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.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

What it feels like to be made fun of by a 7 year old

I think about this blog often, I really do. But I just don't get those early morning flashes of inspiration I used to get. Those flashes now go to my new venture which I will write more about some other time.

That  said, I have a lot to report about my bilingual babies who are no longer babies, but are real people now! They are sometimes annoying people, sometimes funny people, but they are always my favorite people.

The bilingual barriers are breaking down while other ones are built up. It's still a constant battle, but an enjoyable one that I no longer worry about losing. I'm not ready to say yet that I won, but I can definitely say that I am on the winner's team :)

Suzanne is now 7 1/2 years old and full of surprises. When she opens her mouth to speak English, she sounds like a small version of me, New Jersey drawl and all. Although her English speaking has never been a problem, she was very daunted by reading in French so I didn't try to teach her to read of write in English. But now, she has taught herself. Much of it is based on French phonetics, but she's doing it and we owe a lot of thanks to the magazine, I love English for Kids which we started getting at the public library. She loves reading the magazine while listening to the CDs at the same time.

Max is 4 1/2. His Germanic accent in both of his languages has evolved. He now speaks with a perfect little French accent in both French and English. My husband and I have various theories about why this is : maybe he's copying his father (who doesn't have a French accent in English), maybe he's lazy, maybe he doesn't have good ears, or maybe he's more focused on the precision of the word choice than on the actual pronunciation.

The hardest part at the moment is making the time to read to them in English. Nightly reading in English has always been a keystone for me and the kids. But with homework, later working hours, and the kids growing up, it's getting harder and harder to find the time. This is more of a weak point in Max's English education than Suzanne's since she got a solid 5 years of it while Max only had 3.

Another point that is becoming increasingly difficult for me is homework. I struggle about how to do homework with Suzanne : English or French? I am a real OPOL purist and speaking French to my kids just seems wrong. But I've had to adapt. For example, when Suzanne has math homework, I can't very well say "eighty-five + thirty = one hundred and fifteen" when she's still trying to figure out the difference between "quatre-vingt-cinq" and "quatre-vingt quinze" (85 and 95, respectively). BUT (and there's always a but), when I do her homework with her, she comments on my accent which she finds very amusing. So it's hard to keep your concentration and authority in a foreign language when your 7 year old is making fun of you...

Monday, 20 January 2014

MLK day 2014

Every year on MLK day, I find myself reflecting on how to teach my children about American culture what it means to ME be an American. And it's no coincidence if MLKday provides me with an annual time for reflection. 

I didn't realize it until recently, but MLK day was a national holiday in 1984. I was 9 years old when we first started celebrating it as a national holiday. I was in 4th grade so MLK day was always part of my life. 

Over the past few years, I've tried to explain Martin Luther King Jr (2011) to my daughter and also to her entire class. But it loses a lot of the relevance and importance when they 1) live in a country where past historical atrocities are still brushed under the rug, 2)there never was any segregation and 3) it's just not part of the culture. 

So this year for MLK day, I will once again talk to my kids about the importance of accepting difference and being kind to everyone. And I'll also read them this book and hope they get why it's an important part of being American. 

Monday, 30 December 2013

If you're 'appy and you know it eat a cookie

I could have written this article...but I didn't. Pamela Druckerman did. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/28/opinion/druckerman-an-american-story.html?_r=0

It's some reflections after going into her child's French classroom for a lesson on america and being American. 

Over the past 2 months, I went into both of my kids' classrooms once a week. For the little ones, I read silly stories like red hat, green hat by Sandra boynton and taught them silly songs in English like go away big green monster. 

For the ce1 (2nd grade) I tried to focus a little on American culture and history for the first couple lessons. Then I decided to just go with it. One lazy day, I went in with an empty jar and some paper cookies and we played "who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?" 

At first, I was a little worried because the kids weren't participating and I felt like a big dope in front of thirty kids singing by myself. Bu once they got going, they were awesome. They were actually having FUN ans SMILING, two things I do not necessarily associate with French school. 

And you know what? Suzanne's usually very good but strict teacher loved it! She loved it so much that she kept the jar and is going to do it with the class on a regular basis. And as she says in her article, there's something to be said for the fun quotient of Americans school that just doesn't exist in france. I'm not saying that's American school is all good, because it's not. But somehow, French school children forget to be children. And that's just sad....

At the end of my last lesson, the kids each got a fresh cookie. And you know what? They all said pleas and thank you. That just shows that you can learn and have fun at the same time. 

But I'll also add that ms. Druckerman's article does not reflect the excessive kumbaya spirit in many American schools or the fact that French kids score higher than American. So they are doing something very right...as an American in France raising two Franco-American kids, I honestly do regret my kids not having the quintessential American school experience: the school bus, the lunch box, recess...but at the same time, I can give them all the good American-ness at home but I can't  give them the quality education they are getting at their little school in Lille, France. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Tu-ing me softly

I have one of those faces. When I don't smile, I look mean or unapproachable or cold. People often interpret my lack of smile as aloofness or cockiness. But they usually don't realize that I'm actually a quiet and shy observer. 

Of course I wouldn't expect my kids' teachers to know this about me. And I couldn't expect my kids' teachers to know that this is exacerbated by my "American-ness" ie being a little "too" brusque and a little "too" direct. 

When I went into my daughter's CP class last year, I didn't expect much. But I did expect a thank you from the teacher. Which I NEVER got. Yes, that's right. She never said thank you. I took that as a personal attack on my lessons, even though I got positive feedback from parents and kids alike. OBVIOUSLY, I'm imagined her saying bad things about me and what a snob I was ! 

So this year, I was understandably hesitant when I offered to go into the CE1 class (the teacher is the directrice) . And when she accepted very heartily, I was relieved. Maybe I had done a good job last year?! And when she asked the entire class to say "thank you" after the first lesson, I was touched. And when her inspector attended my second lesson and gave positive feedback, I was gleaming. And I was vindicated. 

Then last Saturday at the school's Christmas party, I was behind the snack bar and last year's teacher came up. She used the informal tu form with me, called me by my first name, and told the woman next to her how delicious my cookies were and had I made any for the bake sale because they wer eoh so delicious. I instantly smelled an ass-kisser. But beyond the self-satisfaction I've gotten with knowing I did a good job at my daughter's school, I'm just totally and thoroughly confused about the whole tu versus vous thing. Every time I think I've understood, I realize that I don't understand anything! And I can't bring myself to tu her because, well, I'm still holding a grudge for one...

But WHY is she tu-ing me all of a sudden? Is it because she realizes my dedication to the school, because she now understands I'm not just some crazy American, does she see me as an equal, does she think she'll gain something from me, or is she just actually a nice person who's smile-less face and shy demeanor are wrongly interpreted as aloof over-confidence? 

I may never know....

Monday, 9 December 2013

Saturday with Maria and Tony - an American tale

When I was a kid, my sister and I would visit our grandparents in Florida where we loved catching chameleons (among other things like going to the pool and eating Mallomars). One time, my sister decided to bring some back. She named them Tony and Maria.

That has absolutely nothing to do with this post except that last Saturday, I took Suzanne to see West Side Story (in English!) in Roubaix, France. I've seen the movie dozens of times - I grew up, practically drowning in show tunes and Broadway musicals ! - but I don't think I've ever seen the stage production of it. And I was not disappointed.

The reason I bought the tickets was one day last year, Suzanne came home from school humming a song she'd learned in English class. It was a song from a "TV show with two bandes in NY".  It wasn't until one of her friends started singing ,"I want to be in American" that I realized what it was....So when the tickets went on sale last spring, I got them.

What was interesting on Saturday was not so much the show - because it was good - but was the discussion we had on the way to the show. A friend of Suzanne's was going so his parents drove us to the theater. On the way, we had a conversation with he mother who is a child psychiatrist. She was talking about how many of her maghrébin patients don't speak any language because the parents speak a mix of French and Arabic and the kids mirror the mixed up language they hear at home. She was asking my friend B - Suzanne's fairy God mother, who is a bilingual French-English wonder - how she grew up with no accent. And the answer was : her parents were strict. And as B was talking about her experiences growing up bilingually, I realized I was sympathizing with her parents because raising a child in such a strict way is incredibly hard. It takes incredible will, strength and a lot of auto-derision to be able to speak a foreign language to a baby in the middle of a horde of French people.

And then the absolute hardest part of it all, seeing that your child is different in part because the language helps develop the kid's thinking pattern. So obviously, a bilingual child's language and thinking pattern will cross-fertilize both (or all) languages : the way they form sentences, their word choice and the way they interpret certain words are all influenced by their languages.

So just a shout out to all you OPOL parents who may possibly read this to keep it up! It's hard but even the child psychiatrist friend said it was the way to go.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Second language literacy

This post from Bilingual Monkeys really caught my eye. Adam is an American father raising his kids bilingually in Japan with his Japanese wife. As I go through his blog posts, it constantly reassures me that my strict approach to my children’s bilingualism is the biggest ingredient in their bilingual success. Adam has also been really strict, maybe even more strict than I am!

I’ve mentioned previously, that I chose not to introduce reading in English until my daughter, Suzanne, had mastered French reading. This does not mean that I do not read to her in English or teach her sight words or answer her English spelling questions.  It simply means that I have not taught her about spelling and grammar and punctuation. I have not taught her that bout “th” or “sh” or the difference between “see” and “sea”.  But since she is an inquisitive little girl, she went and looked for it herself. In her own words, “I have a lot of questions in my head and I need to ask them”.

So during our recent trip back to New Jersey for Halloween and fall, I told Suzanne I would bring her to a bookstore to get her some English books. But during the week leading up to the big bookstore trip, Suzanne surprised me by reading signs all around her, asking me about words she’d seen in magazines and even reading entire books (easy readers) to herself! She wrote notes to her father and her grandparents in English; she played restaurant with her grandmother and wrote out full menus. And when we got back to France yesterday, she asked me why the word butter has a “t” in it when we pronounce it “budder”.

I am so thoroughly impressed with my little girl and her reading abilities in French. And even more impressed with her self-taught reading in English!
Although Suzanne is much more fluid in French reading, her English reading is coming along. As for her speaking, you would never be able to guess English was her "weaker" language just from speaking to her. Where her little brother has a slight French accent (not sure if this is an improvement over the Germanic accent he used to have), Suzanne's English is all me (ie a toned down NJ).
This week, we will be meeting with the director  of Ecole Sophie Germain, the public school in Lille which hosts the bilingual class my daughter will be going into next year (3rd grade/CE2).
PS If you haven't yet visited Bilingual Monkeys, you should do so. It's a fun and inspiring site for bilingual parents.

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