Our children have heard me reading to them in French since before they were born, and not just because I work in a library and used to be a teacher. As a non-native and far-from-perfect speaker of French, I knew that books were our golden ticket into French and Francophone culture and language. In books, we--and especially our children, with their brain-sponges--encounter words that we might never use in a week, or a month, or a year.
In books, we hear dialogue at its best--flowing, clear, articulate, sassy, thought-provoking, and (generally) grammatically correct.
In children’s books and magazines, colorful illustrations accompany the text, allowing us to better understand the words and the story, giving us ideas about the book before we even start reading it.
Also, for parents like me, who learned French in school as teens and adults and never had to talk in their second language about dirty diapers, sippy cups, “love and logic” discipline, and which fast food restaurant has the cleanest indoor playground, children’s books give us that crucial daily dealing-with-a-baby-or-toddler vocabulary.
Because of books, I finally understand all the lyrics to the songs and rhymes that delight my children and keep them content during long car rides and when doing chores around the house.
If traveling opens doors for us, then books are windows into all those other places and people’s lives. Because of my reading to him, Griffin knows what French children drink for breakfast (chocolat chaud in a bowl), what is sold in souks in Tunisia (a little bit of everything), and that not all contes de fée have truly happy endings. (Gwyneth, on the other hand, knows that the cow goes “meuh,” that Madeline lives in Paris, and that board books with flaps to lift are the best. Thing. Ever.) Every book I share with Griffin and Gwyneth is another window for our home. When they’re ready to walk out our front door, they’ll know where they’re going (or at least how to talk to the folks when they get there).
I also read in French to my children for selfish reasons: poring over a book together gives me an excuse to snuggle with my oh-so-big almost-six-year-old son, that boy whose dinner conversation already tends toward monosyllables when we ask him what happened at school that day. Reading with him allows us to laugh together, figure things out together, share our thoughts and questions--in other words, to have genuine conversations. (The fact that it happens in the target language is just a bonus.)
And as for my daughter, who is two years old, and VERY two years old at that (willful, imperious, unpredictable, shrieky, simultaneously independent and helpless), books give her a reason to slow down, sit down, calm down. She actually listens to me when I read to her.
Oh, how sweet it is, to cuddle together in the rocking chair with a stack of books at my feet, her current favorite dolly tucked between us, making her giggle when I point out a funny picture or read a silly rhyme, watching her eyes grow wide when she is surprised or confused, aching with pride as she identifies which animal says “cocorico” and which vehicle goes “tchou tchou,” rolling my eyes and smiling when she tells me that the ladybug is rouge, and the banana is rouge, and the bathtub is rouge (“red” is the only color word she can say so far in either language).
The fact that this happens in the target language is just a bonus.
So I’m not just immersing Griffin and Gwyneth in a target language--I’m immersing them in books, cultivating their curiosity, helping them learn about life outside of our comfortable home, developing and maintaining strong bond. I’m not just immersing them in French, I’m immersing them in a mother’s love.
The fact that this happens in the target language is, oui, just a bonus.