Monday, March 9, 2009

Homework in a Bi-lingual Household

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I spent my weekend reading with Leo, re-reading the book he was to have read and written twenty lines on for today. It was an intense span of at least ten hours, side by side (the book is 217 pages long, an early reader, but still ...). He's having a very difficult time actually absorbing what he reads. Vocabulary words he doesn't know, and a disconnect between nicely pronouncing a phrase and actually giving it sense; sense that sticks and comes to life as images in your brain. Normally, I read in English with Leo. We read nightly a chapter or so of Harry Potter, or a dragon book, or The Black Stallion, or the Squire books by one of the Monty Pythons. He prefers that I read in English with him, and truth be told, I've a better stash of youth literature in English than in French. In France, either you read English literature translated into French, or any number of an infinite array of cartoon novels (Tintin, Les Daltons, etc.,). I'm still looking for an equivalent collection of addictive kids' literature actually written in French.

When you raise a child bi-lingually, you are effectively doubling the vocabulary he needs to master at any given age. There are times it feels easy. Kids pick up so much with such facility. But, there are times when the difficulties (often unforseen) make you doubt your choice. Leo was always a very cerebral child. At an age when other children have words spilling out of their mouths in an unstoppable flow, he stuttered. I could hear him figuring out what language the person in front of him comprehended, and search for the appropriate word or phrase. He was already translating in his head, and thus language wasn't a simple element that you absorb and spit back out, but an intense struggle from day one. He still occasionally puts an adjective after a noun in English, simply translating verbatim from French.

I switched him to the Waldorf school precisely because the French public kindergarten director thought the fact that I was raising him bi-lingually was wrong. And there, yes, I found a multi-lingual, multi-cultural haven. It has certainly helped, at least for all of us to feel somewhat normal in what is undeniably becoming a very international and culturally mixed world.

I'm not the first in my family to live in a foreign country, and my children are just the next in a line of numerous bi-lingual kids (German-English, Greek-English, Spanish-English) in our extended family. So, I was just doing what I thought right for an American mom living abroad. I'm less emphatic with Jonas, my second, not unsurprisingly. And, as is often the case in a situation like ours, the language of the boys between themselves is French. But with me, the rule for both of them has always been that we communicate in English, no matter that my French is perfectly fluent and that I and Erick always spoke French together. My many au pairs were also amateur English assistants, helping me give the boys an English environment to grow up in. My thought was, with all their friends, their schooling, their father, their French cousins, etc., speaking to them in French, I had to do whatever was possible to make English a real and useful language for them.

With Leo, it's now at a point where his teacher reassures him when he writes poorly in French that it's ok, his maternal tongue being English, he too is like a foreigner in her class. I differ with her on this point, and wish she'd be a bit more demanding of him. But, point taken, he works far more on his English reading and writing skills with me than on his French. And yes, I wonder when and if it will all get sorted out for him. Spelling rules in both languages are horrid. And pure memorization as a way of learning them is not something he's willing to accept, yet. So, rather than 'mauvaise' it is 'movese'. A clear understanding of letters and their sounds, but a complete disconnect between what he reads and what he writes.

How much of this is having the two languages at once?

I picked up French in junior high and high school. I was a good student, and even now, I find myself correcting the usage of accents and such on many a French friend's papers. So, I learned the basic rules of this foreign language, got it, and then learned to speak it and communicate with it. I had no bad habits from a childhood of random spellings, etc., to undo, but nor did I have the automatic knowledge of whether a word was feminine or masculine (still one of my issues with French, no matter my apparent mastery). And still, I do not write well in French. My grammar is good, but not my phrasing, my 'syntax' as they say here. How will I improve it? I do read more in French as time goes on, but then, that messes up my English for the translating work I do. The head is easily tricked. Whereas I'm able to hold relatively easily to the spoken variations of the languages I speak, writing is a completely other art for me.

The summer I got up to speed with my Japanese -- my intensive nine-week third-year program at Middlebury -- I returned to university and proceeded to write the worst English of my life. Japanese is structured completely differently than English, and often has very long and heavy sentences. I wrote technically correct sentences. There was a subject and a verb in there somewhere, but then there were oodles of dependent clauses just cluttering up the text. I was temporarily under the influence of Japanese syntax and it took me all semester to get my English style back again.

So, I have given my children the joys and privileges of being bi-lingual from birth, and perhaps saddled them with the frustrations of never mastering either the one or the other? In any case, they have the untold pleasures of friendships and family on both sides of the Atlantic, and that outweighs a lot of the small stuff.

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