Sunday, December 14, 2008

At last, a Foreign Language!

In collège Marc can learn a Foreign Language. Marc never had any choice about learning English and French. When people say how lucky he is to speak two Foreign Languages so easily he must wonder what they mean. It was no fun for him - especially with two parents who were determined that he would speak each language to a high standard. Poor Marc was the first child and the guinea-pig of the family. Right from day one he was blasted with English from his mother (and all her family) and French from Papa (and all his family). There was never any other option than to speak both languages. It’s not that he is ungrateful for the languages we chose for him; he just would have liked a choice in the matter.

Now age eleven years and eight months, he has a real choice at last. English is obligatory all through the four years of collège, but there is an option for a second language starting in the first year. This is where Marc has his wish come true. On the menu is German, Latin or Spanish. Marc discusses each language seriously and meticulously, questioning us on which one we think is the easiest, which one is useful, and which one will help him in the future. He picks German in the end. Jacques is happy since he speaks excellent German. In fact, his mother fought to get a German class established twenty years ago in the same school, rallying round parents to give the children more choice.

The German class is small and is run via webcam, so the teacher can cover four schools at the same time. I am a bit skeptical about this futuristic set-up, but the kids accept it as normal. Talking to the microphone or the camera has become second nature. It is a delight to see Marc saying ‘Ich bin Marc!’ and chanting ‘ein, zwei, drei…’ He is fascinated by the differences and the similarities between English, French and this new language. He is amazed that German has an extra letter (the ‘ss’ sound or ß) and that they use capital letters for so many nouns and enjoys the lack of pressure to become fluent and the slow pace of learning that beginners can indulge in. Watching him enthusiastically tackle his German homework I am glad that finally language learning is fun…

Low Marks in English

Marc is now in collège (French equivalent of secondary school/high school) and studies by subject now. Madame P. has been teaching English for at least 17 years (she taught my husband when he was at the same school!). You might think that she would be proud that one of her ex-pupils married an English girl, works for an English-language company and now has bilingual children. However, she doesn’t seem quite so happy to see the name ‘Hauwaert’ again.

The term started badly when she played a little ice-breaker game (as she always does). Each child’s name was Anglicized, to get the kids in the mood, so Francois became Frank and Amandine was Amanda. Half the class had a name that existed in both languages (Julie, Charlotte, Sarah, Thomas, Kevin to name but a few) which she could not do much about. Perhaps lacking suitable translations, due to French parents picking Anglophone names, she made the fatal error of re-naming Marc ‘Mark’. This is a sensitive issue, one he has battled with since he was four and started writing his name in an English school. He hates it mis-spelled and valiantly defends ‘Marc’ as an ‘English’ name too, saying it exists in America and England. But Madame P. firmly corrects his namecard.

Marc/Mark is furious and goes out of his way to correct her English expressions and criticize her choice of ‘baby songs’ for the French students to learn. For a dictation exercise he titles it ‘Too-Easy Dictation’ and sloppily answers as if he can’t be bothered. The level is so low he could do it with his eyes closed, he says. So at the Parents Meeting when I mentioned that Marc was somewhat bored she waved his exam paper at me, saying ‘Look, he only got 17.5 out of 20!! He can’t even spell Wednesday’. I agreed that Marc makes silly spelling/grammatical mistakes and told her that he is rapidly losing interest in the subject (an emotional issue as this is my language we are talking about). I asked what she could do to help. Madame P. said he could skip the workbook, and ‘help’ the other students. But assisting the beginner-level French students has lost any interest to him and he says he feels uncomfortable ‘teaching’ his classmates. What he needs is spelling and challenging reading, not singing ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes…’

A week later Madame P agrees to give him more written classwork and moves him out for two ‘extra’ language sessions a week, along with the other four fluently bilingual kids in his year, who are also bored and sat sniggering in the back row. After a few hours of intensive study of the passé simple and English grammar exercises they are soon wishing they were back in Easy English again! These extra sessions are thankfully done with an English native teacher, Mrs. G, who is there to support the bilingual kids in their dual language use. She knows all about their unique combination of confident verbal skills and dreadful spelling. He finally has a teacher tuned to his needs and, most importantly, one who always calls him Marc…

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Language gaps

The other day we went out for a family bike ride. Jacques has just taught Gabriel to ride. He is enthusiastic and desperate to ride on a real road. Jacques goes first, followed by Marc, Nina, Gabriel and me at the end (presumably to pick up any children who might fall off). It all goes well until we set off down a hill and Gabriel picks up speed. Too much speed though, and he starts rapidly overtaking the others. I call out ‘Gabs, brake a little!’ He calls back ‘Break what??’ I reply, breathlessly, ‘Brake…the bike.’ ‘Break my bike? Why, Mummy???’ and he starts looking behind, rather dangerously, to see what I am talking about. ‘Brake, NOW!!!’ I shout, getting nervous as he spins his wheels. ‘Break my leg? Break my head? Break my arms!’ he sings, with no fear in his mind. One little bump on the road and he will be in the hedge, with a broken arm or leg.

I mentally imagine the trip to the local hospital. As I think, in French, how I will explain the accident to the doctor (‘I told him to brake and he ignored me!’) it hits me that maybe he doesn’t know what brake means. He only knows frien, which Jacques taught him, naturally. I never got to explain the English translation. But this is no time to start translating. If I mispronounce frien or put it in an English sentence he might not understand. It sounds a bit like Friend and that might distract him. If I talk to him in French he will be surprised and might turn around to ask me why I am speaking French. Default language use eventually comes into action, my brain automatically finding a linguistic solution.

‘STOP!!!!’ I scream. That works. He stops. We all stop. Everyone understands Stop.
‘Nothing broken!’ smiles Gabriel ‘Why did you say break, Mummy?’

Ah, the joys of parenting in two languages!!

Down on the farm…

On a recent long car journey to our holiday destination I suggested an easy game that all three children could play. It was called ‘Guess the Animal’. One person had to make an animal sound and the others guess what kind of animal it was. Gabriel had just visited a farm recently with the school, and learnt the names of animals in both languages. They could use either French or English when they answered. But we soon found out that all animals don’t always speak the same language…

Marc went first. ‘Scrontch-scrontch, groin groin…’ he said. The children quickly identified it as a pig. ‘How can that be!’ I said from the front seat. ‘A pig goes oink oink, like the pig called Babe in that film.’ I was quickly out-voted.

Nina was next, she cooed ‘hulluh hullah...’ and it took a while for us to guess that it was an owl, not a pigeon as I predicted. ‘No way’ the boys protest. ‘An owl says Twit-tu-whoo- tu-whooh’.

Gabriel chose a donkey, most likely inspired by Winnie-the Pooh, and said: ‘Eeyore, eeyore’. Marc and Nina guessed correctly, but disputed this hotly, arguing that a donkey usually says ‘hi-han hi-han’.

We gave up on the game, since no-one could agree on which sound was ‘right’ and ran through all the animal noises in both languages. With the help of the French storybook we had in the car about a farmyard, where the noises are written down, and my childhood memories of English animal talk we compared notes. Down on the farm some fields of French and English animals would not be able to talk to each other. Did you know, for example, that an English sheep goes ‘baa baa’ while a French sheep goes bêêêê? A duck in London would naturally say ‘quack quack!’ while its cousin in Paris says coin coin. A tiny chick would go ‘cheep cheep’ in Manchester, and piou piou in Normandy. Thankfully, cats miao, dogs woof, cows moo, and hens cluck in both countries.

Around the world there is whole orchestra of different ways of translating the same animal’s noise. For example, a male chicken, or cockerel, can ‘say’

Kho-kho-hou-hoûûû! (in Morocco)
Co-co-ri-co! (in France)
Cock-a doodle-doo! (in England)
Qui-qui-ri-qui! (in Spain)
Koké-ko-kôôô! (in Japan)

This is the kind of language use that you don’t see in a dictionary; or learn in a language school, it is often hidden in young children’s nursery songs or books. But it seems logical that a child attending pre-school or primary school would need to know the animal sounds in both languages or it could be very confusing. While this might all seem rather irrelevant in the wider scheme of helping your child become bilingual it is worth bearing in mind, especially if you plan to sing together the well-known children’s nursery rhyme ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm…’

Monday, June 02, 2008

We’re the only English in the village!

We live in a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere, and yet there are ten English families living near us. When we lived here seven years ago the only English I bumped into were retired couples who lived in their summer houses or eccentric hippies looking for a different lifestyle. I used to meet them at the recycling depot or wandering hopelessly around the supermarket looking for ginger biscuits.

Now we have an influx of young families. Many choose remote rural areas, with houses they can renovate. Families who move out here take a huge risk, the country life can be lonely and there is no English-language school available. It’s hard for the children, thrown into the strict French educational system. The parents are optimistic and keen to immerse the family in French cultural life. Before signing the papers to their houses they imagine chatting over the fence to their French neighbours and speaking perfect French in just a few months with their new friends over an aperitif.

In reality, their best friends tend to be English. The numbers of English residents has sky-rocketed in five years. There are estimated to be around 400,000 British families in France. In the English café in the local town I browse the monthly newsletters offering English plumbers, carpenters, gardeners…A whole community has materialized to meet their needs. The supermarket has an International section now (baked beans, HP sauce, Tetley’s tea-bags…) and the staff speak English these days.

In the local village school Marc and Nina attend (four classes, three teachers and sixty-six pupils) there are seven English kids. That’s nearly 10%. The seven kids naturally talk English together, even though they are all bilingual. Except in class where English in banned. So far, the linguistic balance is working and the seven English-speaking kids make efforts to play with the French children and integrate through after-school activities. Marc and Nina have friends from both cultures and translate when needed. But in the secondary school I hear that 20% of the kids are English. They have become a separate group and rarely socialize with French kids.

What do the locals think about it? French mothers are happy for their kids to play with the English kids after school (free language lessons!) But furious at the prices the English pay for a country house. There is a distinct feeling that the numbers are getting too high and anti-English comments can be heard all around. The teachers hate teaching English as a Second Language (part of the curriculum) to the English kids, who laugh at their pronunciation.

On the English side some of the parents were rather annoyed to have yet another ‘English’ family join the class when we arrived. One mother, who has been living in our village for four years, was furious to have lost her status as the Only Brit in the Village. There’s the unspoken fear that the English kids will not bother learning French or make any French friends if there are too many of them. This is the case in many countries where, once numbers get too large, an internal community is formed.

Who do you want to win?

We are not a sporting family, but there are some major sporting events, like the World Cup or the Olympics, where you can’t help wanting your country to win. But being a dual-nationality family we are sometimes split on which team we support. When I hear the British anthem being sung, or see Prince William and Henry in the crowd, I can’t help but join in with the chorus of God save the Queen! Seeing the England team run out makes me want to get out the English flag. Jacques has the same effect when he hears the patriotic La Marseillaise.

Which team should our children support? Mummy’s or Papa’s country? It’s tense in our house when it’s an England v France game. There’s always someone who asks the children who do you want to win? England and France are often come head-to-head in the last few matches of an international tournament. In general, Marc and Nina support France, while Gabriel and I are cheering for England (this could be linked to Gabriel having an England football strip that he wears for all sporting events). Should I feel let-down that two of my children don’t support my country? Sport is, after all, about bonding and feeling part of a team or a nation. They live in France now and at school hear kids talking about famous French sporting celebrities.

Luckily there are some players who are admired by both countries. David Beckham. Eric Cantona. Thierry Henry. The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, and five players (who are French, so Marc informs me). French rugby player, Sébastien Chabal, plays for a club in England, even though he cried in public when England beat France in the semi-finals of the Six Nations competition.

Even though we play to win we’ll happily swap sides when our team is knocked out of the game. At the recent Rugby competition last October, when England famously kicked out France in the semi-finals, we all cheered for England in the following match. I would have done the same for France. I was weepy when France lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup.

That leaves the intriguing question – if one or more of our children was really talented at a sport which country would they play for?

Monday, May 19, 2008

A new direction!

The story of our life continues, but in the meantime I will be posting the Quarterly column that I write for the Bilingual Family Newsletter Notes From the OPOL Family (One-parent-one-language). The OPOL Family stories are real-life tales of being an English/French family, previously living in Malaysia, now in rural France. My three children, Marc (11), Nina (9) and Gabriel (5) read the columns and often add in their thoughts of amusing comments.

I've been writing this column for nearly four years now, covering subjects such as how to explain to your child, who's lost a tooth, whether it's the French mouse or the English Tooth fairy who drops coins under your pillow to how to deal with two religons and two different Mother's Days!

Please feel free to comment on the OPOL Family column, either via this blog or by email: Some of your comments may be edited used in future editions of the Bilingual Family Newsletter.

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert

Author of Language Strategies for Bilingual Families: The one-parent-one-langauge approach