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.

DSC01178

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!”

DSC01182

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.

DSC01177

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.

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.

IMG_7577

IMG_7578

IMG_7579

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

Pas Mal

We visited a French friend’s home recently for the first time, and when I walked into their La Jolla area abode, complete with floor to ceiling windows and a spectacular view, I exclaimed: “This is such a fabulous house! Wow!”

My friend answered, with an indifferent shrug, “C’est pas mal.”

I stared at him. “That’s such a French answer.”

“Oui. There are some that are better, some that are worse, so: pas mal.”

And there you have it: French culture and American, juxtaposed. We Americans tend to be enthusiastic, perhaps overly so, of even the most mundane of things. “Oh my god, there is nothing better than potato chips. These ROCK.” Everything is awesome, amazing, choose your superlative. The French, on the other hand, can’t seem to muster up excitement about anything.

There’s little difference, for example, in how they describe something that’s great versus how they describe something that sucks: “C’est pas mal.” It’s not bad. This describes anything from something good to something fabulous. Then there’s: “C’est pas terrible.” Literally: It’s not terrible. This describes something awful.

As an aside, the word “terrible” in French is almost always used in the negative, except when it’s not, like here: C’est un truc terrible. Translation: It’s awesome.

Then there’s the typical response to someone proposing a great idea. Here, we’ll say, “What an amazing idea!” or something equivalent. The French will more typically say, “C’est pas bête,” Translation: That’s not stupid.

It’s easy to assume from all of this that Americans are shallow, fake, insincere, and that the French are a bunch of negative duds. No wonder we have so much trouble understanding each other!

Our interpretations of others are colored by our own biases, opinions, experiences, and of course, our cultural understandings. It is easy to generalize something, as I have above, that in truth is much more complicated and nuanced.

It’s also true that my friend’s house is really freaking awesome.

 

The Trouble With French…

 … is all those vowel sounds. Oh, and the “r”s. And the faux amis. Maybe I should just quit now.

The thought of quitting enters my head on a daily basis lately. My Phonetics and Oral Proficiency class wrapped up this week. Yesterday I listened to a recording of myself reading Enivrez-Vous by Baudelaire that I made the first week of class, and I cringed and squirmed in embarrassment. I know I’ve improved since then. The vowels that were once a mystery to me are now decipherable. The rolling “r” has improved, slightly. But rue and roue still elude me (read here about my experiences with these petit mots). Every time I say one of these words and my husband smiles and says, “You’re so cute,” I want to throw my textbook across the room and shout, “I quit!”

I have to remind myself how far I’ve come, and that progress is now measured as fine-tuning rather than huge leaps. My comprehension and pronunciation is much better than it was four months ago. Let alone when I first met my husband. We occasionally spoke French together on our first dates, and on one of these I was explaining to him that my neck, mon cou, really bothered me sometimes, but when I rested it or got a massage, it felt much better. Cou, phonetically, is [ku]. Not far from [ky], or cul, which means ass. I often confused the two. So as I spoke, he nodded and fought a smile, then laughed and told me he hoped massage and rest would help my aching ass.

More recently, when our daughter sang her French song about a hen sitting on a wall, as she got to this part: lève la queue et puis s’en va, I nearly choked on my water à la Jon Stewart style. Queue, the word for tail, is again close to cul to the untrained ear. I asked her to repeat what she’d said, and then realized that she wasn’t, after all, singing about a hen who sat on a wall and then decided to pick up her ass and leave.

I’ve spent a lot of time practicing vowel sounds. I think I’m finally distinguishing well between deux and douze (two and twelve), and I might even be able to order un croissant without waving one finger in the air (or a thumb, as one finger also confuses the French) to make it clear how many I’m asking for.

My face hurts after I speak French. There’s a lot more movement and tension in the jaw and cheeks in French than in English. You can tell a French person from a distance by the way their mouth moves when they speak and the tension in their facial muscles. English vowels are kind of lazy, really. We warp them to make it less of an effort for ourselves. Don’t believe me? Try the words “can” and “than” on their own and then in a sentence or two, and see what happens to those poor little “a”s. Our professor jokes that we must exercise our mouths to tone up our speaking muscles for French just as we would exercise our bodies for a sporting event, but it’s true. It’s a completely different way of using our face and tongue and vocal cords.

As my vocabulary improves, my confusion over faux amis lessens. When we got married eight (!) years ago, we wrote our own vows in both French and English. I, not wanting to humiliate myself in front of his family, read them to him before hand to make sure I hadn’t made any huge errors.

Thank God for that.

As I explained that I was so happy to be starting our lives together and excited for our future and that I hoped I could make him as happy as he’d made me (these sappy words were the only ones I could manage with my rudimentary French), he nodded and gave me a wolfish smirk while wiggling his eyebrows.

“I hope so, too,” he said.

“What? What did I say?”

This is how I found out that in French, the word excité is only used in a sexual sense. Turns out I was about to announce, in front of all of our friends and family, that I was horny and hoped I could satisfy him.

When I remember these things, and how far I’ve come, the thought of quitting seems preposterous. A friend recently pointed out to me that I’m an overachiever and I should cut myself some slack. The thing is, too much slack and I get antsy and bored. So I might as well keep on with this French stuff.

DSC00253