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.

Thrown in at the Deep End: P’s First Week at the Lycee Francais de Bangkok.

Having just celebrated her first anniversary at Kids Space, a fantastic little local pre-school on Pasir Panjang in Singapore, we moved our family 13 degrees north to Bangkok. Still tropical, still roughly the same number of daylight hours and still a minority,  P would now have radically different schooling experience.

She went from being accompanied to a small traditional Singaporean black and white house with a total of 25-35 students splitting their days between English and Mandarin to taking a school bus alone to a ‘campus’ housing hundreds of students complete with pool, track and other amenities. But these pale in comparison to the biggest change, that her days would now be entirely in French.

To any newcomers to the blog, P definitely understands everything I say in French but has for the most part been extremely resistant —read she always answers in English— to speaking French to me with a brief exception during month we spent alone together upon our arrival to Singapore.  She had only really just started speaking and our entire condo was empty. This left me as her sole companion and quickly translated in to her switching from English to French. Seven weeks later, our English-speaking helper started and it has been English-only ever since with only the odd word or expression thrown in here and there to tease me.

Getting my parenting neuroses out-of-the-way: I was extremely worried she would feel isolated, confused, frustrated and turn to independent play vs. mingling with other kids as I’ve witnessed so many times in the past.

Apparently I don’t know my kid at all! Week one came to a close and I received an email from her teacher which among other things said:

“La semaine a été encourageante pour Pacifique qui se montre très motivée en classe, participe beaucoup et s’applique dans son travail! Elle s’est très bien intégrée aux autres et s’est déjà fait des copains.”

Roughly translated: Great week, P is very motivated, participates and works hard. She is integrating well and has already made friends.

I nearly cried, mostly of relief but with a splash of pride. So why haven’t I cracked open the Champagne? Despite coming home uttering new french words here and there like calling me ‘la cuisiniere’ or ‘the cook’ – a word I’ve NEVER used, she is so far refusing to answer in French to anyone.

Holding my glass half full, I am not too worried. I  already feel that she is using more french and willing to repeat more french words in passing in just one week and it is only a matter of time before my little girl will start frogging it with the rest of them.

Now my glass half empty thinks that short of some major intervention, she is never going to make the switch. So far all her experience has shown her time and again that every ‘french speaker’ around her understands english so she doesn’t need to make the effort and that I should start refusing to respond to her unless her requests are in French.

Just to be clear, there is no way I could do this for a number of reasons, so I am holding tight and hoping for the best.

Let’s see what week 2 brings!