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.

 

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.

Thankful to be a Bilingual, Bicultural Family

 Carnival time sneaks up on me each month! This month, the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival is hosted by Sarah (my new neighbor – yay!) over at Bringing up Baby Bilingual.

It never crossed my mind growing up that I’d be part of a bilingual, bicultural family. Dreams of the future were hazy at best; I tended to dream big yet not concretely. But wow – I cannot imagine life any other way.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to take, resources for, and access to French lessons both in the U.S. and in France, so I can help my children to learn a second language while learning it (struggling with it) myself.

I’m grateful to Amazon.fr and Amazon.ca for all the great books I’ve had delivered to my doorstep.

I’m grateful to have lived in San Diego and to have sent our daughter to the San Diego French American School. What a remarkable school and community of people.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time in France, and that we are able to take our kids there and share the French language and culture with them.

I’m grateful that my husband has such a fabulous sense of humor about the French language and culture, so that when I’m feeling exasperated, rather than take offense, he laughs and makes a few jokes about the “ridiculous French.” (Say this with a thick French accent and you’ll appreciate it, too.)

I’m grateful for YouTube and Roku, where we find movies (La Maison de Mickey) and all sorts of French music videos to sing and dance to in our living room.

I’m grateful that right now, my daughter still thinks it’s pretty cool to speak French.

I’m grateful that I, with a few minor exceptions, have had kind, patient, and encouraging French teachers that have made learning the language more akin to an imagined vacation overseas than the stereotypical browbeating, you’re-not-worthy treatment that makes for great stories down the road but aren’t all that fun in the moment.

I’m grateful for Sarah at Bringing Up Baby Bilingual and this page of hers that has made finding French in Colorado so easy for us.

I’m grateful for the community of bloggers I have found that help keep me motivated and inspired about this often difficult journey of raising children bilingually.

Most of all, I’m grateful for the world that being a bilingual family has opened to us. I’m a better, more tolerant, more open-minded, more patient, and I think more interesting person after learning how different languages, cultures, and families can be.

I love that we are a bilingual, bicultural family. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

French Children’s Books

 A friend of mine sent me this link to an article published in the Guardian on Terrifying French Children’s Books.

I’m torn in choosing a favorite among La Visite de petite mort (Death visits a little girl. He kills her), Le Voleur de Lily (The Thief of Lily – Lily is kidnapped), or Le Jour où Papa a tué sa vielle tante (The Day Daddy killed His Old Aunt – true crime for 7-year-olds).

French children’s books, like French movies, aren’t big on the whole “and they lived happily ever after forever and nothing bad ever happened again and everyone was delighted for always” endings. Moral messages don’t seem to be present in many books, either.

We are amassing a collection of French children’s books in our home. There’s one collection of pop up books that particularly caught my eye for their great art and classic stories, so I ordered several of them from Amazon.fr. Then I read them. Starting with Le petit poucet. Petit Poucet (Little Thumb) is the youngest of seven children. His parents run out of food and decide to abandon their children in the forest. Petit Poucet leads his siblings back to their home, so their parents take them out and abandon them, again. Successfully, this time. The children are captured by ogres who plan to make a fine meal of them, but Petit Poucet tricks the ogre into eating his own children instead. Woo hoo! Happy ending!

That book is no longer in our house. I can just hear my daughter every time we go hiking: “Mommy! (sob, sob) Are you going to leave us here so the ogres can eat us?”

There’s the classic: Alouette, gentille alouette. How many people actually know what the words are, other than the chorus? It’s about plucking all the feathers from the bird, then dismembering it. Slowly. While singing an upbeat tune. But the pictures are so pretty:

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Il était un petit navire: There was a little boat. The sailors run out of food and draw straws to decide which crew member will be dinner.

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A little boy draws the short straw and as the men discuss how to cook him and what sauce to use, he prays to the Virgin Mary to save him.

We're coming for you, little boy, with our sharp shiny knives!

We’re coming for you, little boy, with our sharp shiny knives!

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Happy ending! She does. In our version, anyway. Not so much in the traditional tale.

This pop up picture causes my poor son to burst into tears, every time. Le chat botté (Puss in Boots) is pretty freaky here:

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Granted, plenty of our nursery rhymes, songs, (Ring Around the Rosie, anyone?) and old fairy tales aren’t exactly geared for the modern child. But so many have been Disneyfied that we’ve become accustomed to happy endings, justice being served, and a palatable moral message. Though I still have huge issues with the Little Mermaid. She gives up her home, family, fins, and voice for a man? Ugh. Yes, honey, but the prince is so handsome!

Many of our most familiar fairy tales were first penned by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who lived and wrote in the 17th century and who is known as the initiator of the literary fairy tale. Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, and my favorite: Le Petit Poucet… all come from Perrault. He called his collection: Tales of Mother Goose. Château de Breteuil, just outside of Paris, has plays and displays all featuring the tales of Charles Perrault, plus beautiful gardens to wander through.

Beauty and the Beast, or La Belle et La Bête, was written by frenchwoman Jeanne Marie LePrince de Beaumont (the version as we best know it).

We have found several books that we enjoy. I love this little book, especially the illustrations, that I found on our last visit to France: La Fourmi voyageuse: The adventurous ant. It’s about a hardworking ant who is persuaded by a snail to leave his work and explore the world – “there’s hundreds of you working. No one will notice if you are absent for a moment!” The ant decides to ditch work and explore and he has a wonderful adventure and makes new friends:

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When he returns home, he tells the other ants of his adventures. The queen decides to give each ant some free time so they can all explore the forest, too. Hmmm. Sewing the seeds of, oh dear, dare I say the icky word, socialism? Pretty soon those ants will be expecting eight weeks vacation and free health care.

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The Petit ours brun series and T’choupi, both of which are also cartoons that are easily found on You Tube, are favorites.

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Babar is also one of my daughter’s favorites, though Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter (much like Bambi). We skip over that part for now.

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Misbehaving Mini-Loup (little wolf) is always wreaking havoc:

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But he usually pays for it:

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Then there’s Bécassine, the French version of one of my English favorites growing up: Amelia Bedelia:

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I look forward to visiting bookstores next time we’re in France. Any suggestions out there for children’s books we should read?

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.

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French Nationality, and More Bretagne

 

My husband and I are working on getting my French citizenship. Surprise: there are many complicated steps to the process and the instructions are difficult to decipher. At times, the steps seem convoluted simply for the sake of being difficult. So we emailed the man in charge at the local embassy. He will only communicate via email; he will not accept phone calls or appointments. In our email, we tried to clarify a few points we were confused on after our research on their website. He sent us a form letter back, politely inviting us to refer to their website for answers to our questions.

 

Oh, the French.

 

Today, I go to the Alliance Française to take an exam that will determine if my French is at a level adequate enough to become a citizen. Will I be worthy?

 

The hope is that if I am a citizen, our family can easily go to France for extended periods during which I can work there, and that all of us will have the right to move freely, or stay, in France and Western Europe. Plus, I think it would be really cool to have dual citizenship.

 

So, I’ll post some more photos of my beloved Bretagne, and then get back to the stack of paperwork that is French bureaucracy at its finest!

One of the great things about traveling in Bretagne, especially when you get away from the bigger cities like Nantes or Rennes, is that much of Bretagne is visited mainly by French tourists, if at all. It’s off the beaten path enough that it remains more authentic, untouched.

 

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Sunset at low tide

Sunset at low tide

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

St. Cado, one of the most photographed homes, because the tide isolates it

One of the most photographed homes in St Cado because the tide isolates it

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Benodet

Benodet

Concarneau

Concarneau

German bunker from WWII

German bunker from WWII

Hay! Hey! (That's for my brother)

Hay! Hey! (That’s for my brother)

Fresh caught oysters

Fresh caught oysters

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

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Mmmm

Mmmm

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Catch of the day at the outdoor market

Catch of the day at the outdoor market in Locmariaquer

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Merde

Often, when we learn a new language, the first words we learn are the swear words. This was true for me with Spanish – as a kid, when my dad worked on the family car, I learned all sorts of fantastic Spanish words. Perhaps he believed that if he swore in a different language, his impressionable little ones wouldn’t pick up on it.

Oh, but we did.

With French, though, it was different. I began studying French when I was 28 with the sweetest, most patient French professor ever. (Madame Loiseau – merci pour tout!) I didn’t give much thought to enriching my vocabulary in that direction; I needed to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “sorry about that, I’m a huge klutz.”

A year later, while living in Paris and attending a French immersion program, I spent mornings before school watching Inside the Actors’ Studio, broadcast in English with French subtitles. The host, James Lipton, always wrapped up the show by asking each actor he was interviewing the same five questions, one of which was, “What is your favorite curse word?”

Thus, I learned the good stuff.

The funny thing, though, is it all sounds like nonsense to me. A lot of these words have no direct translation, and since I don’t always know the connotation and I’m not used to hearing them used, I don’t have a good feel for how vulgar or tame they really are. Merde, for example, is somewhere on the scale between “crap” and “shit.” A kid will get in trouble for saying it, but an adult throwing it into normal conversation, even in a French class, will at most garner a few giggles. The word putain is listed in my French/English dictionary as “whore” or “goddam” or “bloody” if you’re British. But actually it’s France’s equivalent of the “f” word.

Enter my brother-in-law. I adore my brother-in-law. But sometimes, when he talks, I wonder if I really do speak French at all. He uses so many colloquialisms and slang words, plus he mumbles, so I can hardly follow what he’s saying. And – he’s got a potty mouth.

I learned some new words from him on a trip to France a few years ago. A woman walked off the train with his suitcase when he came from Lyon to Antibes to visit us one weekend.  Several hours later, she called him to let him know about the “mix-up.”  When he hung up his phone, he said, or rather yelled, “Grosse Conne!”  Literally, it translates to “huge idiot.”  No big deal, right?

Back in Paris a few weeks later, we were joking with my brother-in-law about the incident, and I mimicked the way he had yelled at his closed cell phone. I didn’t quite yell it, but I said it loud enough that my mother-in-law came running into the room in a state of panic and cried, “C’est Carol? Ce n’est pas possible!” (“Was that Carol?  It couldn’t be!”)  I suddenly felt like I was a misbehaving twelve-year-old. So I did what any twelve-year-old would do: I blamed it on someone else. “He taught it to me.” Turns out grosse conne is quite a bit more vulgar than “huge idiot.” Which is impossible to know unless you spend time around native speakers and embarrass yourself several times. I try to take the safe route – I want to know these words and phrases so I can tell if I’m being insulted, but I tend to not say them.

Except for merde. I like that one.

[Full Disclosure: This was originally published on my author website in 2008]