Je Vais Mal

Don’t worry, this isn’t another political-ish post. Not today.

I feel like I’ve hit my stride with teaching French to preschoolers. When my announcements on the playground of, “Hey friends, I’ll be teaching French in the Discovery Room for whoever wants to join me!” are met with 4-year-old boys exclaiming to each other, “FRENCH! Let’s go!”, abandoning the (awesome) pirate ship they were playing on and racing to the classroom, I’m going to call that success.

My adventures in teaching French began with a fear that when we moved to Colorado my children, no longer attending French immersion preschool, wouldn’t get enough French. So I offered to teach a lesson a week at their school in Colorado. Now, four years later, I’ve figured out what does and doesn’t work for the 2-5 year old set, how to expose them to just enough of a new language  and culture so that they learn an appreciation, pick up some words and phrases, and stay engaged.

My initial attempts at total immersion, while well intended, just didn’t work. At 30 minutes a week with a population that has the attention span of, well, a 3-year-old, once they realized they couldn’t understand me, they lost interest. I’ve found that lots of repetition, a variety of visual aids and expressive use of the language, along with a smattering of English explanations, keep these kiddos interested. It’s working; 10 to 15 kids join me each week and most of them stay for the entire class. This is a preschool where kids can choose where they want to be during the day; the fact that they choose my class over playing with toys is a good sign that they are into it. Sometimes, they bail. Then I know that either the call of the swings is too strong to overcome, or my lesson needs some tweaking.

I begin each class going around the room, greeting each of the kids with a cheery, “Bonjour!” and asking the other kids to greet each classmate as well. Then we ask, “Comment ça va? Ca va bien (thumbs up), comme si comme ça (hand waggle), ou ça va mal (big pout, thumb down)?”

For some reason, the kids have decided it is hilarious to tell me, “Je vais mal,” and give me a big thumbs down while bursting into giggles.

So we go with it. I throw out my arms and wail, “Mais, pourquoi !?” Half the time, they burst into fits of laughter, and now the kids know the word, “betise,” as in – he or she is being silly. Sometimes, they tell me they miss their mom. Several of them now know how to say that in French: “Maman me manque.”

These mostly 4 and 5-year-olds, with 30 minutes a week, know basic greetings, please, thank you, how to count to 10, a few phrases, and a few songs. The other day, one of them made a butterfly with his hands and said, proudly, “papillion!”

All of this makes me glow with joy, but honestly, the best thing is how excited they are to learn French. When I walk into the classroom to pick up my son on non-French days, a few of them approach me and ask if it’s a French day. They pull me over to their parents and ask me for help remembering a word or two so they can show off their new skills. I hear from parents and teachers that the kids throw French words into conversations and talk about French classes. Today, one of my most dedicated and enthusiastic students brought a book in French she was given as a gift – Boucles d’or et le 3 ours – to proudly show it to me.

I’ve grown to love my time with these kids. It isn’t always easy to figure out ways to engage them, but their enthusiasm, those bright eyes soaking it all in, and their adorable enunciations make it worth the effort. I hope that at the very least, they will stay interested in languages and cultures.

 

Are you still teaching your kids French?

I suppose the fact that I get asked this question is telling. The short answer is yes, we are. The longer answer is that, well, we’re trying, it’s a lot harder than we thought, but here’s an update:

A lot of the teaching falls on my husband, which is a heavy load to carry. He’s the fluent, native speaker of the house. He continues to speak to them mostly in French. But sometimes he slips. It’s hard for him, and as much as I jump on him when he resorts to English, I get it. He speaks English all day, he lives in English, so making the transition to French with them isn’t easy. The kids tend to answer him in English, and he’s not consistent about rephrasing what they’ve said in French for them to practice, which is a strategy we’ve found to be pretty effective. I get it – it stops the flow of the conversation, it feels like a battle. I’m on the sidelines either jumping in and doing the rephrasing for him which feels helicopter-y, or just letting the kids avoid French, which doesn’t feel good either.

When the kids were home with me more, I tended to do certain things in French: grocery shopping was a French activity. We tried to do some meals in French. I would often read French books or play games with them in French. But it’s gotten more complicated now that our daughter is in first grade – she’s gone 7 and 1/2 hours a day. That’s a long day for a 6-year-old. So when she comes home, she’s not exactly enthused by my, “Let’s play a game in French!” suggestions. Or, if I simply speak to her in French, she gives me a look that I know well – it’s my very own “are you kidding me right now?” look.

My son, the four-year-old, is even more resistant. My attempts with him are met with a wailing: “Awww, not in French!”

In homes where the stay-at-home parent, or the parent who spends more time with the children, speaks the minority language (the language not spoken in the community) the kids make better progress. I know this. But it’s a leap I haven’t made, and don’t necessarily want to. I’ve written before about how I feel like I am a different person in French, not 100% me, and with my kids being authentically and comfortably me is more important than perfection in French. Being a parent presents enough challenges without saddling myself with more. That said, I do still incorporate French when I can, and I still think it’s an important part of what I want to give to our kids.

What we are seeing is passive French speakers; they understand most everything, but their spoken French lags far behind.

However, all is not lost. When we traveled this summer to France, our kids had to speak in French. If they wanted to communicate with their cousins, aunt, uncle, and grandparents, they had to do it. And they did. Especially my 6-year-old, who had a year at a French preschool to help her knowledge and confidence. They came away having improved their French, and since then they’ve resisted less. They seem to be approaching an age where they get it – they see that French has a purpose rather than being one more thing Mommy and Papa make them do.

We were also able to enroll our daughter in a one week French summer camp here in Boulder, and it was fabulous. She LOVED her teacher and came home every day excited about speaking French, about what she had learned and even wanting to teach her brother:

 

I still teach French at my son’s preschool, and he’s finally getting into it. Up until this year, he chose to play outside rather than come to one of Mom’s French classes. But now he, along with a dozen or so regulars, come faithfully each week. These kids love it – it is so fun to see their enthusiasm! Every day when I pick up my son, a few little faces turn up to me, small hands grab my own, and they eagerly ask, “Are you doing French today?” Most of them can now say a few words in French, and some of them can sing entire songs.

While in France this last summer, my daughter found some of her cousin’s old comic books and fell in love. Her favorite: Picsou (Scrooge McDuck). While she can’t yet read them herself, we kept catching her “reading” to her little brother. So we brought one home, and her Mimi and Papy bought her a subscription for her birthday. She has gone from never wanting to read in French to wanting to read Picsou with Papa most nights.

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My son is enjoying teaching his classmates how to count and say “Bonjour” with the right accent. And just this weekend, we were with a group of kids that were asked if they spoke any languages other than English. My kids proudly shot up their hands and said they spoke French.

So while our progress isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t resemble my imagined utopian bilingual home where fluency is achieved in all areas of both languages and our kids are happy and compliant with it all (how delusional was I pre-kiddos!), we are still making progress. Objectives have changed. I now want them to enjoy French, to have enough of a base that they can continue to pursue it with a leg up from where they would have been if we were a monolingual household, and I want them to learn about and embrace their bicultural heritage. I’m going to call us successful thus far, and still working at it.

Paris, je t’aime

Last summer, we bravely traveled with our 4-year-old and 3-year-old to Iceland and then France. Drumroll … it was fantastic. They proved to be amazing little travelers: movies and a steady stream of snacks, toys, and duct tape (okay, kidding on the last one) kept them, and us, happy on the plane, jet lag didn’t last long, and they met different beds, foods, and activities with enthusiasm for the most part!

Hundreds of articles with tips on how to travel with kids exist and are easy to find. We mostly follow the basics and it works great. The nice thing about visiting a place that you’ve visited before, like Paris for us, is that we didn’t have a huge list of things we had to do or see. We hit the streets with no agenda, really, other than to make sure our kids had a positive experience. We cut the list of what we would normally try to see in half, or more, plugged in a fair amount of downtime, and when the kids were interested in something, we stopped and let them check it out without rushing them. Too much.

Yet we still managed to show them many of the major must-see-on-your-first-visit-to-Paris sites.

Here’s one of my favorite pics:

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Captioned: Whoa.

Here’s us at Notre Dame (which is one of those names that I struggle to pronounce in both French and American English… growing up hearing about the Noder Dame – long a – fighting Irish has left a lasting imprint on my brain)

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HERE IS PARIS, BEFORE KIDS:

Us at Chez Lyon; not the Parisian cuisine one salivates for, but a fun tradition we started on our first visit to Paris together (make sure to appreciate my hubby’s sideburns):

600 and of course, moules et frites at Chez Lyon in Paris

PARIS, NOW:

When asked about their favorite parts of Paris, the kids site these posts and the metro:

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What you can’t hear are the whoops of pure joy.

My husband went to high school here. Seriously.

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Rose gardens at the Parc de Bagatelle:

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These two were doing everything they could to attract the attention of the female peacock between the two of them. Like a good French girl, she feigned indifference and sauntered away.

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We only spent a couple days in Paris… as much as I love Paris, with kids it isn’t the easiest place to be. Especially with Colorado kids, accustomed to large open spaces for free-ranging it, and especially for my two kids, who have two volumes: loud and louder. We spent most of our time in our beloved Bretagne …. more photos to come!

When in Doubt, Take ’em Out

 

View of the Flatirons from Boulder

View of the Flatirons from Boulder, Colorado

French lessons at the preschool are wrapping up as the school year comes to an end. My “regulars” – a small group that greets me when I arrive each Friday, all of them bouncing like Tigger, grabbing my hand, and asking, “are you going to do French today?” – made this experience more than worth it. Coming up with lessons each week engaging enough to hold a preschooler’s attention is no easy task. But they are interested. Their earnest eyes study me as they repeat my words, putting all their concentration into speaking a foreign language, and having fun while doing it. I hear from other parents that their kids are using French at home – words, pretending to read in French, even correcting their parent’s pronunciation. For them, French is exciting, cool, and thus I say: Mission Accomplished.

Over the past few weeks, the snow melted and the Colorado sun finally warmed things up. My group, understandably, has dwindled down to a loyal few. The past couple of lessons, I began with 6 to 8 kids but after a few minutes, the playground beckons, and they drop their puppet or crayons or whatever else we are working on to run outside, hardly acknowledging my “Au revoir !”

I told one of the teachers, “I’m fighting a losing battle against the great outdoors, I’m afraid.” She suggested we do a French lesson outside. “When in doubt, follow their lead,” she wisely advised.

Brilliant!

So we took them outside. All it took was the mention of a field trip to the “soccer field” to do a French lesson, and I had twelve kids clamoring to join me.

It might have been the most fun lesson yet. We played American games translated into French: “Duck, duck, goose” became “Canard, canard, oie!”; “Red light, green light” became “Feu rouge, feu vert.” I learned a new game: Mr. Fox. The kids call out, “Mr. Fox, what time is it?” And the leader responds with things like, “It’s time to jump forward six times!” Each game is easily adaptable to French (and my husband tells me that the French have a version of “Simon says” that works well too). Each is a great way to get the kids talking, following directions, and counting in French. By the end of class, all of them had said at least one thing in French, and all had definitely responded to simple commands. Having a group of English-speaking kids enthusiastically shout, “Oui !” in response to my question, “Vous-êtes prêts?” had me grinning and feeling like a great success.

Plus I got to run around on the grass and play like nothing else in the world mattered.

God, I love being around kids.

So when in doubt, take ’em out. Play with them, follow their lead, and sneak the French in there. They won’t even notice they’re working. Neither did I!

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Truth be told, given the option, I'll always choose outside, too.

Truth be told, given the option, I’ll always choose outside, too.

An American Teaching French – One Child at a Time

This post is written for this month’s Multilingual Blogging Carnival, hosted by Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes. Check out the link for more great posts!

I got lazy last year. Having our daughter in a French immersion preschool made it so easy. French surrounded her. Everything she learned was in French. French was cool, because everyone else was doing it.

Now, I have to step up my game. I’m trying to find ways to keep French active in our lives. But my fears are coming to fruition: my daughter is starting to resist French.

No one around us speaks it, here in Colorado. Her schoolmates all speak English, and now that’s all she wants to speak. We haven’t connected with the French community here, though we remain hopeful about finding it.

Bringing Up Baby Bilingual has been my reference bible for French activities in this area. I know there are a surprising number of opportunities here, we just have to look a little harder than we did in San Diego. Here’s what we’re doing so far:

We have attended story times. I feel like a desperate twenty-something dude in a club on a Saturday night, frequenting these story times, eavesdropping on conversations, trying to find another mom, hopefully speaking French to her kids, who might be willing to fork over her digits and set up a play date.

Meanwhile, since we don’t have any French-speaking friends here yet, and since my husband is putting in a lot of hours at work, it’s on me to make sure French is a part of our kids’ daily lives. Here’s the real kicker: I’m resisting it. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. Because I’m not truly me in French (see this post). My affection for my kids comes in the form of “honey” and “sweetheart”, not “mon petit chou” (my little cabbage. Ewww.). A French teacher once pointed out to me that “honey” is gross to her, because it’s sticky and messy. I suppose I can see her point. I do find myself, for whatever reason, resorting to French when I need to be stern with my kids. “Assieds-toi !” When my son stands in the bathtub and starts jumping around.  “On y va ! Vite !” When we’re late. French sounds scarier to me, and they jump to attention when I speak in French where they ignore me in English. I can already see their conversations as adults: “And when Mom started in on us in French, that’s when we knew we were in trouble!” Come to think of it, perhaps this is not the association I want to build….

Our bilingual bookshelf

Our bilingual bookshelf

We have plenty of French books, and I struggle here too because I focus too much on making sure I’m pronouncing everything correctly rather than immersing us in the story with an animated reading, the way I do so easily in English. Still, I’m trying. The more familiar each text becomes, the more fun I am when I read it, and the more attention my kids give me when I pull one of these books out.

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Music. We listen to French music all the time. My daughter asks me to play, “Dansons la Capucine” every time we get into the car. French music is her music, anything in English is “Mommy music.” Sometimes she’ll tolerate a Mumford and Sons song or two before saying, “Mommy, I want French music! Dansons la Capucine!”

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I’ve ambitiously (Naively? Stupidly?) offered to do French activities and story times at my daughter’s preschool for any kids who are interested. I’m scaring myself with this one. The mere thought of trying to put together a French lesson for a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds is giving me performance anxiety. If you know me, you know I don’t do anything half-way. I’m all in. Type A perfectionism overachiever at its most intense. I don’t cut myself any slack. I’ll nitpick at myself for mispronouncing one of those ridiculous vowel sounds until I’ve convinced myself that I’m unworthy of even attempting French. Stuart Smalley, care for a session in front of the mirror with me?

I know they say a language can’t be taught through TV, however, my daughter adores La Maison de Mickey and asks to watch it daily. So, a few times a week, I turn on an episode (Thank you, Roku). She does, in fact, pick up a few new words each time. We talk about the show in French, then we all do the Mickey dance together.

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The other day, she pulled out a stack of French flashcards and handed them to me. “Mommy, can you do these with me so I can learn French so I can talk to my cousins?” Again, flashcards get a bad rap, but I wasn’t about to deny her a learning opportunity. I was pleased to see that she remembered a ton of vocabulary words in French. I often ask her to tell me what different things are in French. My husband and I try to both speak French when we are all together, and when the kids say something in English, we translate it into French, then ask them to repeat it. Incidentally, my son’s first French word is, “Coucou !” Translation – a form of “hello” mainly used with families and children.

As for my own learning, I’m planning to crash a French class or two at the University of Colorado in Boulder next semester. When I’m excited about the language, I can pass that on to my kids. Taking classes always makes me happy – if someone would pay me to be a student for the rest of my life, I’d take that job in a heartbeat. I remain determined that my kids learn French, and that it is not a secret language they share with their Papa only.

I believe that plugging into the French-speaking community here is our best hope for ensuring that our daughter and son, and me too, speak French fluently. Like many things, this will take time. And I still dream of a summer in France, maybe in a few years, when the kids are older, where the kids and I all take French lessons. Actually, I’d be fine with a yearly French immersion. Complete with lots of bike rides, croissants, and crepes. That would work for me.

Trader Joe's croissants for now... whenever TJ's opens in Colorado!

Trader Joe’s croissants for now… whenever TJ’s opens in Colorado!

As always, we remain determined, if a bit daunted, to raise our children bilingually and biculturally.

Après la déluge, and be careful what you wish for!

DSC01012“And when the skies fill up with clouds, I want something to happen. Thunderstorm, snow…. Anything is better than gray clouds that just sit there, doing nothing but being gray clouds blocking the sun.”

That would be a direct quote from my previous entry.

Yikes.

We arrived in Colorado along with the downpour and worst flooding this area has seen in decades. The storage facility where everything we owned was stored flooded; lucky for us the angels that are our moving company loaded our things into a van and got them out of there before the waters hit the facility. I am forever grateful. Overall, the worst of it for us was that we had packed for hot days filled with hiking the national parks of southern Utah, and instead found ourselves shivering in our car with the heater cranked up. We got lucky, much luckier than many here.

A wet but beautiful Zion

A wet but beautiful Zion

We’ve settled in, are back online, and now trying to reestablish: find preschools, activities, make friends, and for my husband, start work. I discovered this blog a year or two ago, and I’m counting on Bringing Up Baby Bilingual to help us find the French community in Colorado. (Looking forward to meeting you in person, Sarah!)

Did I mention it is ridiculously beautiful here? Stunning. Green, open, the Flatiron Mountain range soaring upward in the west… I feel a peace that I haven’t felt for years. I belong in a place like this.

Doo, doo, doo lookin' out my backdoor!

Doo, doo, doo lookin’ out my backdoor!

People are incredibly friendly and relaxed here. Wow, are-you-for-real friendly. Smiles are genuine and easy, people don’t hesitate to pause for a chat. The neighborhood we landed in has neighbors that actually do stuff, together. Block parties, camping trips, an Oktoberfest this weekend…. They have a Google calendar to plan their events. They banded together to help out flood victims. Many of them have stopped by to welcome us and make sure we got on the mailing list so we’d be included. This is old school Americana and I can’t believe our luck! Plus, Louisville, our new home, has the cutest little downtown with several yummy restaurants we’ve been systematically trying out.

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Café de Paris - a touch of France in Louisville, perhaps?

Café de Paris – a touch of France in Louisville, perhaps?

We made the mandatory visits to Ikea and Bed Bath and Beyond. We cruised down the freeway through the Denver suburbs to Ikea with our jaws dropped. Everyone here drives the speed limit. Not over. Right at it. In San Diego, we push it by a minimum of 15 miles an hour everywhere. We grumbled that people were moving so slow, then had to laugh at ourselves. Isn’t this part of why we came here? To be in less of a hurry? Reduce our pace from frantic to chill? In Target, I wandered through empty aisles where I never once had to maneuver around a traffic jam of carts nor squeeze by two or three people to grab what I needed from a shelf. When I got to the check out line, where I went straight to the conveyer belt and did not have to wait behind a minimum of five people, a party of two got in line behind me and the cashier sighed, “Ohmigod it’s crazy in here today.” I looked around. “Crazy? Really? This is crazy?” She sighed again. “Yes, I think we just don’t have enough cashiers or something.” Same thing at the post office today; I entered and did a happy dance because there were only two people in front of me. They guy behind me said under his breath, “Oh, no, a line.”

We visited our local park where a small group of 8 or 9 year olds were playing, scooters strewn over the patio and no parent in sight. My initial reaction was concern – where are their parents? Who lets their kids go to a park without supervision? What if they get hurt? Kidnapped? I could never…. And disappointment: how will I ever meet other moms if they aren’t taking their kiddos to the park? Then I caught myself and realized: this is how it is supposed to be. This is how my childhood was, the childhood I now idealize. Where I hopped on my bike and cruised the neighborhood, and the rule was I had to be home at dusk, or when my mom called out my name for supper. This is why we wanted to move here.

Where we hung out our last night in San Diego

Where we hung out our last night in San Diego

Transitions are hard. San Diego in our rear view mirror was a strange sensation, though we’ve been mentally preparing for it for almost two years now. It’s finally sinking in; this is our new home, we aren’t going back. I crave El Zarape, I wake up thinking I’ll take the kids to Kate Sessions Park to see our friends, or hike Torrey Pines. I miss my peeps. Yet, here, I’ve reunited with some dear long-term friends, and best of all – I’m back in touch with my soul. The soul that belongs in mountains with a book, a cup of hot cocoa, a fire in the fireplace, and hiking shoes at the ready.

Dare I say, bring on the snow?

Au revoir, Pacific Beach

Au revoir, Pacific Beach

Kermesse

School’s out for summer!

kermesseSummer feels more real with kids. In San Diego, where the seasons blend and where we have two, maybe three weeks of vacation a year, summer never really meant much. Just a little warmer and crowds of tourists everywhere we want to go. But now, my daughter has finished her first year of preschool, and we kicked off summer in style: with an end of year show and Kermesse.

The preschool section of the school put on an hour-long show. Somehow, the teachers got those two, three, four, and five-year-olds to perform choreographed dances, sing, recite memorized lines, and even put on a play. Seriously – three and four year olds doing the tango, kindergartners performing Snow White, and two-year-olds dancing to a beat, each group waiting patiently while the others performed, and not one of them on stage crying for Maman? Amazing. These people are miracle workers.

Four year olds doing a choreographed dance on boogie boards to Surfin' USA

Four year olds doing a choreographed dance on boogie boards to Surfin’ USA

Two-year-old cowboys and cowgirls

Two-year-old cowboys and cowgirls

 

Then there was Kermesse, a carnival of sorts that in France is mainly put on my parochial schools. When my husband heard there would be a Kermesse at the French American School, he immediately decided to take a half-day off, citing fond memories of going to Kermesse with friends as a child. The school did not disappoint: lots of fantastic food, a few rides, good music, and all sorts of fun activities.

Yes, please!

Yes, please!

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Homemade games with prizes

Homemade games with prizes

Dunk Tank

Dunk Tank

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Happy summer, everyone!