Friday, April 27, 2007

Bilingual Support

Having two days free, with Gabriel at school, meant I could set up a Bilingual Support Group at the ibu association’s house. At the same time I was asked to do a talk about Bilingualism at the Alliance Francaise in KL.

This was to be a bigger more formal talk than the last one I had done. The Director asked me to do a PowerPoint presentation lasting about an hour, followed by questions. ‘In which language?’ I asked. ‘Well, if we do it in French our students won’t understand it all, and I think most French expats understand English, so can you do both?’ I agreed that it would be a shame if the beginner students could not follow, but then a dual language talk would be a) too long if I had to say everything twice, b) daunting for me to do a simultaneous translation. I had never spoken in public in French and did feel comfortable in a formal situation. In the end we decided to do the talk in English, but with an on-screen translation for French speakers and handouts in both languages. That seemed acceptable. I took the basic themes of the book and edited them to simple one or two sentences for the PowerPoint. My French friend, Odile, translated it into French for me, adding all those dammed accents and Chinese-hats that I would have forgotten, and making it fit beautifully to my text.

A week before I had a mild panic that nobody would come and sent out emails and sms’s to everyone I knew. The French school handed out invites, noting the importance of learning more about Bilingualism. Although it was a rainy Thursday night around thirty people came, including most of my KL friends, filling up the room with their pre-talk chatter and cheering me on. Most people were English-speakers with a French connection, and several parents and teachers came from the French school. We sold many books afterwards and with the glass of free wine, provided by the Alliance Francaise, people stayed late to discuss, compare stories and chat.

Suzanne's Talk on Bilingualism

From that came the spin-off Bilingual Support Group, which began in March. The monthly meeting had a theme, such as Mixing, The Early Years, Parent’s Roles and Trilingualism. The group was a wonderful mix of languages, stories and experience. Mothers told of problems with husbands who refused to let them use their first language, teachers who had banned on language, children who were mixing, had delayed speech or could not speak to their grandparents. I gave advice as needed, and also urged the group to give solutions as well. This worked well as two German mothers passed on information on German-speaking playgroups, or the Malaysian mothers advised how where to buy books or DVD’s in foreign languages. Seeing the relief on their faces as they saw they were not the only ones struggling with bilingualism or multilingualism was very moving for me. I was delighted to give them handouts, suggest books or websites and help them find their way through the early years of Bilingualism. The third Tuesday of the month, when I did my talk, was soon my favourite day of the month.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Gabriel goes to school

Gabriel was growing fast, now two years old and beginning to find his place in the family. His sunny personality and big smile still attracted passersby to stop and talk to him, but he knew how to upset his siblings and get his own way at home. He began to talk, a little, and was secure in his world of parents, big brother and sister and adoring maid, Aimee. His days were easy, a late breakfast on the balcony, followed by either a English or French-language playgroup or accompanying me to the mall, lunch with me or the maid, a long nap and then fun when the big ones came home at three when we went to the pool or to play outside.

One Friday in January at the playgroup he had brought along a toy elephant, and another boy began to play with it. In a split second Gabriel sunk his sharp little teeth into Daniel’s arm. As the other mothers gasped at the bleeding wound and bruise I had no idea what to do. Marc and Nina had never bitten. I couldn’t believe he could be so violent. I apologized to the mother, gathered up Gabriel and ran off. As Gabriel grumbled he had not had his snack I drove home fast with tears in my eyes. I knew I would never return to that playgroup. Later after talking to friends I decided he was either bored or needed some social training and my neighbour recommended a local English-language Montessori school where both her boys attended.

Although we had thought Gabriel would go to the French school when he was two and a half or three years old we decided to try out two or three days a week, and stop the playgroups that he would soon be banned from. I was getting bored with the social networking, endless chats about toilet-training and fussy eaters anyway. The Malaysian school year starts in January so he was able to start immediately. The school was run by Malaysian Miss.Tim, who seemed to genuinely love her job. The school was a rather scruffy house on a busy street in the suburb of Bangsar. It was not the green oasis I had hoped, but they had a slide and climbing frame, bikes to ride, and a white rabbit in the playground. Although the school was officially following the Montessori method the academic side was low-key. Some Asian schools pushed children to read and write at a very young age, which was something we did not want.

Gabriel’s evolving strong character was noticed by Miss.Tim in the first week. She told me he refused to sleep upstairs with the others for a nap, instead he brought his little mattress downstairs and slept next to Miss. Tim’s office. With his school uniform and backpack he looked much older and I felt rather weepy dropping off Gabriel at school. I felt nostalgic for our lazy days when he was a baby and the dawning realization that soon all my children would be in school and I would have to find something worthwhile to do all day!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

My husband is French too!

A new group of friends had formed around New Year. In Marc’s class a new girl called Eva had arrived. Eva was half Scottish and half-French, her father worked as a top pastry chef in the Hilton. Nina had made friends with a new girl in her class, Elodie, who was a beautiful mix of Phillipino mother and French father, who also worked as a top pastry chef at the Shanghri-La hotel in KL. Thinking they would have something in common I introduced Scottish Hilary and Phillipino Maribeth to each other at a school event.

Maribeth then introduced us to Youssy, an Indonesian woman also married to a French pastry chef, with a boy in maternelle. Maribeth was studying French with Sasi (or Mem) a Thai lady married, naturally, to a Frenchman, who had a boy in Nina’s class. We then met Yuen-chi, who had been one of the Vietnamese boat-people as a child and lived in Canada, married to a Frenchman and had a daughter the same age as Nina and Elodie. Our last member of the group was Audrey, who was a Chinese heritage Malaysian with French hubby and a daughter a year younger than Nina in the French school.

Although it was a diverse mix, Scottish, English, Phillipino, Indonesian, Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese/Canadian, we bonded quickly. They had all lived abroad before in places as diverse as Dubai, Korea or America, and we usually moved every two years so we knew we must make friends fast before time ran out. Very quickly the group became a regular weekly fixture. We began having coffee together and comparing notes on our class teachers and the French school. Once a month we would eat at one of our houses, Maribeth was famous for her spring rolls, Sasi her spicy soups or I would make a quiche and salad. The group then graduated to sampling the posh hotel lunch buffets (with discount because the father worked there), or meting up in twos or threes to try out local Thai, Japanese or Malaysian restaurants. We even did Girls Night Outs, sipping cocktails or watching a band in the hotels.

We had a certain camaraderie, a safety in numbers against the stuck-up French-French families, that we all disliked, and we would welcome each other with smiles at the school gates. At school events it was wonderful to arrive at a class show or cultural event and find one of the group had saved me a seat. Six or eight people seems to be the ideal number for a group, and we could pair off or meet as a trio without any rivalry or hurt feelings. Although I felt closest to Hilary in character, I enjoyed greatly Sasi and Maribeth’s company.

However there were certain days when I felt split between my group and making efforts with the French. At one class coffee morning the maman’s split linguistically. I was in the middle, torn between talking in English (to Sasi and Maribeth and Yuen-Chi) or speaking French to the French mothers. We all had a few French friends through our children, and we took pride in them and tried hard to maintain contacts with ‘Friendly French’. However in a crisis we knew who to turn too. We were there for each other, when we felt homesick or when we didn’t understand the homework, when our kids got bad reports or our French husbands drove us crazy!