Tuesday, February 01, 2011

têtu & timide

That's my son. Three years old, stubborn, and shy. This makes for a less-than-ideal combination for his first French class!

Our family has a membership at the local children's museum, WOW! World of Wonder, so we receive their regular newsletters. Imagine my delight when I saw that someone--a native speaker!--would be offering a French class there for preschoolers for a very reasonable price (six 40-minute lessons for $54).

And imagine my surprise and delight when my sister-in-law reported that my nephew Carl wanted to attend the demo class with us! I had visions of the boys singing and dancing and answering questions in French together with a native speaker and other adorable children.

Well, we all went to the demo class, and I was pleased with what the teacher covered, especially the hands-on interactive stuff (playing with puzzles while she narrated and described what they were doing, leading easy dance moves to French pop songs). But Griffin does everything his so-admired big cousin does, which means that when Carl lost interest Griffin stopped participating too.

But I signed Griffin up for the class anyway, thinking that even if it didn't turn out to be anything special it still was worth it for the exposure to a native speaker who is good with children.

We missed the first class last week because he had been puking, but managed to make it there last week. Only one other child, a girl, is enrolled, so it's almost as if he has a private French tutor for $12 an hour! However, he spent the first half of the class on my lap, refusing to dance, refusing to repeat words, refusing to answer the teacher's questions. Maman had quite a challenge to sit there quietly and not bug him to show off what he knows. She asked him how many shoes he has...he understands the question, he can count to twenty in French, and he can't even bring himself to utter "deux"!

At least he's consistent. He's definitely three years old: it's been all about the power struggles, the selective listening, the willful destruction, the removal of socks at inappropriate times for a few weeks now. Off and on for months, actually.

Anyway, at least I enjoyed the class (and took some mental notes about teaching French to preschoolers some day down the road), and he did finally climb off my lap and participate. While I still don't understand where the shyness comes from and why most of what he eventually said was in English, I think he enjoyed the class too. I'm glad we've got four more lessons to go to get him comfortable.


  1. I don't want to take anything away from the stubbornness of a three-year-old, because that's certainly enough to prompt all sorts of frustrating behavior :) ...but I would not at all be surprised if Griffin is thrown off balance by someone ELSE speaking French. MOM is the one who speaks French! I know he's been to the story hour so it's not his first exposure to someone else speaking French, but that's a different atmosphere with less direct attention and expected participation from him. My daughter definitely was surprised and very shy when she heard someone other than her father speaking Slovak, since it was a private language for the two of them, as far as she was concerned. Griffin could be processing, pretty much, and may open up later. Either way, good luck and lots of patience!

  2. I am very shy in French as well and I'm 31 :-) I think he realizes that he can't express himself as much as he can in English. Not that 3 year olds have a vast vocabulary but just keep it up! He will appreciate it eventually. How is the other students French? Is she a beginner? Was she participating? Maybe it would help to set up a play date with her so if we participates he might feel more comfortable following her?!?

    It's so great that you have that kind of French support in Colorado (we didn't have much in Florida). I am worried about teaching my son English now that we live in Paris for at least 5 more years. When we were in the US last month I stocked up on some English materials to aid my teaching.

    Right now he can understand both languages evenly as my mother in law speaks French with him 3 - 1/2 days since she watches him while I go to French class (my husband works a lot speaks French to him a few hours a day and weekends. And I speak English only with him. He can say more words in English but does say at least 10 words in French.

  3. @Melissa--Ah, I hadn't thought about his having to get used to a grown-up other than me speaking French to him at length.

    @TN--Thanks for your comment! I'm enjoying reading the stories on your blog about settling in in Paris. From what I've heard, there's a lot of support for anglophone families in Paris. And even if your son starts to prefer French, that will probably change quickly when you return to the US. Good luck to you and your family on your journey to bilingualism!

  4. Hi Sarah,
    I think Melissa may be right (did you see my own post on "Trilingual Trio" about children being completely phased by hearing the "wrong" language in a given setting?), not only about the language but about the three-year old bit. I had a similarly frustrating experience with my son when he was three when I took him to a music class. He often basically refused to participate even though what they were doing was well within his range - and I was paying a lot more money for the class too! He always told me afterwards that he had enjoyed it, and even started to ask if today was music class day, so I guess he was getting something out of it, even if it wasn't as much as I had hoped.

  5. Hi Sarah,
    I agree with Melissa. What wonderful insight! I wish I'd thought of that when exactly the same happened to me at German storytime with my boys. I also think kids have a sixth sense about when something is REALLY IMPORTANT to you. And they can feel the pressure coming from inside you, but they don't know how to respond to it. So they just act up or withdraw- safer than failing to live up to what you are expecting. So well done on your remarkable restraint with not bugging Griffin. I had a hissy fit in the carpark!

  6. What a wonderful thing that you are able to take him to a class! He also has a wonderful mommy who understands him and accepts his quirks and irks. It is good to know that what kids experience know is quite often only growing pains and not to label them, turning them into whatever for ever. Right now they are thus, but soon they will be not be thus anymore...

  7. Hi Sarah,
    I think it's great to give Griffin exposure to French in as many different settings as possible - I always try to have a francophone piano teacher at home, so that French is not solely linked to the school! The only thing I would be wary of is labelling him 'shy' or calling him shy in his presence, as these labels tend to have a way of sticking! When my daughter was around the same age, if she behaved in a shy way, I treated it as rudeness (because I was worried about it sticking!) and explain that she should always answer people when they ask her a question and look them in the eye rather than turn away coyly. It has worked - she's really confident and sociable these days!
    It sounds like Griffin's French is already really strong, so hopefully this class will add to that.

  8. Thanks for your words of wisdom, all! I was very, very shy growing up (until, ironically, my parents enrolled me in a drama class at age 9), so I'm particularly sensitive to the possibility of that in my son who is so exuberant at home.

    But it's true that he's also in the middle of this headstrong, independence-seeking phase where he no longer wants to do everything his parents want him to. Yes, I'm sure he picks up on my unspoken pressure to participate and enjoy the French. I'll try to lighten up, both at French class and his music class in English!

  9. We just completed the fourth week of class, and Griffin was a boy transformed this time. He answered the teacher's questions, made comments, and even danced along with the songs (though he wouldn't get out of his chair for the dances).

    Here's what I have done differently: rather than exhorting him to participate, I just followed along with the teacher even more enthusiastically than normal, focusing on her rather than him, and I also praised and clapped for the other student a whole lot. I think Griffin picked up on that!

    (And he's also gotten more comfortable with the teacher and the class, so that certainly makes it feel "safer" for him to chime in.)

  10. Okay, French class week five update: today he ignored the teacher half the time and barely spoke a word of French. His head was in an English place this morning! I wasn't doing anything differently than last week, so let's just attribute this to his three-year-old-ness.

    Next week is the last session.