To Hug or to Kiss?

I certainly didn’t intend a two month hiatus – thank you all for sticking with me!

I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew in life, and these last few months were no different. I went back to work as a PT on a per diem basis, I continued to teach French to preschoolers, and I took three university level French courses. I look forward to blogging more about that soon…. Oh, yeah, I’m also taking care of two energetic preschoolers and ramping up my workouts for triathlon season. Life is busy. Life is good.

We are prepping for a French-filled summer! We will be traveling to Iceland and France and then spending a few weeks in San Diego where my kids (now ages 3 and 4 1/2) will be doing day camp at the San Diego French American School. I am so excited to see how their French progresses! We’ve fallen off the wagon a bit with teaching (pushing, coercing…) them to speak French, and I’m hoping these activities will get us back on track.

First up, a trip to France! The other night, as I was tucking my daughter into bed, I told her that in France, when we greet friends and family, we give them a kiss on each cheek rather than a hug. I’m a huge hugger – I love nothing more than to give people in my life a big enthusiastic squeeze. My kids, too, give the best hugs – big tight squeezes that I can’t get enough of. I learned the hard way that this does not always go over well with the French. I remember telling my husband once how awkward it felt to me to kiss everyone, pressing my cheek to theirs. His response: More awkward than pressing your whole body up to everyone and squeezing tight? I see his point… The two cheek kiss greeting no longer feels awkward to me, but my daughter was confused.

Among her questions:

“Why don’t we give hugs?”

“Why do we just make a kiss sound and push our cheeks together instead of really kissing them?”

“Why don’t we kiss them on their mouths?”

Excellent questions, all. Then, she melted my heart with this:

“So, when I see Mimi and Papy, I kiss them like this,” here she demonstrated kissing me on each cheek, “And then the kiss goes to their hearts?”

Exactly, my amazing child. Exactly.

Can’t wait to introduce these two to France. It’s fun to visit a place we know so well with very little agenda – we don’t have anything we absolutely must see, so we’re planning a vacation around activities like puppet shows, toy boats at the Luxembourg gardens, and then lots of beach time and crepes in Brittany. My daughter really wants to see the Eiffel Tower, but I have a feeling the most exciting thing we will do will be to ride the metro. At any rate, it will be a different kind of trip than we’ve ever had. Fingers crossed for good weather and good tempers (the latter being more about me than my kids, I’m sure!)

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.

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.

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

 

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!

 

Mommy, I Don’t Want to Speak French

“Mommy, I don’t want to speak French anymore. I don’t like it.”

This, from my daughter the other day. In response to me asking her what she thought of the idea I had for French class at her preschool that week. (Making a snowman! Com’on!)

“I don’t want you to do a French lesson at school. I just want you to come get me and we can go home.”

My heart, crushed.

Because I desperately want her to speak French. Because I love teaching my weekly lesson at her school, and I think the kids are really getting into it. They say, “Bonjour !” when they see me. They ask questions, they listen, and while they may not understand what I’m saying, they are interested, attentive, and their brains are forming the synapses, the connections that lay the groundwork for second (third etc.) language acquisition.

So I tried to understand. “Why don’t you like French?” I asked in as perky a voice as I could muster.

“I just don’t.”

“You know, Mimi and Papy will be visiting us soon, and they speak French, so we need to speak French with them.”

A glimmer of hope. “Are they flying here on an airplane?”

“Yes, France is far away, so they’ll come on an airplane. And we’ll all speak French. You know who else speaks French? Jean (name changed). Your best friend in San Diego. When we visit him next summer, you’ll have to speak French to him, because he doesn’t speak English.” Okay, not quite the truth, but close enough.

Perhaps I could persuade her with homemade Nutella-Banane crepes?

Perhaps I could persuade her with homemade Nutella-Banane crepes?

Silence, but I could tell she was mulling it over. Then she giggled. “You know who doesn’t speak French? Pops. He speaks silly French!”

Which is true. My dad tries to read her the French books she brings to him, using a bastardized mix of Spanish and Italian pronunciation and lots of hand gestures. He loves to tell, and retell, his “Yo-no-say-pah” joke over and over. It’s endearing, really, makes no sense, and my daughter thinks it’s hilarious.

She’s only three. And the resistance is already beginning. I knew it was coming, yet I’m still not sure how best to deal with it. I’m aware that my method a few weeks ago of chasing her around the house with a square puzzle piece demanding, in French, “one more shape! Tell me what this shape is!” when she was clearly over it was perhaps not my finest moment.

Either she’s mad at me now, because I’m ignoring her requests to stop the French, or she’s mad at me later, because I gave up trying to teach her. The catch-22 of bilingual parenting. I know the best approach is to keep at it, and make it fun. Blend the “lessons” seamlessly into our “play.” Yet fear struck my heart when she uttered those words.

“I don’t like French.”

Will I be strong enough to continue, despite her protests? Will I continue to find creative ways to engage my kids in French? Will I do what I fear the most – give up?

Yes, yes, and no. If I’m anything, I’m stubborn, even obstinate. Bullheaded?

I don’t give up easily.

I’ll find a way. Somehow.

Others out there? How do you combat the expressed disinterest of your kids?

Next time we sled, we'll faire de la luge instead.

Next time we sled, we’ll faire de la luge instead.