I've been babysitting Carl from 11:45 to 4:45 on Thursdays since his mom went back to work. After a month of this, I have been able to establish that he doesn't like naps, feels good after burps, has an infectious smile, and generally pays attention to me when I talk or sing to him in French. In fact, his face lit up the first time I serenaded him with "Savez-vous planter les choux?" He reacts the same way, of course, when people address him in English.
Initially I felt silly talking to an infant about anything, much less narrating our afternoon in French. I'd point to things in the room or out the window and describe them to him. I'd list his body parts, his family members, and what we were going to do that afternoon. But after a couple of hours, it seemed like I was already repeating myself. (And it's disconcerting not to get any reaction, not even groans when I came up with bad bilingual puns.) So I'd grab a board book about counting dinosaurs or loving bunnies and read it to him, translating it into French and describing the pictures. And music helped a lot, especially when I couldn't think of what else to say. While I don't know a lot of French children's songs, I could regale him with "Les Champs-Elysees" and "Etoile des neiges" and the aforementioned cabbage song. And he has one CD of bilingual kids' songs, which I describe in greater detail here.
And after a couple of weeks, speaking to him in French started to feel more natural and I stopped expecting responses to my questions. I'm learning songs off the CD and making some new ones up as I go along. ("Fais do-do, Carlicot, va dans le monde des reves, fais do-do, petit Carl, on s'amuse quand tu te leves! Tu as besoin de faire une sieste, dans ton berceau tu restes..." to the tune of the lullaby song. You know, it's a lot easier to rhyme in French than in English!)
I also have about a dozen fairy tale cassette tapes with picture books accompanying them. The ones we've listened to so far are quite short--only about ten minutes apiece--but I suspect they will prove to be good input for several reasons: the narrator is a native speaker of French and the illustrations help the child understand the story. When he's a bit bigger, I can start leaving a few in his room for his parents to play for him. I'm also going to seek out some other music and story CDs. (Is this a good time for me to talk my husband into a trip to a francophone country soon? I suppose I can find plenty to order online. Sigh.) And I'll share plenty of children's books in French--but I'll blog about those once I've shown them to Carl.
I'd love to hear other suggestions of what to do with a would-be bilingual baby!
Savez-vous planter les choux?: This is a children's song that teaches body parts. Its English translation goes like this: "Do you know how to plant cabbage the way we do here? We plant them with our [insert body part here and repeat the chorus and then embark on a new verse with a different body part]. " It's very cheerful and also extremely repetitive--ideal qualifications for an educational children's song! Plus I can poke or grab his toes, nose, elbow, bellybutton, etc. to help him learn the words. (We are creative gardeners here in Lafayette, yes.)
Etoile des neiges: This is a song I learned when studying abroad in Chambery, France. When I spent New Year's Eve with my roommate's family in their chalet in Combloux, just across the valley from Mont Blanc in the Alps, they taught me this traditional song of the region. The title translates as "star of the snow" and refers to the sparkle of light that reflects off of pristine alpine snow. The song tells the story of a young man and his love who are separated because he has no money and must leave Savoie to become a chimney sweep in the big city (a situation very typical in the 19th and early 20th centuries). He of course comes back to her in the springtime and they are wed. Not a children's song, per se, but lovely and melodic.
Les Champs-Elysees: This iconic tune was made famous by French singer Joe Dassin in the 1960s and has been perpetuated by high school French teachers around the world ever since. It's a chaste love song about a couple who meet on the most celebrated street in the world, the Champs-Elysees in Paris, and spend the night dancing and singing in a basement. It's also as infectious as Carl's grin. I find myself singing it often just by myself; in fact, at least one monolingual ex-boyfriend confessed to knowing the words after being around me long enough (without ever understanding what the song is about). Will my monolingual husband learn it too? Stay tuned!
Fais do-do: See the glossary of the previous entry.
Carlicot: My nickname for my nephew. Steve and Elizabeth call him their "bean," which is "haricot" in French. Calling him "Carlicot" just sounds good to me. (The "t" is silent.) Moreover, "ot" is a fairly common diminuitive suffix for male names in French: Pierrot, Jacquot. Carlicot the haricot! Awww. (Trust me, a nonsense French word is much preferable to how my brother-in-law referred to him initially: the bologna loaf.)