About my non-native French with my family: the short-and-sweet version, and a shorter-and-sweeter one too.
The (as-yet incomplete) essay-question answer:
When my nephew, Carl, was born in January 2006, I was working as a lecturer in French at Colorado State University, where part of my job involved training and supervising the graduate teaching assistants. I had been interested in language acquisition, language pedagogy, and linguistic for years. (My undergraduate degree was in Creative Writing and French; my masters are in French and Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language.)
My teaching experience included working as an Assistante d'anglais at a high school in Mulhouse, France; lots of private tutoring, mostly of college students and adults; teaching Freshman Composition, ESL, and French during grad school; teaching University 101 (a freshman seminar); and covering first and second year French classes, a graduate workshop for teaching assistants, world lit in translation, and French drama classes at Colorado State.
So what does this have to do with my nephew? Or my blog?
Since I spoke French well, my sister-in-law and her husband asked me to try speaking exclusively French with Carl--sort of a "OTOL" approach (one tatie, one language). Carl and I spent one afternoon a week together, where I discovered how very challenging it was to carry on an hours-long monologue on my non-native language with a tiny baby who couldn't respond with more than gurgles, cries, and smiles for months. (I still remember how excited I was when I said "tête" and he reached out and whacked me on the head.)
And of course, my lexicon had to change. I spent my days helping my students differentiate between passe compose and imparfait, direct and indirect object pronouns, and countries in Francophone Africa. I could trace the history of the French language from Latin to the 21st century. Give a presentation in French on teaching methodologies? Check. I could even, on a good day, explicate a poem.
But I had never had reason to say, "Oh, you little wiggle-worm, you had a blow-out on your onesie and now your bouncy chair is covered in poo!"
Or anything about all the myriad experiences that are part of the daily life of an infant. Sharing board books in French with Carl, consulting my dictionary, and memorizing this list helped a lot, as did adding to my repertoire of French songs to sing to him.
Gradually, spending hours speaking French to this little boy began to feel natural. I even found myself automatically speaking French to other people's babies!
When Carl was around a year old, he started saying words in French with me--whacking me on the head and screaming joyously, "Tête!", naming foods, toys, and people, repeating "monte" and "descend" on the playground. He soon began putting words in French together, and, astonishingly, at 18 months uttered his first four-word sentence in his second language:
(to be continued....)