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.

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