putting those things together (I seem to recall some loud banging noises accompanied by the occasional muttered curse), and that there were a few hundred decal stickers between the two big gifts. But they remember it all with a smile and are happy to hear us reminisce about that year.

Our kids enjoying a warm fire and the Christmas tree

Our kids enjoying a warm fire and the Christmas tree

On one of my first Christmases with my husband, we shopped together for our niece and nephew, his brother’s kids who live in France. It was so exciting for me, because at the time they were the only children in our family. But when my husband slapped the tags on the gifts, inscribed with “de la part du Pére Noël,” he had a huge smile on his face and I got squinty-eyed.

“But, those are from us. Not Santa.”

“Yeah, but, I thought…” He looked confused.

It turns out that in my husband’s family, like many French families, all presents under the tree magically appear on Christmas morning. And they are all from Santa.

I reasoned that we so rarely see our niece and nephew and I wanted them to know the gifts were from us. I wanted them to know we were thinking of them. He reasoned that this is the way it’s done, chez lui.

I felt so weird about it. For one, I believe that receiving gifts from people other than Santa gives children a valuable lesson in being grateful and thanking those people. That learning to give gifts as a child is a valuable lesson as well. I also felt that we were stepping on my in-laws toes. After all, isn’t it the right of the parents to play Santa? I’ve looked forward to that since long before I had kids. I don’t want anyone else coming in and taking over Santa’s role in our home, and I didn’t want to do that to anyone else. My mom once pointed out that she believed the way the tree was filled with presents from and to everyone, not just Santa, made the transition into realizing that Santa wasn’t quite so real (part of me will always hold onto that magic) easier for us as kids.

For my husband, the magic of Christmas was, in part, the overnight filling of the tree. And the fun for adults is playing Santa to everyone.

A minor clash in the grand scheme of things, really. Today, we send the gifts from us, not Santa. The gifts that come from France are from the kids’ Aunt and Uncle, and from their Mimi and Papy – so perhaps traditions in France are changing? Many French people I know still label everything “from Santa.” I’m grateful that our family does not. Because, even though our kids don’t get much time with the French side of their family, they know that they are being thought of. As the kiddos rip through the paper wrapping, I make sure to grab it and say, “This is from….” So they know.

We’ve embraced many of each other’s Christmas traditions and are forging our way into creating traditions unique to our family. We continue to play with the menus for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Maybe we will forever. For years my parents, who live in southern Arizona, hosted a Christmas Eve mexican dinner with tamales, chimichangas, and margaritas for family and close friends. I miss those, but it’s time for us to start hosting. For my husband and me, a house full of loved ones, good food, twinkling lights on the tree, and lots of hugs make for a great day. Presents fill the space under our tree and tonight, Santa will come with a few more for everyone. Beyond that, we’re still winging it.

Merry Christmas and Joyeux Noël to all!

 

Lessons All Around

I’ve been unintentionally quiet this semester. I find it funny that I’ve gone back to thinking of the year in terms of semesters – but such is life when you are in school! That’s right, I’m back in school, because apparently a doctorate degree in physical therapy just isn’t enough. I’m enrolled in one class this semester at University of Colorado, Boulder, an upper division French literature class. As a person who both loves to read and loves to write, I thought literature classes would be right up my alley. Ha! It’s kicking my butt. Despite years of read and critique sessions with my writers’ groups, analyzing literature has not come naturally to me. I think it’s because so often, we try to find deep meaning in every word written, and I’ve listened to enough writers’ reactions to interpretations of their work to know that choices can often be quite arbitrary: “I used that word because I like it.” “The curtains weren’t blue because the main character is horribly depressed or longs to sink into the ocean or fly off to a place far, far away. They are blue because my grandmother’s curtains were blue.” “Really? That’s what you got out of it? Huh. Cool!”

That said, I have to admire my professor, because I find her persistent questions to be quite thought provoking and they’ve made me a better reader, a better analyzer, and a better speaker. She doesn’t let us get away with a pat explanation – we have to defend our opinions and answer a series of “whys” before she’s satisfied. So now, I feel like I can hang in there better when I get into a heady discussion in French. And I have concrete knowledge of Sartre, Molière, Hugo, and several other depressing French writers. Okay, not all of them are depressing, but I need a healthy dose of Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn after some of my homework assignments.

In addition to working on my French, I’ve started private lessons for my kiddos. We finally decided to try it, because while they understand everything said to them, they are becoming passive bilinguals – not using the language, and unfortunately, even resisting it. I felt they needed someone aside from Mom and Papa speaking French with them, giving them a gentle nudge toward speaking in French. At only 45 minutes a week, I’ve seen huge improvements. My son sang “Sur le pont, d’Avignon” the entire time we trick-or-treated (while wearing a Winnie the Pooh costume – too adorable). He’s been much more resistant to French than his big sister, so seeing him sing – even if it’s screaming at the top of his lungs “POMME DE REINETTE ET POMME D’API!” brings a huge grin to my face. Certain words have stuck themselves in his brain, and he now uses those French words rather than the English ones. Turns out my daughter has a really broad vocabulary – she’s spouting off words I don’t know, and ones that I didn’t know she knew. They are starting to respond to us in French more often when we speak French to them. But best of all, sometimes, when they are playing together, I hear them go into French.

My professor made this comment the other day: At our level, intermediate, progress is much harder than any other level. She advised increased exposure through reading and movies rather than studying grammar (which I tend to pound myself with, hoping those conjugation and “petit mot” mistakes I make will be beaten out of me). She pointed out that progress won’t be in leaps and bounds. The huge epiphanies I experienced as a beginner haven’t happened in a long time. It was a good reality check, because I’ve been frustrated with my slow progress and blaming it on any number of things: age, not working hard enough, maybe I’m not gifted in languages, perhaps the only answer is living in France for a while…. So, lessons all around, and small steps forward. The bilingual journey continues.