Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mummy-talk in a Second Language

Jacques and I were brought up in villages and our childhoods were very simple. You either played in your own garden with your siblings or popped round to play with other kids. You could stay for tea and no-one would bother, and you went home when it was getting late. But thirty years on all that has changed and playing with other kids is timetabled, along with the other after-school activities. You therefore need to ‘network’ other class mothers and work out what day their children are free. I have had to do a crash course in ‘second-language-mummy-talk’ to get by.

The French mothers don’t know anything about me (they are very curious) and on the first official get-together I have to go through the whole thing in French…. where I am from, where we live now, how many kids we have, which class and teacher, why I put kids in French school, what my husband does and even where we are going for the next holiday. When I have got through all that there is the confidential mummy chat….what do you really think about the teacher and have you heard about so-and-so who had an affair…. After emerging from the home a French neighbor, who offered me a coffee when I arrived to pick up Gabriel and interrogated me for 40 minutes, I felt like I was 16 again and taking my oral exam in French. I just need a certificate in ‘mummy-talk’ now!


With a newly installed wifi system at home the children can use a spare computer downstairs. I hope that having more access to the internet might inspire them to read and write more in English. But we discover that having two languages can sometimes complicate computer literacy. Marc and Nina ask for email accounts, and I register them with same free email provider as me. But no, they don’t want the English-language version, they want the French one. So we sign on with the French language network. We need to create a username. Marc, follows the French pattern, where surnames come first, and chooses ‘hauwaertmarc’, while Nina goes for the other way round ‘ninahauwaert’. Secret passwords are the next step. Marc chooses an English word, saying that no French person would guess it. Nina picks her rabbit’s birthday. I tap the passwords in and ask them to re-type them. There’s a brief glitch as Nina retypes French ‘mai’ instead of my English ‘May’. ‘Does it matter?’ says bilingual Nina, ‘It’s the same word.’ The computer disagrees with her and says no.

I sit with them as they write their first email, but the instructions in the French email inbox are totally unfamiliar for me, supprimer, brouillon….the only word I recognize is poubelle (trash). I feel out of my depth since it barely resembles my email inbox. We struggle along setting up the address book. Marc dictates an address saying, which makes no sense to me and I write Jean Luc Arroba twice until I realize that arroba means the @ sign in French. We try to compose a brief message to my dad in England. Then we hit another problem. They use AZERTY keyboards at school, but we have a QWERTY one at home.

Marc and Nina are painfully slow with the QWERTY one, desperately searching for the full-stop, exclamation and question marks, which have mysteriously ‘moved’ and shouting, ‘Mummy, there’s no A on your computer!’ Their typing skills are so horrifically bad even my spellchecker goes on strike and asks if I want to install a French one. Left to their own devices they prefer phonetic spellings or text abbreviations. My dad nearly got “How R U? Im OK. Skool gud.’ After a frustrating half hour composing an email they tell me that emailing is boring, and I should set up Skype so they can chat to Grandpa via the computer. Even if emails are not for them, they can surf and flick from site to site with speed. I admire them googling sets of keywords in French and English, comfortable and confident in either linguistic zone.