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

 

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!

Summer Vacations and French Summer School

My month (+) long hiatus from blogging was unintended.

I had big ambitions for July of filling up my queue with posts, photos, throw backs to some journal entries of different adventures in France. Of getting some book and CD reviews out. I am now desperately embarrassed that I still haven’t completed those.

Instead, I spent most of July in San Diego. I could blame my lack of blog entries on the fact that I was there, alone for the most part, with my two-year-old boy (who is, as everyone I meet feels compelled to point out to me, “all boy”) and my almost four-year-old daughter. So, yes, that kept me busy. But the truth is: I’ve been lazy. In the best possible way. I’ve been idling away the hours at places like this:

La Jolla Shores, San Diego, CA

La Jolla Shores, San Diego, CA

Drinking in views like this:

Downtown San Diego from Coronado Island

Downtown San Diego from Coronado Island

Drinking lots of this (minus the ghetto cups; ran out of glasses at this BK – before kids – party):

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Visiting with many dear friends, and eating fantastic food. I didn’t let 48 hours pass without a taco from one of my many favorite haunts.

It’s been a long time since summer actually felt like summer. Like a vacation. It’s one of the horrible truths no one tells us when we’re in school. Once you’re done, kiss summer vacation goodbye. With the U.S. standard of 2 weeks vacation per year, I spent more than a decade in the working world calculating how best to use that 2 weeks to spend holidays with family, take a short trip, and hoping that I didn’t get so sick I had to tap into vacation time. When I first discovered that France and most other developed countries had double or more the vacation time we get, and that it is a right by law (it isn’t in the U.S., each company decides how much vacation to bestow upon their employees) I was shocked and jealous. I still feel so grateful that I was in California when I had both of my kids. California has the most generous maternity and paternity leave policies in the U.S. Still, when compared to some countries, this isn’t saying much. I realize this falls deeply into the much maligned bucket of “First World Problems.” Still, I strongly side with the camp that says adequate down time improves performance, productivity, and creativity, and leads to stronger families which leads to a better future. I don’t define adequate down time as two weeks.

Now that I have kids and have the (very lucky) opportunity to step away from my career and stay home with them, summer feels like summer again. They are out of school (preschool), and we get to travel. This year to the place of summer dreams and our former home: San Diego.

We also used it as a chance to send our daughter to summer camp at her old school: the San Diego French American School. Our rationale: It’s too expensive to fly to France every year, but we really want to immerse our kids in French. So, we packed up the car, headed to San Diego, found an adorable bungalow blocks from where we used to live and right next to the first park we ever took our kids to, and trekked each day through the Southern California traffic (has it always been that brutal? I’ve only been away 10 months but I found it unbearable in a way I never did before) to school.

Results: Everything we’d hoped for. She had a great time, got to see old friends and familiar teachers. I’m told she understands everything and spoke mainly in French, rarely resorting to English. Her resistance to speaking with me in French is gone, for the time being. And with her San Diego “petit ami” – who is French – she spoke in French (unprompted) when playing with him. Success!

Next year, our son will be old enough to attend, too. Which means my kids will get an amazing opportunity to progress in French. And it means I’ll get a real vacation. I can rent a Laser and go sailing. I can go to the mall without herding my kids out of the clothes racks every two minutes. A book at the beach? I don’t remember what that feels like.

Summers are looking pretty fantastic.

 

Immersing in Language

There’s no doubt in my mind that immersion is the way to go when it comes to learning a language. It’s how we learn our mother tongues, after all. In my experience as an adult learner, I learned more in 3 weeks of complete immersion – in country – than I did from months of lessons taught in English. When immersed, it’s sink or swim. You don’t have the luxury of falling back on the language you know. You can’t wait for the English explanation that you know is going to come, and thereby tune out – even without doing so intentionally – the language you’re trying to learn.

My daughter attended a French immersion program for her first year of preschool. In that year, we saw her language ability in French – both in speaking and comprehension – skyrocket. Granted, we are a bilingual household, so she already had a good French base established. There were other children in her class, though, who had never heard French before arriving for their first day of school, and they were able to adapt quickly. For the preschoolers, the most utilized languages on the playground were French and English. By elementary school, the playground language was more often French. A good litmus test as it tells what language the kids are comfortable communicating in.

Now that we no longer have access to the immersion school, I struggle to find immersion experiences for my kids. Many of the French programs I’ve looked into use a lot of English to “explain” the French; far from ideal in my opinion. Most people – children and adults – will learn in a complete immersion environment when given visual aids, context clues, and an expressive speaker. I have yet to meet anyone who is competent in a language who didn’t have at least some form of immersion in their education. We’ve pieced together some experiences here and there – story times, French classes at the Children’s Museum, play dates.

We recently had family in town visiting us from France. By the end of their stay, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter was using full French sentences on a regular basis, and my two-year-old son was using more French words and partial phrases than I’ve ever seen him use. Total immersion, working. The kids even started speaking Franglais to each other – most memorably when fighting over a toy: “Mine jou jou !”  “Non ! Mine jou jou !” My daughter would come to me from time to time to ask me how to say something in French, then run to her Mimi to tell her whatever it was she wanted to say. My favorite moment: one night when my husband’s parents were heading out, we told the kids it was time to say good night. My son ran straight to his Papy, grabbed him into a leg hug, and said, unprompted, “Au revoir !” Priceless.

Finding a total immersion experience is not easy when living in a country that speaks the majority language (in our household, English, because this is what I speak and I’m with the kids the most, and it’s the language my husband and I use between the two of us). It would be easier if I spoke exclusively French with the kids and my husband, but I’m not so brave nor comfortable with my French. Knowing this, it’s heartening to see that the knowledge and ability are both there with my kids, they just have to be, well, forced to use it a bit. Pushed out of their English comfort zone.

[Edited Note: As a friend astutely pointed out, this is true for me as well. I, too, need to be pushed out of my English comfort zone; me speaking French with the kids helps us all. We do French activities – grocery shopping, zoo days, French dinners twice a week – where we speak only French, but I haven’t made the leap to speaking French all the time. My aim is 30% – the magic number that some experts have said children need to learn a second language.]

In our near future we have French immersion summer classes in San Diego for the kids, a trip to France, and a French degree program for me (because seven years of higher education and a doctorate degree just isn’t enough school).

And so, our bilingual journey continues on!

 

When in Doubt, Take ’em Out

 

View of the Flatirons from Boulder

View of the Flatirons from Boulder, Colorado

French lessons at the preschool are wrapping up as the school year comes to an end. My “regulars” – a small group that greets me when I arrive each Friday, all of them bouncing like Tigger, grabbing my hand, and asking, “are you going to do French today?” – made this experience more than worth it. Coming up with lessons each week engaging enough to hold a preschooler’s attention is no easy task. But they are interested. Their earnest eyes study me as they repeat my words, putting all their concentration into speaking a foreign language, and having fun while doing it. I hear from other parents that their kids are using French at home – words, pretending to read in French, even correcting their parent’s pronunciation. For them, French is exciting, cool, and thus I say: Mission Accomplished.

Over the past few weeks, the snow melted and the Colorado sun finally warmed things up. My group, understandably, has dwindled down to a loyal few. The past couple of lessons, I began with 6 to 8 kids but after a few minutes, the playground beckons, and they drop their puppet or crayons or whatever else we are working on to run outside, hardly acknowledging my “Au revoir !”

I told one of the teachers, “I’m fighting a losing battle against the great outdoors, I’m afraid.” She suggested we do a French lesson outside. “When in doubt, follow their lead,” she wisely advised.

Brilliant!

So we took them outside. All it took was the mention of a field trip to the “soccer field” to do a French lesson, and I had twelve kids clamoring to join me.

It might have been the most fun lesson yet. We played American games translated into French: “Duck, duck, goose” became “Canard, canard, oie!”; “Red light, green light” became “Feu rouge, feu vert.” I learned a new game: Mr. Fox. The kids call out, “Mr. Fox, what time is it?” And the leader responds with things like, “It’s time to jump forward six times!” Each game is easily adaptable to French (and my husband tells me that the French have a version of “Simon says” that works well too). Each is a great way to get the kids talking, following directions, and counting in French. By the end of class, all of them had said at least one thing in French, and all had definitely responded to simple commands. Having a group of English-speaking kids enthusiastically shout, “Oui !” in response to my question, “Vous-êtes prêts?” had me grinning and feeling like a great success.

Plus I got to run around on the grass and play like nothing else in the world mattered.

God, I love being around kids.

So when in doubt, take ’em out. Play with them, follow their lead, and sneak the French in there. They won’t even notice they’re working. Neither did I!

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Truth be told, given the option, I'll always choose outside, too.

Truth be told, given the option, I’ll always choose outside, too.

Ten Things I Love About The French

1. I love the appreciation the French have for good food and good wine. A Frenchman I know once stated that when a person isn’t willing to indulge sometimes, enjoy great food, let go a bit, it “really says something about that person.” He couldn’t comprehend people who never eat the good stuff, even if it might go straight to their thighs. Lest you think the French are okay with gluttony – they aren’t. (I think half the women in France are starving themselves because they certainly aren’t exercising!) They just aren’t into denying themselves the pleasures of life.

2. I love Sunday lunches, where families gather to spend a couple hours together over a nice meal.

3. That je-ne-sais-quoi French people possess. The way the women seem to never style their hair yet it still hangs in perfect waves with just the right amount of flyaways to say: I’m beautiful, and I’m not trying. The slightly arrogant, stooped posture of the men that says I’m more intellect than athlete, and I don’t care what you think about it. What is it about French people…it’s so hard to put a finger on it, it’s that je-ne-sais-quoi. They can drive me crazy, but I still love them.

4. I love that they flirt with most everyone, even in the most benign situations. Not to be anti-feminist, but turning a simple transaction – like buying a container of aspirin – into a dance of compliments and innocently arching eyebrows puts a smile on my face. I call it the French version of customer service.

5. I like that the French enjoy intellectual conversations and pride themselves on being realists. I like that they will engage each other in a verbal battlefield over ideas and current events, yet not take the conversation personally or allow it to damage a friendship. Except sometimes I don’t love this. I should probably put this on a list about things I don’t love about the French, too.

6. I find French men’s abhorance for white socks (even when exercising!) endearing.

7. I love that the French believe, and pursue, balance in life. Between work and play, time for children and adult time, in indulging in their desire to enjoy amazing food but not overdoing it….

8. I love the way my French friends are always happy to spend time together. We linger over meals, enjoying long conversations, enjoying each other’s company, playing games, long after most of our other friends have decided it’s time to get back home, or go to the next party, or who knows what. The French prioritize people in their lives in a way that I wish we did better here.

9. Scarves. I stayed in Paris long enough to learn several different ways to wear a scarf, and wear it well, but not so long that I stopped smiling at people. I love the elegance of scarves, and the way the French propel scarf-wearing to an art form.

10. Get away from Paris or any other major city, and you will find the French to be some of the most welcoming, gregarious people you will meet in your travels. Even Paris is getting better – complete strangers have – gasp – smiled at me and offered to help me when I appeared lost or confused. Parisians in restaurants have complimented my imperfect French and cute accent. Learn a few key words and get ready to knock down those stereotypes!