An Interview of Moi with Judith at Little Bilingues!

Judith over at Little Bilingues has published an interview she did with me about my family, bilingualism, and how raising kids bilingually goes in our family. Check it out!

While you are there, be sure to look at the great materials she has for educating your kids in either French or English as a second language. Here’s a link directly to her site. She’s an artist and writer, as well as a polyglot, and the characters she has created are adorable!

Chez Nous, On Parle Franglais

 

64Before kids, conversations between my husband and I were mostly English, sprinkled with some French here and there, or, after a trip to France, a healthy dose of French with a sprinkle of English. Sometimes we spoke more French deliberately – so I could practice, or so we could have “secret” conversations when out on a date (so scandalous of us, that randy young couple! In truth, we were more likely talking about something mundane like work, or gossiping about our waiter). Sometimes we’d do it so we could make fun of each country’s accents: I’d don a thick, affected French accent, complete with a nose in the air and a French shrug, and my husband would try to emulate a New Yorker or a Texan. Sometimes we bounced back and forth between languages without it consciously registering, until we noticed someone staring.

Now, as our kids (age 3 ½ and 19 months) progress in this bilingual environment, we see that in our house, we all speak Franglais.

My daughter, the oldest, had the opportunity to attend a French Immersion school last year, so her French comprehension is great, but she prefers to answer in English. We’re bribing her with her favorite foods to get her to respond to us in French: “You want another chip? Il faut parler en français !” (Another mommy fail – I once declared I’d never bribe my kids with food.)

If she doesn’t know a word in French, she’ll say the word in English with a thick French accent: for example, “soccer ball” becomes “sew-care bowl.” This, despite neither of us ever pronouncing English words in this way. I love it. Sometimes, she’ll babble nonsensical words, but the sounds are distinctly French, and she’ll tell me that she’s speaking in French when I ask her what language she’s using. The other day, she said the character in the book we were reading was “Rose-ing the lawn.” (The French word for “to water” is “arroser.”) She’s gotten used to hearing from her Papa, “Fait pas de bêtises,” (don’t goof around), so the other day she told me, with a mischievous grin, “Mommy, I’m bêtise-ing.”

In the summer, when mosquitoes abound, I tend to say, “I’m getting MANGED!” (Manger – “to eat” in French) instead of the more common, “I’m getting eaten alive,” or, “I’m getting attacked by mosquitoes.” I suppose this isn’t helping anyone in the house learn French.

Then there’s the word “doudou,” (sounds like “doo-doo”) which is the French word for “lovey,” or stuffed animal. It’s one of my son’s first French words, and one that my daughter uses commonly. As in, “Where is my doudou?” Or, “I love my doudou,” and, in response to Mall Santa’s question, “What do you want for Christmas?” “A Mickey doudou and a Minnie doudou.” That earned me a stern look from Santa, and required a lot of explaining to my confused, but ready-to-milk-it-for-all-it-was-worth, brother.

IMG_7206My son’s language is starting to take off, so I therefore poo-pah all the nay-sayers who claim bilingual kiddos will be behind in their language development during their first few years of life. Both of my kids understand French and English without difficulty, and are well beyond the “normal” expectations of spoken language ability for their ages. His first French words have been: “coucou” (hello, familiar), “doudou,” “l’eau” (water), and, my favorite, “Pi-pah-po” for “papillon” (butterfly).

My favorite misused word in English: “Happies.” When my daughter was first learning to speak, she had a set of pajamas that said, “Happy” across the chest. So, we would point and say, “Happy,” every time she wore them. Thus, pajamas became “Happies,” and we all put on our happies each night before bed. I can’t think of a better word to describe the most comfortable of clothes and the relaxation one feels when finally getting to slip into them at the end of a long day.

I don’t believe that my kids are confused. My daughter knows very well which words are French and which ones are English, despite sometimes using them in sentences together. I know, because I ask her – is that a French word or an English one you just said? As for my son, chances are he’s mélange-ing the two (see, there I go again) without realizing it. I have no fear that both kids will eventually sort the two languages out in their own brains; research shows that bilingual children eventually do. In the meantime, their prefrontal cortexes are getting an excellent workout.

I’m okay with a little Franglais. It’s one of my favorite languages, and one we’re all fluent in, chez nous.

Bastille Day/ La Fête Nationale

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

July 14, Le Quatorze Julliet, marks the French holiday we know as Bastille Day. Not surprisingly, the origins of this holiday are un peu compliqué. Two key events in the French Revolution share this date.

The first: In 1789, the people of Paris, fearful that their representatives would be attacked by the royal military of Louis XVI and desiring ammunition and gunpowder for a possible battle, stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris that held citizens under not so just cause and without rights to appeal. Often, prisoners were held there because of anti-royal writings.

One year later, on July 14, 1790, there was a huge feast to celebrate the conclusion, or so they thought at the time, of the French Revolution. Apparently the feast lasted 4 days and concluded with fireworks, fine wine, and running naked through the streets.

Pétanque in Provence

Pétanque in Provence

While we didn’t run naked anywhere, we did celebrate the holiday. We kicked it off with a pétanque tournament; I was partnered with a lovely Englishwoman named June and while we held our own, we were eliminated early in the tournament. It’s quite possible that my problem was I didn’t have a cool straw hat like most of the experienced players. No big deal, I was hungry and I forgot how long those games last! The French-American Chamber of Commerce sponsored a barbeque, concert, and pick-up soccer and volleyball games, so we had plenty of time to eat and play with San Diego’s French and Francophile community. It was a perfect southern California day: sunny, a cool ocean breeze, bright blue skies.

Here are some photos from the Bastille Day Military Parade a few years ago. It proceeds down the Champs Elysees and lasts for hours. The year we were there, Sarkozy was president. As he rode through, the crowd around us started whistling and my first thought was: they really like their president. Then I realized my mother-in-law was shaking her head and shocked, astonished, that people would dare whistle like that. Turns out whistling in France is quite rude; basically the equivalent of booing. So probably best not to whistle at a French girl.

If you ever go to the parade, get there early, bring lots of water, a snack, definitely a camera, and don’t bother to try and claim any territory like you would in a parade here – you’ll be scrunched and pushed out of the way.

Here’s my Bastille Day workout, designed to help you stand your ground in the crowd of parade revelers:

1. Medicine Ball Squats: Take a wide stance and squat down, maintaining even weight on each foot, while thrusting the medicine ball straight out in front of you, arms parallel to the ground. This will help you keep your position and should you need to, shove back.

2. Lateral Deltoid Raises While Balancing on One Foot: To help you ward off those pushers that come at you from the side while maintaining your balance. You can’t risk falling at the parade, they’ll never let you stand back up.

3. Lunges with Biceps Curls: It’s hot. Really freaking hot in Paris in July. If you are American, and as such a Water Bottle Addict, you’ll be lifting that water bottle to your mouth for at least three hours straight. The lunges are to help propel yourself forward with force after you’ve been shoved and maneuvered to the back of the pack.

Me, waiting for the parade to start

Me, tired from getting up early, waiting for the parade. We started out in front then got shoved to the back before the parade even began.

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Best seats on the Champs

Best seats on the Champs. They were drinking champagne.

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The firemen, the most popular group in the parade

The firemen, the most popular group in the parade

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The Trouble With French…

 … is all those vowel sounds. Oh, and the “r”s. And the faux amis. Maybe I should just quit now.

The thought of quitting enters my head on a daily basis lately. My Phonetics and Oral Proficiency class wrapped up this week. Yesterday I listened to a recording of myself reading Enivrez-Vous by Baudelaire that I made the first week of class, and I cringed and squirmed in embarrassment. I know I’ve improved since then. The vowels that were once a mystery to me are now decipherable. The rolling “r” has improved, slightly. But rue and roue still elude me (read here about my experiences with these petit mots). Every time I say one of these words and my husband smiles and says, “You’re so cute,” I want to throw my textbook across the room and shout, “I quit!”

I have to remind myself how far I’ve come, and that progress is now measured as fine-tuning rather than huge leaps. My comprehension and pronunciation is much better than it was four months ago. Let alone when I first met my husband. We occasionally spoke French together on our first dates, and on one of these I was explaining to him that my neck, mon cou, really bothered me sometimes, but when I rested it or got a massage, it felt much better. Cou, phonetically, is [ku]. Not far from [ky], or cul, which means ass. I often confused the two. So as I spoke, he nodded and fought a smile, then laughed and told me he hoped massage and rest would help my aching ass.

More recently, when our daughter sang her French song about a hen sitting on a wall, as she got to this part: lève la queue et puis s’en va, I nearly choked on my water à la Jon Stewart style. Queue, the word for tail, is again close to cul to the untrained ear. I asked her to repeat what she’d said, and then realized that she wasn’t, after all, singing about a hen who sat on a wall and then decided to pick up her ass and leave.

I’ve spent a lot of time practicing vowel sounds. I think I’m finally distinguishing well between deux and douze (two and twelve), and I might even be able to order un croissant without waving one finger in the air (or a thumb, as one finger also confuses the French) to make it clear how many I’m asking for.

My face hurts after I speak French. There’s a lot more movement and tension in the jaw and cheeks in French than in English. You can tell a French person from a distance by the way their mouth moves when they speak and the tension in their facial muscles. English vowels are kind of lazy, really. We warp them to make it less of an effort for ourselves. Don’t believe me? Try the words “can” and “than” on their own and then in a sentence or two, and see what happens to those poor little “a”s. Our professor jokes that we must exercise our mouths to tone up our speaking muscles for French just as we would exercise our bodies for a sporting event, but it’s true. It’s a completely different way of using our face and tongue and vocal cords.

As my vocabulary improves, my confusion over faux amis lessens. When we got married eight (!) years ago, we wrote our own vows in both French and English. I, not wanting to humiliate myself in front of his family, read them to him before hand to make sure I hadn’t made any huge errors.

Thank God for that.

As I explained that I was so happy to be starting our lives together and excited for our future and that I hoped I could make him as happy as he’d made me (these sappy words were the only ones I could manage with my rudimentary French), he nodded and gave me a wolfish smirk while wiggling his eyebrows.

“I hope so, too,” he said.

“What? What did I say?”

This is how I found out that in French, the word excité is only used in a sexual sense. Turns out I was about to announce, in front of all of our friends and family, that I was horny and hoped I could satisfy him.

When I remember these things, and how far I’ve come, the thought of quitting seems preposterous. A friend recently pointed out to me that I’m an overachiever and I should cut myself some slack. The thing is, too much slack and I get antsy and bored. So I might as well keep on with this French stuff.

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The Results Are In: My French Ain’t Half Bad!

Turns out my French is better than I give myself credit for, at least according to the Alliance Française and the test I took there!

The exam was two sections: the first on computer, which started with very basic French and quickly progressed to complicated phrases and vocabulary. In one of the sections I had to answer questions on women’s hairstyles depicted in basic drawings. I wouldn’t know what those styles were called in English, so I’m pretty sure I bombed the French part! Points were awarded for correct answers and removed for incorrect answers. Intimidating.

For the second section of the test, I spoke with two native speakers. In our first conversation, I had to pretend to be interested in buying a home in the southwest of France. Not so hard to pretend I wanted that house! In the second conversation, I had to convince one of them to give up using her cell phone for 24 hours.

Here are my results:

 

French Placement Test

Here’s how those levels are defined, according to the Wiki article on the CEFR (Common European Framework) for determining language levels:

B2 is Upper Intermediate:

·Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.

·Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.

·Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of

various options.

C1 is Effective Operational Proficiency, or Advanced:

·Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.

·Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

·Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.

·Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive        devices.

 While these results mean we can move forward with my nationality application, they also mean that I need to be less self-conscious in speaking French. I’m at a level where I’ve passed those first few huge hurdles of the learning curve, but I am very aware of the many things I haven’t yet mastered, so too often I tend to not speak rather than risk making mistakes. I want to be completely bilingual. To watch a movie without any need of subtitles. To understand song lyrics without help. To not make grammatical errors. To maybe, even, someday teach French. (I need a back up plan. Being a physical therapist is hard on your body!)

These results were just the encouragement I needed, as I’ve been doubting whether French is something I can ever hope to master. This reenergized me, and made me start dreaming again of spending a summer, or two, or three, in France, going to language classes, and of one day being so fluent that maybe I even fool a French person or two.

Lost in Translation: Menus and Restaurants

I see these restaurants in France all the time:

326 Only in France

Because all Asian food is pretty much the same, right? And no, this is not some trendy fusion restaurant. Out of curiousity, I tried one once. It was a bland, fast food type of cuisine that amounted to soggy vegetables and meat bathed in either soy or teriyaki sauce. Nothing like the widely varied and often spicy dishes that could be offered from any of these countries. For a country so renowned for its food, France has a lot to learn about the cuisine offered outside its own borders!

Poorly translated menu items are part of the charm of traveling abroad. We had some classics in China; I lost track of how many times we said, “What the what!?” Here are a few gems:

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Then there was the beachside restaurant in a small Cote d’Azur village where I’m pretty sure they weren’t really serving “wolf” and where I decided to avoid the “crusty of salmon” altogether.

Here, in the U.S., we find plenty of mistakes. There’s the most obvious: the use of the word “entrée.” It means the first course, entering the meal if you will. But in the U.S. we almost always use it for the list of main dishes. Then there’s a restaurant near us called “La Café.” Decent food, but my husband gets a nervous tick every time we pass it because “café” is masculine, so it should be “Le Café.” Gender mistakes don’t bother Americans much because we don’t use them. But imagine the irritation that those of us grammar lovers experience when someone uses a double negative: “I don’t have no bread,” and you can see how my husband must feel.

At a nice, upscale San Diego restaurant my husband ordered the bouillabaisse. He used the French pronunciation, boo-ya-bais, or for the phonetically inclined: [bujabes]. The waitress asked him to repeat himself several times, then exclaimed:

“Oh! You mean the bool-a-bass-ey!”

Yes. That’s it exactly.

It can be a challenge, trying to order a croissant or any other French food here. My tongue wants to use the French pronunciation, but then I get looked at either in confusion, or I get a big eye roll because clearly, I’m being pretentious. Using the American pronunciation ensures that I will be understood, but it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

I’d love other examples people have experienced with menu items that got lost in translation. Bring them on!

Would You Like Pepperoni on That?

Pizza in the south of France

Pizza in the south of France

According to my husband, the true test of language proficiency is whether or not you can order a pizza over the phone.

We’ve all been there. Room full of friends, maybe studying together, watching a game, or just hanging out. People get hungry. Someone suggests ordering a pizza. One person shouts out, “Mushrooms!” and another, “Pepperoni!” while a third person says, “I’m a vegetarian. No meat!”

As anyone who has tried to learn a second language can attest, when more than one person speaks at a time, conversation becomes tangled and it can be impossible to comb it out and discern what’s being said.

Then there’s the phone call. It’s hard enough to understand your non-native tongue in person, let alone over the phone. Add to that the fact that the person working at the pizza place is often foreign as well. So, two people are trying to communicate with each other in their non-native language over the phone. For my husband here in southern California, that means a French guy talking to a native Spanish speaker in English. For me in France, I often found myself talking to north Africans whose native tongue was Arabic. Chances are you’re using a cell phone, too, which despite our advances in technology still can’t compete with a landline in terms of quality.

My husband describes it this way:

“The trouble starts when they ask for your phone number. In French, we always say: eighty-five, nineteen, etc. In the U.S., phone numbers are stated one digit at a time. So the person on the other end of the line ends up confused. I’m trying to understand what the pizza guy is saying while everyone in the room is shouting their likes, dislikes, what size pizza, etc. I have to ask the pizza guy to repeat everything three or four times and now he’s annoyed. People keep yelling out ingredients. The pizza guy asks if we want pepperoni. I heard someone say they were vegetarian. But pepperoni, that must be the same as the Italian word: peperoni, which is a type of pepper. That’s not meat, right? So I say, ‘Yes, pepperoni.’”

Miraculously, the pizza arrives. And it’s not the pizza that anyone wanted.

Vieux Antibes

Vieux Antibes

I had a similar experience in Antibes, the south of France. My friends decided that my French was the best among us, so I should order the pizza. We knew of one place that delivered.  We’d been there in person before to order and hadn’t had the most… positive experience with the guy there. So, crossing my fingers in hopes that someone other than the guy we’d dealt with would answer the call, I dialed the pizza place. Mr. Personality answered. His Arabic accent was thick and he had a short fuse. I did my best, ordered two pizzas, one “Reine” (olives, mushrooms, and prosciutto) for my friend and I to split, and a second pizza covered in meat for our other friend (she was 8 months pregnant, adorable, and ravenous).

Then we waited. And waited. He finally showed up. With one pizza. It wasn’t either of the pizzas we’d ordered. He also claimed he had no change. We argued with him. This isn’t what we ordered! Why would you come here without any change? He became irate and insistent that the mistakes were ours and not his. My pregnant friend was about to pass out from hunger, so we took the pizza and he took a hefty tip.

We never ordered pizza from his store again. Pity, they made good pizza. Thin, crispy crust, flavorful cheese, fresh toppings…. The south of France has the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, outside of Italy. Even when they get the order wrong.

Ordering food in a foreign language is an adventurous undertaking. Even something that seems as simple as pizza. The day I can confidently order a pizza over the phone in France, I’m popping open a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Now I’m hungry.

Happy Spring! Here's me in a lavender field in the south of France.

Happy Spring! Here’s me in a lavender field in the south of France.