Friday, June 19, 2009

Bilingual baby

First, a giant thank you to all of you who shared your advice and experiences about long-haul plane travel with a toddler. I still haven't made up my mind -- I'll let you know what I decide!

"Le train est tombé!" I hear le Petit yell from the living room right before I hear the staccato padding of pajama-clad toddler feet round the corner into the hallway. I'm in the bathroom getting ready for my day, and I extract the toothbrush from my mouth to splutter in amazement.

"Did you hear that?" I shout to my husband. "He said, 'le train est tombé!'" My husband shouts back, "Mmm-hmmm." He's not surprised, but I am.

All of a sudden le Petit has started constructing real complex sentences, mostly in French, and I'm impressed as only a non-native French speaking mother can be. It took me years to remember to pair the verb être with the past participle of the verb tomber, to fall. It is one of the exceptions that you learn by rote in beginners' French class and despair of ever remembering.

Yet here le Petit was, at not even two years old, putting a verb correctly in the past tense, using the masculine article with train, all to announce that his toy train had dived off the tableside cliff onto the floor.

Our strategy from le Petit's birth, if you can call it a strategy, has been for me to speak to him primarily in English and let everyone else speak to him in French. I did absolutely no research on the subject, other than asking around among friends and acquaintences who had raised bilingual kids, and I have no idea if it is the right approach. It may just be the lazy approach. I was warned that he would probably understand English perfectly but refuse to speak it with me; to keep him practicing properly, I was advised to make sure he spent some time back home "au pays" at regular intervals.

Yet le Petit's first real world, "dada," was in English, as were many of his early words. I would beam with pride any time anyone noticed this, and give myself a big pat on the back for successfully promoting early language skills, telling myself that those hours I spent with him and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" when he was three months old were certainly to thank.

Slowly, however, his French started to eclipse his English, and now he seems much more comfortable in la langue de Molière than in Shakespeare's tongue. I rarely hear a sentence as complicated as "the train has fallen" in English, and as far as I've noticed, he never uses the definite or indefinite articles "the" and "a." Once I thought I heard him tack a French la onto an English word just to try it out. He sounded a little unsure of himself, and I couldn't stop myself from chuckling.

Don't think for a moment that I'm concerned. I'm just a fascinated observer. I plan to keep on reading to le Petit in English, rediscovering with him all the books I loved as a kid, and let the rest follow naturally enough.

I am concerned, however, that his daily instruction in conversational French leaves something to be desired. While I plead, beg, and threaten, my husband still can't manage to moderate his language around le Petit and he's picked up a few undesirable expressions.

Lately he announces "Foutre [le riz, les pâtes, l'avocat] par terre!" whenever he notices the mess he's made under his high chair at mealtime. Unworthy of a direct translation, know that it is a *very* familiar way of declaring something has been thrown on the ground.

I gently correct him and try my best not to scold, smile or giggle. "We say, mettre le riz par terre," I explain, and he'll sometimes repeat it once, but it never sticks. I lament to my mother-in-law, who is half sympathetic and half amused, that le Petit will wind up trilingual, speaking French, English, and French slang with equal fluency. It may come in handy -- but not, I'm suspecting, at the local école maternelle.

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