Thursday, April 03, 2008

remembering the early days with Carl

Now that I've got my own would-be bilingual baby, it's fascinating for me to reread early blog posts about taking care of my nephew when he was Griffin's age! I'm finding that the experiences are quite similar. Here, in italics, is what I had to say almost two years ago, in a post entitled "Afternoons with Carlicot"….

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.

As for Griffin, he definitely has the infectious smile as well. He watches people's faces intently when they speak or sing to him--in fact, he's quite the little flirt!

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 helps a lot, especially when I can't think of what else to say. While I don't know a lot of French children's songs, I can regale him with "Les Champs-Elysées" and "Étoile des neiges" and the aforementioned cabbage song.

I feel pretty much the same way now--it's still hard for me to talk so much to anyone, much less someone who can't reply. And of course I spend more time with Griffin than I did with Carl! I've stopped forcing myself to speak to him during his every waking moment--I'm still way too exhausted to do that even if I gave myself permission to do it in English.

But now I have many more French-for-children resources than I did back then. I'm making a point to play lots of French songs for Griffin (and I know dozens more by heart now, thanks to all the CDs I've accumulated while taking care of Carl). We have lots of French books now, so I don't have to translate our English ones on the fly. And I'm learning more comptines (finger plays and nursery rhymes), because those really appeal to babies.

(I do still sing my favorite "adult" songs in French to him as well!)

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 one French kids' CD I have and making some new ones up as I go along. ("Fais do-do, Carlicot, va dans le monde des rêves, fais do-do, petit Carl, on s'amuse quand tu te lèves! 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've continued to make up songs for Carl, and now I'm doing the same for Griffin.

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.)

Oh, I'd forgotten about the fairy tale tapes! I quickly realized that an infant isn't the best audience for a picture book-on-tape (at least, not those ones)--he doesn't understand a thing being said and can't focus on the detailed pictures. But Carl's probably old enough now to listen to them and "read" along.

I never did find more tapes or CDs with stories, but I do have a few now with comptines.

And I did talk Ed into a trip to a francophone country eventually--we went to St. Martin before Griffin was born! (It's apparently a renowned shopping destination for cruise ship tourists--but we skipped the perfume and handbag shops and spent a couple of hours in a bookstore on the French side of the island instead.)

Here's what else I used to do in the early blog posts: include a glossary of the French terms from the post. Here's the glossary from the one quoted above:

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 Chambéry, France. When I spent New Year's Eve with her 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-Elysées:
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-Elyséees 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!
(Note: two years later, Ed recognizes the melody, even if he doesn't sing along.)

Fais do-do: Faire do-do (v.): to go to sleep (baby talk); from "dormir" (v.), to sleep; also "un fais do-do" (n.m.), a traditional cajun dance party in Louisiana where the participants bring their kids who typically fall asleep to the accordeon music while their parents do the two-step

Carlicot: My nickname for my nephew. Steve and Elizabeth [his parents] 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.)

And now, speaking of nicknames, here's a new addition to the glossary:
Lionceau (n.m.): Lion cub. This is my favorite nickname for Griffin (after all, a gryphon is half-lion!).


  1. My French FIL makes songs for children. Perhaps you might find his site of interest - there's a few samples you can listen to there. :)

    For the moment Rémy gets a lot of exposure to English songs and childrens TV programmes on the BBC. I guess we'll have to try and equalise that somehow.

  2. Yes, it is a little different when you are the mom! I can't imagine talking all the time! I force myself to talk more than I normally would just to increase the German input. I plan to order a book of German finger plays this weekend so I can learn some of those too.

    Griffin sure is a cutie!!

  3. Hey Sarah- Is "Les Champs-Elysees" the same as the "Aux Champs-Elysees" that gets stuck in my head? "Au soleil, sous la pluie, a midi ou a minuit, il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysees..." ???

  4. Awwww! He's such a cutie! And getting so big already! :) I really wish I remembered more French to speak it more to my sons...*sigh* Maybe they'll be exposed to enough Italian while we're here that they can pick that up...I'd better get to learning Italian! LOL

  5. We are bilingual Eng/Swe but two french videos on YouTube my kids LOVE are:

    I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!