Ah, oui?

Enough. Enough. Enough. I have been way too hard on myself for not speaking French lately to my 21 month old, questioning whether to use my slowly evaporating French, or my newly stronger Spanish, and in the meantime, he is only getting English.

I just started speaking French again. Just like that. Right after putting away the dishes after dinner. I switched to French and I certainly got his attention. He laughed and laughed and laughed until he was turning red in the face. He brought me a French book not long after that, so he must know the difference even if I am not using it that much lately. He continued laughing throughout, and when I would mention the “petite souris” he would say “no, (giggle giggle giggle) MOUSE!!” My husband (non-French speaking) understood much of what I was saying and enjoyed expanding his own vocabulary as I taught them the exclamation dégueulasse when my son put his shoe in his mouth. At bedtime, I read him a French book as I typically do, but this time, he sat up, watched ME rather than the book and smiled as I read.

This is a reminder to keep it fun. I tend to worry so much about everything, and rather than worrying about too much, too little, not native, etc. I need to just share my love for language. He seems to enjoy it too.

My Spanish is taking a hit this summer as I am not enrolled in any Spanish courses, and I am not currently reading anything in Spanish or speaking it with anyone. I hope I can jump right on in this August when my classes start and I have Latin American Literature and Spanish Grammar through Literature. Perhaps I need to jump back into Spanish as well. Just like that. Right after putting my kid to sleep.

Is he trying to tell me something? A focus on my lack of bilingual parenting confidence:

I have been absent from this blog. I have been ashamed. I have been doubtful. I have been lazy. I have felt conflicted.

It’s a new year, however, and while I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, I do see this as a nice time to determine a new approach. I just spoke at length with a colleague who is raising her daughter to speak her native language, Mandarin.  Her daughter is now attending a preschool where English is the only language, and she is adapting to what both my colleague and I have experienced as culture shock, or even more specifically, language shock. The difference is that we both experienced this as adults and she is experiencing it at 3. The similarity is that her daughter is asking how to say practical things first, such as, “I need a tissue” because she has a runny nose, or “may I go in here?” She desperately wants to not feel shy to ask the other kids to play, but she is taking care of the other things first. I find this fascinating because any time I am immersed in a language with which I am unfamiliar, I also wonder how I will find the bathroom, take a cab, conduct transactions, etc. before I worry about knowing how to invite someone to dinner or ask about their family. Runny noses and bathroom breaks come first at any age, I suppose.

When our conversation concluded, I came back to my desk and mentally addressed what exactly is keeping me from going fully into French mode with my toddler 100% of the time.  I came up with the following:

  1. I seem to have internalized so many of the doubts people have about bilingual education rather than focusing on the benefits.  My confidence in the process is flagging.
  2. I have been so excited when A. says, “dog,” or “sock,” that I want to encourage him by saying in English, “yes, brilliant boy! That is a dog!” I want to use those English words in other English sentences to give him the confidence to continue using them. I am uncertain how to reward him for growing his English vocabulary and simultaneously reinforce the French.
  3. I can’t find French toddlers in my community. I just don’t think there are any. At some point, he needs peers to encourage him.
  4. I don’t have the support I need for maintaining and further developing my own French. I need French friends. See #3 above.
  5. Finally, I am immersed in Spanish classes throughout the semester, and that is what I am using all the time. I have friends with whom I can practice the language. There are plenty of Spanish speakers in the community; however, I am not comfortable enough yet with Spanish to feel I can confidently teach it to A. Spanish is not yet as instinctual as French, and yet I find French fading quickly for me. I wonder if I am going to miss my window for sharing the second language with him in the process of gaining my third language.

My approach is going to be using French as much as possible, but allowing myself to not feel the pressure of all or nothing.  Just last night, as A. was sluggishly trying to play while battling a fever, he was more cuddly than normal because he didn’t feel well. He kept bringing me a book that is in French called, “Pou-poule” about a chicken who runs away with a fox. He loves when I read this book (I like to use silly voices for the chickens talking). I realized that some of the books that he loves the most and wants to hear the most are the ones that are in French. Maybe I should stop worrying about how much and how often, and just live a bilingual (multilingual) life as a model. Hopefully he will grow up thinking this is normal, and I will have given him enough French (and maybe one day Spanish) to give him an edge if he decides to continue them. If, in the process, I begin using more French, so be it. It does have to be fun or neither of us will keep it up.

Tonight, as his father is out of town, it makes perfect sense to have an all French night and just see how it goes. If dogs and socks come into the conversation, they are welcome too!

Honoring friends in Spanish

It’s been a long while since I last wrote, but I assure you my Spanish studies have continued. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about my consistent French with my toddler. It is a constant struggle to balance English and French. Isn’t it almost time for New Year’s resolutions?

Later today, I will make a presentation in my Spanish conversation course. We were asked to give a presentation over an issue in a Latin American country. Since we have talked about environmental issues this semester, I decided to honor my friend Arturo with a presentation on his work with, and passion for, sea turtles.  Arturo spent years researching sea turtles in Costa Rica and St. Eustacia, and I have learned enough over the years from him to give a decent introduction of the topic and the urgency of the problem.

I have always considered Arturo as somewhat of a hero for his dedication to his work, and for following his passion and turning it into a career.  Today, it is even more special because I can honor him in my third language. Just like my experience this year at the radio station, I can’t believe I can actually present something interesting in Spanish.  It is so rewarding, and when I can use it to brag on an old friend, it becomes a great milestone.

Now, about that French…what am I going to do? Anyone using a non-native language with their child have recommendations for how to not slip into your native language? Maybe a small shock collar tuned to English?

Bonne nuit!

Tonight I had one of the best moments of my life, and it was such a simple one. I was in the middle of the bedtime routine with A. and I had read him a couple of stories.  I tipped him back in my arms and continued rocking him, his face looking up at mine. I very softly told him (in French) the story of me learning that I was pregnant, how his daddy and I waited so long for him to arrive, and then how I fell in love with him instantly.  Then I told him about what I hoped for him in the future, and what I promise to him as his mother. I rocked and talked for about 30 minutes.

Realizing that he had spent the entire time calmly looking into my eyes, listening, sleepy but engaged, I was overwhelmed with love. I took note of his size, thinking about the story I just told about how small he had been. He still fits in my lap, and my open palm can cover the length of his little pudgy elbow and forearm as he rests in the crook of my elbow.  I know this will not be so forever, and as a wriggly toddler I don’t get these quiet and still moments with him very often.

As his sweet eyes began to get heavy, I laid him down in his crib, and for the first time in a few months, he didn’t cry at all when I laid him down and walked out of the room. The stars aligned tonight, and I will never forget our moment.

Bonne nuit, mon petit lapin. Fais de beaux rêves! (Goodnight my little rabbit. Sweet dreams)

Adding fuel to the fire

Spoiler alert: I get on my soapbox in this post.

I had a conversation this past week with someone who plans to raise their child as a bilingual English/Spanish speaker, and this person is not a native speaker of Spanish. Unfortunately, this person has run into one of those naysayers who does not believe this is possible.  The naysayer gave the impression that this is a silly thing that people who are not yet parents dream to accomplish, but never do so.

To this naysayer, whom I am sure would NEVER find my multilingual parenting blog, watch me!  I say this not for the sake of this person, I say this for anyone who is uncertain if this can be done. This may include prospective parents, or parents who are considering this avenue for their family. Don’t let anyone else dictate what you and/or your family members are capable of doing. I have known for years, before I even met my husband and became a mother, that I want to share French with my offspring.  So I am, and I will.  To have the last laugh, I might just toss in Spanish as well.

It is rare to find a bilingual or multilingual person who has no accent in any of their languages, or for whom switching between languages in every context is a breeze. Regardless of how you define bilingualism (and there are a few definitions out there), hang your hat on the one that you can personally live with, and just enjoy sharing the language with your children. Who cares if they are going to be perfect speakers?

Yes, sharing the language can present challenges for a family, especially if you are a non-native speaker living in a country where the target language is not a majority language, but it is also a lot of fun.  If you, like me, enjoy more than one language, and more than one culture, then the work is rewarding. This endeavor allows the non-native speaker to keep his or her own language skills sharp. By modeling the learning process, the parent will teach their children skills about learning that can be valuable in other subject areas.  I fully expect A. to think everyone’s parents do foreign language grammar exercises in the evenings, or listen to Spanish/French radio news.  Curiosity is a value in our home, and intercultural communication will be an emphasis.

If you are curious, if you are dubious, just keep reading.  I hope to give you a reason to believe there is value in this process.

Il faut pratiquer! (You have to practice)

When the child goes down for a nap on Labor Day, this momma cheers and runs for the book of French grammar exercises. Yes, that is what I do in my spare time. Heaven forbid I teach him poor grammar!  Then I will finish my Spanish homework, and call it a day.

The goal for A.’s birthday is to decorate his room in our new home. For now, he has beige walls and beige carpet. Bo-ring! I have two ideas I am working with.  One is green, and the other is gray and white horizontal stripes, with colorful things hung on the walls.  I love Etsy.com, and I have found some great French posters, etc. for decorations.  This will be so much fun!  Eventually, I would like to see if his father and grandfather can build some cubbies for his room for books/toys. I refuse to give hundreds of dollars to Pottery Barn for what is so easy to make!

Finally, I know it is early, but I have found a French Christmas CD for kids. I need to learn all the French Christmas songs I can so that we can start singing them every year as a tradition. This will be a birthday gift for A. since he will be more enthralled with the boxes than the gifts this year!

Oh, how I love a three-day weekend!

I put that spark back in his eyes!

The day I learned I was pregnant, I decided to give my son the gift of a second language from birth.  Little did I know how difficult that would be for a non-native speaker of French.

I started out earnestly enough, trying to use both English and French.  I read at least one book in English and one in French to him every day. I would sing along with French nursery rhyme CDs. I split my time speaking both languages with him.  About a month ago I made the decision to go OPOL.  For those of you not in bilingual parenting circles, that is one parent, one language.  In our case, my husband would speak to him only in English, and I would speak to him only in French.  And we kept it up. For about a week or two. Then my native English would creep in because I was in a hurry, or tired, or we were around family that didn’t speak French, or any other host of excuses that are eerily similar to my reasons for not running again yet post-pregnancy. It turns out that I am lazy. Or busy. Or both. Either way, OPOL has not been happening.  He still gets the books and the songs, but the consistent, French only from mommy has been hit and miss.

I set my next goal that when we got back from California this week, I would restart, but for real this time.  It is difficult. French is no longer the knee-jerk language that it was at one time in my life. I have to start incorporating it into my life again through movies, online news, music, books, etc. I have to somehow conceptualize that my son=French. I need to imagine that he only speaks French.  I understand this approach will only work as long as he is not speaking English.  By that time, I hope to have created a habit.

Another challenge in our home is regarding family communication. My husband is a monolingual with a strong willingness to learn French and/or Spanish.  I have read plenty of research that shows this is not a problem. I have read anecdotes on many websites where families have shared their experiences in just this type of situation, and they all seem cheery and well-adjusted.  We are our own unique unit, however, and we have to figure out how to navigate this communication in our household so that nobody feels left out.  We can be encouraged by research, but we are individuals, and can’t assume that what works for some will work for us. It will be a learning and growing experience along the way, and I am happy to share that in this blog if anyone is considering this path for their own child.

Finally, the challenge that I encounter in seamless conversation with my baby is my lack of baby-related French vocabulary. My French classes in high school and college assumed that this was not needed right away, and I never needed that vocabulary later in life with any of my French friends. I realized a month ago during the failed OPOL decree that I had no idea how to say diaper, wipes, pacifier, teddy bear, baby bottle, breastfeeding, crawling, or spitting up. Some of those are easier than others to mime in polite company, and I knew that if I am to teach my son French rather than sign language, I needed to learn these phrases tout de suite (right away)!

Now, to the present: I have been speaking only French to my son since Monday, but no celebrations just yet-my husband has been out of town since Monday and returns tonight. My inspiration to keep up OPOL is that the moment I switched to French only with my son, his eyes lit up in a very different way, almost as if to say, “there’s that French!”  For those of you who know his smile that lights up a room, you already know the magical powers this child has. Since Monday, there has been an extra sparkle, and I would like to think my French put that spark there!

Word of the day: couche de bébé= diaper