About three months ago I finally worked up the courage to begin speaking French to Charlotte more consistently (at least a little bit every day) and outside of the home. Since we spend SO.MUCH.TIME. outside of our house, this has made an enormous difference in both Charlotte’s language acquisition and my own vocabulary.
Toddlers, after all, do not limit conversations simply because you cannot pronounce or remember a word. They don’t stop throwing sand while you fumble around looking for the words to say KNOCK IT OFF, BONEHEAD. (Only, you know, NICER.) And damn it, they want their answers now. Not in five minutes after you’ve had a chance to Google the hell out of beavers in French. RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND, MOTHER.
Of course, it has also made apparent the glaringly obvious places where my French is lacking. One of the strange truths about learning a foreign language as an adult is that your vocabulary is COMPLETELY different from that of a small child. I can exchange frivolous pleasantries until the cows come home – how the weather is and weekend bar-hopping and dude that guy is hot and do you happen to have a recipe for whatever you made for dinner last night? because it smelled delicious.
But when Charlotte was toilet-training, I had to consult a dictionary to translate ‘poop.’
It turns out that ‘poop’ is a super vital word in the parenting of a toddler. WHO KNEW?
Donald was on a business trip recently and from the minute he stepped aboard the airplane to the minute he stepped off, I spoke exclusively French to Charlotte. It was hard. I haven’t spoken that much French in years. My accent is stronger now than it was before and I hear myself make stupid mistakes because my mouth no longer takes orders from my brain. My jaw ached from making sounds I’m no longer accustomed to saying and my brain ached from trying to remember phrases I’m no longer accustomed to thinking about.
But the worst of it was that THAT was the week we ran into a native French speaker who ridiculed me for trying.
Over the past two years, I’ve run into a handful of Francophones and they have always said the same thing. Keep speaking French to your daughter, they say, because it’s better for her to become bilingual with a non-native speaker than not at all.
But this person just laughed. He mocked my accent and he insulted me on the grounds that my kid would speak French ‘comme un ogre’ (like an ogre) because I’m not a native-speaker. Furthermore, he claimed that I am causing her emotional harm by not talking to Charlotte exclusively in English. She will never feel safe communicating with me again, he said.
I am generally a very confident woman. Maybe TOO confident. Complete strangers comment on my self-assurance with some frequency, the same way that they might comment on a nice shirt or beautiful eyes. But when that man laughed at me, I felt VERY self-conscious. For the first time in years, I really questioned my beliefs and my goals. I wondered if I’ve been deluding myself thinking that a non-native speaker could pass on a language. I worried about every French word that came out of my mouth. Am I saying it properly? How awful IS my accent? Am I screwing her up? Is this a mistake? I expose her to native-speakers, but is that not enough?
Having enough conviction in my beliefs about the value of a second language to persist despite difficulties, despite self-doubt, and despite rude strangers is absolutely the hardest part about passing along a non-native language. But in the end I doubled up and buckled down. The only thing I can do to prove that man wrong is to ensure that Charlotte speaks beautiful French in spite of me.
If there’s one thing you can say about me, it’s that I’m even more stubborn than I am cocky.
Next entry: Great-grandparents.
Previous entry: C is also for: Catch up, Momma, you're eating my dust.