Some thoughts on life with a bilingual toddler.
We knew that raising our son to be bilingual was a good idea, but the choice also came down to inevitability.
We live in France, my husband is French, but not to speak to my son in English seems impossible to me. It’s my native language, the language I think and dream in. It’s as close as language can be to my soul.
One of the things you quickly learn when you have a bilingual child is that languages are status symbols.
“He speaks two languages! He’s so lucky!” people here say, or “He’ll grow up speaking English without an accent!”
Many of the people who say things like this are bilingual, themselves, and so are their kids. But the second languages they speak aren’t as prized. Here, you never hear someone say, “Oh, he speaks Arabic! How wonderful!” Or “He’ll grow up speaking Cantonese without an accent — how lucky!”
When my son’s first words were in French, I went through some soul-searching, wondering why, if he spent so much time with me, he didn’t seem receptive to the language we spoke together. Wondering if I’d done something wrong, if I just wasn’t loving enough, no matter how much I love him. When I found out it was actually because he knows I speak French, as well — has heard me speaking it even before he was born — I can’t describe the relief. Or the joy at finally, and perhaps for the first and last time, being fully included in this language in which I’ve always been an outsider.
Still, as his words come, there can sometimes be a sense of victory or defeat. Why does he insist on only saying “lapin”, when we read so many stories together about bunnies?
Then again, for me, there are more victories than defeats. He may currently say twenty or so words in French; he says well over double that in English. Even when he imitates things like counting or saying the alphabet, it’s usually English numbers, and always English letters. This is only partially my fault — some of it’s also due to the very catchy children’s songs he likes to listen to. He has music in both languages, but the English counting songs and our version of the alphabet seem to have stuck with him more.
Many times when he discovers something and I tell him what it’s called, I feel like I’m cheating. There’s my husband, away at work, and I’m only sharing my native language. But if I do otherwise, I’m afraid it could affect his accent. Sometimes I try anyway. “That’s a carriage”, I’ll tell him, “and Papa would say poussette.”
I try to remember that bilingual kids, even those who spend their early years immersed in only one of their languages, come out okay and adapt and catch on quickly. And I’ve seen evidence of this in my son, as well. Not long after he started daycare, for example, he started saying gâteau, as well as “cookie”. He knew that if he wanted a snack there, he had to be able to ask for it.
There are other words he can say in both languages. I think of these bilingual pairs as a sort of portrait of his current life and needs: “Hello/Bonjour”, “Bye-bye/Au revoir,” “apple/pomme”, “Thank you/Merci”, “car/voiture”, “mouth, eyes, nose”/bouche, yeux, nez”, “cat/chat”, ”cow/vache”.
In our house, language is fluid. We try to represent our native tongues to my son, but when my husband and I are together, we often speak a blend of both.
Outside, though, I follow rules. I find myself feeling rude for speaking to my son in English, even when it’s something as simple as asking him if he wants a snack when we’re at the park. I feel snobbish somehow, like I’m isolating us from the rest of the world.
And so, out comes my French. Like anyone speaking another language, my very voice changes. And since we’re in public, I unconsciously find myself making more of an effort with my pronunciation. My son sometimes gives me a strange look: “What are you doing?”
It feels false, but maybe that’s something I’m also teaching him: How we sometimes have to put on a polite face for the world.
And perhaps, above all, that language is so much more than just words.
I’ve been meaning to write a piece like this for a while, but I was inspired to do it after several people asked me questions about my last post, where I talked about my son discovering snow and saying “Au revoir, ‘no’”.