I may not be first (or even second generation) American, but I grew up in a bilingual family.
Well, to be more specific, my mom, a high school French teacher and Francophile through and through, had the harebrained idea that even though we weren’t one bit French she would teach me French by only speaking to me in French as a child. Of course, this plan only went into effect with me, so no one else in my family spoke French but me and my mom. So maybe “family” is a bit of an exaggeration.
The problem with this whole idea was that she spoke to me in French, and while I understood it, I was completely embarrassed by it for one reason or another and always responded to her in English. Why she never forced me to respond in French I have no idea, but I really wish she would have.
So, now I’m the mommy in this scenario and I’ve got a baby that I desperately want to not only speak French as well as I do (or even grandma) but better. But how do I turn that dream into reality? So far I’ve come up with a four-prong plan:
First, I only speak to him in French. From the first “Bonjour, Bébé” in the morning to the last “Bonne nuit, Bébé” at night, we’re speaking frog or we’re not speaking at all.
Second, I joined this mommy group that a friend forwarded me through MeetUp.com called Bonjour, Les Amis. The group is for mommies with infants (<5 yrs old) who want their babies to learn French. Although I was totally mortified by the fact that I had to find friends via the Internet, I love this group. I don’t know everyone yet, as they meet several times a week and I’m lucky if I can squeeze in one rendezvous, but the Friday regulars are fantastic. I think what I really like is that everyone’s kids are close in age and that the mommies’ language skills are all about the same, so you can get into some good conversation. Of course, at this point, this playgroup is all about the mommies wanting to speak French, but the more the wee ones hear other people speaking it as well, I think the higher the chances that they will not do what I did and refuse to speak French because it’s different than what their friends at school speak.
Third, I aim to take to baby to France (or other French-speaking countries) as much as possible, which I hope is at least once a year.
Fourth, I support his oral development in French by reading to him in French as well as English. This means having lots and lots of books in French and reading some of them to him every night. Sounds simple enough, but it’s a challenge to get good quality books in French here in the States. The Canadian portal to amazon.com offers some selection, but I now consider it a travel perk to spend a half hour in a foreign bookstore picking out French children’s books.
Take my latest trip to Chamonix, for example. Besides the scarves I brought home as gifts for my mother-in-law, nanny, and cleaning lady (and me!), the only other souvenirs I brought home were some baby clothes and baby books, the latter which made my suitcase very heavy on the way back, incidentally. But I couldn’t resist. Why?
First, I’ve always been a sucker for books. My grandmother used to take me on shopping sprees–to the bookstore. There she would buy me as many books as I could carry. (I loved that.) Second, I don’t want baby’s entire library to just be filled with translations of English books. (Although I really love that I have Goodnight Moon and Guess How Much I Love You in both English and French.)
And third, how can I say no to books that are absolutely adorable? Take for example, this one called Poux by Stephanie Blake. It’s the story of Simon who loves Lou, who in turn loves Mamadou. That is until Lou catches lice–poux–and Mamadou says he’s through but Simon’s love shines true. And that gives you an idea of how the book is written–completely in these beautiful, little, sing-song-y rhymes about Lou and her lice.
But for as much as I love the love story, I’m infatuated with Pomelo et les contraires by Ramona Badescu and Bejamin Chaud. It’s a simple book, all about opposites, with an adorable elephant as the main character. The book covers all the basics–high, low; left, right; near, far; open, shut–but the illustrations are what totally make the book. The illustrator definitely had a sense of humor because some of the interpretations of these opposite pairs are hilarious. Point in case, this one about “inside” and “outside”: