Wednesday, May 14, 2008

when Mommy won't speak her mother tongue

I never thought it would be strange to speak to my child in my native language; in fact, it's been challenging to meet my goal of barraging Griffin with French, especially when we're together all day long! (See my most recent column in Multilingual Living Magazine for the full scoop on my struggle as a non-native speaker trying to raise my baby bilingually. It's one of the cover stories this time!)

But now, after three and a half months of being a maman, this must be starting to come more easily, because it feels weird to speak English to him now.

Yes, I do speak English around him when I'm with non-francophone family and friends (in other words, just about everyone); I'm not trying to disguise the fact that I speak and understand English. (To my delight, my nephew Carl has never protested that he and I only speak French together, even though he knows I'm an Anglophone--but many parents have to pretend that they don't understand the dominant language so that their kids will keep addressing them in the parents' language.)

However, I rarely address my son directly in English, unless my comments are actually directed towards other people--like to explain, say, why he's not wearing any pants ("Griffin, you've got to stop with these leaky diapers already!") or to make a request ("Griffin, don't you think that Daddy should bring Maman a glass of wine?").

And since his daddy doesn't speak French (yet!), when we sing to him together--such an important activity--we sing in English. But I don't sing songs in English by myself. That's hard enough, when so many fantastic songs that appeal to children exist and hold sentimental value for me; what's even harder is not reading to him in English.

But I've discovered one situation for which to make an exception to this rule: baby storytime at the library. The Lafayette Public Library has just begun a new program called "Book Babies." The babies--and I do mean babies, for no toddlers are allowed--and their grown-ups meet once a week for half an hour of songs, rhymes, fingerplays, and sharing board books geared towards babies. It's very interactive--we sing along with the librarian, help the babies clap, raise their arms to say "so big!", pretend our fingers are fleas crawling up and down their bodies, share books with them, give them horsey rides on our knees, and so on. Just imagine a roomful of infants and crawlers poking each other, shaking baby-sized maracas, gnawing on peek-a-boo books, and staring wide-eyed at the crazy lady ringing bells in Winnie-the-Pooh's face! It's been so successful that this month-long experiment will continue through the summer.

So you see, it would be rude for me to attend this storytime and refuse to participate; it would be pretentious to disregard the directions and conversations in English in order to translate them into French. (Not that I could translate many of these nursery rhymes and fingerplays on the fly anyway--"eensie weensie"? "waterspout"? How the heck do you say that in French?)

Therefore, every Wednesday morning, I toss aside the French so we can hang out with the other bibliobabies. And it feels quite strange to make that switch! Even though Griffin's clearly too young to care which language he's hearing from whom, I have the sensation that I'm breaking the law but have immunity because of a loophole. It's a little exciting, a little dangerous.

But w hat if I like it too much? What if I find myself informing him "I'm a little teapot" instead of "Je suis une petite théière?" What if I say to myself, "Oh, it's just a board book. One round of Bear Snores On won't hurt anybody"? Will I be able to resist when my mom pressures me into taking a hit of Eric Carle? What if The Very Hungry Caterpillar is just a gateway story to all my other beloved children's books and I start sneaking around to expose Griffin to English, hiding the evidence behind the couch or in the laundry room, denying to my friends and family that I've been reading and singing in English, saying that I'm taking Griffin to the grocery store but instead going to Borders and coming home late with bloodshot eyes and the incriminating evidence of papercuts on our fingers, until I need more and more and more songs and stories in English with my son to feel good?!

Help me be strong, dear readers. You are my support group!


  1. The link between language and emotion is very interesting.

    How are you finding your input into Carl's French development since Griffin was born?

    A bientot!

  2. Yes, you're right! They're so closely connected.

    I haven't seen as much of Carl, now I'm not taking care of him once a week, and when we do get together as a family, I don't have much one-on-one time with Carl. Still, I speak as much French to him as I can and keep trying to introduce new words and review the old ones. But I do want to ramp that up eventually so he doesn't lose his French; I anticipate having "French time" with him and Griffin so he gets used to speaking French to someone else. I've also met a couple of French-speaking moms in the area and we're hoping to hang out together with our little ones.

  3. I understand where you are coming from. I try to speak to my 4 month old only in Spanish, but I also speak English around him when we are with other people who don't speak Spanish.

    Luckily for me most of the more popular children's books have been translated into Spanish and are easy to find. Some of my favorite books to read with my son are those that were written by native Spanish-speakers.

    I also have the same problem with English songs and nursery rhymes. There aren't many songs that I grew up with in Spanish so my son hears me sing in English much more than Spanish.

    Great blog by the way, you are a very talented and entertaining writer.

  4. Sending you my support, but I have to say that I think it's perfectly okay to enjoy Book Babies! It's a valuable opportunity for you to be able to share your love of reading with him, and since it's clearly delineated -- on Wednesday mornings, with other native speakers -- my advice is just to relax and enjoy! I don't want you to fall off the wagon :) but these are precious moments, and given the fact that you love books so much maybe it's better just to go ahead and structure a little bit of English book time so you won't be tempted to cheat. Perhaps you can co-read with Papa every once in a while?

    Now for the French: did I leave a comment recommending Mon Chat Le Plus Bete Du Monde by Gilles Bachelet? It's for older kids but a French original and just hilarious. I love it.

    One board book I like that we're using now is "Il etait dix petites poules" by Sylvia Dupuis. It's not the same as Sandra Boynton but I love the illustrations, it repeats and it rhymes (sometimes it's a bit of a stretch, but maybe it's a French thing, dunno). The story is based on chickens laying their eggs in crazy places.

    Congratulations on your article!

  5. I had a similar problem at first but that was because I was speaking mostly French before Rémy was born.

    Now his is a year and 10 days old I'm speaking more English and whats more, my accent has come back. :)

  6. My husband and I are in the same situation. We are Czech, and we decided to raise our son with English. We both speak English to him, but we use Czech between the two of us. Our son is almost 11 months old, and to our excitement he is starting to say his first words.

    I, too, attend Czech playgroups and other scheduled activities with kids. I struggled at the beginning, and I was a little shy speaking English in front of everyone as it would always draw attention to us. But the older my son gets, the easier it is for me to stick to the English-only rule. I have explained to people in the group that we use English at home, and after a while people just get used to it. But just like you, when we sing songs and say rhymes, I just say them in Czech. In other words, I just approach those moments as if we were learning a foreign language even though we are in fact using my native language.

    Thank you for your great blog. You are an inspiration to us! Keep up the hard work. We are looking forward to reading more about your experiences.


  7. Josh--Thanks for the empathy and the compliment! Good luck to you in your endeavor to raise your son bilingually. Maybe I could profile your family in a year or two?

    PMF--Your words are empowering! I agree that being consistent and delineating any English time with Griffin is crucial. And I enjoy the baby storytime too much to give it up. And I like your idea of co-reading with Ed. Oh, and hey, he could even co-read with me in French! Then it would be clear to Griffin that both Maman and Daddy can choose to share each other's languages during the special reading time. Hmmmm....

    Thanks for the book recommendations--I knew there had to be cute, non-serious books for babies in French, but I couldn't figure out how to find any from here!

    Braunstonian--I'm glad to hear you finally sound like an Englishman again!

    Jana--Thanks for posting your comment and for the compliment! To my knowledge, you're my first commenter from the Czech Republic. Kudos to you and your husband for being so determined to speak English with your child--you're giving him a wonderful gift. It's great that both parents are involved in teaching him the second language. Do you think you'll get to the point where you and your husband feel obligated to speak to each other in English instead of Czech? And where did you learn your flawless English?!

    Actually, would you be willing to let me profile your family on my blog? I think you'd have so many relevant ideas and experiences to share! Please email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com if you're interested. (You can read other family's profiles via the links in the sidebar.)

  8. Oh, and Pardon My French--I'd love to profile your family too, now that your daughter is starting to talk! Let me know if you're interested.

  9. I was brought up bilingual. My parents spoke almost exclusively English to me, my grandparents spoke almost exclusively German to me, I had children's books in both languages.

    Because I was raised thinking in two languages, I developed the gift of learning other languages easily: I speak 4 with some semblance of grammar (i.e., actually studied them) and another half dozen where I can make myself understood (learned by occasionally hanging around people who speak them).

    The standing joke is that one of those I quasi-learned by immersion as a child is actually easier for me than a similar language that I took several years of classes in as an adult.

    It has been very useful in adult life; from time to time I get a translation assignment and earn an absolutely obscene hourly rate for doing it. There aren't enough such assignments to support myself doing that exclusively, but it's a nice little bonus check for doing nothing more than writing something out in my native language(s).

    I would definitely recommend raising a child bilingual (or even trilingual) if at all possible.

    A former co-worker fussed when her daycare lady started speaking Spanish with her son, until I asked her "Is there anything wrong with MY English?" Well, no, it's pretty well perfect. Then there's nothing to worry about, learning Spanish is not going to ruin his English, either. And when he started speaking, in both languages, she discovered the benefits -- he was translating for her with the cleaning lady, the gardener, etc.