Monday, 26 January 2015

OPOL still lives

November...has it been THAT long since my last post? Oh my...

I love this blog and want to keep it up, but my brain can only do so many things at once. And right now it's working on a cookbook for kids. I'm working with LittleBilingues, publishers of bilingual books for kids, to make an English cookbook to help kids learn English. It's so much fun! and a lot of work! and requires a lot of brain power...

But back to what I love about this blog...documenting my kids' bilingual adventures, both for posterity but also for anyone who may be raising their kids bilingual and needs some advice or a push or some inspiration...

Suzanne is turning 9 in May. NINE! She has entered the second half of her first year in Section Internationale. She loves Thursdays most because she learns in French, Dutch (30 minutes a week) and English (3 hours a week). The older she gets, the more I realize that English as Suzanne's first language was not a fluke. She has always preferred English, even though I am working and the majority of her time has always been in French. But as she gets older, socializes almost only in French and starts to appreciate reading more and more (she's always loved books. In fact, book was one of her first words!), I realize that the girl is just really good in languages. Her English capacity is beyond my wildest dreams. I never imagined that she'd be so fluent without spending more time in an English speaking environment, needless to say I never imagined she'd  teach her self to read in English! At any given time, she's working on at least 3 books...mostly in English! I think changing schools and integrating the section internationale was good for her self confidence for many reasons. But mostly, she realized that she speaks English really well and it's not bad for a kids to be the best at something! (to see stories on Suzanne's linguistic progress over the years, click here).

Max is 5 1/2 already...and he continues to be all boy. In the past year, he has discovered legos. And just as legos require a certain amount of structure and analysis, he applies the same logic to reading. Max can read better than Suzanne did at the same age because he likes systems. He's a very intelligent little boy with a lot of energy. Personally, I think he's bored in school...he's punished a lot because he likes to talk...A LOT. Max likes to understand things. And then he likes to explain the things he's understood to anyone who will listen to him. He knows everything you could possibly want to know about super heroes and is very proud to know all their names in both French and English.  You may remember that Max's English was a struggle for a while. But now it's solid. He continues to have a cute little accent, but like his sister, he speaks only English to me. And he uses such precise language in both French and English, which is part and parcel of his personality. The other day, he said, "Mom, I managed to ...something something." and that's exactly what he meant. He managed to do it. He didn't just do it.

This post from 2012 documented how each of the kids deals with bilingualism, fitting it into their own personal rules and order. And looking back at it, it all still holds true! I had some cool insight back then (when I had time to think about all this more!)

Some general observations I'd like to share, after all these years of strict OPOL:

  • the hard work continues to pay off! The system is so ingrained in their minds, that they have trouble speaking French to me when their friends are there
  • I am no longer scared of them speaking French to me because I know it's not a permanent thing.
  • authenticity is important to the kids. When they tell me what happened during the day, and what so and so said, they tell me in French because that's what the kid said! For them, it would be artificial to translate from French to English. 
  •  correcting them is frustrating. I was always so scared of them not speaking correctly, that I got in the habit of correcting them mid-sentence. This is a huge point of frustration for my daughter. I'm trying to stop it, and just let her go on, and correct after, but old habits die hard...
  • homework is challenging. At first, I did my daughter's homework in English. But I'm finding that sometimes, when it's a stressful topic like math, then I have to switch into French. And it's ok! It doesn't impinge on our English speaking at all. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014


This isn't really home anymore. It's the first time in my almost 18 years abroad that coming "home" no longer feels like "home." My room is now my old room. My house is now my parents' house or grandma and bopi's house. My town is now my hometown. Even my running route isn't mine anymore because I can't run anymore! 

The streets are different; the stores are different; the people are different. I no longer need to "worry" about running into people from high school. I'll no longer see my friends' parents because most of them moved away. And I'll no longer see my old school teachers because they're all retired. 

It's taken almost 18 years for home to no longer be home. But is france home? It doesn't feel like it most of the time. I feel foreign and different. But, that's how I feel at home...

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Happy on the inside

One month into the new school, and Suzanne has never been happier! This morning while she ate breakfast she said, " I'm so lucky! Today I have Dutch, English and my class picture!". I knew Suzanne wasn't at her best last year. But neither my husband nor I realized how sad Suzanne was. Until we saw how happy she is now!

Suzanne entered CE2 (French 3rd grade) and changed schools so should could be in section internationale. In Lille, that means either the private schools or Sophie Germain, a public school in the center of Lille. She left all her friends behind. But, it's been an empowering experience for her for a couple of reasons.

She rides her bike to school on most days - with us along side of course! But that makes her feel confident and proud. She's made tons of new friends. Which also is a major confidence builder. And, last but not least, she is the best English speaker in her class. But she's far from being overconfident and full of herself about it. She's just happy...and I didn't realize the social pressure was so heavy for her at her old school. I don't really take it as a parenting failure, but look at it as Suzanne's strength of character : she was putting up with a lot and got through it! Every child needs a secret garden so I don't blame her for not telling us how sad she was.

She says that only 2 other kids in the English class speak fluent English. But I can already see what she's learning. In the first week alone, she learned how to write the date in English. In my quest to get my kids to speak, I overlooked such a small thing like the date. She can speak almost perfectly, but doesn't know the date! She's learned how to write the numbers up to 20, write the colors, and she's also doing art in English. It's really an amazing opportunity!

Let the bilingual adventure continue!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Max at 5

They say that you are more lacks with your second kid. I'd say it's both true and not true. When Suzanne was learning to speak and developing her bilingual-ness, I posted regularly. I feel like Max has slipped through the cracks. Of course, one kid is less work than two so I'll cut myself some slack.

On that note, Max turned 5. I had some tough times with Max's language acquisition : he was slower to speak than his sister, when he did speak it was mostly in French, he would speak French as the community language in the US and UK. But one thing Max has always been meticulous, precise and very funny little person.

Where Suzanne was always comfortable with English and communicated at any cost, mixing words, making up words...Max is Max. When he speaks English, he speaks English. French is French, with only some exceptions. If he doesn't know how to say something, he either finds a different way or says he needs to tell me a secret. It's not that he's ashamed of not knowing, but he wants it to be perfect. This personality trait carries through to everything he does : he likes numbers, is obsessed with superheroes and knows everything about them and is a whiz at legos. For his birthday, we got him legos for 7-14 year olds; he put the vehicles together almost alone, using the booklet. He calls himself a "master builder" like in the Lego Movie.

His meticulous, almost engineer like thinking crosses over into his communication; he wants to understand why and how. He makes very few language mistakes, but sometimes mixes up his grammar in both languages. Despite his precision, he has an accent. Whereas Suzanne mostly sounds like a mini version of me (light East Coast American accent), Max sounds a little French, a little Germanic and a little American. None of that seems to keep him from speaking. He's been called a piplette (a nice way to say he never stops talking) by many.

Suzanne, now 8 years old, continues to speak to him mostly in English except when they've spent time together in an all French environment like school or at the grandparents'. English continues to be more present in the house than French and we still do not stray from OPOL.

Reading though has become less and less present which is a weakness. Suzanne's vocabulary and syntax were great because I read to her so much. But with the past couple years being rather nuts (with my cookie business, my english classes and my steady job), reading has become less important. On the other hand, we still have an English speaking babysitter once a week which helps reinforce that English isn't only limited to Mom and her family and friends.

Recent Max-isms include he and his sister fighting over whether it's called mozzarella or mozzarelle. He also recently invented a new French word: bicyclable, a fairly obvious term in French to mean the bike lanes (ie piste cyclable).

My kids' bilingualism continues to astound me. But even if they weren't bilingual, they'd still be these amazingly smart, intelligent and sensitive little people whom I love with all my heart.

Happy birthday Max !

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

two months later....

In an effort to avoid writing this post, I left comments for other bloggers whose blogs I haven't visited in a long time. This blog used to be my lifeline...but now it's been over 2 months since my last post !  I'm starting to think that maybe it means I'm finally settling into my expat life, mother of 2 bilingual children, etc etc.

Lots has happened in two months. I'll try to go through it little by little in a logical way...and maybe I'll even save some for a separate post.

The school year came to an end with the most wonderful experience I've ever had in the French school system. I got a thank you. An actual, meaningful and wholehearted thank you and a beautiful bouquet. Since my kids started school, I've gone into their classes every year to do English. Last year's teacher didn't even say a simple merci so I was understandably peeved. It's not for the glory that I do it but this year's experience was much better. The kids and teacher were great. That was in November. At the kids' end of year performance (the most amazing kids' performance I've ever seen - the kids did synchronized swimming in the school's gym. it was hysterical!), the teacher said she wanted to thank a few people and I was one of them. I was so touched. Madame D restored my faith (and hope) in the teachers my children will face in the future.

Then in July, I celebrated 17 years in France. That's almost half my life and a very long time for someone who first came to spend 3 months here. I realize that the longer I stay here, the more American I feel but the less American I become. what I mean is that I cling to certain things and to my American identity, yet I'm so detached from American society that I can no longer relate to all things American. Do you know what I mean? And I think it's the American part of me that's kept me afloat this year because it's been a tough one (or two).

I didn't talk about it at all on the blog, but I've been fighting depression the past couple years (more life a mid-life crystallization than a mid-life crisis)  and this year I finally got my head above water and I was swimming really hard! In fact, I overdid it this year. My goal this year is strike a balance between family, school, friends, work, volunteering, teaching, exercising...oh wait, I think I already lost.

And on that note, I'll end this post. I actually want to give an update on my bilingual children. But if I do that now, I may not post for another 2 months.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Big kids or little adults?

It's been a while...a long while. The time that used to go into  inspiration for this blog is now pouring into creating interesting classes for little kids and baking cookies. And more cookies. And more cookies. And although I'm happy to have the outlet and passion and creative energy flowing, I do miss my blog. 

But the one thing I don't want is this blog to turn into some mundane American expat in France here is a funny pile of dog shit kind of blog. And I feel like that's all I'm living at the moment. Hey, someone peed on my garage again. Hey, the shop assistant was an asshole again. Hey, I just don't understand the French and how that neo-nazi racist xenophone could have been elected to the European Parliament! And so on and so forth....

But there is stuff going on that I want to write about. And I want to get feedback if there's still anyone out there who still looks at my lonely little blog. 

See, my daughter just turned 8. And it turns out that little kids are mean in all languages. Raising a kid is hard. Being different is hard. I've been a kid but I was a kid like everyone else. I wasn't a half American- half French mix growing up bilingually. And to top it off, my mother didn't show up at school wheeling strange things to eat and speaking a strange language to all my friends. And flat out embarrassing me because she didn't get it. Oh wait, that sounds like stuff my mom did without the extra language. So maybe Suzanne's life isn't so different from mine!

My dear English friend and I have a theory about our kids - they are just different. They are less harsh, more fun and definitely less cut throat than their French counterparts. Maybe it's their anglosaxone sides. And maybe it's just me and my friend....but whichever it is, it can't be easy to be different. Not visibly different like with a huge scar or a birth mark but just different in the way you talk and think. I've realized that language forms your thinking pattern. Look at my daughter for instance when she asks for something in French - she uses English structure. The way you form your sentences must form your brain and personality and vice versa. 

So what do you say to your 8 year old when she comes home saying Alice says they aren't friends anymore or niki calls her a machine a manger or when nino makes fun of her for just learning how to  ride a bike? How do you make your kid strong without always putting emphasis on the difference that is being bicultural and bilingual? My first reaction is always to say, well does he speak English? Has she ever lived in a different country for 2 months? But I realize that maybe that's not the right way to go about it. Maybe the emphasis shouldn't be on "be proud of your difference"  and "never forget how special you are" but rather "people are mean in all languages" and "you are a wonderful person and I love you more than anything". 

Meanness is universal. And I wish I could take back the mean things I did to people who were below me in the pecking order. I wish I could appologize for taking out my own social frustration on people who were geekier than I was. And I hope I can teach my daughter - and son- to be graceful in the face of teasing and just absorb it like a sponge but spit it right out without leaving a trace. I wish French kids weren't mean but they are. Kids are kids. And kids are little adults - or are adults just big kids? - and kids are mean. 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

My mother's tongue

Two months....has it really been that long? I have been forsaking this blog, although I do think about it often. But my brain power goes to many other activities at the moment like baking, teaching and generally trying to stay sane...

That said, here's a little update on my Franco-American adventures.

Suzanne (almost 8!)  has a space in the bilingual section of the public school. At first, we were worried that it wouldn't happen, that she wouldn't want to go, that the level of English wouldn't be good. But, although it's an experimental programme, we are convinced. Last week, Suzanne and I sat in on a class and she came away smiling (albeit nervous and scared too!). She is both excited at the thought of learning more in English, being with other bilingual kids, and going to a new school. But she's also nervous about leaving her friends and starting a new school. One great thing is that she already has a friend who will be in the same class as her. As the minority language parent, I came away from last week's meeting at the school with a big smile on my face and the rare feeling that parents get when you KNOW you have made a good parenting decision. Not only will it be good for Suzanne to learn to read and write English (at the moment she is teaching herself), but it will be good for her to be around other bilingual kids so she can be proud (she is already but she's also different) and it will help her self-confidence which is pretty low at times. As for the school, I am happy that the kids are all mixed together and the bilinguals are taken out 3 hours a week. So it's the best of the public school education with a twist. And, as a non-French person constantly grappling and fighting with the rigid French structure, I find it an added bonus that the school will be less "French" and more open. The thing that has perturbed me the most since my kids started school is how rigid and strict it is. The classe bilingue provides a different point of view and way of educating the kids because they share experiences with schools in England. Yay! She's come a long way since the word lists I used to post on this blog 7 years ago....for more information on the bilingual french-English class in Lille, you can leave a message. 

Max (4 1/2) is all boy, is into superheros, star wars and collecting sticks. He is now solidly bilingual, which was a main issue for his first 18 months. He continues to mix up his grammar between French and English equally. In some way it's reassuring that his French is speckled with English because it means the English is ingrained in his head. Max always preferred French whereas Suzanne preferred English. At the moment, he is having trouble with "jusqu'à" for example - I'm getting taller. I am jusqu'à your chest.  And he does similar things in French using English structure like Ou est-ce qu'on va à? Literally, where are we going to? My husband and I are often too immune to these slip ups that we have to remind each other to make the correction in the other's language. Max continues to express himself in an extremely precise way, in black and white terms with no shades of grey. The fact that he is bilingual seems to help him because he gets frustrated quickly. His two languages allow him to express his frustration and relieve some of the tension that builds up in his brain.

So after almost 8 years of strict OPOL child rearing, what are my thoughts? Recently, I had an interesting discussion with a Slovak friend who was impressed with how bilingual my kids are. And I really attribute it to how strict I was for the first couple of years. The kids continue to only speak English to me and I find that I have to remind them to speak French in front of their French since speaking French to me is just so unnatural (and vice versa).

All in all, I'm really proud of their progress and proud of how my husband and I persisted. I see other people who weren't so strict and the results are glaringly different. There is also another factor that I'm considering more and more : I see that male friends who speak the minority language don't have as much success as female friends. It's not called a mother tongue for nothing.

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