Wednesday, June 18, 2014

caca, communication, conundrum

"Oh.  No.  The baby just had a diaper blow-out all over his onesie in the bouncy chair."

"Damn you, colic."

"Hey, don't play with that flange for my breast pump!  I just sterilized it!"

"Young man, we do not put our fingers in our noses.  We do not remove the boogers and wave them in the air.  And we certainly do not plunge our mucousy digits into our mouths to partake of their slimy saltiness."

"Nor do we eat our eye boogers."

"No, sweetie, those aren't your panties.  Those are the bloomers that match your dress and go over your panties so you don't flash passers-by while you do somersaults and climb on the jungle gym.  Isn't it great that you don't need to wear pull-ups any more?"

"Griffin, when you hit kids in your class, they won't want to be
your friends.  I know you're so smart and caring, but when you act like a bully, the other kids won't like you, and that breaks my heart."

"Sweetheart, Grandpa left us.  He was so sick that he just couldn't get better.  No, you can't sing '76 Trombones' to him over the phone to make him smile, and he can't hold you on his lap and read to you any more, and it breaks my heart, and I don't know how to answer your questions about what happens next.  Even in English.  All I can do is hold you and tell you je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'aime."

Holding someone does help.
These are just a few of the things I never learned how to say in French class but that I have had to express while raising my children in my non-native language!   (No high school or college foreign language curriculum covers vocabulary for convincing a toddler to go caca in the potty.)

As host of the June edition of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, trilingual mom Maria has asked us to write about our experiences raising children in our non-native language.  I feel like I expressed it best in this post after my daughter was born: "Second Language, Second Child."

Three years later not much has changed, except that I have a better grasp of the salient vocabulary and I panic less about things like colic and caca!

What I can say for certain after six years of parenting in my non-native language is that speaking French to my children forces me to pay attention to what I say to them, always.  Having to pause, even just a half-second, to find the right word or to put an indirect object pronoun in front of the verb where it belongs, means that my communication with them is purposeful, deliberate, heartfelt.  Speaking French in an English world means that I am constantly choosing to be present, alert, connecting with my children.

This challenge gift also means that my children and I share an intimacy, a linguistic complicity, that they don't have with anyone else.  It's special and precious (and it reinforces that old saying that French is the language of love!).

As Griffin grows older, his mind moving a million miles a minute, it's harder and harder to have conversations where I can fully and accurately express exactly what I want to say to him--why he needs to be compassionate, what's worth fighting for, how to put away his neatly folded clean clothes without wadding them all up into one drawer and losing socks along the way.

At some point, probably sooner that I'd like, I will be faced with a difficult decision: stubbornly staying in French no matter what--even if this entails losing nuance and muddying meaning and speaking haltingly--or resigning myself to the fact that I need to speak English with him because I am articulate and precise and funny and interesting in English, less so in French--thus sending the message that English is easier, more useful, and more important.  And maybe betraying myself and my blog.

What would you do?  What have you already done?


  1. This is a really tough choice. I feel for you. I have no advice as I am not in this situation but i would love to hear what others have done.

  2. I just found your blog a few months ago. My husband and I don't have kids yet, but when we decide to start a family are very seriously considering teaching our children French via I can only throw in my two cents as an observer for now. English is our first language and I understand that there will come a time when I will need to stop speaking French and speak to my child in my mother tongue English, at least most of the time. (It's easy to say this now, before having invested years in raising a bilingual baby...). If language is on the cusp of becoming a barrier to your relationship with your child then it seems to me (again, as an outsider) that it should be a pretty easy decision. You are a mother first - language teacher second. Raising a human being first, bilingual child second. Think about what your son would want, if, as an adult, he could go back in time - would he choose to sacrifice the depth of communication he has with his mother in order to deepen his acquistion of a second language? The way I look at it is, if French is truly important to your child, he can always rekindle his knowledge of it in the future, by studying abroad for example; but you can't make up your son's childhood years. And you don't have to stop speaking French completely, right? Doing 'French weekends' or 'French evenings' or some other compromise would maintain what he's learned so far, don't you think? It is a difficult decision, and I can say my opinion. Good luck!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Lucie. I like how you use the phrase "invested years in raising a bilingual baby" -- because that really fits. Doing this is indeed an investment, one that should pay off with interest in the future.

      Similarly, I do feel that if I withdraw my investment before it reaches maturity, I won't have taken full advantage of the interest that will accrue!

      I would argue that that I am a "language-teaching mother" first and foremost, that the two elements are inextricably meshed for me at this point. I also feel strongly that my husband and I are doing right by our kids, giving them lots of attention and stimulation and challenges and opportunities to socialize, regardless of what language we throw at them.

      We will have to remain vigilant, and if it does seem like the French is becoming a barrier for Griffin and me, then I'll make changes. For example, I can work on perfecting my French so that I don't have to struggle to talk smoothly and in detail about, say, bullying or puberty.

      Stay tuned!

  3. I think what commenter Lucie has written above makes a lot of sense. Missing out on whole aspects of YOU is a lot more serious than missing out on some French. You have given your kids a level of fluency that they can now build on out in the greater world if they choose to. If it is important to them, and I'm sure you've succeeded in making it feel important, they will speak French eventually. Maybe you can't and don't need to be their only/main source of this language forever. It doesn't mean you have to stop showing them how much you love being able to use French, or stop speaking it to them much of the time.
    I have to speak to my kids quite often in my second language, French, because I homeschool them in France but I can't imagine never speaking to them in my native English as well. We are not formal about it for now; we mostly speak English unless we are dealing with a subject that requires French. I guess it will evolve towards more and more French over the years. But my kids had a solid foundation in English and a relationship with me that was exclusively in English before we started this system, so now we have room to mix and maneuver without too much anxiety about dominant and minority languages. OPOL has lots of advantages but it is not the only way to raise polyglots and language-lovers. You will find a new balance. Good luck!

    1. Bonjour Anonymous! Thanks for your comments. I would love to hear more about your adventures as an anglophone parent homeschooling your kids in France!

      You and Lucie (above) have both suggested finding times and places to keep the family in French rather than requiring myself to speak it exclusively. Perhaps my husband and I will institute some English-only dinners, or maybe do English at bedtime so that Griffin knows he can always talk to me in English then. (And that's the time that he shares the most, anyway.)

  4. It is so hard to make that kind of decision. I have the privilege of being able to speak my native language to my boys and France takes care of the French stuff but I absolutely understand your dilemma. As a linguist I believe that so much is conveyed through the words we use. But as a mother and just a person I believe that the emotion and intent and "vibration" behind the language is just as valuable - if not more. Regardless of the language we're using and the words we're choosing and the finesse we have with either, it is what is in your heart that matters when you communicate. That is what your children will feel, no matter what language you choose to speak to them.

    1. Thank you, Nicole! The fact that I stay home with my kids most of the time (and we spend most of that time playing and reading together and going on outings) shows that they have my heart, and I agree that this matters more than the finesse with which I speak French. (At least for now.)

  5. Salut Sarah! As a non-native French speaker, I thought I would reach a point when I would have to permanently switch to English with my children, but as they've grown, I've become more emotionally invested in my decision to always speak to them in French. My children are younger than Griffin, but I respect how much effort you've made to continue speaking French with him. Do you feel you are at a place where your conversation with him is often significantly restrained? If so, could you occasionally speak "franglais" or switch to English when you just cannot convey what is most important to you? I hope you find your way through parenting in French as often and as consistently as possible, but remember that it does not have to be all or nothing. Bonne chance, et bon courage!

    1. Salut Michele!

      It's extremely interesting that you use the same verb as Lucie (a previous commenter): invest. She speaks of the efforts I have invested in raising my kids bilingually, whereas you refer to your own emotional investment as a mom. It's both, isn't it?!

      "Significantly restrained"? No, not yet. I have figured out a sneaky work-around that still allows me to stay in French during serious family discussions: I turn to my husband and say in English, "Do you think that Griffin realizes X?" or "We should make sure that Griffin understands Y." That way, Griff hears what I say as clearly as possible.

      Is this cheating? Maybe! But it's easier on me than giving up on French entirely.

      Bon courage to you too!

  6. I'm so happy to have found your blog and comments. I'm bringing up my daughter bilingual (well, I'm trying to...I'm English and I'm speaking French to her). She's 16 months old so I'm not where you are yet, but I'm currently having a crisis of confidence about my decision. I worry about what will happen when I want to have deeper conversations with her, and my French won't cut it. I've been reading a lot of blogs on this subject today and it seems to me that some say that you shouldn't confuse your child by mixing languages and some say that it isn't an 'all or nothing' situation. Hopefully the latter is true. I think I've resigned myself to the fact that although my daughter will never be fully bilingual, hopefully she'll have a good foundation in French if I predominantly speak it for as long as I can, and then continue to speak it where appropriate in future.

    I'm sorry, I don't really have a proper answer for you. I just wanted to let you know that I feel your pain. Good luck.

    1. Welcome, Jane! I can empathize with your "crisis of confidence." Here's the decision I came to a few years ago when I admitted to myself that I just am not as fluent in French as I'd like:

      I would rather have my bilingual children speak one of their languages imperfectly than have them be monolingual. The ability to communicate is what matters, not whether or not they pronounce the L on the end of words like "nombril" and "persil," not whether they remember that "incendie" is a masculine noun even though it totally looks like it should be feminine! (To mention just a few of my bugaboos.)

  7. It sounds like the onus really is on me to improve my French, to really push myself to become equally articulate in both languages!

    Who will break the news to my husband that we have to spend lots more time in Francophone countries? :)

  8. (And please accept my apologies for taking nearly a month to reply to these's a challenging and emotional issue for me.)

  9. As with my other post from last night, this is hitting home for me. It's a struggle to sacrifice yourself as a spontaneous, carefree mom and give your child the gift of another language. I feel that I've done as much as I can with my 4-year-old, but feel that stopping would only hurt her, as well as hurt my 8-month-old who hasn't gotten the foundation Mayah has. I find myself getting upset with myself often for not being able to say so many things that are idiomatic in English that I have no concept for in Spanish. You just don't know how nuanced a language is until it's too late. I also "cheat" and say something to Dominic I want her to know when I felt it was trash in Spanish. I question and doubt myself so much more now that she's in school and progressing at the speed of light with me scrambling to keep up and word reference something. Just last night, I got so stuck saying "don't jump on the bed because half of the frame is already broken". Which as I type it out is easy peasy as I translate it in my head, but in the heat of the moment, all the stammering is discouraging.

    I offer no help, but only wish to say "solidarity" and that you're not alone. I'm not going to stop speaking it, but I'd hate to be left in the dust feeling like an impediment I know I'm not.

  10. I'm a native English-speaker but speak Japanese with my two boys most of the time. It's getting harder and harder as they grow up to have elaborate or meaningful conversations with them, because I'm not fluent and just don't have the language in Japanese to express everything I want to say. Sometimes I choose not to say anything at all, and other times I decide to resort to English. Either way, I feel like I'm not talking to my kids enough. It's certainly a dilemma. You want to do everything right when you're putting so much time and effort into raising bilingual kids.

  11. One thing that strikes me, both in what you wrote and in my own head, is how much we (parents raising kids in our non-native language) worry about the dreaded day when we will have to give up speaking to our kids in our hard-won second language--when we aren't even there yet! It sounds like you are still doing great at both saying and expressing what you need to in French, yet you're worried about what will happen when it gets even harder--and my oldest isn't even three and I already worry about it! One of my professors, a native English-speaker who raised his son ML@H with his native French-speaking wife, found that when his son was in the seventh grade, it just became too strange and stilted to continue to speak French only with each other (I think his wife had already abandoned it--easy for her, right?). They still used French sometimes, and definitely spoke Franglish, but I think it was scary for him to let go of. It's interesting to hear him talk about the long view now that his son is grown: his adult son still speaks French, but studied abroad and lived in Spain, and actually feels that his Spanish is now stronger than his French. The take-away for my prof was that you never know how the foundation in and love of language that you provide will shape your children, but it will shape them, and with encouragement they often make it their own.

    Another thought on making it their own: a friend whose American dad and German mom raised him and his siblings in German said that even though they spoke German only with their mom and a mix with their dad, he didn't really feel like he "owned" German until he spent a year going to school in Germany in junior high.

    What I take from these examples is that even when there is a native-speaking parent of the minority language, it is ultimately the kids themselves who must take further steps to make the language and culture part of their lives as they grow. So while I, too, dread the day when my kids are old enough to notice that I am just not getting across the nuance that I strive for in French, I hope that they'll have both the foundation and connections to take steps on their own, and as a partner to me, in continuing to "perfectionner" our French. I sure am curious to see what all that will look like, though! I hope you continue to share what it looks like in your family.