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.

Photo Day: Antibes (Part 1)

Here’s the conversation I had with the guy at the bike shop yesterday:

Him: “Are you ready for the snow on Sunday?”

Me: Jaw hits the floor. “Wh- the- snow? Are you kidding me?”

Him: Big shrug and amused smile. “It’s only May. Welcome to Colorado!”

I don’t want snow. I want flip flops. Sunburns. I want the Riviera. I’ll have to live vicariously through my own pictures and memories. Maybe I’ll crank up the heater, don a tank top, close my eyes, and drink a glass of rosé.

Here’s Antibes:

A few years ago, we spent part of our summer in Antibes, France. For me, I got to attend a French immersion program and explore the south of France with the friends I met there. Fabulous. For my hubby, he was working. Hard. Sophia Antipolis, located in the south not far from Antibes, is a mini-Silicon Valley, home to a growing number of software companies. Stef’s job had a site there, so we thought: great! Summer in the south of France! It’ll be like an extended vacation! For him, not so much. Poor guy put in some serious hours and left our “vacation” exhausted. I made sure to take one for the team and did extra exploring and extra rosé drinking. I’m a good wife like that. Here are some photos from that adventure:

Looking over Antibes from the cape

Looking over Antibes from the cape

Centre International d'Antibes - my school (and inspiration for a YA novel I'm working on!)

Centre International d’Antibes – my school (and inspiration for a YA novel I’m working on!)

Healthy petunias partout

Healthy petunias partout

Cap d'Antibes - the oldest part of the village

Cap d’Antibes – the oldest part of the village

Swedish students celebrating the summer solstice

Swedish students celebrating the summer solstice

Funny story, this photo (above). Apparently, a group of Swedes comes to Antibes each year to welcome the summer solstice. We were eating at a pizzeria across the street and the owner was watching them, arms crossed over his chest, shaking his head. Inevitably, a couple of girls needed to use the facilities and made for his restaurant. Their blond locks decorated with leaves and flowers and their innocent young faces alight with mother earth goddess energy, they asked him if they could use the toilet. Reality crashed upon them. He chased them off with harsh, “Non!”s and “Only for customers! Buy my pizza if you want to use my toilet!” Crushed and desperate, they begged, but elicited no sympathy. They finally gave up and left, and he turned to us and complained about the crazy Swedes who do this dance every year and line up for his toilet. I was almost scared to ask where it was, because I actually needed to use it too, but he told me, “You, I don’t mind. You ate my pizza.”

Street in old Antibes

Street in old Antibes

Plage du ponteil in Antibes

Plage du ponteil in Antibes

Spices in the Marche Provencal

Spices in the Marche Provencal

This is what happens to cars parked on the narrow streets of France

This is what happens to cars parked on the narrow streets of France

Yummy pizza abounds in the South of France

Yummy pizza abounds in the South of France

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.

The French Version of Me

Something strange happens whenever I go to France. I morph into a slightly different person.

I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not. I’m not even on my best behavior. No, it’s about the language. I can’t quite be myself in French.

In part, my French is not fluent, so I always feel I’m in a bit of a fog, not completely able to hear, understand, or express myself. But there’s more. My sarcasm and dry humor don’t often translate. I’ve tried, and more often than not I end up getting confused looks or worse, offending people. In French, I tend to be quiet and withdrawn, while in English I am extroverted, confident, sometimes even gregarious. I tend to be much more serious in French; again – my humor doesn’t translate. In English, I tease and joke with everyone and I constantly poke fun at myself. I’m not there yet with my French. Instead, I resort to a goofy, unsophisticated sense of humor that relies heavily on facial expressions and body language, whereas in English I’m known for being so deadpan people can’t always tell if I’m joking.

I phrase things differently. In English, I can be precise with my word choice, allowing myself to be diplomatic or irritated, straightforward or sarcastic, serious or funny. In French, I must rely on my limited vocabulary, gestures, and an exaggerated tone of voice, making me wonder if I come across as dense. It’s so easy to misinterpret what I hear or to say something I didn’t intend to say. Like my wedding vows or the time I announced “Je suis femme !” (“I am woman”) when what I intended to say was: “J’ai faim !” (“I’m hungry.”)

There’s also the inherent cultural aspects of a language. French speakers tend to be more animated, their voices sometimes almost sing-songy. I find myself adopting this mannerism as I speak French. I start doing the French Blow. French speakers tend to repeat short phrases. I say this is because they are always talking over one another, so they have to repeat the same things over and over in the hopes that someone will hear them eventually. In English, I would find this repetition annoying but it seems to be simply  part of the language in French.  I tend to adopt this mannerism as well.

Yet it cuts deeper than the way I express myself, it affects the way I think. Of course, there’s no direct, word for word translation from any one language to another. Getting to the level in a language where you actually think in that language is an exciting milestone to reach. Then, it has become a part of you. Language shapes our minds. So much of a culture is wrapped into its language, and vice versa. When living in a foreign language, our very core changes, sometimes subtley, sometimes more.

Photo Day: Aix en Provence and the Abbaye de Sénanque

I’ve never been to Provence in the fall, but summers there are magical. Here are some more of my favorite photos:

 

Aix en Provence

Aix-en-Provence

Place du General de Gaulle, Aix-en-Provence

Place du General de Gaulle, Aix-en-Provence

Fresh fruit of Provence

Fresh fruit of Provence

Abbaye de Sénanque, from the road above

Abbaye de Sénanque, from the road above

Abbaye de Sénanque and lavender field

Abbaye de Sénanque and lavender field

Me in a lavender field

Me in a lavender field

I adore sunflowers!

I adore sunflowers!

Vineyard tucked into the hills of Provence

Vineyard tucked into the hills of Provence

Another view of the Abbey, with lavender fields

Another view of the Abbey, with lavender fields

Lavender

Lavender

Je t'adore, belle Provence!

Je t’adore, belle Provence!

What I Learn From My Daughter

Something unexpected happened this summer. My daughter’s French took off. I had feared that being out of French school, away from the structure, the exposure, and the other kids who spoke French would cause her to lose ground. Instead, she’s now speaking conversationally. Sometimes. When I switch to French, she switches to French. And with her father, she’s about 50/50, French/English. She loves to babble French sounds; it’s almost like her French is a year or so behind her English. The great thing: she’s enjoying it. She likes speaking French.

This whole thing has made the prospect of not having access to a French school much less scary. We’ll have to devise some sort of plan to make sure reading and writing in French develop – I still lean toward summer school in France for all of us – but I’m finally relaxing about the whole thing more and starting to believe the other bilingual families who have reassured us to not worry, it will happen.

I learn a lot from my daughter, too. Like when her friends came over and one of the boys stole a toy from her and ran away with it. She ran after him shouting, “Ça c’est à moi !” thus I learned the French version of “mine!” If I had guessed, I would have said, “C’est la mienne !”

It’s so strange sometimes to hear my daughter speaking in a foreign tongue. Before meeting a Frenchman and deciding to have children with him, the thought that my children might speak a language that I didn’t speak never crossed my mind. It’s developing organically in her, whereas in me it’s taking great effort. It makes this part of her a little mystery to me.

Recently, we spent some time with one of my husband’s brothers and his family while they were visiting California. Before we saw them, we told our daughter that she would be seeing her cousins and that she’d need to speak in French because they don’t speak English. She had a lot of questions.

“Mommy what language will Papa speak?”

“What language will you speak this weekend?”

Over the long weekend, we had to coach her and translate for her with her cousins. As cousins do, though, they found a way. Cousins always seem to share a special bond, an instant connection. Even with the language difference, they had fun together. By the last day, our daughter began to spontaneously, without our interference, speak to them in French.

She likes to talk about what languages people speak. She’s exposed to so many languages; in her class alone there were native French, English, Spanish, Turkish, Hindi, and Chinese speakers. Lots of multicultural families. Every once in a while she’ll babble something and tell me that she’s speaking Spanish. She’s not, but still, the awareness of different languages at such a young age is a gift, I think. With exposure and continued effort, I believe we can get there. We can’t give up. We won’t.