I never expected to be a parent. It was never on my bucket list.
Even less did I expect to be a parent to two children who speak better French than I do. Seriously. There is nothing more humbling than being corrected by a four year-old.
However, as we say in French, this was not couru d’avance. This was not a forgone conclusion.
I’m not sure what your idea of the French language is, but mine, for my entire childhood, was that it is a romantic, poetic, lyrical language.
As I started to actually learn French, I found it to be complicated, full of exceptions and exigencies that were too hard to integrate.
When I arrived in France at eighteen years old, I could speak it all right, but I could not, for the life of me, understand anything that was said to me. Sure, it happened eventually, and that is a whole story unto itself.
What I discovered is that French is all those things: romantic, poetic, lyrical, complicated, full of exceptions and difficult to understand.
For years and years, my husband and I spoke Franglais at home. We both spoke the other’s native language with relative fluency, but certain things were easier to talk about in one language, as opposed to the other. When living in the US, we usually ended up talking in English about work, but in French about home stuff. Just the opposite was true when we came to France. We spoke French about work stuff and English about home stuff.
I guess we both wanted to keep speaking both languages, and very often, we would end up interjecting expressions that just “worked” better in the other language because it was the expression that best described what we wanted to say.
Making a choice
When we learned that we would have a baby, we took great pains to research methods of raising bilingual children.
There are plenty of methods out there. There is the one parent/one language method: where the native French speaking parent speaks French with the kids and the native English speaking parent speaks English. There was one confusing thing to us, that we didn’t like about this method, although, I am sure it works very very well for many families: What language would the indulgent husband and I speak together (Franglais, we assumed, would not be a good example to set). Also, my husband wanted to continue speaking English, since at home was the only place he was getting to practice it.
There is the day by day method: for example, on Monday everybody speaks English. Tuesday, French, and so on and so forth. I’m not sure why we decided against this, but we did.
The method we landed on was the minority language at home method: within the confines of our apartment we always would speak English. We also made a habit, for the first four years of their lives, to speak only in English, even when we were outside of the home.
Our boys would go visit their French grandparents and everybody would go with the flow. It never seemed difficult or worrisome that the boys would ask us to tell things to their grandparents. We kept telling ourselves, “it will come.”
We had plenty of visitors, and we figured that the little ones would pick up French from their surroundings. The book about raising bilingual kids assured us that this would happen.
But it wasn’t really happening.
The child, on the other hand, had an extensive vocabulary in English…about everything. He was curious about everything and was constantly reminding me of what things were called (in English!) when my brain would get foggy.
We sent our eldest to school, as French law requires, at three years old. He was shy and frustrated. We felt like we had failed him. That said, he wasn’t the only kid in his class for whom French was not the first language. And he is a good kid. His teachers liked him (apparently he was the only kid in his class who reliably said “merci” for anything), and he liked going to school. Thank goodness.
I absolutely never heard him speak French. He refused to do it when I was around. This might have been because he’s a little perfectionist, but also, cause he just didn’t do it very much.
He moved up a grade and started in a bilingual German and French class. This was risky, because his French was still not at all very good. However, his teacher offered support sessions for the French-as-a-second-language kids. The teacher wasn’t sure if it was the language or if it was that he was shy, so she just made conversation with him. Apparently, he was shy. She assured me that he had plenty of things to say.
One day, I overheard him say something to one of his friends on the playground. It was awkward, it was badly constructed. But his friend understood him. His friend didn’t care. They played together anyway.
Then, this year, he has an amazing teacher who also offered support sessions. He only had a about three of them before we went into lockdown again, but that was all it took for him to start correcting my French.
When I hear him talk, I am astonished that this little French speaker is my own child.
The method worked.
The other scalawag
The other scalawag never had trouble integrating French. He still makes little errors, like any French kid who has to learn the “le” and “la” and the irregular verbs and irregular plurals.
The difference, though, is the joy. The joy my littlest scalawag takes in speaking French is mindblowing. It is his seduction tool: when he wants something from one of us, he will put on his cutest little face and ask for it in French, with a sweet little, “S’il te plait, maman…”
The child gets anything he wants.
But here is something interesting about my littlest scalawag: our relationship would deserve its own article, with all its ups and downs. It can have a lot of downs: he and I are like two peas in a pod. He is a mirror of myself. The things that I hate about myself are magnified in him. But I also know the depths of his emotions. I have felt those things before and I have enormous compassion for them.
When I struggle at being a patient parent to my youngest scalawag, I have one secret weapon: I speak to him in French. For some reason, it softens the way I sound to myself. It softens the words I use with him. I’ve already said…I melt when he speaks French to me.
Our relationship is completely different than the one I have with his brother. Sometimes I feel like I am a completely different parent to them.
I guess that’s the dichotomy of being bilingual: we really are different people when we speak different languages. …And that is not always a bad thing!