Tag Archives: teaching your child a foreign language

Day of the Dog

It was just before the holidays that I started to really take stock of my child’s vocabulary. Honestly, I was starting to get worried that he was behind in his language skills. Of course that would’ve been totally normal given that he’s being talked to in three languages on any given day. But still. I was worried that he was noticeably behind.

As it turns out, he’s progressing like any mono-lingual kid at this point. And by that I mean he’s totally soaking anything and everything in. While not everything he utters is intelligible, at 20 months, he’s really trying to repeat (to varying degrees of success) everything that is said. And that is really fun–and a little scary when you actually start to realize all the adult language that you are still using even though you don’t think you are.

But the coolest thing for me this week was that baby now has two words in two different languages for the same object–that object being our dog. Baby’s second word after gato (cat in Spanish) was chien, or dog in French. And that’s what he’s been calling a dog for months now. Until this week when we went to the dog park. As he was running around, chasing all the various mutts, he started yelling out, “Doggies! Doggies!” It floored me because no one in our house says doggies. I suspect it’s something he’s picked up watching television at the nanny’s, but I can’t be sure.

But the interesting thing to me is that, at 20 months old, he understands that doggy and chien mean the same thing. Althought it sort of seems like he’s using doggies to refer to multiple dogs and chien to refer to a single dog. (As an aside–that’s the other thing that’s new in terms of development for him; he can now pick the image of a dog or a cat out of a book or off TV.) But all the same, I’m fascinated by the fact that he’s somewhat grasped the concept of a synonym.

I don’t know if that represents a major milestone in multilingual development or not. I clearly haven’t ready enough books to make me knowledgeable about what I should be doing much less an expert in doing it. It does seem like it should be. But even if it’s not, it’s cause enough for some age-appropriate celebration around our house.

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The Art of Double Talk

My plan had always been to raise my son bilingual–French and English. I was going to handle the French (along with my mom, Mimi) and dad and everyone else would take care of the English. What I never factored in was an equal parts adorable and fantastic Salvadoran nanny.

After I pulled the trigger on hiring our nanny, one of her big initial questions was whether it was okay if she spoke Spanish to our son. I am very open to other cultures and super supportive of anything that would enrich my son in that respect, so I don’t think she even finished her sentence without saying, “Yes!” Selfishly, I also figured it would be a decent way for me to dust some of the cobwebs off of my high school Spanish.

I have zero regrets about my decision, but the results (so far) have been surprising to say the very least. Surprising is a lame word to use, but it’s hard to find a word that can capture the full range of amazement, excitement, joy, and even a little heartbreak that I’ve felt as our son has started to develop his language skills in earnest.

Baby’s first word–other than mom-mom-mom, which I don’t attribute to any specific language–was gato. Yup, Spanish for cat. There are a couple of weird things about that. First, I had thought for sure his first word would’ve been in French. After all, baby spends about three afternoons a week on average with the nanny and the rest of the time he’s parler-ing with me. Second, our cats don’t really hang out with us. Mostly because of the large dog we have added to our family. Most of the time they like to hang out in their lair in the basement, choosing to be little more than an occasional meow from the stairwell. So, how gato came out of his little mouth, I don’t know.

It made me a little sad. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy, too. Baby’s first words are baby’s first words! But somehow it felt a little like I had failed–and we hadn’t even really started yet. As stupid as it sounds, I wondered if my child loved his nanny more, if he had more fun with her, and if she was a better teacher than I was turning out to be.

Fortunately I was redeemed (and the dog, too) not too long afterward when the wee one decided that his second word would be chien. I felt like we were back in the game.

It’s a silly way to look at it. I’m just happy that our kid is learning. And I’m thrilled that he’s truly becoming multilingual. True, he’s likely going to be totally confused for awhile. And I might be, too. I’m hearing the French and the Spanish, but if he’s trying to say something in English, I’m not hearing it. I thought for a minute the other day he was trying to say “thank you,” but it wasn’t clear enough to be sure. So who knows when the English will kick in.

So, as our son rounds the corner to the 18-month mark, here’s a tally of his first words:

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Building a Bilingual Baby

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”:

Très amusant

 

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Filed under bilingual baby, childrens books, foreign language, reading