Falling Off the OPOL Wagon -how multilingual parenting is akin to giving up smoking

I didn’t realize I had fallen off the OPOL (One Parent One Language) wagon until I found myself face down on the ground with a chipped tooth and a mouthful of dirt.

FALLING OFF THE WAGON: For me It was a slippery slope. I don’t know offhand if I am correct in thinking that strict OPOL means that even to each other, parents speak their native language. This would require that my husband speak fluent French. Given our non Francophone location and his long working hours, this is a distant dream.  I would need to speak fluent Spanish, which I should by now but don’t and mostly have myself to blame. So even if I only spoke French to my daughter, she KNOWS that I both understand and speak English and not just outside our household but to communicate with her dear Papa. Here is my hand dangling off the wagon.

Then there are the group play dates where other little English-speaking friends come over. Here I can speak individually to her in French but sometimes I need to address the kids together and this now means I am technically speaking to her in English – even if I do repeat it in French for her benefit just after. My arm creeps out over the side of the wagon.

There was the swimming class to help her get over her fear of water on her face – a key endeavor when you live in the land of unguarded swimming pools. This was a stressful time with both her teacher and I trying to cajole, console and “push” her simultaneously as she is learning new things. It felt like I was adding confusion and extra layer of cacophony to an already noisy and difficult experience so more english was spoken to “unify” the message as well as let the teacher hear that I was reinforcing what she was saying. Et hop, that’s one leg over the side of the wagon.

Moving to Singapore was a blessing in so many ways and the fact that the country is set up to accept multilingualism as the norm is definitely one of them. Knowing that Papa in his field ends up working long hours, we had always thought that someday we would have an au-pair or help at home once we had a second child and it became more cost-effective. We would choose someone Latin who would speak Spanish and help support this minority (as in least spoken/exposed to) language. Instead we have the MOST WONDERFUL helper from the Philippines who speaks very good English. This has resulted in Pacifique’s English improving in leaps and bounds but also means she has developed an extremely strong preference for English which was reinforced by her recent enrollment in a local nursery, which splits the days in English and Chinese.

And here is where my other leg goes over the wagon’s side and I am now barely hanging on, white knuckled with sweat trickling down to my finger tips. Toddlers can be quite a handful and you want to make sure the caregivers are on the same page especially with impending tantrums and other naughty behaviors. In order to do this I would say something to Pacifique in French and then say it again in English for Cherry’s benefit. With Pacifique speaking more and more English, this soon mutated into me saying it in English and then translating it into French and somehow I soon realized I wasn’t even always translating it into French. I knew I’d hit rock bottom when my sentences turned into a language mish-mash similar to a salade macedoine .  And to make matters worse, as more English crept into my exchanges and my husband and I were also trying to be on the same page, more English crept into his despite the fact that my spoken Spanish is awful but I actually understand 95% of what he says. Ay yay yay. We were heading downhill at breakneck speed and hadn’t even noticed.

The hard thud on the ground is when I suddenly realized that when completely alone with my daughter P, English started creeping into our conversations and she no longer ever uttered a word in French to me.

HOW DID I GET HERE? No seriously HOW did I get here? If you had told me I would end up so far down this path, I would never have believed it. Then the self berating starts. Well of course I ended up here. I have commitment issues. I have finishing issues. My French sucks. What was I thinking. My situation probably wasn’t helped by the fact that I was diagnosed at the time with Post Partum Depression. The nightly insomnia and almost inability to stay awake during the days coupled with much sobbing should have been a dead give away. When I am being kind to myself, I figure that all the complexities of our lingual situation coupled with feeling so awful and vulnerable would of course make me more prone to this happening. When I am not being kind, I think that I am a poor excuse of a mother, who now has the luxury of full-time live-in help and still can’t pull it together. Yes I am learning to focus on the former not the latter.

Whatever takes you down this road, kids are resilient. Kids can adjust to incredible amounts of change. Don’t let the purists scare you away. Your kid won’t be lost to inevitable language confusion just because you fall off the wagon. Yes it may be tougher to climb back on when you are tired, bruised and covered in dirt but you will get there and you will all make it to your destination.

IT’S LIKE GIVING UP SMOKING: I credit some posts on the bilingual blogging carnival highlighting their children’s progress in a given language with flipping the switch for me.  I knew I had to try to get back on track. It is really a lot like giving up smoking and I should know as I’ve done that numerous times, twice with great success. I realize this sounds like a contradiction but the first time I gave up for four years and the second (and hopefully last) started in 2003 so I am now nearly eight years smoke free. Two key elements set me up for success.

  1. Just because I caved here and there and had a ciggie didn’t mean I was a smoker again. And this included a night out on the lash smoking a pack, waking up with that deep husky voice I miss so. I just started again from the morning as a non smoker forgiving my lapse and telling myself I would do better next time.
  2. I tried to create situations where I wasn’t tempted or more likely to smoke.

Translating that to language use, I’ve stopped berating myself every time I realize I’ve switched to English and just revert back to French. For my situational successes, I also made a point to pick actual French books at night instead of translating on the fly which is tiring and frustrating if you end up with unknown words. I also arranged more outings with other French people. I even just called up some old French friends to get back into the flow of adult French conversation.

HOPE ON THE HORIZON:  One of the really frustrating things with language learning and kids is that you can never be entirely sure why something is working. Even if you take two different approaches with two different kids, every kid is different and every parent is different. A few weeks can also be a time of key developmental changes in your child that would have happened irrespective of any other language changes you made. You may suspect something is working but you can’t ever categorically say for sure whether it is. Sometimes you just need to do your best and trust in the Universe or better yet trust your kid.

So I changed my ways as best I could and this is where we are at after a few weeks:

P was in her bath and started asking for her little seahorse. Much to my surprise, I actually knew where this one tiny piece of yellow plastic was located. I know some greater power laughs as I can’t locate my wallet or keys or transit pass but can locate a one inch toy in a stack of 1000 others. I retrieved the toy and brought it to her in the bath and she turned to me with a big smile and say “Yay hippocampe”, which is also one of the first words I looked up when I started reading or more accurately real-time translating books for her in French. I am pretty sure I NEVER actually knew that word before having her.

Another tiny gift of French came when I told her, as I do most nights, that she should choose a book while I get her a glass of milk and that I would read her a story and then it would be bed time. Normally I would be met with either complete silence indicating an imminent bedtime battle or more often “yes Mama” or “OK Mama”. Tonight I got an emphatic  “D’accord Maman!” Literally I am in agreement with you. I would have fallen off the chair but it is a tiny blue toddler chair so my bum was fortunately well wedged in there.

After reading a short story, I turned off the lights and asked her which song she wanted to hear. Nine out of ten times she will request “the moon song”, which is to her “Au Claire de la Lune”.  I happen to know three out of four of the stanzas to this song which helps managing the repetition. This is one of two songs that would sooth her as a baby so I’ve sung this THOUSANDS of times. No really I am not exaggerating. I counted once 45 times on a lengthy walk back from the park. I once had to sing the song for almost an hour during a four-hour car trip. I will someday die and likely have that playing in my mental background. If my husband has a sense of humor and should outlive me, my epitaph will read “She sang Au Claire de La Lune ad nauseam” (J- I’ll come back from the dead and kill you myself if you actually do that)

When she eventually started talking and even singing the odd song, I was sure this would be one of the first. I mean given how many times she’s heard it, makes sense right? NO. apparently not. New rhymes and songs she has just learned at school like Mary Mary quite Contrary and Humpty Dumpty that she may have heard probably 30 times, a 100 at most if I am being generous, these get recited but not my french lullaby. Until tonight when I discovered she knew 90% of the song.

Here are the lyrics -minus the third stanza- we sing in our house.

Au clair de la lune  
Mon ami Pierrot
Prête-moi ta plume
Pour écrire un mot
Ma chandelle est morte
Je n’ai plus de feu
Ouvre-moi ta porte
Pour l’amour de Dieu

Au clair de la lune
Pierrot répondit
Je n’ai pas de plume
Je suis dans mon lit
Va chez la voisine
Je crois qu’elle y est
Car dans sa cuisine
On bat le briquet

Au clair de la lune
On n’y voit qu’un peu
On chercha la plume
On chercha du feu
En cherchant d’ la sorte
Je n’ sais c’ qu’on trouva
Mais je sais qu’ la porte
Sur eux se ferma.

me: bonsoir ma cherie, dort bien. Maman t’adore. A demain.

P: bonsoir maman

********* Thank you for reading this post which will feature in this month’s bilingual blogging carnival.