Monday, December 01, 2014

myth-ing the point

For the last Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival of 2014, Annabelle, the host, challenged us to explode the myths that many people hold about bilinguals--are we truly confused?  Are our kids condemned to a childhood of code switching and strange looks from their classmates?  Will our efforts isolate us from our monolingual in-laws?



But not really.  (So if any of those things do happen, don't blame the second language!)

Here's the best list I've encountered which enumerates and quickly dispels common myths about bilingualism, courtesy Prof. François Grosjean, author, linguist, parent, and all-around expert in this area: Myths About Bilingualism.

For today, I'd like to address the intersection of these two myths: "bilingual children experience language delays" and "being bilingual requires equal fluency in both languages."

Once upon a time, I was a French teacher, an aunt, and a part-time babysitter.  My sister-in-law had suggested that since I knew French, I might as well speak French to my nephew, Carl, while taking care of him one afternoon a week.  So I made the effort to learn vocabulary that had never before appeared in my French conversation or reading ("bouncy chair," "put the pumped milk into the bottle warmer," "what in the world is that foul odor?", "Can't I just cut the onesie off him after a diaper blow-out?") and spent many happy hours reading and singing and taking walks with Carl, all in French.

Tatie and Carl, 2006
And, by golly, at 18 months that brilliant baby was regularly making two- and three-word utterances in French. (I'm not exaggerating even a little bit--I took careful notes each time I was with him, which led to his first four-word sentence at 18 months: "Tatie écrit stylo livre"--Auntie is writing with a pen in her book!)

Clearly, being exposed to two languages from infancy didn't delay his language acquisition (nor did it impede his English ability).

Now, let's take a look at the other end of the spectrum: my daughter Gwyneth.  She's almost three and a half, and her speech in English is often nearly as unintelligible as her French.  

She has a lot to say, mind you, but chances are a stranger would have trouble deciphering it, what with the consonants she mispronounces ("ewewewatow" for "elevator") or drops altogether ("et" for "yet"), the sounds she transposes ("smoothie" becomes "soomie"), her occasional French words ("I a loup and my brover a loup"), her occasional missing words ("I no" which means "I don't know"), her even-less-frequent Spanish words (mostly numbers and bits of songs that she picks up at her Spanish immersion preschool) and the family-specific ideas she tends to reference (such as zerberts, sleep-unders, and tuck-tucks).

Gwyneth, 2014
Thus, when Gwyneth announces, "My wittle eye sawt wit wew!", we know (but no one else does) that she wants to play I Spy.  (She's heard her brother say "I spy with my little eye something that starts with B" and "I spy with my little eye something that is red," so she makes a valiant attempt to express "I spy with my little eye something that is vert," green.) 

See, we know what she means because we speak English, French, and Gwynese.  My wittle eye sawt wit wew.** (Doesn't that just make you want to give her a big squeezey hug?!  So cute.)

Given the fact that she was barely talking at 18 months, and not saying much as a two-year-old, I might characterize Gwyneth's speech as "delayed" (or perhaps just "confusing"), but there's no reason to attribute it to her hearing two languages from birth.  And for the record, both her pediatrician and her preschool teacher have reassured me that her language development is age appropriate, if perhaps on the low end of normal, and she did have an auditory test earlier this year just to make sure that she's hearing her consonants correctly.

Griffin's linguistic development, on the other hand, fell somewhere in between his sister and his cousin--neither astonishingly early nor a little late.  Again, I don't think that had anything to do with the languages he was hearing at home.

I did hear a lot of code-switching from Griffin as a toddler, though, particularly with nouns.  His sentences usually consisted of pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions in English, plus nouns in French.  I'm sure that this is because the majority of books he knew were in French, and we encounter words in books--volcano, hedgehog, leprechaun--that tend not to appear regularly in conversation.

(Code-switching, by the way, is neither a myth nor improper speech, but a normal stage in language development.  It doesn't occur because kids are confused, but rather because some words are easier to access in a certain language and those are the ones that come out first.  Later on, code-switching can be a deliberate choice when a person wants to use a word or phrase in the other language for emphasis, humor, or to identify herself as a member of a group.)

Griffin, 2012
Both of my children understand French as well as English, at least in the situations I've observed, although they both have a clear preference for English.  When prompted, Griffin will speak French, but haltingly.  (Unless we are discussing a book we're reading together, and then his French feels more organic, probably because the phrases and ideas from the story are surrounding us.)  As for Gwyneth, she usually refuses to do anything we ask her to do, so I've stopped encouraging her to reply to me in French, saving my requests for important things like brushing teeth and wearing pants.  (Hey, maybe I should start telling her she has to speak English from now on!  She would almost certain embrace the language just for the sake of rebelling against me.)  

(By the way, the thought of Gwyneth the teenager terrifies me.)

So I can't say that Griff and Gwyn are bilingual, right?  Despite my efforts and their passive understanding of French, they simply are not as fluent in their second language.  In fact, I often suspect that my own French isn't strong enough to be considered fluent--talking on the phone can reduce me to caveman-like stammers, I miss a lot in movies when the characters are speaking fast, using slang, or not facing the camera, I can't engage in political discussions,  some of the literature I studied in grad school reduced me to tears, and my accent immediately betrays me as a Anglophone.

I learned not to dwell on these perceived inadequacies, however, when I started speaking exclusively in French to my infant son.  I didn't want to feel self-conscious, so I kept reminding myself that even if my kids ended up speaking a second language imperfectly, that would still be much better than only speaking one language, period.

G&G, 2014
However, it appears that Dr. Grosjean would disagree, would insist that the fact that my kids and I are not equally fluent in both languages does not detract from our bilingualism:

"Some bilinguals are dominant in one language, others do not know how to read and write in one of their languages, others have only passive knowledge of a language and, finally, a very small minority, have equal and perfect fluency in their languages.  What is important to keep in mind is that bilinguals are very diverse, as are monolinguals."

In other words, non-native speakers like me can achieve fluency in our second languages, and we can proudly call ourselves--and our children--bilinguals.

ma famille, 2011
*Note to Griffin and/or Gwyneth: "Condemned to a Childhood of Code Switching" would make a great title for your memoirs one day.

**Whereas an autobiography called "My Wittle Eye Sawt Wit Wew" probably wouldn't make the bestseller lists.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Griffin's no longer a toddler, Sarah!

And your second child, who didn't even exist when the previous header photo was taken, is no longer a toddler either, for that matter.

Time to try out a new blog header using a more recent photo that features a girl this time!

Friday, October 24, 2014

the very hungry Gwyneth

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog to bring you a report of Gwyneth's Very Hungry Caterpillar-themed birthday party!  (Since it's based on a classic children's book, this post is at least tangentially related to my blog theme, right?)
Party appetizer: grape caterpillar skewers
This is not a new concept, of course: just do a search for Very Hungry Caterpillar Party on Pinterest and an overwhelming number of ideas for decorations, foods, and favors will assault you with the ferocity of a thousand swirling Martha Stewarts sculpting a butterfly piñata out of twelve years' worth of carefully-stored-in-archival-quality-lignan-free-paper belly button lint, hand-dyed in a rainbow of hues from organic beet peelings, kale leaves, and harvested-under-a-blue-moon fairy wings.

Me, I'm not crafty like that.

Therefore, we rented a shelter at a local city park so we wouldn't have to do much in terms of decorations, and I put my energy into food, activities, and the favors.

(Mmmm...caterpillar food!)

Rather than staying scrupulously faithful to the book --I didn't really want to prepare one apple, two strawberries, three plums and so forth all the way through a slice of pizza, a sausage, and a cupcake--I started with several book-inspired salads and appetizers.

"In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf."
Rather than serving the fruits separately, I just threw them into a salad.  
(For the dressing, I infused fresh ginger into a simple syrup and added lots of fresh mint.) 
Butterfly Pasta Salad--featuring farfalle pasta
(shaped like butterflies!)
"Then he ate through one nice green leaf,
and he felt much better."
Sandwich supplies
Dessert was easy: Caterpillar Cakes!

(store-bought cupcakes spread with store-bought icing
into which I mixed green and yellow food coloring)
As for the decor, I ran out of time to do what I really wanted (making yard decorations out of green paper plates stapled to chopsticks and inserted in the ground at appropriate lengths to look like the iconic famished creepy-crawly).  But since the party was outside, decorations weren't even necessary.

We did set the atmosphere with some insect-inspired children's music:

silly, catchy songs about bugs--educational, but the kids don't even realize they're learning!
And we did a craft: a "sticky table," using adhesive contact paper (backing removed) taped to a table. I provided little crafty doodads, like paper leaves, sequins, plastic grass from sushi plates, pompoms, pipe cleaners, and colorful caps from squeezy baby food pouches, and the party-goers made 3D scenes that stuck to the paper--even on a windy Colorado day!

la chenille la plus longue de Lafayette !
The "sticky table" scenes then became a fun background for blowing out candles
 and serving the cupcakes.
la chasse aux papillons
Our main activity (besides eating, of course, and running around like small wild beasts) was a butterfly hunt, which involved donning the antennas that Griffin had helped prepare,

pompoms, pipe cleaners, and plastic headbands from the dollar store
grabbing some butterfly nets (also courtesy our local $1 establishment), and running after tissue-paper-and-pipe-cleaner butterflies

take a small rectangle of tissue paper,
pinch the center together,
and wrap a piece of pipe cleaner around it
so that the antennas are sticking up
that another (tall) parent threw into the air on this very windy day.  

Gwyneth's fête was magical!  (Other than the fact that the birthday girl participated in almost nothing except the eating of the cake.  Oh well--she was only turning two.)

I also put a ridiculous amount of time and energy into creating the favors: spiral-bound workbooks about caterpillars.  With the help of Google and Pinterest, I printed out coloring pages, mazes, seek-and-finds, easy crossword puzzles, poems about bugs, and other activity sheets, then had them copied and bound.

(I hate all that plastic crap and candy that guests typically receive in the 
ubiquitous child's birthday party favor bags.)
Martha Stewart, eat your heart out!  I'll take a creative and (semi) educational kid's party with store-bought cupcakes any day.  (Although, apparently, it will take me 15 months to finish blogging about it.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

big news!

(No, my sillies, I'm not pregnant again!)

I think these wheels of cheese are larger than my three-year-old daughter.
(Farmers market, Riquewihr, France, August 2014)
After years of speaking French to my children and nephew, teaching university-level French classes, giving private French lessons to individual kids, and offering free library storytimes in French, I'm finally diving in and co-teaching my first class in French for children ages 0-5!!!

My friend Carol of A French American Life had the cojones to approach the manager of Grandrabbit's Play, an indoor play space in Boulder, and ask them if they were interested in adding French to their current offerings of music and yoga classes.  They said oui, we wrote up a proposal, had an interview, and so we start next week!

Here's the blurb:

Come play in French with us! Our classes will engage you and your child in a fun, low-stress language immersion experience. Via songs, books, games, and crafts, you and your child will be encouraged to understand and speak French from day one. The instructors, who use French nearly 100% of the time in class, use context, repetition, props, images, gestures, and tone of voice to make the meaning clear: in other words, the way that children acquire their first language! No previous exposure to French is required.   

Doesn't that sound fun?  I would totally bring my kids to this class if they didn't already speak French.  (Actually, I will be bringing Gwyneth, since she's not in preschool those mornings.)

Promotion: if you happen to be from around here and sign up for a class this Friday, October 17, you will also receive a month of free open play at the facility (a $39 value).

Wish us luck!  Any advice?

Monday, October 06, 2014

losing hats and gaining fluency

Six and a half years of speaking exclusively French with Griffin really is working, and I can prove it: a week after our 12-day, three-generation family trip to France for the first time (August 2014), Griffin went back to school.  His Spanish immersion school.  His third year there.  And in half an hour at the back-to-school-meet-the-teachers event, I counted five different instances in which he answered a teacher's questions in Spanish with words in French!  He was "oui"ing all over the place!

Gwyneth, Griffin, Grammy in Paris
Since I had never observed him doing that before, I feel safe attributing it to our having spent nearly two weeks in a French immersion environment.  Hourrah!

If I had written this blog post sooner after our return from Alsace and Paris, it would have begun quite differently.  I would have bemoaned the fact that Griffin's fluency in French didn't improve in great leaps.  I would have expressed my disappointment that our trip didn't have the same effect as my fellow bilingual parent bloggers' experiences--it seems as if when they take their families to a country where the minority language is spoken, or when relatives who speak that language stay with them for a week or more, it is a revelation.  These parents (and also the mamans in French playgroup) are rapturous about how comfortable their kids get in the minority language in such a short time.

And, well, it wasn't really like that for us.  Nothing major went wrong, and Griffin did have lots of chances to interact with native speakers--but I can only think of three extended conversations he had with them, and he kept speaking in English to me otherwise, as usual.  No revelations, no magical transformations, no sudden desire to use only French with me.

Gwyneth continued to do her own thing, which is basically the opposite of whatever her parents want.
I had so hoped that our travels would recharge his French brain batteries!  But 12 days isn't enough, clearly, at least when he's still spending each day with our anglophone family in the rental car and lodgings.

But instead of dwelling on my belief that he didn't speak enough French on our trip, let me focus on what he did do!  Here are his linguistic highlights:

We participated in a tour of the Chateau Haut-Konigsbourg specifically for children, in which a man dressed as a medieval minstrel led us through the castle looking for his musical instruments which went missing after the previous evening's feast for the king.  Over an hour of listening to a stranger speak French in a strange place with cannons and towers and a fascinatingly deep well--that's a record!  (And it made an impression on Gwyneth, too; she keeps telling people about how we couldn't find the instruments in the castle.)

During our week in Alsace, we never encountered another American tourist, and the owners of our rental house spoke only French.  And as they lived right next door, we chatted with them regularly.  They even invited us over for drinks one night!  Plus, they were curious about us, and also wanted to make sure that we liked their house, so the landlady peppered me with questions every time she saw us.

(The only awkward moments came when she stuck her head through the open window as I walked out of the shower, and then when we had to admit that we didn't know how to operate the washing machine.  Oh, and when Griffin threw a basketball so hard it cracked a plastic lawn chair.  Oops.)

His other two noteworthy conversations came about because of public transportation.  On the bus, I started chatting with a grandmother accompanying her two young grandsons and called him over to join in.  One of the boys, a six-year-old just like him, told us that "Griffin" (which they pronounced "griffeen)" sounded like a girl's name.  But Griff defended himself and said that was okay, that it's a boy's name in English.  (Interestingly, he also ended up meeting a French boy named Sasha on a playground, and his reaction was shock that the boy had what he considered a girl's name!)  We ended up exchanging addresses and promising to send the French boys a postcard from Colorado.  (Wouldn't it be cool if they turn out to be penpals?!)

The people we spoke with in France seemed surprised and impressed that we're raising our children bilingually and asked us lots of questions about it, but none more so than two young workers at Charles de Gaulle airport who overheard me speaking to the kids in French with my American accent.  Ultimately we spent about ten minutes watching them barrage Griffin with questions, which he handled beautifully.  He even told them about how he's learning Spanish at school!

Then there were lots of little interactions that turned out to me more important than I realized at the time--opportunities for Griffin to read and speak French because he wanted or needed something.  For example, my husband took him out on a Sunday to look for a bakery that was open; they got completely lost and encountered bakeries that were closed for the day (or for the season).  Since Ed doesn't speak French, he was entirely dependent on our six-year-old to translate the signs and ask strangers for directions!

My children have an unfortunate habit of leaving their hats behind, and true to form, they lost one apiece on the trip.  Ed and Griffin retraced our steps in Colmar, looking for Gwyneth's errant chapeau, which meant that Griff had to do things like ask the carousel operator if he had seen it.  And when Griff's cap went missing at a museum in Paris--and he was really mad about that--he took two separate trips to the lost-and-found desk to try to track it down.

before her hat disappeared
When Griffin wanted a map of the charming village of Riquewihr, I accompanied him to the tourist office and watched proudly as he obtained two of them--one in French for us and one in English for Daddy.  He also read menus and ordered his own food in restaurants, paid attention to signs all around him (traffic signs, lists of bus stops, directional indicators in the metro), and refused to leave a bookstore until he had paged through an entire Tintin comic book.

(And it was so reassuring to have strangers compliment my own French as well as the fact that the kids are bilingual.  Maybe they were just being polite, but I'll take it.)

I'd like to think that we aided in the efforts of international diplomacy, that the folks we met have better opinions of Americans than they used to!  And while it probably won't take long for Spanish to regain its position as Griffin's second most familiar language, I now know that French is in there firmly enough that it will come back out after another immersion experience.

Oh, and Griffin also exchanged rubber band bracelets with this boy I made him talk to when I noticed him watching us  from his ground-floor dining room window.
Now I just have to break the news to my husband that we'll have to go to another Francophone country next summer....

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

bring a straightedge, not a long skirt

three months later
Look at that Américaine sitting in the second row: twenty years old, wearing an elegant blouse and flowy skirt because everyone said the French are très chic, holding her new stylo plume (so different from the ballpoints she's accustomed to) expectantly above her new loose-leaf paper with a dizzying multitude of blue lines, eager to absorb the nuances of how to write literary analyses.

After all, back home, she is double majoring in creative writing and French!

The other students surrounding her are 90% female, all dressed in jeans and sweaters with lank ponytails looped and pinned to the back of their heads with barrettes.  Sloppy.

She's confused about a lot of things this first week at the French university.  Especially about how she can be attending a literature class in a lecture hall--no required reading, no class discussion, no office hours to drop by and talk with the professor, no campus bookstore, even.  (She's also shocked--shocked!--to learn that the school cafeteria sells beer.)

This young woman has just taken her first overseas plane flight, is living in her first apartment, is hearing native speakers of French all day long for the first time in her life (up until now, all of her teachers have been anglophones), and is slowly panicking as she realizes that she doesn't belong here. 

Only about half of what the professor intones makes sense.  No one else talks.  No one spoke to her when she sat down, either.  She is excruciatingly aware of how out of place she looks.  She's the only student in the row who doesn't have a little plastic ruler sitting beside a pencil case so that she can underline key points in a different color pen.  

plaisir d'écrire?
Who in the world takes the time to use a straightedge while taking notes during a lecture?  Everyone in France, apparently.

She's so tired, so scared, so clueless.  Her eyes well up and drip onto her paper, blurring the half-hearted monochromatic notes from her unnecessarily complicated stylo plume.  Her French isn't good enough to survive this class, this school, this year away from home.

And then she gathers her materials into the only backpack in the room (her fellow students carry shoulder-strapped leather satchels), gets up, and walks out before the end of the class for the first time in her life.


Yep, that eager, hapless, mystified girl was me.  My junior year abroad.  Of course, there's a happy ending to this story; I did end up taking literature and translation and linguistic classes (enjoying them so much that I went on to teach English to French speakers and then earn a masters degree in French).   I stopped washing my hair every day and started wearing jeans to class.  I became friends with French students with whom I am still in touch two decades later!  Learned to make a vinaigrette from scratch, to ski in the Alps, to understand French slang, to enjoy a glass of wine with my cafeteria lunch.  

And when my children travel to a francophone country to study, they will have a much better idea of what to expect than I did. (And I'll tell them to bring a straightedge just in case!)


This post was written for the July edition of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival; our host, Cordelia at Multilingual Mama, asked us to share "the biggest linguistic challenge you've faced and how you overcame it."

Thursday, July 17, 2014

you're taking your family to France!

Don’t think about the money--five overseas plane tickets!  Gulp.   (Plus twelve nights’ lodging!  The rental car, the trains, the restaurant meals, the unavoidable souvenirs!)  Don’t stress about how to juggle two children, two car seats, a monolingual husband, a smart and feisty but hard-of-hearing and hard-of-walking grandmother, and all your luggage (which will, you admit to yourself, probably double after you visit a couple of used bookstores).

Instead, revel in the fact that you are returning to France for the first time in nine years.  Nine years!  Nine years in which you have kept speaking French whenever you can, even after you left your teaching job to raise your family.  Six and a half years of speaking French to your baby boy--who is now, astonishingly, a first grader--and your baby girl, growing up so fast and so slowly at the same time.  Nine years of a tiny Francophone bubble in your home in the big American world.

All those years of only speaking French, your hard-won non-native tongue, with your dear ones, even though English would have been so. much. simpler.

Now you can finally immerse your family in the language!  Your children will see that more people than maman, their playgroup friends, and T’choupi speak and play and cajole and question and explain and argue and whine in French.  You will sit on a bench in the Jardin de Luxembourg and eavesdrop as they play tag with their new pals, and your mother will sigh contentedly and laugh at their antics, and your husband will tell you he’s proud of you for teaching your children another language.

And then your children will ask you for a few more euros so they can take another ride on the carousel, and your husband will suggest that you stop by that fromagerie on the way back to the apartment, and your mom will greet every passerby with a big American “Bonjour!” as she writes postcards to her friends back in the midwest.

And you will know that the expense is worth it, and that you won’t wait nine years to come back again.

Besides, Griffin and Gwyneth already have a natural affinity for frogs.

Monday, June 30, 2014

moms like me at the carnival

Maria of Trilingual Mama is hosting the June edition of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, and her theme is monolingual or non-native parents and their bilingual kids!  Drop by for a visit.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

caca, communication, conundrum

"Oh.  No.  The baby just had a diaper blow-out all over his onesie in the bouncy chair."

"Damn you, colic."

"Hey, don't play with that flange for my breast pump!  I just sterilized it!"

"Young man, we do not put our fingers in our noses.  We do not remove the boogers and wave them in the air.  And we certainly do not plunge our mucousy digits into our mouths to partake of their slimy saltiness."

"Nor do we eat our eye boogers."

"No, sweetie, those aren't your panties.  Those are the bloomers that match your dress and go over your panties so you don't flash passers-by while you do somersaults and climb on the jungle gym.  Isn't it great that you don't need to wear pull-ups any more?"

"Griffin, when you hit kids in your class, they won't want to be
your friends.  I know you're so smart and caring, but when you act like a bully, the other kids won't like you, and that breaks my heart."

"Sweetheart, Grandpa left us.  He was so sick that he just couldn't get better.  No, you can't sing '76 Trombones' to him over the phone to make him smile, and he can't hold you on his lap and read to you any more, and it breaks my heart, and I don't know how to answer your questions about what happens next.  Even in English.  All I can do is hold you and tell you je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'aime."

Holding someone does help.
These are just a few of the things I never learned how to say in French class but that I have had to express while raising my children in my non-native language!   (No high school or college foreign language curriculum covers vocabulary for convincing a toddler to go caca in the potty.)

As host of the June edition of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, trilingual mom Maria has asked us to write about our experiences raising children in our non-native language.  I feel like I expressed it best in this post after my daughter was born: "Second Language, Second Child."

Three years later not much has changed, except that I have a better grasp of the salient vocabulary and I panic less about things like colic and caca!

What I can say for certain after six years of parenting in my non-native language is that speaking French to my children forces me to pay attention to what I say to them, always.  Having to pause, even just a half-second, to find the right word or to put an indirect object pronoun in front of the verb where it belongs, means that my communication with them is purposeful, deliberate, heartfelt.  Speaking French in an English world means that I am constantly choosing to be present, alert, connecting with my children.

This challenge gift also means that my children and I share an intimacy, a linguistic complicity, that they don't have with anyone else.  It's special and precious (and it reinforces that old saying that French is the language of love!).

As Griffin grows older, his mind moving a million miles a minute, it's harder and harder to have conversations where I can fully and accurately express exactly what I want to say to him--why he needs to be compassionate, what's worth fighting for, how to put away his neatly folded clean clothes without wadding them all up into one drawer and losing socks along the way.

At some point, probably sooner that I'd like, I will be faced with a difficult decision: stubbornly staying in French no matter what--even if this entails losing nuance and muddying meaning and speaking haltingly--or resigning myself to the fact that I need to speak English with him because I am articulate and precise and funny and interesting in English, less so in French--thus sending the message that English is easier, more useful, and more important.  And maybe betraying myself and my blog.

What would you do?  What have you already done?