Maman And Loulou

Encouragement for parents who want to give their child a gift of another language

My mom was a very proud woman. Sometimes this was great because it was one of the things that drove her to put her heart and soul into everything she did. It was also her greatest fault because she could be starving to death in an ice storm and would refuse to ask for help.

I didn’t understand this as a child. If I was overwhelmed, confused, or somehow in need, I didn’t hesitate for even a second to tell anyone within earshot. What is the point of unnecessary struggle? Even as an adult, despite a great deal of people being judgmental about my struggles with depression and anxiety, I will still seek out someone when I start to drown. The only pride anyone could accuse me of having was the intense sense of satisfaction that left me beaming when I accomplished something special or how I tried to be particularly mindful of the state of myself or my surroundings. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would have ever called me arrogant.

When it came to language learning, I accepted early on that I was going to make a ton of mistakes. While I would get frustrated when someone had to correct me, I knew it was bringing me closer to my dream of fluency.  Ce n’était pas grave (It was no big deal.) Once I came out of my shell and realized that people weren’t really going to turn their noses at me if I used a feminine article when it was supposed to be masculine or if I conjugated a verb into the wrong tense, I rather liked the feeling of unlocking a whole new world just by making certain sounds with my mouth. It still feels like I am casting magic spells every time I order a chocolate macaroon.

Recently, I offered to volunteer at a local French school. I have been able to; interact a little at my weekly meetups, survive hour long Skype calls once or twice a week, understand the jist of things being talked about usually and piece together requests/thoughts/opinions. It is still not elegant, but I can get by. So, it seemed rather genius to me because it would give me a chance to be in a more immersive environment for more than an hour at a time. To my utter shock, I was offered a paid position on Fridays helping to assist with a group of kids AND the headmistress bragged about me at the parent/teacher meeting before the school year began. J’étais sur une petite nuage (I was on Cloud Nine.)

As I talked about in my previous post, I had helped at Bryston’s school and it was formidable! The teacher thought it was awesome, the kids worshiped me, my kid got to brag about his cool mom and I was elated that I knew all of the words that they asked me to translate. I imagined that I would be doing roughly the same thing, just for a day instead of thirty minutes. Plus, I would get to chat with the adults a little too. I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand everything the teacher said, but I was confident that I could get by or that she would be understanding if I needed a little babying.

Even with a million papillons in my stomach, I held my chin high and walked in ready to work my first day at a semi-French job. There was one thing that I hadn’t taken into account.

Many of these kids came from fluently bilingual parents. 

They reverted to speaking English since my colleague, a nineteen year old, had done the same (even though I had been told to speak as much French as I could.) She had taken years of French and had relatives from France, and I quickly realized that she was advanced. I made small talk about her schooling, our families and our studies and, of course, a little bit of Harry Potter, trying to take interest in her, practice a little and subtly coax her into speaking French with the kids. No luck. They just played most of the day and she only spoke to me when I initiated it.

At lunch, all of the teachers sat at one table. I realized that I was able to mostly follow their conversation and offer my input here and there. So, I returned to the classroom ready to lead by example.

Four of the children were sitting around a table, the three slightly older boys (9-11) doing homework and the girl (7-8) playing since she had already finished her spelling practice. I was the only adult in the room at the time and thought that would give me ample opportunity to switch the language. So, I asked (in French) the one who kind of led the pack if they needed help. He asked me a question about his homework, and I began reading his sheet in search of the answer. Mind you, this was a history assignment. I am not skilled with American history, so I think it’s fair that I had to search for the reason of whatever French war they were reading about. He huffed a conceited scoff, snatched the paper from my hand, and informed me in English as he marched out of the room that he would go ask the headmistress.

I was already sulking when I asked the children to wash their hands before snack time. Wouldn’t you know it, I forgot that, in this case, laver would be a reflexive verb, which meant that it is conjugated differently. A charming young girl, about the same age as the boy, loudly corrected me with the same tone as Hermione while explaining to Ron in Harry Potter that it’s LeviOsa not LeviosAR.

Unlike adults, they were not forgiving of my mistakes. Unlike adults, they didn’t understand that I didn’t have bilingual family or an expensive school and was there to learn something, just like them.

I felt something ugly inside. I heard a voice telling me that I needed to keep my mouth shut. It told me that I should have listened when it tried to warn me that I wasn’t good enough. It told me that the world had been right and that there was no way I was ever going to learn another language on a respectable level. I listened. I didn’t sleep with my husband that night. I fell asleep in my little nook I made under the stairs, crying and feeling like a failure. For days, I wouldn’t say anything more to Bryston in French than our bedtime song and basic greetings. I did my apps, but only because it had become a habit. I skipped my meet-up the next week. When Friday rolled around again, I stayed mostly quiet, except during lunch, where I talked for a few minutes and excused myself.

Unbeknownst to me, this was not allowed. The headmistress came in afterward, gave me a gentle lecture in French, then went over all of the rules and such that she had not had a chance to deal with prior. All in French, almost all of it understood. For a moment, that satisfaction began to creep up again. Until it was bludgeoned to death by the pride that was not wanting to let go.

Throughout the week, I noticed that I was getting more and more questions wrong on my apps. Bryston, who had begun to use common phrases left and right, now had little desire. When we tried to watch a morning French cartoon, I understood drastically less than before. I did a Skype call that I had already scheduled and my friend before we were even half way through, asked me what was going on. So, I recapped. She reassured me that the kids were jerks, just like my ego wanted to hear. But, she elaborated in saying that she didn’t think that they meant to be. She reassured me that they were trying to make it easier on me like they had wanted done for them, so they reverted to what was obviously my native tongue.

Children know they have more to learn, she told me. It’s why they stretch for help and ask those questions that risk their looking foolish. There is no foolishness to them. Only curiosity and discovery. Still, they are children and children notoriously have zero patience for anything. You have had to explain things to not-natives before, she reminded me and recapped how tricky it had been. They don’t know how to do that. They also revel in getting to be the smarter person over an adult no matter what the subject.

“You do realize that I just explained this all in French and you understood it,” she said.  “Because you have been responding to me. Talking to a child is probably more advanced than anything else because they don’t know to slow down, use simpler vocabulary or any of the other things adults naturally do when we try to teach or explain something. Just keep talking to them. They will eventually come around.”

I understand why pride is considered so deadly. Out of shame and embarrassment, I almost gave up on something that I loved. I was ready to crawl into a hole. I started letting the progress I had made slip. I had to go to war with myself, just like I learned Napoleon did. For some kind of peace. I helped our little Hermione with her science homework. Sure, I pronounced some words wrong. Sure, some of what she said went over my head. But she understood me, I understood her answers and corrected her (with the help of her study sheet) and the world kept on spinnin’. And you know what? I am now never going to forget how to ask someone to wash their hands ever again.



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