French Evolution, Dormant Skills and Why We All Just Need to Chill.

No I am not referring to a sudden Gallic change of heart towards pasteurized milk and turning le steak tartar into le burger. That wouldn’t be evolved, just paranoid.

I am talking about the amazing ability of dormant skills to switch on like genes under the right conditions. It’s how even if your child refuses to speak to you in the tongue you have tirelessly dedicated yourself to, spending countless amounts of discretionary income, which isn’t really discretionary since it should be paying off credit card bills, school loans and the IRS, on books, toys and language reinforcing trips. It’s the hours you spent after your toddler is asleep neglecting laundry, work, and soap scum around your tub while looking up words from your child’s favorite book —one of the few not in your chosen language— because you just don’t know how to say digger, spade, otter and jungle gym in your supposed mother tongue so translating on the fly is not an option. (Richard Scarry why aren’t more of your books available in other languages? Hmm probably because no one else knows those words either…)

I digress.

The flick of the switch can happen at any point. For some it’s right away, like babies who just learn how to sleep by themselves. It isn’t that the parents have done anything better than you, they just lucked out in the baby lottery. It happens during a summer visit to Granny’s when you are sneaking away for a nap and the child really wants a chocolate biscuit. It happens when your new neighbors speak the same other language than you and since you have no money for a babysitter or extra help or any family in a 80 mile radius, that all your social life revolves around ‘couples’ evenings with the kids and portable cribs. It happens when at 15, when she realizes her multilingualism will help get that cute boy’s attention. Or in my case it happens when I agree to move to the other side of the world so I can afford to send my kid to the French Private school.

And it is finally paying off. It has been really interesting to watch the emergence of P’s French on high-speed. The last 5 weeks have sort of played out as follows:

End of Week 1: P comes home and seems happy at school. I attribute that to her understanding French even if she didn’t speak it and the fact that almost everyone around her understands English. Teacher emails me asking me to please try to encourage her to speak French, a suggestion I mostly ignore though I am careful not to slip into English at any point during this transition.

End of Week 2: Not much difference though P seems to repeat the odd French word I say burying it deep within an English sentence.

End of Week 3: Frequency of repeated French words increase including ones she is picking up at school. Still the English sentence rules. A few short French Phrases start emerging, things like “Non! C’est a moi!”. Hello survival of the fittest.

End of Week 4: Her sentences are increasingly half French, half English. I begin to feel the balance of power shifting.

End of Week 5: I nearly fall of my chair when in mid battle with her sister, Pacifique turns to me in desperation and yells “Maman met ça dans ma chambre s’il te plait” while handing me some prized possession. [Maman, please put this in my room]. I feel like once the motor is running, she is more likely to initiate conversations with French

End of Week 6:  An English-speaking friend comes to visit. I speak more English at home. I inadvertently speak more English to her and immediately I hear more English out of her mouth. It is a delicate dance, but I am starting to understand the steps.

So relax, It will happen. Maybe right away, maybe not for another decade, but it WILL happen.

Do you Franglais? What code switching means to me.

My journey into multilingual parenting is akin to how I often end up cleaning our apartment. Out of the corner of my eye, near the bed frame I spot a little clump of dust or crumb, or an old sticker that is now an imminent choke hazard for our new crawling baby. I get down on my hands and knees to better reach the offender when, glancing under the bed, I discover a giant field of dust bunnies that make doped up baseball players look like Kate Moss.

My most recent unexpected discovery is the lingo associated with this field such as semi-lingual, full bilingual, balanced, dominant, mother tongue, native tongue, et cetera, some of which mean different things than I’d assumed (and yes I know what they say about people who assume), others having way more to them I’d ever imagined.

Having tasked myself to create a little glossary for the blog at some point, I’d like to focus on code switching, which raises a lot of questions for me. Up until about 48 hours ago, I figured (and yes I am using a synonym for assume) that code switching was just a fancy way for academics to talk about language mixing, spanglish and the like. Either that or an excuse for lazy bilinguals or for those of us who’ve let one of our languages slide to cover up for that fact. This of course gives you some insight into how I’ve thought about code switching, and reflects what many monolinguals do think about it.

Code switching in short means to simultaneously use more than one language or dialects in conversation. I thought it was always for multilinguals but apparently it is also used in a number of situations like academics switching from speaking to 2nd form students to 3rd form students. It applies to people switching from “standard English” to “Ebonics” – This latter will likely become the subject of another probably veering on the non-PC post. In hunting definitions, I came across one academic paper that, when discussing code switching, stated the following:

“However, despite this ubiquity – or perhaps in part because of it – scholars do not seem to share a definition of the term. This is perhaps inevitable, given the different concerns of formal linguists, psycholinguists, sociolinguists, philosophers, anthropologists, etc.”

Behold my field of dust bunnies. And a brief reminder of why academic papers make me want to overdose on painkillers. More to the point, you essentially have the camp of people who argue that code switching is a cop-out, that people who code switch aren’t fully bilingual – whatever fully bilingual means. Then you have those who feel it is part of the cultural identity and that bilinguals who code switch do so only following specific rules, with others who can understand them, etc. Ok I am greatly simplifying this but you get the point. And between these two poles, there is a whole host of people who find themselves somewhere in between. A number of posts on the topic (including this & this)  got me thinking about this since falling off the OPOL bandwagon and needing to sort out how I am going to proceed with trying to raise my girls tri-lingually.

I don’t spanglish, I franglais. I code switch a lot with other friends who were either French growing up in NYC or had mixed backgrounds like me. Once upon a time, I probably did it as my brain was truthfully selecting whatever words I felt best described a situation. I had a hard enough time maintaining my French once I stopped attending a French school when I was about 14 and now, married to a Mexican, I am faced with a tri-lingual household.  I wonder about what I perceive as the inevitable franglais and spanglish that will bounce off our walls.  I need to think more about this but my gut instinct is that don’t have issues with code-switching as long as the person can speak either language separately when they are with someone who only speaks English or only speaks Spanish (insert whatever two languages you want here).  And yes of course we can debate what speaking fully, fluently, in a balanced fashion means but for me it means not having to search for the right words constantly in most sentences – to be able to finish a sentence and perhaps even a train of thought in one language.

This is hard to do. Seriously this is HARD to do. I got really worried when I was speaking a few years ago to one of my French cousins who doesn’t speak any English and suddenly found I kept wanting to insert English words that either more appropriately described what I was trying to express or more often than I care to admit, because I simply couldn’t remember the French word. Fine if it happens once in a while but it just started happening more and more. I went from needing the odd word in one sentence to having trouble finishing anything more than the most mundane of sentences. I worry that my language is already very “diluted” and that my daughters’ will be exponentially so given the added language and the fact that I have never been a “pure” French speaker. This is what concerns me with code switching.

I made a choice when I was pregnant with P. I didn’t want her to end up like me, wishing she spoke better French and even in my case wishing I wrote better French. When we are young we seldom realize the consequences of our decisions. I didn’t like my French school and was so glad to leave that I didn’t really think about what it would take to maintain my French both oral and written. What I couldn’t foresee was 15 years down the line, really wanting to apply for a number of jobs in international organizations that I could have applied for had I still had even a decent level of written French. It seemed careless and a waste. When I thought long and hard about language choices, I decided that I wanted my daughter to be able, not only to communicate orally in French, but also be able to write.

So I started reading in French again. I bought a really good French review textbook aimed for quite high-level French. I started making an effort to send emails in French -excruciating for me- to cousins and friends who have believed for years that I am an extremely rude person who never reaches out or answers letters when in fact I just didn’t want them to receive a message from me and have them realize that I may be smarter than a 5th greater but I write like a 2nd grader.  When P was a baby, every time I hesitated on a word, I had a little pocket French-English dictionary and now have an iPhone app dictionary too. It felt like I was constantly searching for words; I didn’t realize how many specialized words are out there. And then there is the whole schooling issue. I didn’t like attending the French Lycee. Is she going to have the same experience and am I going to inflict that upon her just so she gets the French?

I just can’t see taking this on myself without support especially when regularly find myself wondering if the word I used is actually French or me “frenchifying” an English word. And this leads us to another offshoot of the code switching / language mixing, where words from one language get adopted into another even in places buried deep in monolingual territories. My Mexican mother in law speaks no English and has seldom ever been out of Mexico and yet she too has some words that are definitely not Spanish in origin. Mind you she also uses words that don’t actually exist in any language – a very creative woman inadvertently making spanish learning for me that much more challenging. There is this big question of where do you draw the line, when does something become so mainstream that it effectively becomes part of the language officially as all languages do evolve over time. I never hear anyone in France say “casse-croute” anymore and the fact that I ever did dates me terribly. It literally means to break or tear off the end of a baguette and was the word for sandwich. Now everyone says “un sandweech”. I am sure there is another batch of academic papers on this topic but I can’t afford to lose the will to live just yet.

A final thought. Learning a language takes a lot of work and so does maintaining it particularly if you aren’t living in a country where it is spoken. In my case, I realize that code switching over time masked the loss of my French and that I feel is a real shame. I live in Singapore, a country that has 4 official languages: English, which is the language of government, business and academia, then Mandarin, Tamil and Malay according to one’s ethnicity. It’s interesting to see various people’s reactions to the use of Singlish – a sort of creole mix that has emerged. It is predominantly English with Chinese, Malay and Tamil thrown in. Some here feel very strongly that it is or at least is becoming a language in its own right while others say that now they meet lots of people who can’t speak either English or Mandarin properly and keep reverting to Singlish.

I believe no black and white here, just a large expanse of grey.

*Since writing this post I’ve come across code-mixing, code-alternation and code-copying… I have yet to look any of these up but if someone can write a comment explaining the difference between the lot, well I might just send you a little present from Singapore.

*For more on Code Switching Multilingual Living is doing a new series – here is the first post.

*This post was written for the May Bilingual Blogging Carnival. For more on this month’s carnival, click here.