Monday, 18 October 2010

Mother tongue

"Moi, je parle anglais et français. Je parle anglais parce que ma maman est anglaise". This is how Suzanne, my 4 and a half year old, explained our communication to a friend of my husband's.

Suzanne knows that I'm American. She knows I'm from New Jersey. She even knows the name of my town. But since so much of her (and our relationship) is defined by "English" , I understand that she has come to the simple conclusion that Mommy speaks English therefore is English.

It doesn't bother me. But it got me thinking about what is most important to a bilingual 4 year old. I think that my husband and I have created a balanced bilingual and bicultural home. I think we are able to provide a more or less balanced view of her dual world. And I think that Suzanne understands that our home is not "typical". Suzanne seems to have accepted that everyone is different in some way.

When I first started visiting the library with Suzanne, I remember one book in particular called What Faust Saw by Matt Ottley. In the front flap it said traduit de l'australien which made me laugh. I soon found books translated from américain which just plain annoyed me. The ex-English teacher in me always resisted the idea that American and English were different languages.

But now that my children are becoming more aware of the multilingual world around them, I see that maybe the difference between American, English, Australian... is kind of important. I see it when Suzanne speaks to me. Sometimes a perfect American sentence will come out of her mouth like, "I'm gonna eat some zucchini." And then she'll turn around and speak Charlie and Lola to me (between the ages of 2 and 3, the wonderful Lauren Child characters were kind of a fetish to her).

For the past couple of months, I've become hyper-aware of how Suzanne speaks English (or American as it were). I've realized that her English is very American which is normal since I am her main source of English. Having a little brother has given Suzanne more impetous for speaking English because she is aware of her essential role in Max's language development.

Max has a huge advantage that Suzanne did not have : conversation. Suzanne grew up hearing disjointed and disconnected conversations since I always speak English and my husband always speaks French (and we do not stray from that). Max has the two-way conversation on both sides. I have to admit that it makes me happy to hear Suzanne speaking to her little brother in English when no one's around. As with Suzanne, Max is speaking more English than French despite markedly less exposure to English than French. I guess there is a reason it's called a mother tongue. I just never realized that my children would rely so much on my own tongue.


TN said...

WOW that is great progress for both of them! Yes and I agree about the "mother" tongue. My little one is saying more English words than French (16 months - so he is only at 5 words right now) even though we live here and he gets more French. They must really listen to their mommies ;-)

Mil said...

I have to say I'm totally tickled when my daughter says stuff in English. Especially since I know she probably learned it from me and only me. I notice she's also starting to differentiate between which language to speak with which people. She never says s'il te plaît with me but does with the sitter. At home it's always "please."

Reb said...

Mil, that's a great sign! Suzanne has always made the difference between who to speak to in what language.

TN, keep it up! I am convinced that mother tongue is important. Suzanne and Max seem to be proving it.

The other thing I want to add is that OPOL works, at least it has for us. And I think it is partly due to me - the minority language speaker - being so strict. It's hard, especially when your darling is speaking to you in the "wrong" language and you have to ignore them. It made me want to cry when Suzanne did that and I wouldn't answer. But it worked to the point where now, if she doesn't know how to say soemthing in English she will americanize her french word or ask me if she can say it in French.

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