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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Not Bilingual

I sometimes feel guilty that my kids live in such a monolingual household. Their cousins speak English and Mandarin, many friends speak English and Spanish, some schoolmates speak what sounds like Russian (something Slavic at any rate -- it might be Greek?) as well as English. One of their very good friends speaks French as well as English.

Us, we just speak English at home. (Pig-latin hardly qualifies as a second language, even if the kids were fluent, which they are not.)

S has a lot of languages under his belt, including reading fluency in ancient Greek, Latin, German, and maybe even Italian -- I've lost track of the number of languages he learned as part of his scholarly work. He's also good with French, both speaking and reading. He's really got a knack for languages.

Me, I've got the remains of the French classes I took in college and high school. (Which makes things a little awkward around the kids' friends' family who speaks French; somehow we never shared with them the fact that we also know some French, and at this point it's gone a little too long for us to let them know. So far no terribly embarrassing eavesdropping, but it's been clear that they speak French around us not expecting us to understand.) I'm hardly what you'd call fluent, but I understand a fair amount and have I've retained enough speaking ability for S and I to use it as a secondary means of communication when we're trying to say things that we don't want little pitchers' ears to hear.

So we are a language-rich household, full of reading and writing and appreciation of the joy of words, but we are definitely not a bilingual household.

Which makes it interesting when we bring home books from the library that include other languages. Last week, BB chose a retelling of Cinderella, Cendrillon, that includes some creole French words. Reading it aloud, my accent isn't too terrible, I flatter myself to think. But BB was definitely thrown by the foreign words. Every time I'd say one, even though the context of the sentence defined for us what the word might mean, she'd ask, "Mom, what does that mean?"

I'd pause, tell her the meaning of the word, and keep reading. Another French word would come up, and she'd ask about it, and I'd explain it. "Why are there all these weird words, Mommy?" I explained that the story took place in Martinique, where they speak more than one language, and they were including the other language as part of the way they wanted to tell the story.

Finally, about the fifth or sixth time a French word was part of the story, she sighed in exasperation and said, "Mom, can you please just speak HUMAN?"

(Yeah, Anglocentric much? Sigh. Yes, I took the teachable moment, but I also had to laugh ruefully about it as well.)

1 comment:

tierramor said...

So cute, speak Human? Love it. I spoke only a smattering of Spanish, literally just a couple phrases, up until High School, it's not until i lived in Puerto Rico that I got conversational. Speak languages around them as much as you can - don't hide behind being shy or worrying about 'doing it wrong' and who knows what they will pick up and surprise you with in the future!