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!

Why You Should Learn French

Did anyone happen to catch John McWhorter’s article in The New Republic about why people shouldn’t bother to learn French? Here it is, if you care to have a look. He makes a shallow case for why French is “antique,” even elitist, and isn’t worth pursuing as a second language. From his point of view, the only reason to learn a second language is to better employment opportunities. According to him, only Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish are worthy of pursuit, as these are the current political power players.

Nika over at Nika Likes Maps makes an excellent counter-argument to McWhorter’s, here.

There there’s this article by Rob Wile in Business Insider: 7 Reasons You Should Teach Your Children French.

I had a friend who studied Russian during the Cold War, determined to become a translator in the geopolitical scene of the day. Then Russia imploded, no longer a geopolitical power. Didn’t exactly lead to the power career she had hoped for. Now I’m not saying don’t bother with Chinese or Arabic or Spanish – I believe pursuit of bilingualism in any language is a worthy pursuit. But McWhorter’s assumption that pursuit of bilingualism should be solely for career advancement is narrow-minded.

In a country where bilingualism is too often a low priority, discouraging learning any major world language strikes me as short-sighted and ignorant. To, on top of that, ridicule those that pursue learning French as doing so simply as a fashion statement or elitism is, well, insulting.

French is hardly on its way to the graveyard. It’s widely used throughout the world. I’ve travelled to places (non-French or English speaking countries) where English wasn’t spoken but my French sure did come in handy. Do you hear the languages being spoken by the announcers at the Olympics? Russian, English, French. French and English are the working languages at the UN Secretariat. Want your knowledge of English to improve? Learn French. My understanding of English grammar as well as my English vocabulary have broadened dramatically since I began learning French.

Learn French. It’s beautiful, fun, and will open doors to a broad range of cultures throughout the world. Or learn whatever other language you have fallen in love with. Study that language simply because you love it. Because it speaks to your soul. Because, as Nika so eloquently points out, “learning a language is an access card to seeing life through another perspective.” Learning a language that you love will make you a better person.

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.

An Open Letter To Moms Everywhere

I admit, I can be just as much of a judgmental bee-yatch as the next person. But having kids changed me. I’m not saying that I no longer judge – I don’t think any of us can claim that – but having two kids, a boy and a girl, who are so different, has made me a better person. I’m more patient than I used to be. I’m much more tolerant – not just of other people’s kids (I no longer cringe when the woman with the screaming baby chooses a seat near me) – but of other people in general.

My kids’ personalities revealed themselves early on. I have spirited, active kids. I don’t want to crush that. I usually stop them before they get too loud, or run too far, and I certainly don’t tolerate violence and destruction. But sometimes we have bad days. Sometimes I look one way for five seconds and my child does something I wouldn’t normally allow, but I don’t see it that one time. Sometimes, I’m exhausted, pushed to my limit, and I go slack on a “rule” that I swore I would uphold without compromise. My kids, like all others, push and test boundaries. Often I am told what well-behaved, even charming kids I have. Sometimes, I am the recipient of dirty looks and nasty comments. All snap judgments based on slivers of moments that the self-appointed “judges” observed.

We all have different ideas about how best to go about raising a child. Peruse the parenting shelves in any bookstore, or question a few different “experts,” and it is quickly apparent that there is no single-best approach, and no one way to ensure that our children are perfect angels and we are well-rested, perfectly coiffed, reasonable parents. And that’s just our country. Parenting methods vary widely from family to family, but start throwing in another culture or two and you will quickly realize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting.

Perhaps we could all take our foot off the judgment pedal, which many have pressed to the floor, gently ease on the brakes, stop, chill, and be supportive of each other as women. As parents. As mothers (and fathers!) who are all trying to do our best. Because in the end, I believe that is what the vast majority of parents are truly striving for. The best they can do for their kids. Having kids means that, on some level, we hold hope for the future. A bright future for our kids, our families, our society, even our planet. We are all in this together, after all.

Masculine vs. Feminine

DSC01570 I started learning French when I was 29 years old. In my day, foreign language education began in high school and we only had to take two years. In college, my major (microbiology) had no foreign language requirement.

Funny story: I really wanted to take French in high school, but my mom said to me: “You’ll never have any occasion in your life to use French. We live in Arizona. You need to take Spanish.” So I did. Then I married a Frenchman. I love to remind her of this whole event sequence.

After finishing grad school, I met a few French people, fell in love with the language, and decided to take night classes at a small conversation-oriented school to learn how to say “Bonjour” and “Paris” so it would rhyme with “Whee!” A couple immersion programs in France, some private lessons, and a French husband later, and my French is, overall, decent.

Because my “formal” education in French has been minimal, I have holes in my knowledge. Sometimes they are big and gaping, like the issues I have with masculine vs. feminine. Already a difficult concept for the Anglophone, I spent a lot of years whatever-ing the whole thing until I had to admit it actually does matter.

I can’t be the only one who struggles with this in French. Why oh why can’t it be easy, obvious, like it is in Spanish?

Here are a few references I’ve found helpful:

http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/genderpatterns.htm

http://www.pimsleurapproach.com/resources/french/grammar-guides/masculine-feminine/

http://www.french-linguistics.co.uk/grammar/le_or_la_in_french.shtml

I love my Visual French-English dictionary, too. It's fun to thumb through, and I do learn from it!

I love my Visual French-English dictionary, too. It’s fun to thumb through, and I do learn from it!

The best/worst advice I’ve (often) received: You just have to learn as you go.

Because there are so many rules and exceptions to rules, learning as you go, from the beginning, is the best route.

I tried to do note cards the other day, based on some of the patterns listed in the websites above. That lasted about 5 minutes before I threw all the note cards I’d worked so hard to create into the recycle bin. Does anyone ever really learn that way? For something other than a cram session for an exam where all the info will be forgotten in a week or two? I’m a complete grammar nerd, but I still recognize a futile attempt when I see it.

Part of my research into bilingualism and teaching languages has shown that our understanding of how best to acquire new languages has evolved greatly, and continues to evolve. It’s much more of an organic process than our typical teaching methods (i.e. rote memorization and recitation) allow for.

I'd rather have my brother stick his foot in my face while I'm posing for a sweet picture with my dad in France than study from notecards.

I’d rather have my brother stick his foot in my face while I’m posing for a sweet picture with my dad in France than study from notecards.

I need to build associations and habits, not stare at cards. I need to think and speak in French when I go to the grocery store so that I know it’s “la” banane and “le” brocoli. I need to look around my house, think about, talk about the objects I use every day. Le livre. La cuillère. Le four. La table. And so on.

I just want a simple rule or two to follow, but that’s not how French works. It’s going to be a long process before this whole gender thing comes naturally, and accurately, for me.

Yet here are couple that have stuck in my brain for years: problème is masculine and solution is feminine. Hmmm.

 

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.