Tuesday, August 23, 2011
second language, second child
Six weeks after the birth of my daughter Gwyneth, I pull away from her wide-eyed-in-wonder dark-blue-nearly-violet gaze, her eyes milk-drunk and awe-struck and dreamy beside my breast, her eyes sighing contentedly as she slides into sleep with pure bliss and trust. I raise my head from her tiny face and let the lullaby trail off my lips and realize that we have been in this position for six weeks. Surely I have moved from this chair at some point every day--someone drove to the doctor's, tucked in the toddler, prepared the pasta--but it feels as if I have been cradling this lovely being nonstop for six weeks.
And for six weeks, I have spoken to her only in French, my second language. Songs, rhymes, narration, even exasperation as she slimes me with yet another slick of spit-up down my shoulder--all formed in French. She responds with coos and cries, grunts and groans, whines and whimpers and wheezes, hiccups and burps. Gwyneth speaks Baby and I speak Maman.
Her mother's adopted tongue.
I am giving my two children two languages, fiercely, determinedly, imperfectly. And because French and I didn't really meet until I was 15 years old, my speaking it now with them is a deliberate, constant choice rather than a natural, careless comfort. Using French with Griffin and now Gwyneth means that I have to think actively about what words to use and keep a bilingual dictionary in every room (and spend too much money on amazon.fr and eBay Canada).
And I embrace the challenge and know it's worth the effort (and the endless explanations to acquaintances and strangers). Three and a half years of French with my brilliant and beautiful boy have shown me that I can do this, even though I am not a native speaker. Three and a half years ago, it was awkward, newly-child-centric French gasped out as I struggled with Griffin's colic, reflux, and the hell of nursing a baby with a tongue-tied frenulum, plus the difficult transition from being a successful teacher and library program coordinator to a bleary brain-dead new mommy, unsure about everything.
This time around I am a maman whose child doesn't scream (nearly) nonstop, who knows how to take care of a baby, who knows a lot of the lingo even though it never appeared in her textbooks or her conversations with other young people while living in France. I'm finally getting it figured out!
And so is Griffin--his ability to understand and play with both languages still amazes me. While he clearly prefers Engish, the language he hears most often from a greater number of speakers and materials, his comprehension in French is equal to that in English, probably because of the huge number of books we read together and songs he hears.
Each day, I make this conscious decision to use my non-native French with my children. It keeps my mind sharp and ensures that I pay close attention to my interactions with them. It increases my sense of wonder and piques my curiosity and makes me want to record their every utterance and accomplishment on my blog. (Fortunately for you, I'm too tired to do so!) I can't tell them often enough how much I aime them.
So why are my monolingual American husband and I raising these kids bilingually? Well, it makes all sorts of synapses connect in their busy little brains, teaches them to be world citizens, and opens up opportunities for them later on in life. Yes, this, and so much more--researchers and parents and teachers say so, yes.
But me? Moi? Ultimately, I am a better mother because I choose to speak French with Griffin and Gwyneth, and to me, that's the most important reason.