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.

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.

Learning to read, two languages at a time

This was meant to be a part of the Multicultural Kids Blogs Blogging Carnival, hosted this month by Adriana at Homeschool Ways, but I was painfully late and didn’t get my submission in on time. At any rate, click on the link to check out Adriana’s blog, and the links to the other posts should be up by the beginning of next week.

My mother is a reading specialist, with her doctorate in the subject. I grew up seeing both parents curled up with books on a daily basis. I adore reading, and I’m always in the middle of one, if not two or three, books. It can be hard to tear my husband away from whatever book or article he’s reading. So teaching our kids to read should be no big deal, right?

For me, true bilingualism means complete fluency in all aspects of language: understanding, speaking, reading, and writing (I’ve listed those in order of what I consider to be easiest to hardest). This is what I want for my kids, and for me, and while I’ve learned a lot on this bilingual journey, I’m still spending a lot of time winging it.

Luckily, both of my kids love books. I often find them sitting at the foot of the bookshelves, surrounded by the books they’ve tugged down. This alone is one of the most important things we’ve given them yet – a love for books, and a few hundred to peruse through whenever they want. We read to them daily, from French books and English books.

My daughter is showing great interest in letters, in trying to sound out words, and “reading” to herself and to her brother (in French and English! My heart sings with joy!). She has favorite books in both languages, and while she is sometimes reluctant to speak in French, if she likes a book, she wants us to read to her, regardless of the language the book is written in. I consider this our golden opportunity. Teaching her to read in English, to recognize sight words, to sound things out, comes quite naturally. The French – less so. I’m applying the same approach as I do in English and it seems to be working so far. The challenge: while English and French use the same alphabets, the pronunciation, especially of the vowels, is completely different. One of the most fascinating things to me about the bilingual brain is how early it separates different languages. I almost feel like I can see her mind sorting and categorizing as we read together in our two languages.
It never crossed my mind to not teach them to read in two languages at once, though I know this is a question in many multilingual households. We’re approaching this like we’ve approached everything: a little research (here’s an article from one of my favorite sources, Multilingual Living, on teaching bilingual children to read) mixed with following our kids’ leads (They are interested in books, we read to them. They show interest in words, we help them to decipher them. etc.) and trying, always, to find that delicate balance between encouraging, sometimes strongly, and avoiding pushing so hard they end up resenting having to learn the language. I often say I’d rather them be mad at me now because I make them use their French than be mad at me when they are grown because I didn’t. In the back of my mind I wonder if I may want to hire a French tutor to fill in the gaps left by my husband and I. And to give myself a break from the pressure of teaching two languages.
The key for me, always, is to make it fun. Find great books. Follow their lead, follow their interests. Laugh together, be goofy together. With a lot of effort and a little luck, I hope that one day my kids will have the gift of complete bilingualism.

Masculine vs. Feminine

DSC01570 I started learning French when I was 29 years old. In my day, foreign language education began in high school and we only had to take two years. In college, my major (microbiology) had no foreign language requirement.

Funny story: I really wanted to take French in high school, but my mom said to me: “You’ll never have any occasion in your life to use French. We live in Arizona. You need to take Spanish.” So I did. Then I married a Frenchman. I love to remind her of this whole event sequence.

After finishing grad school, I met a few French people, fell in love with the language, and decided to take night classes at a small conversation-oriented school to learn how to say “Bonjour” and “Paris” so it would rhyme with “Whee!” A couple immersion programs in France, some private lessons, and a French husband later, and my French is, overall, decent.

Because my “formal” education in French has been minimal, I have holes in my knowledge. Sometimes they are big and gaping, like the issues I have with masculine vs. feminine. Already a difficult concept for the Anglophone, I spent a lot of years whatever-ing the whole thing until I had to admit it actually does matter.

I can’t be the only one who struggles with this in French. Why oh why can’t it be easy, obvious, like it is in Spanish?

Here are a few references I’ve found helpful:

http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/genderpatterns.htm

http://www.pimsleurapproach.com/resources/french/grammar-guides/masculine-feminine/

http://www.french-linguistics.co.uk/grammar/le_or_la_in_french.shtml

I love my Visual French-English dictionary, too. It's fun to thumb through, and I do learn from it!

I love my Visual French-English dictionary, too. It’s fun to thumb through, and I do learn from it!

The best/worst advice I’ve (often) received: You just have to learn as you go.

Because there are so many rules and exceptions to rules, learning as you go, from the beginning, is the best route.

I tried to do note cards the other day, based on some of the patterns listed in the websites above. That lasted about 5 minutes before I threw all the note cards I’d worked so hard to create into the recycle bin. Does anyone ever really learn that way? For something other than a cram session for an exam where all the info will be forgotten in a week or two? I’m a complete grammar nerd, but I still recognize a futile attempt when I see it.

Part of my research into bilingualism and teaching languages has shown that our understanding of how best to acquire new languages has evolved greatly, and continues to evolve. It’s much more of an organic process than our typical teaching methods (i.e. rote memorization and recitation) allow for.

I'd rather have my brother stick his foot in my face while I'm posing for a sweet picture with my dad in France than study from notecards.

I’d rather have my brother stick his foot in my face while I’m posing for a sweet picture with my dad in France than study from notecards.

I need to build associations and habits, not stare at cards. I need to think and speak in French when I go to the grocery store so that I know it’s “la” banane and “le” brocoli. I need to look around my house, think about, talk about the objects I use every day. Le livre. La cuillère. Le four. La table. And so on.

I just want a simple rule or two to follow, but that’s not how French works. It’s going to be a long process before this whole gender thing comes naturally, and accurately, for me.

Yet here are couple that have stuck in my brain for years: problème is masculine and solution is feminine. Hmmm.

 

Passport to Paris: A touch of France in Denver, Colorado

Denver Art Museum

Denver Art Museum

Last weekend we visited the Denver Art Museum’s Passport to Paris exhibit, advertised as “More Monet in Denver than ever before.” I love the French Impressionists, so there was no doubt we were going to go, even if it meant dragging a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old through an art museum. Between pushing buttons on the audio tours for the kids to keep them entertained (“Mommy! She stopped talking again!”) and pulling my daughter’s curious fingers away from priceless works of art (“NOOOOOOOOOO! Off limits! Eyes only!” Cue hyperventilating  Mom all too aware of angry glares from other patrons) we managed to see most of the works displayed in the show’s trio of rooms.

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The rooms: Court to Cafe, Nature as Muse, and Drawing Room, focus on French art from the late 1600s to the early 1900s and include a fascinating look at how art and society mirrored each other through these dynamically evolving centuries. The show incorporates 50 masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, 36 landscapes from the impressionist artists from the private collection of Frederic C. Hamilton – on public display for the first time, as well as drawings on paper from master artists of the period. Here are a couple of my favorites (no photography was allowed, so I had to scan them from postcards I bought):

Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Beach at Trouville, 1870 by Claude Monet

The Beach at Trouville, 1870 by Claude Monet

If you are in the Denver area and interested, the show is here through February 9, 2014, and tickets can be purchased online or at the museum. Click here for more details.

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.