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.

Paris, je t’aime

Last summer, we bravely traveled with our 4-year-old and 3-year-old to Iceland and then France. Drumroll … it was fantastic. They proved to be amazing little travelers: movies and a steady stream of snacks, toys, and duct tape (okay, kidding on the last one) kept them, and us, happy on the plane, jet lag didn’t last long, and they met different beds, foods, and activities with enthusiasm for the most part!

Hundreds of articles with tips on how to travel with kids exist and are easy to find. We mostly follow the basics and it works great. The nice thing about visiting a place that you’ve visited before, like Paris for us, is that we didn’t have a huge list of things we had to do or see. We hit the streets with no agenda, really, other than to make sure our kids had a positive experience. We cut the list of what we would normally try to see in half, or more, plugged in a fair amount of downtime, and when the kids were interested in something, we stopped and let them check it out without rushing them. Too much.

Yet we still managed to show them many of the major must-see-on-your-first-visit-to-Paris sites.

Here’s one of my favorite pics:

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Captioned: Whoa.

Here’s us at Notre Dame (which is one of those names that I struggle to pronounce in both French and American English… growing up hearing about the Noder Dame – long a – fighting Irish has left a lasting imprint on my brain)

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HERE IS PARIS, BEFORE KIDS:

Us at Chez Lyon; not the Parisian cuisine one salivates for, but a fun tradition we started on our first visit to Paris together (make sure to appreciate my hubby’s sideburns):

600 and of course, moules et frites at Chez Lyon in Paris

PARIS, NOW:

When asked about their favorite parts of Paris, the kids site these posts and the metro:

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What you can’t hear are the whoops of pure joy.

My husband went to high school here. Seriously.

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Rose gardens at the Parc de Bagatelle:

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These two were doing everything they could to attract the attention of the female peacock between the two of them. Like a good French girl, she feigned indifference and sauntered away.

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We only spent a couple days in Paris… as much as I love Paris, with kids it isn’t the easiest place to be. Especially with Colorado kids, accustomed to large open spaces for free-ranging it, and especially for my two kids, who have two volumes: loud and louder. We spent most of our time in our beloved Bretagne …. more photos to come!

Are we bilinguals?

For a long time, I’ve held lofty goals for my kids and for myself. I wanted us to all be “completely bilingual,” which I defined as nothing short of 100% fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension. I dreamt of accent-free French for my kids, and for me – maybe every tenth word or so would hint that I’m not French and give me a sexy, subtle accent that would earn exclamations like, “Oh, your French is so beautiful! Where’d you learn to speak it so well!” or “Don’t lose the last eensy-teensy accent you still have, it’s so adorable.”

That’s what you get when you’re type A. And have a husband who meets this “completely bilingual” criteria (albeit with a bit more of an accent. Ooh la la.).

My views have evolved. Matured? Grown more realistic? And while at one time I might have seen this as giving up, now I see it this way: we’re still pursuing something pretty awesome. I’m just more sane.

“Bilingual” means different things to different people. We’re certainly not monolingual, but we also haven’t attained my previous definition of bilingualism. So what does that make us?

All of us understand most of what is said to us in French. My kids spontaneously speak the language, sing songs, and watch cartoons in French. When thrown into a situation with people who speak only French, I don’t hesitate to use the language, and I’d say I’m pretty adept at expressing myself. My kids are at the point where they are able to use full sentences in French without needing prompting. Perhaps the most important thing: we are actively working on improving our language, every day, and have no plans to stop this work.

So I’ve decided to give credit where credit is due. Next time someone asks me if we are a bilingual family, I’m going to say, yes. Yes, we are.

April Fool’s Day, or, if you prefer, Poisson d’Avril !

I love a good prank, and April Fool’s Day has always been one of my favorite minor holidays. Despite the fact that my brother has, for decades now, tried to convince me I was actually born on April 1 (not April 3, as I count my birthday) but Mom and Dad didn’t tell me because they didn’t want me to think I was a fool. He still calls to wish me happy birthday on April 1. Every year.

And I still retain some level of paranoia that maybe he’s right, maybe my parents really have been lying to me all these years.

I asked my husband if April Fool’s Day is celebrated in France, and he said yes, it is. With a proud grin, he declared that he did his fair share of pinning paper fish on people’s backs when he was a kid.

Huh?

So, apparently, it really is a thing in France, See this link.

I don’t quite get it, but it’s all in the spirit of April Fool’s day. So more power to you Frenchies out there – I may never understand some aspects of your humor, just as you might not understand our American humor. On that note, here’s one of my favorite April Fool’s pranks ever:

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So go out there and fool someone, and Happy April Fool’s Day!

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.

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.