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.

BIENVENUE 2014 ! And Ten French Goals for the New Year.

DSC01537

I’m so ready for this change. New Year’s Eve, my husband and I enjoyed our yearly tradition of making a meal together, reminiscing the past year, setting goals and making plans for the year to come. I love this tradition of ours: the good food, the good company, and the way I wake up January 1 feeling recharged and ready for the great things we have planned. Often I find myself nostalgic as I watch the clock tick toward midnight on December 31; sometimes even sad to bid adieu to the year that has gone. This year, none of that – 2013 was a mixed bag for me, and I’m happy to move on. New year, fresh start, clean slate… bring it. (Do people still say that?)

Les Moules (Mussels)

Les Moules (Mussels)

Bon Appetit !

Bon Appetit ! Moules-frites: our New Year’s Eve feast.

This year, we set new personal goals and made some travel plans – smaller scale than some years past, but we have some great trips to look forward to.

Here on my blog, I’m posting my language/blogging goals:

1. Volunteer at my daughter’s school by offering a French lesson each week.
I’m scaring myself with this one. Talking in a foreign language to a bunch of 2, 3, and 4 year olds? How will I keep their attention? How do I go about making a lesson that’s captivating to preschoolers, let alone in a language none of them speak (yet)? Still, I have several ideas that I’m excited about and I’m feeling up to the challenge. I’ve discussed it with the head of the preschool, and now I’ve written about it on my blog. So, I’m officially committed. Holy… merde.

2. Read five books in French.
I’ve got a few picked out already. It’s always hard to begin a French book for me – reading is normally such a pleasure, yet reading in French is work. I remind myself that once I get into a book, I forget that I’m reading in French and I start to enjoy it rather than slug through it with my dictionary on constant alert.

3. Look into pursuing a Master’s in French.
University of Colorado at Boulder has a great program, as does Colorado State in nearby Fort Collins. While in San Diego, I took a few upper division French courses at SDSU and had a fabulous time. I’m toying with the idea of pursuing a master’s. Would it be simply fulfilling a personal goal of being completely bilingual, or could this be a career change – I don’t yet know. What I do know is that I love learning French and that improving my French benefits my entire family. I’m not quite ready to return to work full time as my kids are still so small. I have the luxury of choosing to stay home with them, yet I want/need something apart from being a mom. So, why not another degree? I can hear my friends now: Or you could chill out and address your overachiever issues.

4. Blog Entries 1-2X/weekly
Yes, continuing with my blog, posting about raising bilingual kiddos, what it’s like to be a bilingual family, and Franco-American cultural clashes is definitely on my list.

5. Continue my involvement with the multilingual blogging community.
I’ve plugged in to a great group of bloggers, all of whom are raising children in bi- or multicultural/lingual families. Several of their blogs are listed on my sidebar. Whenever I need inspiration, I just visit their blogs or our groups on Facebook.

6. French lessons for my kids twice weekly (at least).
Among the problems that many multilingual families face are: kids becoming passively bilingual – they understand the second language but don’t speak it (this seems to be developing in my home), or they speak it but reading and writing skills go undeveloped. My goal is for my kids to be fluent in speaking, understanding, reading, and writing both English and French. Whether it’s me or I hire a tutor, my kiddos need more exposure to all aspects of the French language.

7. Speak in French during two dinners/week with our family.
Currently, when we are all together, my husband speaks French to the kids but English with me. Again, the kids (and I) need more French.

8. Take advantage of the French activities in the area and try to connect with other French speakers.
I’ve found storytimes, playgroups, and group lessons so far. We’re going to participate in as much as we can.

9. French language summer school for the kids.
There are opportunities both here in the Boulder area and in San Diego for French language summer camps. Since we aren’t going to France this year, we can take advantage of local summer camps, as well as combine an extended vacation in our old stomping grounds – San Diego – with summer camps for the kids at the French American School. The beach, good Mexican food, old friends, and French? Yes, please.

10. Eat more crêpes at La Crêperie of Ft. Collins.
Because they really are good enough to merit a New Year’s Resolution.

Bonne Année !

Bonne Année !

Thankful to be a Bilingual, Bicultural Family

 Carnival time sneaks up on me each month! This month, the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival is hosted by Sarah (my new neighbor – yay!) over at Bringing up Baby Bilingual.

It never crossed my mind growing up that I’d be part of a bilingual, bicultural family. Dreams of the future were hazy at best; I tended to dream big yet not concretely. But wow – I cannot imagine life any other way.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to take, resources for, and access to French lessons both in the U.S. and in France, so I can help my children to learn a second language while learning it (struggling with it) myself.

I’m grateful to Amazon.fr and Amazon.ca for all the great books I’ve had delivered to my doorstep.

I’m grateful to have lived in San Diego and to have sent our daughter to the San Diego French American School. What a remarkable school and community of people.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time in France, and that we are able to take our kids there and share the French language and culture with them.

I’m grateful that my husband has such a fabulous sense of humor about the French language and culture, so that when I’m feeling exasperated, rather than take offense, he laughs and makes a few jokes about the “ridiculous French.” (Say this with a thick French accent and you’ll appreciate it, too.)

I’m grateful for YouTube and Roku, where we find movies (La Maison de Mickey) and all sorts of French music videos to sing and dance to in our living room.

I’m grateful that right now, my daughter still thinks it’s pretty cool to speak French.

I’m grateful that I, with a few minor exceptions, have had kind, patient, and encouraging French teachers that have made learning the language more akin to an imagined vacation overseas than the stereotypical browbeating, you’re-not-worthy treatment that makes for great stories down the road but aren’t all that fun in the moment.

I’m grateful for Sarah at Bringing Up Baby Bilingual and this page of hers that has made finding French in Colorado so easy for us.

I’m grateful for the community of bloggers I have found that help keep me motivated and inspired about this often difficult journey of raising children bilingually.

Most of all, I’m grateful for the world that being a bilingual family has opened to us. I’m a better, more tolerant, more open-minded, more patient, and I think more interesting person after learning how different languages, cultures, and families can be.

I love that we are a bilingual, bicultural family. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Fall Traditions

 

This post is part of the Multicultural Kids Blogging Carnival, hosted this month by Stephanie at InCultureParent.

We are enjoying our first real fall in a long time. In San Diego, the seasonal shifts were so subtle I hardly noticed them. This year, I greet fall in Colorado with wide, appreciative eyes. I love the changes, the reminder that time is passing, that seasons are changing; I feel it in my core, the physical linking of nature with the rhythm of our lives.

DSC01140

Autumn brings a season full of uniquely American traditions; fun times filled with celebration, friends, and family. Back to school time comes with the smell of fresh cut grass on the football fields and Friday night games. I don’t watch much football anymore, but I love the idea of it. I love the energy around the games, the tradition, the cheering crowds. Seeing stadium lights, even from a distance, sends a tingle of excitement up my spine, just as it did when I was a teenager going to my high school games. I romanticize it all; the injuries are much less glamorous… I’ve seen too many of those in my days working the sidelines and helping out at Saturday morning injury clinics. I plan to do everything I can to make sure football remains a spectator sport only for us all, but I digress.

In October, we hit the pumpkin patches to find the perfect future Jack-o-Lantern, along with gourds for our mantel. We run through hay bale mazes with the kids, pretending to get lost so they can show us the way out. We go apple picking, and then I try out all sorts of new recipes trying to make sure the bags full of apples we found don’t go to waste. We have friends over for pumpkin carving parties where the kids, because they are young, grow quickly bored, and we adults carve self-proclaimed masterpieces over pizza and beer.

IMG_7597

DSC01151

032 our jack o lantern

securedownload

 

Trick or Treating – my kids are finally old enough for this! My daughter practiced for days before Halloween – knocking on all the doors in the house, calling out “Trick or Treat!” Then the day finally came, and we took them around our block, proud parents of our adorable costumed cherubs. We ended up with way too much candy for such little ones – a 3-year-old and 18-month-old; or at least this is how I justify raiding their bags and gorging on chocolate during their naps. I love Halloween.

Final touches on our Thing 1 and Thing 2 costumes from last year

Final touches on our Thing 1 and Thing 2 costumes from last year

New tradition this year: raking up the leaves and jumping in them. I have never, in (indistinct mumble) years, had the opportunity to do this. So when my husband finished raking all the stray leaves into a tidy pile, I had to exercise some serious restraint to let my kids dive in first, before me. We jumped, rolled, buried ourselves, and tossed those leaves around, cracking each other up.

DSC01260

DSC01262Turns out you still have to clean them up after all that fun. Not cool. Sometimes being the grown up isn’t all I thought it would be.

In San Diego, I would still be wearing tank tops and flip-flops. Here, though, I’ve put those away. I’ve never lived in a place where people actually pack clothes away for an entire season. Colorado weather is wonky enough that a flip flop worthy day is still possible. But I have enjoyed actually needing my scarves and sweaters, rather than wearing them just because “ ‘tis the season” as I did in San Diego.

Next up – Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving. I love the relaxed nature of the day; any day centered on food is a good day, as far as I’m concerned. We travel to Arizona each year to spend this holiday with my large extended family – it’s often the only day all year that we see many of them, as we live far enough apart that get togethers are few. When I was growing up, we’d all meet at Grandma and Grandpa’s house – over the river and through the woods. Later my aunt took over hostess duties, but the last couple years, we’ve had it at my mom and dad’s place. My husband and I try to take the kids out in the morning for a hike or walk where we point out the unique beauty of the Arizona desert and try to get enough exercise to justify the ridiculous amount of food we will most definitely be eating.

I’ve explained to my kids that the weather is growing colder, the days are getting shorter, and the leaves are changing colors and falling from the trees because it’s fall. My daughter is fascinated by all of this – she never saw any of this in California, so she loves to point out the leaves blowing around the neighborhood and tell me it’s fall. As with so much of parenting, her awareness, the way she completely inhabits a moment with her whole being, helps me to slow down and enjoy it all, too. And as the kids get older, each fall tradition becomes more meaningful. Going back to school isn’t just a date in the calendar, it’s an event my kids take part in. On Halloween, we’re now part of the crew of neighborhood kids. Thanksgiving, I do my best to convince them that stuffing is the absolute best part of the meal, and that piling as much whip cream on a slice of pumpkin pie as possible makes for a perfect dessert.

I love fall. Even better now that I have kids to experience it with. For them – it’s all new and exciting. For me, it’s exciting all over again, as I see it through their innocent and alert eyes that don’t miss anything. They aren’t worrying about bills or getting home in time to cook dinner, they’re picking up a fallen leaf and examining every vein and edge, then showing it to me with delighted grins. The delight is infectious, and a reminder, along with the season itself, to slow down and enjoy it all.

An American Teaching French – One Child at a Time

This post is written for this month’s Multilingual Blogging Carnival, hosted by Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes. Check out the link for more great posts!

I got lazy last year. Having our daughter in a French immersion preschool made it so easy. French surrounded her. Everything she learned was in French. French was cool, because everyone else was doing it.

Now, I have to step up my game. I’m trying to find ways to keep French active in our lives. But my fears are coming to fruition: my daughter is starting to resist French.

No one around us speaks it, here in Colorado. Her schoolmates all speak English, and now that’s all she wants to speak. We haven’t connected with the French community here, though we remain hopeful about finding it.

Bringing Up Baby Bilingual has been my reference bible for French activities in this area. I know there are a surprising number of opportunities here, we just have to look a little harder than we did in San Diego. Here’s what we’re doing so far:

We have attended story times. I feel like a desperate twenty-something dude in a club on a Saturday night, frequenting these story times, eavesdropping on conversations, trying to find another mom, hopefully speaking French to her kids, who might be willing to fork over her digits and set up a play date.

Meanwhile, since we don’t have any French-speaking friends here yet, and since my husband is putting in a lot of hours at work, it’s on me to make sure French is a part of our kids’ daily lives. Here’s the real kicker: I’m resisting it. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. Because I’m not truly me in French (see this post). My affection for my kids comes in the form of “honey” and “sweetheart”, not “mon petit chou” (my little cabbage. Ewww.). A French teacher once pointed out to me that “honey” is gross to her, because it’s sticky and messy. I suppose I can see her point. I do find myself, for whatever reason, resorting to French when I need to be stern with my kids. “Assieds-toi !” When my son stands in the bathtub and starts jumping around.  “On y va ! Vite !” When we’re late. French sounds scarier to me, and they jump to attention when I speak in French where they ignore me in English. I can already see their conversations as adults: “And when Mom started in on us in French, that’s when we knew we were in trouble!” Come to think of it, perhaps this is not the association I want to build….

Our bilingual bookshelf

Our bilingual bookshelf

We have plenty of French books, and I struggle here too because I focus too much on making sure I’m pronouncing everything correctly rather than immersing us in the story with an animated reading, the way I do so easily in English. Still, I’m trying. The more familiar each text becomes, the more fun I am when I read it, and the more attention my kids give me when I pull one of these books out.

DSC01178

Music. We listen to French music all the time. My daughter asks me to play, “Dansons la Capucine” every time we get into the car. French music is her music, anything in English is “Mommy music.” Sometimes she’ll tolerate a Mumford and Sons song or two before saying, “Mommy, I want French music! Dansons la Capucine!”

DSC01182

I’ve ambitiously (Naively? Stupidly?) offered to do French activities and story times at my daughter’s preschool for any kids who are interested. I’m scaring myself with this one. The mere thought of trying to put together a French lesson for a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds is giving me performance anxiety. If you know me, you know I don’t do anything half-way. I’m all in. Type A perfectionism overachiever at its most intense. I don’t cut myself any slack. I’ll nitpick at myself for mispronouncing one of those ridiculous vowel sounds until I’ve convinced myself that I’m unworthy of even attempting French. Stuart Smalley, care for a session in front of the mirror with me?

I know they say a language can’t be taught through TV, however, my daughter adores La Maison de Mickey and asks to watch it daily. So, a few times a week, I turn on an episode (Thank you, Roku). She does, in fact, pick up a few new words each time. We talk about the show in French, then we all do the Mickey dance together.

DSC01177

The other day, she pulled out a stack of French flashcards and handed them to me. “Mommy, can you do these with me so I can learn French so I can talk to my cousins?” Again, flashcards get a bad rap, but I wasn’t about to deny her a learning opportunity. I was pleased to see that she remembered a ton of vocabulary words in French. I often ask her to tell me what different things are in French. My husband and I try to both speak French when we are all together, and when the kids say something in English, we translate it into French, then ask them to repeat it. Incidentally, my son’s first French word is, “Coucou !” Translation – a form of “hello” mainly used with families and children.

As for my own learning, I’m planning to crash a French class or two at the University of Colorado in Boulder next semester. When I’m excited about the language, I can pass that on to my kids. Taking classes always makes me happy – if someone would pay me to be a student for the rest of my life, I’d take that job in a heartbeat. I remain determined that my kids learn French, and that it is not a secret language they share with their Papa only.

I believe that plugging into the French-speaking community here is our best hope for ensuring that our daughter and son, and me too, speak French fluently. Like many things, this will take time. And I still dream of a summer in France, maybe in a few years, when the kids are older, where the kids and I all take French lessons. Actually, I’d be fine with a yearly French immersion. Complete with lots of bike rides, croissants, and crepes. That would work for me.

Trader Joe's croissants for now... whenever TJ's opens in Colorado!

Trader Joe’s croissants for now… whenever TJ’s opens in Colorado!

As always, we remain determined, if a bit daunted, to raise our children bilingually and biculturally.

What is Assimilation, Anyway?

I often meet people, my age or older, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. and intentionally avoided teaching their offspring their native language, believing that it would both inhibit their child’s ability to learn English and interfere with their assimilation into American culture. Every one of these now grown “children” expresses regret that they didn’t learn their family’s native tongue.

How times have changed. We now understand that, especially for young children, learning two or more languages is not only possible, but developmentally advantageous. Immigration laws have changed. Our world, too, is smaller. Once upon a time, people boarded a ship knowing they would never see their home country again. They were forced to cut all ties and make a home in the place they landed. Now, we are a Facebook or FaceTime exchange away; we can hop on a plane and be almost anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours, and we can easily find others like us wherever we are: just Google a meet-up group for whatever suits you.

We don’t have a standard definition for what “First” or “Second-generation American” means. Is the first generation the one that did the immigrating? Or the first generation born in the U.S.? As for the term “assimilation,” multiple studies aim to determine how immigrants are assimilating but struggle over how to define what assimilation actually means. Do we measure it by learning English (or the native language of whatever country is being examined)? By civic participation – becoming a citizen, becoming involved in some way? By cultural participation? Did your kids dress up for Halloween? Did you stuff yourself with turkey and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, then cheer on your football team while indulging in pumpkin pie smothered in whip cream from a can? Some studies look at economic achievement: jobs, home ownership. Others attempt to examine patriotism. Even more difficult to define: do immigrants feel American? And what does that mean, when even the idea of the “typical” American can vary so much, depending upon what region of the U.S. we are considering? What exactly is the essence of Americanism? Or being French?

Most bicultural or non-American families I know raising children today diligently work to make sure their children know their native cultures and native languages. They fear their children will grow up unable to communicate with family back home, or unfamiliar with what to our friends is so familiar. They embrace many of the traditions and culture of their chosen American home, yet they actively retain their own cultures as well. For us, in our French-American home, the blend is mostly easy. We both already celebrated Easter and Christmas. For my husband, Halloween and Thanksgiving are fun new holidays (though no self-respecting Frenchman would ever stuff himself silly. As for American football… he’s making valiant efforts at appreciating the sport). I had no issue with long meals full of visiting and drinking wine more often. We were both happy to have an extra holiday in July for fireworks and barbeques. Sometimes I think we should move to France just so we can enjoy May, where public holidays mean a month of, well, joie de vivre, and August, where the whole country goes South for vacation.

The challenge for most of us remains teaching our children the second, non-English language. In San Diego, multicultural families surrounded us. One time at the playground, I counted seven different languages being spoken. Seven. We were the norm there – multilingual, multicultural. Here, in Colorado, I rarely hear a foreign language. And for the first time, I feel self-conscious when I speak to my kids in French. People stop and stare. I assume it is because it is so, well, foreign here.

We have no doubt our kids will learn English. With our American family, school, me, and peers, they’ll have plenty of exposure. Unlike many of the families from generations past, we desperately want our kids to speak French and to know their French heritage. We hope they are proud of their unique cultural make up. We hope they can feel at home, that they will have a sense of belonging, in the U.S. and in France. It’s the changing face of our world – a multilingual, multicultural, small world. Where we embrace rather than disconnect from our heritage, where we are proud to speak another language, where diversity is a beautiful, colorful thing.

 

The French Version of Me

Something strange happens whenever I go to France. I morph into a slightly different person.

I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not. I’m not even on my best behavior. No, it’s about the language. I can’t quite be myself in French.

In part, my French is not fluent, so I always feel I’m in a bit of a fog, not completely able to hear, understand, or express myself. But there’s more. My sarcasm and dry humor don’t often translate. I’ve tried, and more often than not I end up getting confused looks or worse, offending people. In French, I tend to be quiet and withdrawn, while in English I am extroverted, confident, sometimes even gregarious. I tend to be much more serious in French; again – my humor doesn’t translate. In English, I tease and joke with everyone and I constantly poke fun at myself. I’m not there yet with my French. Instead, I resort to a goofy, unsophisticated sense of humor that relies heavily on facial expressions and body language, whereas in English I’m known for being so deadpan people can’t always tell if I’m joking.

I phrase things differently. In English, I can be precise with my word choice, allowing myself to be diplomatic or irritated, straightforward or sarcastic, serious or funny. In French, I must rely on my limited vocabulary, gestures, and an exaggerated tone of voice, making me wonder if I come across as dense. It’s so easy to misinterpret what I hear or to say something I didn’t intend to say. Like my wedding vows or the time I announced “Je suis femme !” (“I am woman”) when what I intended to say was: “J’ai faim !” (“I’m hungry.”)

There’s also the inherent cultural aspects of a language. French speakers tend to be more animated, their voices sometimes almost sing-songy. I find myself adopting this mannerism as I speak French. I start doing the French Blow. French speakers tend to repeat short phrases. I say this is because they are always talking over one another, so they have to repeat the same things over and over in the hopes that someone will hear them eventually. In English, I would find this repetition annoying but it seems to be simply  part of the language in French.  I tend to adopt this mannerism as well.

Yet it cuts deeper than the way I express myself, it affects the way I think. Of course, there’s no direct, word for word translation from any one language to another. Getting to the level in a language where you actually think in that language is an exciting milestone to reach. Then, it has become a part of you. Language shapes our minds. So much of a culture is wrapped into its language, and vice versa. When living in a foreign language, our very core changes, sometimes subtley, sometimes more.