Friday, March 14, 2008

Bicultural babytalk

I've worried a lot about raising a bilingual child. I envy le Petit who, if we do our job right, will grow up speaking both English and French fluently. I already narrate our days together in English and read to him every day from our shelf of American children's books. It is hard to tell if the "ma ma ma!" he babbles in my general direction is closer to "mama" or "maman," or indeed if it means anything more sophisticated than "I'm teething and I'm bored." I'm not worried. He's got plenty of time.

I can see, however, that things will soon get a lot more complicated.

It's almost Easter, and while I don't expect the question to come up this year, how will I explain that a bunny brings eggs and chocolate back in the US, while church bells do the job here in France? A bunny hopping around with a basket, that I can picture, but how can bells deliver anything?

When he starts losing his baby teeth -- though yes, since so far he only has six, we're still far away from that -- can I expect him to believe that here in France the Tooth Fairy has outsourced her job to a mouse? Would you want a rodent rummaging around under your pillow at night?

I've got a ready answer: EU antitrust legislation. Bunnies, bells, fairies and mice must all compete freely in an open marketplace.

That will not solve what will probably be the most confusing linguistic hurdle for the poor kid. As much as I believe in gender equity, for some reason I refer by default to all stuffed toys as "Mister." Le Petit has a Mr. Bee, a Mr. Whale, and a Mr. Snail. The problem is that bee and whale are both feminine in French: une abeille and une baleine, leading my mother-in-law to refer to the same toys as misses. Even the poor escargot hasn't got a fixed gender: although it is un escargot in French, my mother-in-law uses the much cuter feminine cagouille from her family's Charentais dialect.

I can see it now. I'll ask a three-year-old le Petit, "Where's Mr. Bee?"

"Maman, Mr. Bee is a she! It's Madame Abeille!" and look at me as if I'm the dimmest person he's met yet.

"Okay, Madame Abeille it is," I'll acquiesce, then he'll shake his head and go on to correct my pronunciation.

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