Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Open letter to the wine salesman.

"C'est marrant. Vous lui parlez en américain et il vous réponde en français. C'est comme moi avec mes clients anglais". This was at the wine store...

Yes, I'm glad my bilingual charades are amusing to you Mr. Nicolas*, but I find it really frustrating. I know I should not be angry at you, it's not your fault! You are not grappling with two cultures, two languages and a very stubborn 21 month old.

It may seem like I take this all too seriously, and I probably do because that's how I am, but I can't fathom the idea of either of my children speaking to me in French. It's fine if they speak franglais (or frenglish) but the mere thought of them speaking a full sentence to me in French makes my heart sink. Language is more than just words; it's intrinsically connected to your heart and anchored at the center of who you are.

Words can't describe how happy I am when Max says 'Isee" or "Iwant" or "Idon'tknow" or how my heart sinks when I ask him what this or that is and he replies "poisson" or "escargot" or "qu'est-cequec'est". I feel mixed emotions everytime I'm with Max. I'm proud of all the progress he's made and all the things he can say in both languages, but sad that he's not preferring English like his sister did.

I am constantly reminding myself that Max and Suzanne are different kids. They have different benchmarks which are keys to their language development. Suzanne spent 3 years surrounded by a single adult and 2 children all day long; Max spends all day surrounded by 2 dozen kids and 5 adults. It's logical that he's speaking more French because he hears more conversation at any given time. Whereas Suzanne, heard only a single adult voice during the day and spent the rest of her waking hours hearing English (since I am more verbal than her father) so of course her first language was English.

And then I wonder what I could be doing differently or what I did differently with Suzanne to reinforce her English. And it brings me back to one of the hardest things I've done so far as a parent: ignoring my toddler as she tried to speak to me. She insisted on speaking French, so I ignored her until she spoke the word in English. I've tried the technique with Max from time to time - but not consistently - and it's hit or miss. And I wonder if I should be stronger about it and pretend not to understand French the way I did with Suzanne. When I say to Max, "what does Mommy say?" when he speaks to me in French, he raises his hand to his chest and rubs it in a circle to do the sign and says "please". I can't help but melt...

But it doesnt work. Because unlike with Suzanne, Max hears me speaking French fairly often. When I pick her up at the neighbor's after school, I stay for tea and chatter in French to my friend and speak English to Max. That's the one constant - I still refuse to speak directly to my children in anything other than English.

Kids aren't stupid. And I'm too hard on myself. And I don't want language to be an issue with them. But it's an issue with me....

So, sorry Mr. Nicolas. Sorry for not smiling because you think my bilingual children are cute. It's a lot of work and it's a lot of frustration. And I hope, one day, it will pay off.

* Nicolas is the name of the chain of wine stores in France.

7 comments:

Mil said...

I guess I'm not as strict as you about accepting phrases in French from my daughter. I do prefer her to speak in English with me, but sometimes I'll just answer to her French request (it's not all the time, anyway). I guess I'm ok with it because overall she is speaking a lot of English and I know she understands it. Could it be the famous, girls are more verbal (in general) than boys thing going on here? If at least he understands you, that's a good point. Either try being more stubborn with him or go the other route and back off a bit. It's still a victory to know two languages at 21 months.

Reb said...

Mil,thank you for bringing me down a notch. Yes, just speaking 2 languages, even with the French thrown in, is amazing! I am definitely too worried!

Cordelia Newlin de Rojas said...

I am franco-american and bringing up my kids tri-lingual though I tend not to worry too much about the spanish as that is my husband's responsibility. My daughter is now 3 and unlike you I dream of her answering me in French but get 99.9% english. It is a factor of the environment we are in (Singapore). What bringing up kids in a multilingual environment has taught me is the art of letting go. Still like you I do get frustrated and wonder what I could be doing more and always second guessing myself.
A friend of mine who is bringing up her girl bilingual English/Portuguese had the same situation. Child understood everything but would only answer in English. She said an extended summer break in Brazil at around 2.5-3 years helped kick start her daughter's portuguese. Also met another couple trilingual english, french, chinese. At two years old the little girl used to answer in english to her french father "daddy I don't like your talk". She is now 6 and fluent in all 3. Don't give up but also don't beat yourself up. you are giving your kids a great gift and he will come around eventually.

Reb said...

Cordelia, thanks for your comment. If there's one thing I'm really terrible at, it's letting go :) I know that's what I should do though. Especially since my son is now callign me maman! I think the hardest part of the second child not speaking as well in English is just that....comparing. I need to stop comparing because Max will come along at his own pace. This summer, he will spend a couple weeks with my mother (in France) and we've organized a few trips to England for the summer and October. So, although I know I shouldn't worry about it and I try not to worry about it, when he calls me "maman", I have to worry about it...!

Cordelia Newlin de Rojas said...

Ha I used to be like you but I was slowly driving myself crazy. (mind you I still have my moments). My youngest isn't talking but I understand the Maman thing. To my horror, my older daughter went from calling me "Maman" to calling me "mommy" - devastating.

Reb said...

Cordelia,so there's still hope for me that I'll let lose, just a teeny tiy bit? LOL

Sarah said...

I hear that same comment all the time! Strangers must think they're being helpful to point out that my son responds to my French questions and comments with his three-year-old English. Yes, thank you, interfering grocery store clerk, I know he's speaking English!

I'm just glad he understands my French and can respond appropriately. (And he does speak French with me too, just not to the extent that he does English.)

Often I do wonder how different it would be if I had insisted that he always speak French? It has worked so well for you (and lots of other families I know).

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