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?

Use it or lose it (the motivation)!

I’m currently in Philadelphia for a language conference for work, and more specifically, I am sitting in a restaurant alone missing my husband and baby.

My distraction is to think about the past few days. Two days ago, I interviewed a local woman who is originally from Colombia for my Spanish class. She showed up 30 minutes early, and my language partner for the interview was on time. I held a conversation completely in Spanish for over an hour, and it felt fairly natural. It was exhilarating to use that much Spanish with someone other than one of my professors. I also learned a lot about Colombia. Yes, there is more than drug cartels there!

Just this afternoon, as I was walking though the world’s largest convention center searching for the conference check-in, I started walking next to a woman who is a local French teacher from Canada originally. We spoke for about 20 minutes, and I was so embarrassed because I was doing alright, but kept saying “si,” instead of “oui.”

I explained I am studying Spanish and she said her husband is Spanish and that they always end up speaking a combination of French and Spanish at home because the two are so close and they both speak both languages.

We said “Bonne Journée,” when she found her meeting room, and then I asked someone else for directions. The older gentleman did not speak great English, so I asked him if he spoke Spanish because his accent gave him away. He said yes, and then I proceeded to ask for directions in Spanish.

Now, I know people in larger cities may get this opportunity all the time, but it was, well, exhilarating. I need a new adjective I suppose.

Each of these three people changed their demeanor completely when I addressed them in their native language, and I learned something from each person. This is why I love learning new languages!

There’s that motivation I was looking for!


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.

On the air

Today I did something I never would have imagined two years ago. I recorded a future radio broadcast in Spanish with two classmates on the topic of soccer (fútbol).  This nine minute segment will be included in one of the upcoming Spanish language radio programs, airing every Sunday afternoon.  We did it in one take. I was nervous, and I know my Spanish was not perfect, but the smile on the producer’s face when we finished made my day.

Teachers, take heed: this was a very fun and rewarding experience for a conversational Spanish course!  The exercise required group work, practice perfecting pronunciation, and bridges the gap between campus and the local Hispanic community.

Now that the kiddo is in bed, this multilingual mama is going to wrap up her Spanish blog entry, study for tomorrow’s exam, and then curl up with her French language version of Anna Karenina. Just to see if 1) my brain can handle the switch, and 2) I can stay awake for more than 2 pages.

Es muy interesante. ¡No! ¡Es fascinante!

One of my colleagues spends her workday assisting students with their writing.  She posted the following picture on her site a few days ago.  As a wanna-be writer, I must remember the message, but as an aspiring tri-lingual, it is a not-so-friendly reminder that I have a long way to go before I am a good writer in another language.  Selecting just the right word is probably a task for those who are in the advanced level of proficiency. For now, I am happy when I correctly use the imperfect tense and can distinguish the difference between “I like myself a lot” and “me, I like it a lot,” which in Spanish is the difference between “me gusto,” and “me gusta.”

This week I have been seeking out opportunities to use Spanish. I had an efficient conversation today with my server at a Mexican restaurant. He greeted me in English, I answered in Spanish, and then he just switched over to Spanish, speaking to me naturally, and just like that it was no big deal. In the past, when I have attempted to speak with servers as a novice speaker, they slowed down their speech and spoke to me in the fragmented Spanish usually reserved for children. This time, I knew what I needed to say, I asked some questions, gave a compliment, and we completed the transaction of food and money. It was exciting to have someone converse with me in another language without my face flushing from embarrassment.

In China, my experience has been that if I use any Chinese words correctly beyond “Ni Hao,” I am met with accolades typically reserved for those who summit Mount Everest. Although times are changing, the number of mei guo rens (Americans) who can speak Chinese is still fairly low. The down side of this enthusiastic support is that we are infrequently corrected when we use the wrong tone.  I become self-conscious because I assume that I am butchering their language while they politely nod.

The opposite is true in France. God love ’em, they are proud of their language, and quite rightfully so.  Not that the Chinese are not proud of their language, but the French have no qualms about helpfully pointing out any errors of pronunciation or grammar. Some say this is because they themselves were relegated to hours of drills to speak French correctly.  Why can’t we endure a few moments of repetition? When I speak in French with a French person whom I don’t know very well, I am aware that their ears are bleeding because I am butchering their language (okay, maybe not butchering, but not perfect) and I become self-conscious.

I know that many Americans speak Spanish as their second language, and perhaps that is why my conversation today was void of insecurity and bleeding.  If that is how it is going to be, I like my relationship with Spanish already. In fact, I think that it will be VERY enjoyable indeed!