In the global soccer match that is Juliette’s language learning, sometimes I feel that France is «winning ». There are days it seems she uses more French words, picked up at Tata’s, and it makes my American heart wince a little. Of course, I know she must learn French to survive here and go to school and communicate with her grandparents. It’s all perfectly natural and necessary. But I just keep hoping English will have a big spot in her world.
Remi and I always wondered what it would be like to have a bilingual child. Everyone says by about age 3 kids can switch quite easily between both languages. And that you just need to speak consistently one language to them (one parent speaks his or her native language). We sometimes cheat on this as Remi likes to say some things in English to her and sometimes she requests her favorite French nursery rhyme song to me by making the hand motions that go to it.
Now at fifteen months she seems to learn new words every week, and I can’t help but keeping a mental scorecard of French vs. English. Lately she’s been saying, “Papa, il est …” which means, “Papa, he is…”. No doubt this is what Tata tells her when she says papa ten times in a row. Then there’s “dodo”, the child-like way of saying “dormir” or sleep. When she started saying this around bedtime I realized there was no easy English equivalent. So I began telling her it was time for ni-night, and she seems to have picked this up. I think French has so many child-transformed words that roll easily off the tongue, like “dodo.” Then there’s “lolo” for “lait” or milk. Maybe it’s slightly easier to pronounce when you’re learning. And English with its Germanic roots has some harsher edges.
And the French also seem to be beating the Yanks with their “bravo”, the word the use when they clap or to say something is well done. I suppose the English equivalent of clapping while saying “yeah” seems less emphatic. Juliette’s version at the moment is “a-vo” which you can see her saying to herself in this video as she stands up (then falls). At least in the past she understood me when I said “yeah” and would start clapping herself.
I am quite proud to say one of her first real words was “wa-wa” for water. When Tata hears this she thinks she’s saying “à boire” or “to drink” so she encourages this transformation. Again, it’s only logical that Juliette speaks French with French people. Now at home if she says “à boire” I just say “wa-wa” instead. I must refrain myself from subjective comments like “mommy says “wawa” or she might think it’s a kind of war between the languages. And she’s all over the word “cookie”. In the middle of lunch or snack time she’ll just stop eating her yogurt and start saying “cookie” (or sometimes it’s more like “cat-ki”, her word for cat) in an optimistic questioning tone. It has gotten to the point that if I want to say this word to someone else I spell it or she might start asking for one.
One thing I can say is that everyone has been very positive about the bilingual approach we’re using with Juliette. Even Remi’s mom likes to show off her English vocabulary now. Just the other weekend she was proud to announce that “On mange du ‘duck’” (We’re eating duck). And my side of the family likes to throw in the odd French word, too. As the pediatrician said, at any rate, English will literally be her “langue maternelle” (mother tongue) and he also added (a bit sappily) “le langage du coeur” (the heart’s language)- since it’s the one she’ll associate with her relationship with me. I suppose I can live with that.