Friday, December 02, 2005

Bilingual Babies: How do you say 'ga-ga' in French?

I almost didn't get a chance to write a column this week because my son Nicolas took my lucky notebook to draw pictures of trains in it. He finally gave it back Sunday night, though I never did find my lucky pen (also commandeered for train-drawing duties). So I had to write this whole column in green colored pencil, and since a grown-up topic would look ridiculous scrawled in smeary green letters, I have no choice but to tell you about my little boys.

In my first column, I told a bunch of stories about weaning my baby. Actually, that pilot column was written more than three years ago when my oldest was seven months old. Now I have not one, but two rowdy, rough-and-tumble boys, ages 4 and 2. For simplicity, let's call them "Nico" and "Leo." (That's what I normally call them at home, so it saves me having to think up pen names for them.) The happy ending to the weaning story is that they've both been weaned for some time now, thank heavens!

The first thing people always ask me about raising kids in France is whether my husband and I speak to our kids in French or English. The answer is that I speak to them in English, my husband uses both, depending on the circumstances, he and I speak to each other in English, and they get pure French at school and from their babysitter.

The second canonical question is what language the kids speak. The answer is both and neither. That is, both in Nico's case and (almost) neither in Leo's...

Before having kids, I read a whole bunch of books about raising kids in bilingual households, and they all said that typically such kids learn language very late, but that they learn both languages well. Also, everyone knows boys learn language later than girls. So you can imagine how enthusiastiacally we were patting ourselves on the backs as champion brainiac parents when -- despite all that -- Nico was an early talker, saying several words correctly and consistently before he was a year old, and having a big vocabulary of French and English words -- including simple sentences -- at 18 months. Then you can imagine our corresponding surprise when Leo decided it would be more prudent to follow the textbook model of the bilingual child, and is just now starting to say a lot of different words at the age of 2 1/2.

Leo's vocabulary includes words like "airplane," which is his word for all things that fly, such as airplanes, birds, and the dragon in Shrek. He also has his own special use for the phrase "thank you" (i.e., when he sees something he wants, he holds out his little hand and starts yelling "Thank you!" over and over until you give him the desired object). Plus he's learned the French words for "dog" and "cat" ("chien" and "chat"), but since he can't really tell them apart, he just kind of slurs the ending to the word so that it could be either one.

So -- just as it happens with many parents -- our first child taught us all about what kids are like, and then the second one taught us that all that stuff we learned from the first one wasn't really so much info about kids in general, but rather was only relevant to that one kid. I think it was a famous mathematician who once said, "I used to have three theories about child-rearing and no kids; now I have three kids and no theories about child-rearing." I'm kind of like that myself, except that I have only two kids, and I hate to think I was ever presumptuous enough to imagine I had a theory of child-rearing other than "Love 'em lots, and good luck!"

So when they're watching their favorite show (The Wiggles), we have Nico on the one hand who at 4 can read and write the word "Wiggles," and Leo, who has just learned to say "Wiggles" -- in fact pronounces it "Gigo," but he says it often enough that we know what he's talking about. Here I really ought to launch into a few paragraphs making fun of the Wiggles, but I can't bring myself to do it -- it would just be too easy. I assume many of you Utah Valley folks have small kids, so you know what I'm talking about. Just think of your favorite joke at the Wiggles' expense and imagine you read it here.

Now please don't take the above stories as an indication that we're treating the two differently from each other and/or playing favorites. Each one is going at his own pace, and they'll both turn out just fine. Each one is different, and it's not as if one has problems and the other doesn't.

Actually, we ended up having a few parent-teacher conferences at Nico's nursery school last year regarding the fact that little Nico seemed to be off in his own dreamworld instead of being interested in socializing with the other kids. I'm in favor of any sort of special attention his teachers and his daddy think he needs, but on some level I have a hard time seeing this as a very serious problem since all of my own kindergarten teacher's comments -- which my mother saved -- contain exactly the same remark, and I turned out more or less OK, in my opinion, anyway. In fact, now Nico has already found himself a good friend at school, and he's only 4. I'm pretty sure I didn't make any friends until I was at least 6 or 7, so as far as I'm concerned, he's socially precocious.

Now you're probably thinking that, in the interest of full disclosure, before reproducing with my husband I should have warned him about my early childhood development. In my defense, I have to tell you that he and I have been married for five years and we knew each other for five years before that (not to mention that we obviously met in the pre-existence and everything), so if he's just figuring out just now that I have a slightly different definition of "normal" than your average normal person, then he hasn't been paying very close attention.

As well as Nico's social development is going, it turns out that Leo is even more socially precocious than Nico. Just the other day, Leo and I were at a department store and he tossed his stuffed kitty off the escalator. His daddy told him that that wasn't a very clever thing to do, but the result was that two pretty girls rushed to bring him the kitty and took the opportunity to tell him how cute he is. So even if he's a little behind on language, at least he's right on track with respect to those social skills that are so important for a handsome young Frenchman.

So you see that our two little bilingual babies are on their way.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor November 17, 2005.

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