French catches up

My very British Beiruti: "Look, rain!"

My very British Beiruti: “Look, rain!”

It has finally happened. I’m finally seeing the effect of living in France on my Beirut baby’s language skills. Though she consistently speaks French to her dad, English used to be her default language for singing to herself or talking to herself while playing. Now not only is she starting to speak and sing to herself in French more, her sentences are getting longer and clearer.

Last week she managed to break the lightbulb in the lamp in her room which she loves to turn on and off. Annoyed at not having a functioning lamp, she decided that the best course of action was to exchange it for the one in our room. After all, it looks the same and – as yet – still works. “S’il te plaît avoir celui dans la chambre de mummy et daddy et allumer?” she asked. (Please have the one in mummy and daddy’s bedroom and turn on?)

Suddenly her French has drawn almost level with her English. I say almost, because I’ve not heard her use any kind of “when” or “if” construction as she does in English: “Can I have a yoghurt when I finished the lasagne?” Or temporal references such as: “Last time we play with the game with the girls and it’s broken.” Though she can string a sequence of actions together in French using après: “Toi tu fais celui-ci et après moi fais l’autre.

It took nearly four months in France to make an audible difference to her French skills. Granted, they were busy months, finding a flat and having a baby, all the while planning our next move. We haven’t had a lot of time for French play dates. It was easier to just hang out with her cousins who speak mostly English at home. She is always out and about with me in town and with our adult French friends. But she hasn’t been to any school or childcare that would have brought her into daily contact with children who speak only French. Had I put her in playschool it would really have been an immersion. But language doesn’t dictate all our life choices.

It goes to show that while children learn languages with amazing ease, they will only do so in the right circumstances, that is, if they have a decent level of exposure and see them as living languages. After all, they can entirely unlearn a language they once spoke if they stop hearing it altogether at a young age. It becomes a dead language, inaccessible, locked away at the back of the mind.

French should never be that way for my daughter, but I don’t want it to be only a passive skill either, where she understands but struggles to express herself. So I’m delighted to see her making progress in French, the way she knows her little stories off by heart and loves to be quizzed on them and how after the last page is read and the book closed she reopens it with a hopeful “On recommence?”

Which family language?

Look mummy I draw a hexagon!

Look mummy I draw a hexagon!

After I took a phone call yesterday, my daughter told me: “No mummy, not say Âllo on the telephone, say Hello.” While I have some issues with being bossed around by a 2-year old, this is actually a good sign. The most important element of the one-person-one-language (OPOL) approach to bringing up bilingual kids, anyone will tell you, is consistency. It can be hard when both parents speak the other parent’s language fluently. It’s sometimes tempting to chip in with the other parent. You have to be really determined to stick to your half of the job. We can’t have done too badly, since she’s started picking us up if we accidentally let slip a word in the wrong language. I think this might not have been the case had we stayed in Lebanon, where people mix the languages so freely, they are barely aware of it. The necessary rigidity of the one-person-one-language distinction would have been a hard concept to grasp for the Lebanese, who embody linguistic adaptability.

Still, I do make some exceptions to always speaking English. I feel my daughter gets more than enough of it already. The fact is that English will always be the more obvious choice, partly through me being her main caregiver, and partly through its dominance on the cultural scene. We aren’t planning to live in France in the near future, so the community won’t be able to counterbalance these factors. So I work to bolster French a little by reading her usual bedtimes stories (all French) even when it’s my turn to put her down for the night or for a nap. Other than that I restrict myself to using French when she’s with French-speaking playmates and playing songs and any DVDs in French.

But I’m afraid it won’t be enough. We’re always aware that if we don’t create a need or a use for both languages our kids might just opt out of one. She is already aware that daddy understands everything she says in English. All her extended family on his side speak good or native English too. That doesn’t leave much need for French. Plus our influence as parents is constantly diminishing as the community plays an ever greater role in her life. I figure we were responsible for about 45% of exposure each while she was a baby. Now, though, not only does she spend more time with the community, she is more susceptible to it. No matter that mummy and daddy both pronounce a word a certain way, she wants to pronounce it like the other little girls. Right now those little girls are French so it’s “Sharlie”, not “Charlie”. But soon enough those little girls will be English or Spanish.

I’m not going to break the OPOL law and start speaking French to her. I think it would confuse her, not help her (not to mention that it would be unkind to inflict my accent on her). And I’m not going to stick her in front of French cartoons every day just to sugar the pill, though I will look out some audiobooks or rhymes for car journeys. The other remaining element within my power is the language we speak as a couple.

English has always been our main language. Of course we are used to talking French together in French company and in French contexts. We’ve both lived in France for years. So we’ve begun speaking more French as a family language. But while my husband grew up with French, I didn’t and I feel it. As a student, on the beam that crossed my chambre de bonne angled just so I’d bang my head getting out of bed, I had pinned a number of quotes. One read: “Je préfère mourir incompris que de passer ma vie à m’expliquer.” On the beam that ran through the kitchenette-cum-shower room, another read: “If you can name the world you can control it.” The days when books made up 90% of my possessions and I drafted long essays by hand are over. But those quotes still ring true to me. I miss the precision that speaking in my native tongue affords me.

Linguistic tyrant

No legs but lots of buttons

No legs but lots of buttons

Given that my daughter was born in Lebanon, people ask if she learnt Arabic in Beirut. Leaving when she was only 1 3/4 made that a bit difficult, especially as we each spoke to her in the language we grew up with, not Arabic. But just to show how much they can take in, very soon after we left Lebanon, she did surprise me by telling me “Sahtein mummy,” (or bon appetit) when she caught me chomping on a radish while making lunch. She now gives the customary response “3aelbak”… though if you tell her “Na3iman” after a bath, you sometimes get the same answer.

Since her brother was born she has also been telling him “Shou?” every time he starts fussing, something no-one has said to her for a long time. However she objected to her dad saying it. It turns out she thinks it’s mummy’s language since I was the one who fell into the habit of using it with her while we were in Lebanon. So she objected to him using it the way she objects to me accidentally dropping in French words to her. Ironic really, given that he’s the one fluent in Arabic.

In line with a tip I read before she was born, we didn’t bother using the terms English and French with her, we just referred to languages in terms such as “Mummy says car, Daddy says voiture.” Since she was 1 1/2 she has been distinguishing how daddy says it from how mummy says it and could tell us the equivalent.

Now though, at 2 1/4, she seems to have absorbed the terms “English” and “French” on her own, and told me the other day, while listening to our conversation, “Mummy talk in French to Daddy.” She even gets annoyed if she asks something in English, aimed at me, and her dad responds instead. Since she has to make a conscious choice whom she wants to address before even beginning to speak, I wonder if it makes dialogue that much more deliberate, leading to frustration if she’s decided she’s talking to mummy in mummy’s language but gets an answer in French from daddy. Or it could just be another aspect of these terrible twos which have fostered in her a burning desire to control all aspects of life, failing which she dissolves into angry tears. It’s not for nothing daddy calls her his “despote préféré.”

Express delivery


Delivery room

My parcel arrived last month. It came a couple of weeks early. I guess you could call it an express delivery. An hour and a half transit time in all. It wasn’t quite as planned. I wasn’t expecting it to be delivered by firemen for a start. My Beirut baby, who is suddenly no longer the baby at all, got to meet my Paris baby a few minutes after delivery, the two of us wrapped up in a space blanket, in a camion de pompier on the left bank just off the Esplanade des Invalides, where, back in some distant past I studied Flaubert and Zola, interspersed with translation techniques, phonetics and the basics of linguistics.

There was some kind of irony in giving birth so close to my student stamping ground. Nothing could be more different from that hazy era of academic indulgence than the thoroughly mundane world of spit-up, nappies and silly advice into which we’ve plunged once again.

Still, incurable pedagogue that I am, I can’t help analysing my offspring through linguistic glasses, especially as I try to understand what’s going on in my two-year old’s head. At least now I get some clues from the horse’s mouth. Last month for the first time she related to me something that happened when I wasn’t there. Or the first time I understood at least. Here’s the scoop: there was a bike on the grass, lying down, and her grandma stood it up. Not that impressive huh? Yet in a way it’s as big a step as learning to crawl. She actually told me about her day. It’s only when something like that happens out of the blue that you realise it was missing before and that a whole chunk of the language puzzle has just fallen into place.

Two is an incredible age to observe language acquisition, and she’s making leaps and bounds in both English and French. However, her English is still stronger, despite the summer spent here in France.

Now we’re a family of four, I’m all the more aware of the need to work to keep a balance for both languages. For now the oldest has been exposed to a linguistic one on one, but within a couple of years their dad could be outnumbered three to one, since if we leave France as planned she may end up speaking English only with her little brother. For now, though, she speaks to him in both languages, and even a smattering of Lebanese (more on that next time). Let’s hope he’s listening.

The dead of August

Nothing says a French city in the summer like the sound of suitcases being wheeled out of doors, bumped down steps and along pavements in the early hours. The town empties with remarkable efficiency. Half the shops close for the month of July, the other half close for the month of August. The half that do open, open halfheartedly, getting little done and closing early. In winter, it’s a lively provincial town with competition for custom. In summer it’s a sleepy village. When nothing useful can be done in town, it doesn’t matter. A château together with its gardens, lakes and geese happens to lie directly alongside the main shopping street. We drift over the cobblestones from one empty film set to the other, from the deserted village to the fairytale castle. We feed the fish with yesterday’s baguette, spot herons and watch the lime tree seeds twirl through the lazy hazy afternoon. If you really know France well you’ll have me on a map by now. In any case, it’s good respite from the extra paperwork generated by moving here and there. Not that form-filling and photocopying can really be classed as action. Not like what’s happening where we’ve come from. And frankly the action taking place in the Levant right now… let’s just say I’m glad to be out of the loop. I’m glad that the kicking, squirming baby inside me isn’t kept company by the squirm of fear in my gut. I glimpse lengthening rows of dead, far away on the other side of a screen. I lose count of the number of euphemisms for war, hear the cascade of poised, planned outcry, and go back to watching the lime tree seeds on their gentle descent through the air. The suitcase wheels are coming back, a little slower than when they left, but they are all coming back. It’s a new year in a French city.