This experiment was a one-sided affair until a few months ago, when my then 16-month-old son, Theo, smiled and uttered his first word: tétine.
Tétine is French for “pacifier.” To my American ears, the word seems too sleek to describe something a toddler sticks in his mouth. It sounds more like a piece of jewelry worn by someone’s mistress (surely there is a French word for that?), or a speedy little convertible perfect for driving on the winding roads along the Cote d’Azur.
I was taken aback when he said it. I was fairly certain that my choice to speak mostly French at home, even though Theo hears English nearly everywhere else, would result in, at best, a fondness for the song “Frere Jacques.” At worst, I imagined linguistic confusion that could last well into kindergarten, rendering Theo unable to articulate the world’s most important question, “Where’s the bathroom?” in any language.
I was pleasantly surprised that one of his first words was French, and not just a phrase like “crème brûlée” or “Gérard Depardieu” that an American might casually utter in the course of conversation.
But what if the language you speak with your children isn’t your native language? I am not French, and all teenage fantasies to the contrary were crushed on my first day as an exchange student at a Grenoble lycée. In the way you might immediately recognize a yeti if one wandered into your campsite, the French kids clocked me as une Américaine from a mile, or rather a kilometer, away.
I speak French with an American accent, I’ve been told. My grammar isn’t perfect and my vocabulary is full of holes. I speak in the manner that my Minnesota high school French teacher taught me: with a textbook formality that means I am very good at talking about the weather and discussing what hypothetical French people named Paulette and Jean-Baptiste might pack for a picnic at the beach. But there are important subjects that remain beyond my grasp.
For example, I recently took Theo for a routine checkup. A young medical student accompanied the pediatrician, and asked if he could lead me through the standard developmental questions.
Yes, Theo was turning the pages of books, matching lids with containers, shaking his head “no” and, to my mild horror, climbing stairs.
The doctor chimed in: Was I also naming body parts, so that Theo could learn to refer to them?
“Yes, pretty much,” I said, but even a lie by omission seemed unethical.
The medical student raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t know the French word for penis,” I admitted.
“Oh,” the pediatrician said. She put her hand up to her mouth to stifle a yawn, or maybe it was a laugh.
That seemed weird, so I tried to clarify. “When I was an exchange student there, it was just never a word I needed to learn.”
“Ah,” the medical student said. One corner of his mouth was quivering now.
“But obviously I will look it up. I’ll Google it tonight.”
He shook his head like this was a bad idea. “You might just want to put it into a French translation website,” he offered. “If you Googled that, you might get more than you bargained for.”
“Or you could just say ‘penis’” the pediatrician said, “since Theo understands English too.”
Was my attempt to teach Theo French a fruitless attempt to vicariously live near the Mediterranean rather than the Midwest? And more importantly, was Theo even learning French? The word tétine aside, this seemed unclear.
My friend Anna, who spent the first half of her childhood in St. Petersburg and the second in Brooklyn, gave me fair warning: like her son, who understands Russian but generally responds in English, my French conversations with Theo would remain primarily one-sided. Tantrums, for example, would definitely be conducted in English.
That gave me pause. I imagined us shouting across the gaping abyss of the Atlantic. If I said pommes de terre, he’d say potato. Frites would remain french fries.
Also, when my limited French vocabulary fails me, I sometimes switch to English for words like “thunder,” promising myself I’ll look them up later. Or, even worse, I imprecisely paraphrase the meaning in French: “thunder” became la pluie qui fait un bruit fort, which means “rain that makes a loud noise.”
When I commit these acts of approximation or substitution in public, I look furtively over my shoulder, convinced that an emissary of the French language police is waiting in the shadows to correct me.
Yet the research suggests such anxieties are unfounded. According to the Linguistic Society of America, bilingual children often mix words from both languages. It’s called code-switching, and apparently these kids don’t, as I feared, get confused.
Despite the fact that I was studying grammar in a French class for three hours each week, I was still getting frustrated with my frequent mistakes. For example, I was mortified to realize that when I’d been asking Theo if he wanted to give his stuffed giraffe a kiss good night (Veux-tu baiser la giraffe bonne nuit?) I’d been inadvertently saying something that, in English, would be unprintable in this newspaper.
My American schoolbook French was to blame: the word I learned for “to kiss” was baiser. While it meant exactly that in the 1940s — you might even use the verb to describe kissing the pope’s hand back then — these days, it’s not a word you’d utter to the pope.
This was dispiriting. Yet just as I was about to jeter l’éponge (in France, they “throw the sponge” when they’re about to pack it in, rather than “throw in the towel”), Theo began to name creatures in his story books. Hibou (owl). Papillon (butterfly). Éléphant (you know). There was a dhole in one of his books about baby animals, but I didn’t know what that was, and wasn’t sure it belonged in a children’s book. After looking it up, I found out that a dhole, in French, is also a dhole in English, which seemed strangely philosophical.
And in the end, isn’t that one of the most compelling reasons to teach a child another language? To open their eyes — and ears — to the wonderful strangeness of the world?
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