Fruit for my Labor

When working with preschoolers, it can be difficult to see if my efforts are making any impact whatsoever. I faithfully show up at my kids’ preschool each week (although this winter I’ve been sick more than not, so several sessions have unfortunately been cancelled, and my blogging has clearly suffered as well) hoping that maybe the children will greet me with a “Bonjour!”, sing along with me, count with me, and repeat after me.

Several of them do seem to remember the songs we sing; it’s so fun when they sing along. After a session where we played hide and seek with plastic dinosaurs and the kids had to help me count them and sort them by color, one or two went home and surprised their parents with a little, “un, deux, trois,” and a “Do you know how to say ‘blue’ in French? Bleu!”

But this one made my day: Apparently a game of duck, duck, goose broke out on the preschool play yard last week. We’ve played it a few times together – I can’t resist going outside with the kids on some of these gorgeous Colorado days. It’s been several months since it was warm enough to play “Canard, canard, oie,” but still: a couple of students – and not ones biologically related to me – insisted that the game be played IN FRENCH! How awesome is that?

So – it’s working. Even with only 20-30 minutes a week, these kiddos are picking up the French I’m teaching. Best of all: they want to use French. To show off to their parents, and to play with each other.

That’s success, in my book.

In Support of Total Immersion

I grew up during the old-school era of second-language learning. We filled in the blanks, conjugated verbs, and memorized vocabulary lists. Entry level classes, and sometimes even intermediate and advanced classes, were taught in English. Speaking in the second language was a part of those classes, but not a huge part, and when we did speak, it was awkwardly and amidst classmates making fun of each other’s accents.

Today, language learning is (thankfully) progressing toward total immersion. In my college classes, and in the high school and junior high classes that I’ve observed, instructors use the target language to teach. Students are expected to participate by speaking, and by writing and reading in the foreign language. Oh, how far we’ve come! It seems so obvious that to learn a language, the best method is to be immersed in that language. After all, that’s how we learn our first language, right? Hearing it, using it, being surrounded by it, even bombarded with it (think of the way parents talk and talk to their babies, while the babies stare in rapt attention, taking it all in). So I was caught off guard when a parent in one of my preschool classes expressed concern that the class was being done all in French, without providing translations for the kids.

It’s uncomfortable to be immersed in a language you don’t understand. I get it. When I was in my 20s, I signed up for a conversational French class along with a friend. Neither of us had any prior exposure to French (other than “Lady Marmalade” lyrics; the Moulin Rouge version was very popular at the time). In the second class, our teacher started asking us questions. In French. I remember our reaction well: I looked at my friend and said, “What the hell?” and she muttered, “This is ridiculous.”

The thing is, we were able to find in our notes what our teacher was saying, and we were able to answer her questions by the time she came around the circle to us. As adults, we use resources (textbooks, notes, dictionaries) to follow along. A good teacher will be expressive and enunciate clearly, helping students to comprehend. For children, when they are provided with plenty of visual aids, gestures, manipulatives, and expressive use of the language, they will understand.

I’ve since become a big believer in total immersion. I do believe that for beginners, an occasional break into English to explain grammar rules or a difficult definition/concept can help. After all, as adult learners, we assimilate, compare, and use our first language to build on. But children don’t need this. They learn differently. They aren’t taking notes or trying to understand why we use le passé composé vs l’imparfait. They are making natural language associations in the same way they do with their first language.

The best way to learn a language is in an interactive exchange – regardless of the age of the learner. Lectures, vocab lists, conjugating verbs, all of these things have their place, but to learn a language, one must actively use it. By immersing in it.

A monolingual friend asked me if, when I write papers in French, I write them first in English then translate them. I know classmates who do this, but I consider this too difficult. Translation is no easy feat, and for me, it’s so much easier to write in French from the get go, to immerse my brain, my train of thought, my writing in the language that the paper must be written in. Learning by constant internal translation is a hindrance to language learning. Trying to formulate every thought in one language then translating it to another is far too much work. For so many things, no direct translation exists. There are turns of phrases, ways of expressing things, that are unique to each language. It’s not just a bunch of memorized vocabulary words: using a second language often involves a different way of thinking and approaching a problem, an explanation, a paper.

It’s uncomfortable at first, no doubt. But when you first realize that you are thinking in that second language as you use it, rather than translating from your native tongue, you’ve made a huge leap forward toward bi/multilingualism. And immersion is an essential component of this process.

French Immersion for Children 0-5 in Boulder, Colorado!

Once again, Sarah of Bringing up Baby Bilingual and I will be offering a French immersion class for preschool-aged children! Our classes are fun, interactive, and immersive. Tuition includes admission to Play! at Grandrabbit’s (a $10 value per class), and sibling discounts are also offered. Come join us for the fun! Sign up here.

 

 

 

Lessons All Around

I’ve been unintentionally quiet this semester. I find it funny that I’ve gone back to thinking of the year in terms of semesters – but such is life when you are in school! That’s right, I’m back in school, because apparently a doctorate degree in physical therapy just isn’t enough. I’m enrolled in one class this semester at University of Colorado, Boulder, an upper division French literature class. As a person who both loves to read and loves to write, I thought literature classes would be right up my alley. Ha! It’s kicking my butt. Despite years of read and critique sessions with my writers’ groups, analyzing literature has not come naturally to me. I think it’s because so often, we try to find deep meaning in every word written, and I’ve listened to enough writers’ reactions to interpretations of their work to know that choices can often be quite arbitrary: “I used that word because I like it.” “The curtains weren’t blue because the main character is horribly depressed or longs to sink into the ocean or fly off to a place far, far away. They are blue because my grandmother’s curtains were blue.” “Really? That’s what you got out of it? Huh. Cool!”

That said, I have to admire my professor, because I find her persistent questions to be quite thought provoking and they’ve made me a better reader, a better analyzer, and a better speaker. She doesn’t let us get away with a pat explanation – we have to defend our opinions and answer a series of “whys” before she’s satisfied. So now, I feel like I can hang in there better when I get into a heady discussion in French. And I have concrete knowledge of Sartre, Molière, Hugo, and several other depressing French writers. Okay, not all of them are depressing, but I need a healthy dose of Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn after some of my homework assignments.

In addition to working on my French, I’ve started private lessons for my kiddos. We finally decided to try it, because while they understand everything said to them, they are becoming passive bilinguals – not using the language, and unfortunately, even resisting it. I felt they needed someone aside from Mom and Papa speaking French with them, giving them a gentle nudge toward speaking in French. At only 45 minutes a week, I’ve seen huge improvements. My son sang “Sur le pont, d’Avignon” the entire time we trick-or-treated (while wearing a Winnie the Pooh costume – too adorable). He’s been much more resistant to French than his big sister, so seeing him sing – even if it’s screaming at the top of his lungs “POMME DE REINETTE ET POMME D’API!” brings a huge grin to my face. Certain words have stuck themselves in his brain, and he now uses those French words rather than the English ones. Turns out my daughter has a really broad vocabulary – she’s spouting off words I don’t know, and ones that I didn’t know she knew. They are starting to respond to us in French more often when we speak French to them. But best of all, sometimes, when they are playing together, I hear them go into French.

My professor made this comment the other day: At our level, intermediate, progress is much harder than any other level. She advised increased exposure through reading and movies rather than studying grammar (which I tend to pound myself with, hoping those conjugation and “petit mot” mistakes I make will be beaten out of me). She pointed out that progress won’t be in leaps and bounds. The huge epiphanies I experienced as a beginner haven’t happened in a long time. It was a good reality check, because I’ve been frustrated with my slow progress and blaming it on any number of things: age, not working hard enough, maybe I’m not gifted in languages, perhaps the only answer is living in France for a while…. So, lessons all around, and small steps forward. The bilingual journey continues.

Killing the Myths

This post is part of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival. For other entries in this month’s carnival, check out Annabelle’s blog at the Piri Piri Lexicon.

I’m lucky to be raising my bilingual kids at a time when it’s “cool” to do so. Resources and research are easily found; information and advice on the subject are growing exponentially. Even seven, eight years ago, when I first started looking into raising children with two languages, I had a hard time finding resources.

The flip side of this is, of course, too much advice can leave one feeling overwhelmed and incompetent. Parenting today – we’re bombarded with all the things we “should” be doing, a never-ending list of all the things our kids can’t live without if we want them to succeed in life. It’s enough to leave us feeling completely inadequate and deciding that throwing in the towel is the only reasonable approach.

I often find myself embarrassed when people ask me how my children’s French is coming along. The truth is, their English has far outrun their French. But then, that’s to be expected, as we live in an English-speaking country and their primary caregiver, me, speaks mostly in English with them. Still, given all this, their French is pretty decent. Good, I’d venture to say. Their comprehension is excellent, and while they are at times reluctant to use it with us at home, when put in a situation where they need to use French, they break out in full sentences, sometimes surprising me with how much they can say.

Here are a few of the myths on raising bilingual children that we’re disproving:

Children must be exposed to the minority language at least 30% of the time.

My husband speaks to our kids exclusively in French. So that means weekdays we are at maybe 10-15%. Add to that my occasional use of the language with them, plus increased exposure on weekends, I’d generously say we’re at 20%. So we recently added private lessons: 45 minutes weekly. With this small bump in exposure time, their spontaneous use of French has increased dramatically. I catch them speaking French to each other, they are more at ease speaking French with their father, and they even use it with me. I conclude, from this anecdotal experiment, that it is the quality of the exposure and not the quantity that’s crucial. Forty-five minutes of a lesson focused on participating and using the language can produce better results than a few extra hours of exposure during day-to-day activities.

Non-native, non-fluent speakers should not try to speak the minority language.

So, I’m neither native nor perfectly fluent. I make mistakes in both pronunciation and grammar. But there is such a thing as “good enough” and I’m definitely there. There’s no doubt that the kids learn from me. And they have not picked up my American accent; in fact, they are helping me to perfect my accent and pronunciation!

One parent speaking in two different languages will confuse the child.

Early on, both of my kids showed signs they understood the two languages were separate. I’ll never forget looking at a picture of a little boy, and my 18-month old daughter pointing to the car in his hand and saying, “voiture.” I said, “Good! Do you know what that is in English?” not really expecting her to understand my question. “Car,” she answered without hesitation. I pointed to a ball. “What is that?” “Ball.” “What is it called in French? “Balle,” she responded, with perfect French pronunciation. We went through several more words, and it was clear that she was already differentiating, in her mind, two languages. They have their funny Franglais words and phrases: “Mommy, I’m betiseing.” The other day, my son asked for the, “caterpillar song”, meaning the French song about the chenille. I’d never referred to it as the caterpillar song. Research shows that code-switching, rather than being a sign of confusion, can be a sign that children are mastering both languages, especially as we see grammar rules applied appropriately (as in the “betiseing“). So yes, I hop back and forth between the languages, and my kids hop right along with me. No confusion here.

Learning two languages at once will delay the development of the majority language.

Not in our house – I’m blessed with a couple of chatterboxes! They’ve been well ahead of the averages in their English language development all along. And when we added in the French words they knew – they’ve been progressing just fine there, too.

The only way to learn a foreign language is to live in a country where the language is spoken.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t help, simply because the exposure to the language increases exponentially, and a person is forced to use the language. Yet – we’ve all encountered immigrants who’ve lived in a country for decades and still have great difficulty with the language. Living in country can often emphasize errors and poor grammar, as immigrants are forced to speak through their mistakes, and locals are often reluctant to correct them. Quality exposure to a language can happen in classroom situations, where a qualified teacher (or parent!) can help refine language skills. Again, when learning a language quality exposure can far outweigh quantity.

So, given all this, I’m less embarrassed and more proud of how far we’ve come as a bilingual family. I know the language is embedding itself into my children’s heads. I see it when they break out in full sentences or memorized songs. I hear it in their perfect accents. I see it in their faces as they understand the stories we read. It’s working. Despite it all, we are becoming bilingual.

 

I came across this great article on Facts and Myths while writing my article. Check it out!

http://www.languagestars.com/program-overview/research-about-language-for-kids/facts-and-myths.html

And now go check out the other blog posts for the carnival!

And have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

A little bilingual trivia:

Turkeys in English say: Gobble gobble gobble

Turkeys in French say: Glou glou glou

 

Triathlons

Before we left for San Diego this summer, I completed my first triathlon. Apparently, that’s what you must do to assimilate in Boulder. Either that or grow dreadlocks and walk around barefoot, maybe topless. I chose triathlon.

Time magazine recently published a “Healthiest Places to Live” issue. Winner of Best Place for Keeping Fit: Boulder, CO. I’ve lived in some athletic cities, but this place tops them all. Seriously: the guy next to me at Starbucks, right now as I work on this post, he’s on some app working on his Activity Log and totalling his Calorie Count. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a cyclist. Trails around town are covered with runners and mountain bikers. Olympic and professional athletes abound.

I’ve always been active, and for a long time toyed with the idea of trying a triathlon. Now that I’m living in triathlon central, I thought: why not? Naive, perhaps, as I gave up running years ago because of back pain, I just bought my first bike that didn’t have a basket or streamers on it, and the only swimming I do tends to be a snorkeling trip every few years. But I’m not one to be deterred by details.

The biggest hurdle for me, as it is for most people, was the swim. I took lessons, got up at 5:00 a.m. twice a week to go to a pool workout, and when the Boulder Aquatic Masters began their open water swim sessions at the Boulder Reservoir, I showed up thinking – I so totally have this.

Then I spent the first few sessions dog paddling around the short course, completely panicked, assuring the lifeguards that no, I don’t need a boat ride back to the shore, I’m perfectly fine, thank you very much (I can be a stubborn beast when I want to be. Sometimes even when I don’t want to be. I just can’t help myself). Eventually, with much help from the talented BAM coaches, I overcame my fear and got to a place where I felt relaxed, confident even, in the swim.

After one of the open water swim sessions, I stood on the shore watching the 150 or so swimmers and feeling like, well, an idiot for signing up for a triathlon and more than mildly embarrassed at how awkward I was in the water. A triathlete friend came over to me and said, “Carol, this is no ordinary open water swim. This is BOULDER. There are pros out there, even Olympians, plus experienced athletes who win their age groups in the big races. Don’t compare yourself to them.” She then asked me, “Do you know who that is? The coach you were talking to?” One of the coaches – Jane – had been giving me great and very calming advice after the swim. “That’s Jane Scott. One of the best swim coaches in the country. Her brother is Dave Scott.”

Dave Scott, of Ironman fame. Recognized as one of the top two triathletes of all time. Lives in, you guessed it, Boulder.

I love living in a place like this, where active, healthy lifestyles are so embraced. Where people think getting up at 5:00 am to get a workout in is a healthy choice, not a sign I should start seeing a psychotherapist. In comparison, it’s one of the aspects of French culture that is difficult for me. Exposed breasts aren’t given a second thought, but wearing running shorts in Paris (for a woman, anyway) is treated as an affront to civilized society. Many French people I know think that exercising more than a couple days a week is tantamount to an obsessive compulsive disorder. Walking here and there is exercise enough. As for French women? They don’t sweat. They don’t do things that might make them sweat. Exercise? Why bother, when you could just avoid eating? My most vivid memory of my super skinny host mom when I stayed in France is of her sitting at the breakfast table stirring, stirring, stirring a coffee mug half filled with Nestle chocolate milk, never eating or drinking, only stirring and always a cigarette clenched between her lips.

Here’s a picture I took in Nice a few years ago of athletes checking in for the next day’s Ironman. Notice anything missing?

Checking in at the Ironman in Nice, France

Checking in at the Ironman in Nice, France

Yep. Women! Females made up less than 10% of that triathlon, which is the typical rate for Ironman events in Europe (in the US it’s 25% for Ironman and 30% for 70.3 events). Most of them were not French. Of course French female athletes do exist. It’s just not the norm, and not something French girls aspire to.

In Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, he talks about his experience trying to find a gym to join in Paris during the mid-1990s. He finds a “New York-style” gym, presented as a gym that would “bring the rigorous, uncompromising spirit of the New York health club to Paris: its discipline, its toughness, its regimental quality.” he describes the sales pitch given by a chic young woman in a red track suit: “They had organized a special ‘high-intensity’ program in which, for the annual sum of about two thousand francs (four hundred dollars), you could make an inexorable New York-style commitment to your physique and visit the gym as often as once a week.” When the author suggests that he might want to come more often and explained that it’s not unknown for New Yorkers to go to the gym almost daily, the chic saleswoman is perplexed and comments that it must be a “wearing regimen.”

I love being active and fit. I love the achy tingle of muscles pushed to their limits. I love that my kids cheered me on during my triathlon, ringing cowbells and shouting, “Go, Mommy!” I love that my daughter, after watching me, said, “Can I do a triathlon with you next time?” One of the big reasons we (and many others) choose to live in Colorado was for the active lifestyle we could have here, and so the norm for our kids, as my husband put it, is, “A girl riding her bike rather than walking around in stillettos.”

My husband didn’t grow up playing sports or participating in athletics. While most US high schools have sports teams of some kind, sports and school are completely dissociated in France. Kids who want to play a sport must join a private team. My husband, for the most part, has embraced the active lifestyle we’ve found first in San Diego, and now here. He doesn’t love getting out of bed early to get his exercise in, but he buys the idea that daily exercise is important to health. He even started riding his bike to work in addition to working out in the gym.

We’re becoming true Boulderites, both of us. All of us, really, with our kids hiking, climbing on rocks, and playing outside whenever they can. It’s a beautiful life, we think.

Me, happily approaching the finish line

Me, happily approaching the finish line

Rock climbing kiddos

Rock climbing kiddos

 

New French Classes in Boulder!

My friend and fellow blogger, Sarah at Bringing up Baby Bilingual, and I will be offering French lessons for the 0-5 age group starting Monday, October 20 at Grandrabbits Play!

So exciting!

Our mutual interest in blogging and raising our children bilingually led me to meet Sarah when I moved to Boulder last year. We’ve been talking for a while about restarting the French story time at the Lafayette library, as well as forming playgroups for French speaking children. In a classic case of right place at the right time, I happened to be at Play! one morning and found out they were hoping to start French classes. Sarah and I put together a proposal and Voila! We’re doing it!

We’re so excited to begin – we have lots of fun activities planned. So for those of you who live around here, Play! is running a promotion this Friday (tomorrow) where if you sign up for our class, you also get a free month of access to their indoor play area. What a great idea as the weather cools and the snow starts to fall!

Hope to see some fellow francophiles there!