Sunday, 1 July 2012

Max's bilingual wiring


Coming "home' is both strange and familiar. It's funny how easily I slip back into my New Jersey accent or how relaxing it is to not have the white noise of my second language constantly filling my brain. Both Suzanne and I have adapted quickly. But Max is a different story.

Since we've been here, the kids have been practically French-free unless you count my brother in law's attempts which makes Suzanne break down in laughter. 

Somehow, Suzanne get its. We're in NJ where everyone speaks English both inside and outside the home. This is her 3rd trip here within her short memory and she knows. She has a slight lilt to her accent, but nothing about her says "I'm French" except when she peppers her words with French because she doesn't know this word or that. But Max is different. He keeps asking about our Lille landmarks like the 'broken car' near the creche. At least once a day, I hear Suzanne saying to her little brother, "the broken car is in Lille. We're in NJ."

During our trip to England in February, I noticed that Max used French to everyone outside the family. Not once did he speak English to a waiter or cashier. I thought he'd "get it" when we arrived in NJ. But something in his brain just doesn't click. Max's English is great especially for a bilingual not yet 3 year old. A couple of days ago when we visited the nursery school he'll be attending, he didn't say anything but he waved hello. That was a step. But the next day I brought him to lunch at a Mexican place.  Max ate "crepes" aka tortillas and asked if the people were speaking French. They were speaking Spanish I explained. "In NJ, most people speak English and don't speak French. So you have to speak English if you want people to understand you," I continued. On our way home, we went to get his haircut.

While we were waiting, Max was a chatter box. He went on and on about the gumball machine and the lollypop the barber promised him after his haircut.  When he finally got into the barber's chair, he didn't say a word. I watched carefully to gauge his reaction.  Max didn't make a peep. The barber and I chatted, he asked Max questions but Max didn't make a sound.

When he was done, the barber went to get Max a lollypop. I said to Max, "say thank you" as I always do. Max said, "Merci." I didn't bother insisting he speak in English because I knew he wouldn't. 
At the park, Max makes comments to other kids in French and when I remind him he needs to speak English for them to understand, he gives me a look that seems to say, "Mom, I AM speaking English!" I get the impression he is so used to speaking French outside the house that he just doesn't understand that he's not speaking the community language.

On Friday night, we went to a friend's for a party. Max was playing with a little boy his age. At first, Max spoke French, then he said nothing and by the end of the night, I actually heard a couple words of English. But yesterday, it started all over again. We went to the Delaware Water Gap where Suzanne played with some girls in the water; when Mx came over, he began speaking French again! I could hear Suzanne saying, "Max, we're not in France. you need to speak English!" And at the restaurant last night, I saw how clever Max is: when the couple next to us asked Max how old he is, rather than actually saying anything, he held up 3 fingers and answered all their other questions by shaking his head.

I'm not sure what all of this means, but I would love to be inside his head or for him to be able to explain the mechanism in his brain. But he clearly has some sort of block : the community language is English yet his brain is still translating it into French. Somehow this clear dichotomy goes along with his personality: it's either black or white. And for him, English is me, his sister and his family. English is mommy's friends. But English is NOT the woman who he buys bubbles from or the person sitting next to us at the restaurant. I also wonder how his relationship with English will develop since he clearly has an emotional rather than utilitarian link with it. 

Summer camp starts on Monday and it will be baptism by fire for Max. I'm hoping that it will click when he realizes he needs to speak English to get what he wants. But if he doesn't, my son is going to be one of the most well behaved and quietest 3 years olds ever seen at nursery school. 


3 comments:

Tracey said...

Great post...it´s interesting to see how both your kids have a different approach to bilingualism! I´m looking forward to seeing how my daughter´s own bilingual wiring is going to work!

Liavek said...

Hello! Could it also be shyness? Or perhaps that French is HIS mother language, so he naturally defaults to it? I have observed the same with my 4+ over the past 12 months. He has only just started expressing himself loudly in English at at his anglophone pre-school, but when he is feeling overwhelmed, he goes back to French immediately.

Reb said...

Tracey, the kids are so VERY different in their relationship to their dual languages. It will be interesting to see how your daughter develops. I didn't realize how different it could be...

Liavek, I did think of that because he is an extrovert with a shy streak. But I think you are right about French really being his mother tongue which you can sort of see by his French accent in English (my daughter now has a New Jersey accent after 2 weeks in camp). He just finished his 2 week stint at daycamp and it took him a day to speak English to anyone. And now, he won't even speak French to his father. So he's gone in the completely opposite direction. We'll see what happens when we get back to France in another month.

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