Wednesday, June 22, 2011

underpants, babies, books, hexagons, and -ings that don't belong

I just love, love, LOVE watching Griffin figure things out and listening to him tell me what he thinks! At nearly 3.5 years old now, he has opinions and preferences about everything--from whether to pour milk over his cereal (jamais!), how to wear his underpants (backwards, the better to see the picture that normally appears on the tushie), when his baby sister should come out of my belly (maintenant!), why Goldilocks snuck into the three bears' house ("Because she is a bad girl!").

He adores his books--just about the only time that he's not in constant motion is when he's sitting and paging through a book or magazine, even interrupting a trip up the stairs to read whatever happens to be sitting on the step.  He "reads" on the potty, at naptime and bedtime, under a blanket on the couch, at playgroup, snuggling with me first thing in the morning (even when pregnant Maman really, really, wants a glass of orange juice and peanut butter toast).  In the car, we listen to books on tape (he tells me which one he wants), and his favorite movies to watch are the Scholastic videos of favorite children's picture books (none of which are in French, malheureusement).  (But I highly recommend them for those of you teaching your children English!)

With a little prompting, Griffin will recount the plot of a familiar book, or even make up his own.  (Last night: "Listen to my story, guys.  Once upon a time, there was a...a...person who lived with Granddad....It was Grandma!  The end.  [pause]  That was very, very short!")

My husband is very eager for him to learn to read on his own--he taught himself to read at age three, as did our nephew Carl, who was reading Magic Treehouse chapter books by age four--and so has been encouraging Griffin to pay attention to the letters in the words that appear frequently in the books they read together.  As a result, Griffin can read "zoo," "apple," "baby," "big brother," and his own name.  (In fact, he can spell his name aloud, both in French and in English!)  He has also been able to identify all the letters in both languages since age two, even without seeing them in alphabetical order.

But I'm not pushing him to read just yet.  It's so important that he simply enjoy stories, grasp the essential preliteracy skills (understand that books are read back to front, that some words rhyme, that letters and words represent sounds and concepts, etc), and think and talk about what we read together.  I also don't want to confuse him by trying to teach him to read in French simultaneously with English, when the words look so similar but the phonics patterns are vastly different.

Griffin is also starting to grasp mathematical concepts--he'll spontaneously add very small numbers ("deux livres et deux livres, c'est quatre!") and even commented that when he was among six people sitting in not-quite-a-circle, "We look like a hexagon!"  We're slowly making our way into science, too; while he's always enjoyed testing gravity, he's now noticing how plants grow and change, how boiling water makes steam, how certain dinosaurs resembled birds.

Reading these anecdotes, you have probably noticed that most of my examples are in English.  Indeed, English is clearly Griffin's first choice and the language he is most comfortable in (which makes perfect sense, as he hears French only from me, some CDs and movies, and a handful of other people at playgroup or storytime or French-class-for-toddlers once a week).

However, he understands equally well in both languages, will spontaneously make entire sentences in French with me on occasion, and code switches with wild abandon.  He'll even add English morphemes to French words, like when I tell him "Il faut être sage" (you have to behave) and he indignantly replies, "I am être-ing sage!" 

Reading other bilingual parents' blogs and stories, though, is pushing me to encourage him to reframe his English questions and comments in French, particularly when it's just the two of us reading and discussing a book in French or when we're at playgroup or when we're doing "French class à la maison."  He rarely refuses my request, and his translation is frequently spot-on, but it just doesn't feel natural.  I definitely don't want this to start feeling like a chore or an order, either.  Any advice on how to change three years' worth of my speaking French and his responding in English?

Griffin had filled up the laundry hamper with his books and toys!
(Maybe the new baby can be the impetus--we can tell Griffin that if she is going to be bilingual, we both have to talk to her in French! Oh, I know, I know, siblings usually end up speaking the majority language among themselves, but I'll just present this as a chance for Griffin to be a teacher as well as a big brother.)


  1. Reading back over this post, I'm hoping it doesn't sound too braggy, like Griffin is a three-year-old genius. My goal is just to record what he's up to these days!

    Lest you think that he's an overachiever, let me add a postscript about some of the things my beautiful boy CAN'T do: he still wets the bed at naptime and wears a diaper overnight; he doesn't hold pencils correctly or color between the lines; he doesn't talk as much as many of his agemates (boys or girls); he can't pedal a tricycle; he frequently disobeys or ignores us; and he picks his nose with glee!

  2. So what if you brag about your son? Come on Sarah.

    I think about that sometimes when I am updating my blog, but my family reads our blog, and in that sense I am bragging to them, lol.

    Ha ha, he picks his nose with glee (you are hilarious).

    KUDOS to Griffin.

  3. LOL my boys always liked wearing their underwear backwards too, so they could see the picture!

  4. He is adorable and I am so glad I just found you!

    We are monolinguals who have raised our daughter as a fluent trilgual/triliterate ( Mandarin/Spanish/English) so I can relate.

    Time flies by though and my child is now 10!

    From what I have seen, i think you DEFINITELY need to make sure he is saying everything back to you in French. Other wise he will end up being recessive and could lose it all once he gets school age and more resistance sets in.

    I've seen it over and over, even when the parents speak the 2nd language and the grandparents don't speak English!

    I think using the new baby as an excuse is a fab idea! Entice him in as your helper and he can even talk to her in the womb now or tell her stories in French etc.

    Good luck!

    PS I've just done a series about how we have raised our multi lingual kids in those early years that might help.

  5. My childhood has the constant refrain of my mom going "SPEAK LATVIAN!" in the background. It was annoying at the time, but now I'm grateful. :~) Other than that, no advice -- my little girl isn't two yet!

  6. @Salma--Actually, very few of my family members read this blog! I just don't want this post to come across as "nyah nyah nyah look what my kid can do." Glad you like his gleeful nose-picking!

    @Jeanne--I'm amazed by how many moms I've heard that from! (Maybe I shouldn't be surprised--it kind of makes sense, doesn't it?)

    @Soultravelers3--Welcome and thanks for sharing your blog with us! Wow...very impressive (both your journeys and your daughter's trilingualism). I just don't think I'm ready to force Griffin to speak French to me all the time, though I recognize that would make a huge difference.

    @Daina-Thanks for sharing and for giving us the perspective as a bilingual adult! It looks like you're raising your daughter with Latvian and English? Have fun!

  7. Yes, I think little boys' underwear manufacturers should take note!

  8. I can't tell you how helpful this blog is to me, especially this last post. I too am native English speaker raising my 3.5 year old (born jan 08) to speak French. He also understands almost everything and I've been singing/reading/playing to him in French since birth. His pronunciation is perfect and he is capable of speaking des belles phrases en francais when he wants to, but much much prefers English. He has begun to really resist my efforts lately though and I too am reluctant to force him. Have you noticed any patterns for when/where/why he chooses to speak French, when he does? I haven't yet - although if I had to say the most likely scenarios are when we are playing his favorite toys (Chuggington, Chuck the dump truck) but if you have any tricks or suggestions as you go along - especialy as think Griffin and Zach are the same age - I would love to know them - and I'll post ideas if I come up with them. Today's latest effort was to raid the french section of our library (an incredible selection, we are lucky). Thanks agian for your posts - you inspiree me to go back to my blogging just as a way to track this amazing period of our lives with young children. Bonne chance!