Bilingualism at one, or thirty-two

french baby book page

I’ve learned an important fact over the course of the last few months: English sounds are inferior to French sounds. Consider the English horse, which says “neigh”. The French horse, on the other hand, says “hiiiii” (pronounced “heeeeee”) which is loads more horsey, especially when said in the requisite shaky horse voice, front hooves (or arms) pedaling in the air. The English rooster says cockadoodledoo, which conjures up the creepy image of a chicken in a waistcoat and a foot in its pocket. Its French counterpart says “cocorico” which is much more satisfying. Then there’s “ribbit” versus “coa”, “woof” versus “ouah”, “drip” versus “ploc”, “hoot” versus “ouhouh”…

I’ve had to justify “ribbit” to my French husband and I don’t think either of us were convinced.

french baby book page 3


Round about the 11 1/2 month mark, it suddenly became obvious that Michael was starting to understand a lot more English than we thought he did, much to our delight and occasional horror. Memorably, I once mentioned “puffs” in passing and was then immediately held at gunpoint to produce said puffs for consumption. I’d never purposefully taught him the word, other than saying (probably repetitively) “Do you want a puff?” It comes as a shock to a first time parent when your clueless baby starts to demonstrate the first signs of linguistic comprehension. The days of being able to talk behind Michael’s back directly in front of him are swiftly coming to an end!

At the same time, it also became quite obvious that he hardly understood any French. Ralph speaks to Michael exclusively in French, while both of us converse to each other in English. Michael gets only a fraction of face time with his papa on weekdays, typically about half an hour in the evenings, sometimes even less. On weekends he gets substantially more time, but clearly not enough for him to pick up much of the language.

Which is no big deal because I figure he will eventually get it. I just feel sorry for my husband because it’s disappointing when your baby is happily responding to certain things that maman is saying but drawing a blank when you pull the same trick in French. It throws a bit of a wrench in the bonding process.

I talked to a friend about this (who happens to be quite the expert in child development and psychology) when I noticed that she was talking to her 9 month old baby in Mandarin. She told me that it was something she’d just started doing. Previously, she’d spoken exclusively in English, but now she would occasionally give the Mandarin translation immediately following what she’d just said. At first her baby was confused, but after a some time she started to understand more and more Mandarin.

So I thought I could attempt to teach Michael a few simple words in French, despite the fact that I er… don’t speak French, actually. For all I know, I could be teaching him a non-language, called garbledfrenchease. But I had to try, for his papa’s sake. Besides, I was curious to see what would happen. That same afternoon after talking to my friend, I sat Michael down with his current favourite book (Shapes are Everywhere, by Charles Ghigna) and we got to his favourite page with the cat sleeping on the bench. I said, “Where’s the cat? Où est le chat?” I pointed at the cat. “Le chat! Le CHAT. LE CHAT, Michael. Le chat.” As you can imagine. He watched me and my pointing finger, made some loud grunting sounds, and we moved on. A couple of minutes later, we arrived back at the same page, and I asked, “Où est le chat?” and lo and behold, he pointed at the cat!

Of course, it could just be a coincidence, because the cat is the only thing he ever points to on the page, but at least he understood that I was asking where something was. I tested this out with various other objects, and he would look around even if he didn’t know quite what he was looking for. Previously, Ralph would ask the endless “Où est…?” questions and be completely ignored, poor man.

So, I count this a major victory here, and ridiculously easy. Eleven month olds are pretty smart at this stage. Or I’m just a much better teacher than my husband, which is a more pleasing theory. It may in fact help that I am forced to engage in the tiresome repetition of short phrases or single words (because that’s all I can manage, obviously) and demonstrate by pointing etc. I go all kindergarten on him. Unlike Ralph who speaks in fluent sentences about abstract concepts like “What did you do today? Did you go shopping with maman?” which only gets a kind of glazed response.

Everyday, I message Ralph on my phone to ask how one says “the bear” in French or whether right hand would be main droite or droite main? (Former, by the way.) If my pronunciation is off, as it surely is, (I mean, main droite??) then Lyn, my helper, is tons worse, and I enjoy sniggering at her in superiority to mask my own linguistic insecurities. The poor woman is already bilingual in Tagalog and English, and now she has to take on crazy weird French, while being laughed at by her employer who can’t really speak anything but English. That sucks. But really, you should hear her attempt la grenouille. Heh heh heh.

So I cruelly laugh at her, and Ralph laughs at the both of us, but Michael is totally nonplussed and he knows how to switch hands if one of us barks out something close to main droite. Meanwhile, I feel my brain turning into something close to scrambled eggs, trying to learn a new language at the ripe age of 32. Or cotton wool. I feel clumsy and dull and I can hear the rusty gears clanking away in my brain as I struggle to put together a sentence with all the grammar in place. It’s as difficult for me as it is easy for Michael. I know it is good for all of us though, and kind of fun, so I don’t mind but it is ridiculously hard, this le poisson est caché sous les bulles business.

I get asked quite frequently whether (or when) I’m teaching Michael Mandarin. The answer is always unsatisfactory: no, I’m not, and maybe never? I’ve always seen it as a lost cause, because so little of the language has stuck since my early school days, that I don’t feel that I’m good enough to teach it. And maybe there is a bit of residual trauma from those humiliating days of stumbling through a language which never felt anything but foreign and terribly, awfully challenging. Or maybe I’m just lazy and asking me to translate myself into both French and Mandarin sounds exhausting and also very ridiculous.

However, I do have these books which I picked up at the grocery store, of all places, which tell me things which I never knew, like a zhu (Chinese pig) says guo ji…?


And I thought oink was bad.

Technically, my barely existent Mandarin is about one hundred times better than my non existent French, so I should maybe give it a go. There’s still time. It’s not too late to chart a completely different course for my potentially trilingual son! Plus, Mandarin is so much easier to learn when you hear it and speak it young, and conversely so hard when you don’t get an early start at it. Ask my husband, who was politely told by his Mandarin teacher that perhaps he should consider dropping out of the class, at the age of 29. Ouch.

Meanwhile: quick update. We’re a little busy up in these parts because we leave in a few days for Japan (woot!) and then onward to Tahiti for three whole weeks, to visit Ralph’s family. We’re flying long haul, domestic, red-eye, non red-eye, you name it, with a baby who will not sit still and who has only recently found an even louder voice. It is a very loud voice indeed, that Mr Michael Dean has. It’s going to be chaos and exhaustion and hopefully some fun and laughter mixed in. But lots of exhaustion. We have no idea what we’re doing.


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