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!

Harvest Time!

This post is part of this month’s blogging carnival put on by Multicultural Kids Blogs. This month’s host is Varya at Creative World of Varya. Check out links to the other posts from around the world on her page!

Fall colors outside of Boulder, Colorado

Fall colors outside of Boulder, Colorado

Truth is, I know very little about harvest season. I, like so many in the U.S., am completely removed from any real harvesting. While living in San Diego, large city in the land of one season, it was hard to feel connected to the land or the cycles of life. Now that we’re in Colorado, I feel closer to those cycles. Each season brings a new palate of colors. We drive past fields of cattle, horses, and hay every day. Yet we still find pineapple and mango in the grocery store in December, tomatoes year round, produce from anywhere in the world during any month. I find myself indignant if I can’t fulfill my every desire. “What? No figs? That’s ridiculous. I don’t care if it’s February.” As much as I love the locavore movement and the idea of following the seasons in our food choices, I have an impatient and demanding palate that doesn’t like to be told no.

128 GrapesStill, I’m trying to learn. Fall harvest time for us means visits to local farms to pick apples from trees, searching for pumpkins to turn into jack-o-lanterns and pies, and when we were still in California, BK (before kids), visiting wine country. It’s strange that my children don’t have a real sense of where food comes from. If I’m honest with myself, I’m not much better informed. Produce is in the grocery store, in abundance, in the U.S. I know that’s not the world-wide norm, but my children haven’t learned that. Behind our home there’s a large open space that must have been a fruit tree grove at some point. Our babysitter knows where to find the good pears, apples, and even raspberries and has been introducing our kids to the plants. Me – I don’t trust myself to know what’s edible. I’m that disconnected from recognizing food in the “wild.”

When the apocalpyse hits, my family and I are screwed.

Visiting an apple orchard in Julian, California

Visiting an apple orchard in Julian, California

Seasonal produce at Trader Joe's in Boulder, CO

Seasonal produce at Trader Joe’s in Boulder, CO

This year, we’ll visit the apple orchards and the pumpkin patches. I love it; it’s such fun, and the kids enjoy being outside and seeing those huge, often gnarly and assymetric pumpkins. We’ll drag a brightly painted wagon behind us and collect our goods, then pay for them on our way out. We’ll go to harvest festivals, where there are petting zoos, face painting, live music, and jumping castles. It’s all so disconnected from the backbreaking work going on in farms all over the country. I suggested once that it would be fun to participate in harvest season at a vineyard. My husband looked at me like I was crazy. Turns out he did it once: when he was in the French army, the local vineyards used the recruits to harvest their grapes. I pictured a romantic day under the soft fall sunlight in Provence, selecting the best wine grapes and dreaming of what they would become. I asked him what it was like.

“It was backbreaking work! I never want to do it again.” He went on to describe spending hours hunched over vines under a blazing sun, and the monotony of picking grape after grape. He only had to do it for a day, maybe two, but it was enough to appreciate how difficult a job it is.

Next month, November, in the U.S., we have Thanksgiving and the holiday’s traditional symbol: the cornucopia, or “horn of plenty.” The symbol of abundance and nourishment. A good time to remember how good we have it, here. To give thanks for our abundance of food, for a harvest season made into a game for us and our families. For those out there working the harvest – all over the world – keeping our grocery stores stocked and our bellies full. Thank you. Merci.

Pumpkin patch in Longmont, Colorado

Pumpkin patch in Longmont, Colorado

Pumpkin patch in Lafayette, Colorado

Pumpkin patch in Lafayette, Colorado

August in France

The month of August in France: when the entire country goes on vacation. Shops in Paris close down, the Côte d’Azur fills with tourists. It’s hard not to love a country so intent on enjoying itself. In the U.S., the thought of closing a store or restaurant for a day, let alone a week or a month, merits close consideration of risks, costs, and benefits. Business owners just don’t do it. Yet I’ve seen boulangeries in Paris with handwritten signs in their windows declaring themselves closed, temporarily, with no explanation and often no details on when they plan to reopen. Weeks later, the doors open once more, the scent of fresh pastries drift onto the sidewalk, and the well-rested shop owners smile, nothing amiss. My business owner friends in the U.S. would never close their doors so they could take a vacation. American customers have expectations that our favorite haunts will be there for us, without fail, and if they aren’t, well, forget them. We’ll find somewhere else. And we do. I’ve seen French business owners in the U.S. try to operate their shops à la française… they never last. Often they are perplexed as to why they lost their “loyal” customers. The French in France and their lack of concern for the “consequences” of shutting their doors enjoy a freedom that’s hard to comprehend, yet hard not to admire.

My husband misses summers in France – as a child, August meant days filled with sailing on the Mediterranean, staying up late as the day never seemed to end, and enjoying time with his whole family; they were able to leave their jobs and go on vacation for most of the month.

So, instead, we have: Le Point. A major weekly news magazine in France. DSC02060

Le Point keeps my husband connected to the goings-on in his home country. But in August, the magazine fills up with articles on history and philosophy, many of them probably written long ago and pieced together to make a full magazine. As if even the politically-obsessed French, journalists and readers alike, can’t be bothered with current events and politics while on vacation. Instead, it’s filled with stories, like the issue above, featuring Rome’s fall. Still highly intellectual and analytical, along with a bit of purple prose, it’s a touch of downtime. A beach read, French style.

Soon, Paris streets will once again fill with people dressed in their dark clothes, doing the métro-boulot-dodo. One weekend left – for the French, and for us, here – before school begins. The mornings in Colorado are already crisp, the sun rising later and setting earlier; fall is in the air.

One more weekend to celebrate summer, have a BBQ, and read Le Point.

Enjoy!

Me Thinks Thou Doth Protest Too Much

I’m assured it happens with all kids growing up bilingually, but it’s still hard to see my daughter pitching fits every time we try to coax her to speak in French. She understands most everything she hears but she typically responds in English. Lately, she tells me she doesn’t want to speak French, begs me not to speak French, and sometimes collapses into crying fits complaining that speaking French is too hard. With my husband, her protests are only slightly less intense. Aside from a few well-worn phrases, she responds to him in English only as well.

Here’s what we’ve done right so far:

My husband started off speaking to our kids exclusively in French from their births. Actually, he spoke to them in French when they were in the womb. Except the one time he cupped his hands around his mouth, placed them against my pregnant belly, and said in his best Darth Vader impression: “Baby. I. Am. Your. Father.”

For him, speaking to his kids in French, despite the fact that he’s French and French is his first language, wasn’t completely natural at first. He’s lived and worked in the US since his mid-twenties, and he married an English-speaking American, so his life has been in English for quite some time. Once he made the adjustment, though, he’s stuck with it. A lot of parents give up at the first sign of discomfort from their kids. I get it – no one wants to feel like an instrument of torture to their own offspring.

We’ve tried to make it fun. We’ve cheered our kids on when they use their French.

We’ve found French classes, French story times, and other children who speak French, so the kids can see people other than their own parents speaking French.

I’ve tried to speak more French with them. We do grocery shopping in French. French dinners twice a week – where the whole family speaks French. I play French music in the car and we all sing along.

Here’s where we went wrong: 

I fear that allowing our daughter to respond in English when French was spoken to her was a bad idea. English is her stronger language; I speak it, everyone around her speaks it. She started out responding to my husband in French, but somehow, gradually over the last several months, her responses transitioned to English only.

So we tried to help her form phrases in French when she became frustrated and protested… and now she’ll only repeat what we say, or tell us that she’ll ask her question/tell us what she needs to tell us when we go back to speaking in English.

I’ve become the mom I didn’t want to be: calling out to my daughter: “Il faut parler en Francais!” And to my husband: “Lentement, tu parles trop vite!

Can you tell who’s type A in our household?

My mantra has become: I’d rather them be mad at me now because I’m pushing them to speak French than mad at me when they’re grown because I didn’t.

But the truth is, no parent enjoys seeing their kids upset, especially when we, the parents, are the source of that discomfort. There’s a fine line between pushing hard enough that we get over this hurdle, and pushing so hard that our kids decide they’ll just kick all the hurdles aside, sprint away from us to the finish line, and give us the finger when they arrive there. (Luckily they don’t know that gesture yet).

A friend of mine, who is also raising her children bilingually (Hi, Sarah!), astutely pointed out that we push and expect our kids to say, “Please,” and “Thank you,” among other things, so is it really that different to push and expect a response in the same language we address them with?

I’m reassured that in the French class we take, my daughter is speaking to the teacher mostly in French. (My son, almost 2, responds in whatever language he’s addressed with, or with whatever word or phrase is on his mind, regardless of the language. My daughter did the same at that age.) I’ve caught my daughter pulling out French children’s books and “reading” to her brother – also in French. Sometimes her doudous (stuffed animals) speak French to each other.

Still – we’re thinking it’s time to go a little more hardcore. As in, “We’re speaking in French now, please respond in French!” and though I swore I’d try to avoid this, our daughter giggles when we playfully say, “Opf! Je ne comprends pas ! Je parle francais (pour le moment) !” It even elicits a French phrase from her, most of the time.

When all else fails, we just point out that Elsa speaks both French and English. That works. For now.

French Lessons for Preschoolers

This post is part of the Multicultural Kid Blogs Blogging Carnival, hosted this month by Isabelle at Multilingual Education Cafe. This month’s topic is The Multilingual Classroom. Be sure to follow the link to Isabelle’s blog to find the other great posts on this topic, starting March 17!

As some of my dear readers may recall, I made a New Year’s resolution to teach French lessons at my daughter’s preschool. I’m following through and now I’m two months in.

Teaching preschoolers is no easy feat, but trying to teach them in a foreign language – wheh! Way harder than I expected. And I never expected a cake walk. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time outside the classroom brainstorming ideas, prepping, finding and making props, and even test driving ideas on my own kids before taking my lessons to the school. Still – it’s even more than I anticipated.

My daughter’s preschool is a mixed-age class of 2 1/2 to 5-year-olds. One large area houses the preschool where there are various “open” and “closed” rooms. A teacher hosts each open area, and activities vary from structured to free play. If a child decides s/he doesn’t want to stay in one of the rooms, they are free to leave and find a different activity to participate in.

So my work is cut out for me. I have to keep things fun, exciting, engaging, or I lose them. Literally. They announce (or not) that they are done and they walk out. So far, my lessons have ranged from being so fun the kids literally dogpile me, or so boring (to some) that once one little girl interrupted me to say (in a voice that sounded more like a 14-year-old than a 4-year-old), “I’m tired of this. When are we going to do something else?”

Ouch.

Luckily I’ve already learned that one must shelve the ego when dealing with preschoolers.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much I’d end up resorting to English. In my mind, the kids  wouldn’t understand everything I said, but they’d pick bits and pieces up from the 30 minutes a week and eventually it would amount to something. I didn’t want to use English, the first and only language for nearly all of them, because, well, total immersion is better, right?

That may be true in situations where you have a captive audience. When a classroom teacher is in the room with me encouraging the kids to participate, things run more smoothly. Outside of preschool, I attend a weekly French lesson with my children for kids aged 0-5, and parent participation there is key: it’s the parents that make sure the kids stay on track. While the lessons are engaging, kids this age still have short attention spans, and certainly aren’t invested in learning a second language just for the sake of bilingualism.

If the kids in my classes don’t understand me – I lose them. The older ones will tell me, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Even explaining to a child this age to watch my gestures, my expressions, what I’m pointing at, doesn’t necessarily make it easier for them.

Here’s what I’ve found that works:

Movement: They need to boogie. So we saute (jump), we nage (swim), we vole (fly), we danse (dance), we fait du ski (ski) etc.

Food: Lessons about food. With props. Making crêpes was a huge hit – nearly all the kids wanted in on that one!

Me, practicing the perfect crepe flip so I could look like an expert in class!

Me, practicing the perfect crêpe flip so I could look like an expert in class!

Success!

Success!

Keep it Simple: Duh, says anyone who knows a preschooler. Still, I felt the need initially to  go grand. I’ll put those plans for multiple lessons centered around a story and song theme complete with role-playing and art projects aside for now, perhaps for when the kiddos are older. Now I know: Simple songs, simple stories, lots of props, and lots of repetition. We’ll sing some “Mains en l’air,” dance to music, and point to our pieds and our cheveux.

Doing Stuff: We took an “airplane ride” to Paris where we all sat in our seats, buckled up, flew through the sky, hit a bit of turbulence (they loved that!), then landed. In Paris, we made Eiffel towers out of Legos. What a great opportunity to learn counting and colors! They didn’t even know I snuck that in there.

Songs: We sing all sorts of traditional French songs, plus a couple that I’ve made up in French to familiar tunes (thanks for the tip, Sarah at Baby Bilingual!)

Enthusiasm and Expression: There’s no doubt that I have to be on. There’s no half-ing it in teaching. The second I lose my exuberance, the kids lose interest. If I’m not emphasizing things through expressions, gestures, pointing, etc., they’re lost. And that’s frustrating for them.

Resorting to English for short explanations: I try to avoid translating everything, as the kids simply learn from this to tune out until the English comes. But sometimes, the kids need the “anchor” provided by their mother tongue. I give them this when I see their brows coming together in confusion, or when I anticipate they will need it.

The encouraging thing is that I have a little group of regulars; 7 or 8 kids who get excited when I walk in and ask me what we’re going to do that day. They give me hugs, big grins, and the occasional, “Bonjour !” Some are picking up basics: a few colors, counting, body parts. And this is exactly what I had hoped for. Some interest and enthusiasm. Awareness that other languages exist. Empowerment of knowing they can learn those languages. And the laying of the groundwork for second (third etc) language acquisition that is so essential at this early age.

I’m learning a lot from this, in what I consider the beginning of my journey as a language teacher. So far, I’m going to call it a success.

La Politesse, and a Few Tips on How to Get Along With the French

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

The French can be unfailingly polite.

No, really, I’m being serious.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone who has traveled to France comes home with some story about a rude Frenchman or Frenchwoman who treated them horribly and worse, seemed to enjoy it. It’s almost like we look for those moments now: it’s a rite of passage. We need a commemorative “I survived talking to a French person” T-shirt.

Yet the truth is, there is much politesse in the French culture, we just don’t understand it  because their social rules are different from ours.

I’ve witnessed arguments between strangers where despite the obvious disagreement, they continue to address each other as “Madame,” et “Monsieur.” Usually without sarcasm. Ever had a homeless person hop onto your metro car to ask for money? Their speeches often mirror each other, and usually begin with a grand, “Mesdames et Messieurs, pardonez-moi de vous deranger.…” Translation: Ladies and Gentlemen, please pardon me for bothering you…. Even the term used for the homeless is more dignified than the word “homeless.” It’s SDF, or “Sans Domicile Fixe.” Translation: Without a fixed home.

Whenever I travel to France, it’s as if a flip switches in my head and I go into French mode. Things that would drive me crazy here become tolerable, because I’ve spent enough time there to understand why things are as they are, and to better know what to expect.

Kind of.

Who am I kidding. There are some things the French do that I will never understand, no matter how many times my husband or my French friends try to explain them to me (or deny their existence). At any rate, here are a few examples of things you can do to make your next trip to France run more smoothly:

When entering a store, always greet the shopkeeper with a “Bonjour.” While here in the US it’s not uncommon to enter a store without acknowledging, or being acknowledged by, the employees there, in France it’s considered incredibly rude. Same for leaving. Make sure you say, “Au revoir.” Toss in a “Bonne journée !” or a “Merci !” for good measure.

Flower shop in Paris

Flower shop in Paris

Try out some French, even if it’s only to say, “Pardonez-moi, mais je ne parle pas Français. Is it okay to speak English?” After all, the French have grown tired of people walking up to them and barking out a foreign language. I know I’d grow tired of it. I’ve been scolded by patients incensed that I don’t speak Spanish fluently, and that never brought out my benevolent side. Ease into the conversation, and the French are much more likely to be okay with speaking English.

Personal space there is very different from here; the French require much less of it. So if someone is bumping right up against you without acknowledging that they’ve jostled you, don’t take it personally. It’s all normal for them.

Chances are, the waiter is not ignoring you. The French like their meals long and uninterrupted. Unlike the US, where tables must turn over quickly in order for the restaurant to make money and the waiters to make adequate tips, in France, if you reserve a table, it’s pretty much yours for the night. A waiter won’t bring your bill unless you ask for it. To do otherwise would be rude, the equivalent of asking you to leave.

Just because the French person you’re speaking with isn’t grinning and enthusiastic, it doesn’t mean they’re annoyed with you. Well, they might be. But it’s more likely that it’s just a cultural thing: the French don’t grin and get enthusiastic in conversations with strangers. They are more reserved and tend to hold back until they get to know you. Give them a chance to warm up and you may end up making a great new friend. I’ve been told by my European friends that they knew I was American because I’m always smiling. I see this as a good thing, but I’ve also come to realize that the huge grin that comes so easily to my face is hardly a universal trait.

Ladies, enjoy the French version of customer service. I posted on this previously, here. Now’s not the time to go indignant feminist – let those shopkeepers flirt with you and treat you like a queen for a few moments. It’s really fun.

As for forming lines – they aren’t going to do it. This is one of the areas I have the hardest time with in France. After being shoved around trying to claim my coat at the counter after parties, swept past repeatedly while waiting in line for a toilet, and literally shoved off metro cars, I finally realized I had the necessary skills to survive, all learned during my years of playing basketball. It’s all about claiming space, blocking out, and moving toward the ball, or as the case may be, the toilet. Don’t be afraid to get wide, or even throw out a forearm to ward someone off. When it comes to lines in France, expect nothing less than pure Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Another tip: get out of Paris. Paris is gorgeous, stunning, there’s tons to see and do, but it’s still a big city. And like any big city, people are in more of a rush, stress levels are higher, people are more closed off to outsiders, and fatigued of tourists. That’s not to say that pleasant Parisians don’t exist – they absolutely do. But if you want to experience a little more joie de vivre, more bienvenue, hop on a train for the countryside.

I hope your next encounter with a French national goes smoothly. If all else fails, a French shrug (see this post here) and a resigned, “Eh ben,” are perhaps the best responses.

Me in a lavender field

Try a visit to Provence. Beautiful country, friendly locals!

How to Piss Off a French Person

A friend sent me this link to an article on How To Piss Off a French Person, written for Matador Network by Morgane Croissant (com’on, does a name get more French than that?).

Aside from claiming that the French language is “insignificant” (See my previous post), Croissant gives us some fabulous ways to piss off French people, should you decide to make this a goal.

The point she makes about the healthcare system and other benefits was an interesting one. From my American perspective, the French do have it rather easy with their 5 to 8 weeks of vacation, nearly free higher education, and free health care. Yet many continue to complain – as the French are prone to do. (Sorry if I just pissed you off, my dear French readers!) Croissant points out that – yes, the French have these benefits, because they have worked hard, stood up for what they believe to be their rights, and even fought revolutions in order to ensure the lifestyle they now lead. Excellent point, I concede.

I had to laugh, too at the idea that our butchering of the French language is like fingernails on chalkboard to the French, and they’d rather not have to hear it. Did anyone see the movie The Monuments Men? I loved how French character after French character made a disgusted face when Matt Damon’s character tried to speak French, and how they all told him, in their thick French accents, that his French was terrible. Over the last nearly two decades of traveling in France, I’ve noticed the French, even the Parisians, easing up on us poor foreigners as we attempt to speak in French. I’m sure it is in part that my French has vastly improved, but I also think the French are starting to cut us some slack. Still, I’ve had more than one stubborn conversation with a French person where I say something in French, they respond in English, I continue to speak in French, they continue to speak in English, and so on. I want to use my French, perhaps they want to practice their English. I often feel my French is better than their English, perhaps they feel their English is better than my French. Either way, pretty sure we were both pissed off. Good times.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will give you valuable tips on how to not piss off the French, and perhaps enjoy your next vacation to France un peu plus!