This week the younger Frenchling and I took the shinkansen to Tokyo. The train system here in Japan is a marvel - clean, fast and comfortable, Lovely ladies in cute caps glide through the aisle with drinks and snacks. Conductors walk through the car making sure everything is as it should be, and when they reach the end, they turn and bow to the passengers. From Osaka, Kyoto is a mere 30 minutes away; Tokyo about two and a half hours. A superior form of travel.
When the Flophouse relocated to Tokyo years ago, the Frenchlings studied at the Lycée Franco-Japonais (now known as the Lycée Français International de Tokyo). They liked the school; I loved it. It was this school that finally flipped on the English switch in my little darlings' psyches.
Prior to our moving to Japan the first time the Frenchlings attended French public school and their French was solid. English, my first language, was used at home (One Parent, One Language) but it was the inferior language - the one their Red, White and Blue mother imposed on them for their own good. That was my justification at the time - that I was going to all this trouble to make English a living language in our house for them. In retrospect, I see that it was a much for my benefit as theirs. Bilingualism was a standard I set for our family that would prove that I was a good mother and a good American. Oh, the tyranny of parental expectations!
Under my tutelage, and with the help of family in the US, they made progress and could understand spoken English and answer in the same when it was required of them. But for all my efforts I could not make them love the language, or even force them to place English at the same level as French. And once they left the house to go to school in Suresnes or Versailles, English was demoted to a household language spoken by an immigrant mother which had no utility - none of their friends spoke it and authority figures like teachers didn't value it. Worse, it made them different, and what child wants to be different from her peers?
All that changed when we moved to Tokyo. The Lycée Franco-Japonais was an international school that served the children of French expatriates and other nationalities who aspired to send their children to France for university. This well-educated, well-heeled population had very high standards for the education of their offspring. The parents also had a very different worldview - for many of these French families Japan was their second, third or fourth country. For all that the school followed the French national curriculum and taught for the French bac, multiculturalism and multilinguism were the norm; knowing only one language or culture was the exception. (When the elder Frenchling moved to the US after university she was rather taken aback to be told by some of her American friends that her experiences in France and Japan were not what they meant by "multiculturalism". Why, I'm not sure, but perhaps some of my readers in the US can clarify.)
This meant that there were many language options on the menu. English was offered and for the first time in their lives the Frenchlings had grammar, literature and creative writing classes in the language of Shakespeare taught by native English speakers: Canadians, British and Americans. Their progress was phenomenal and was due as much to the environment and the values of their peers, as it was to the curriculum and the pedagogy. English suddenly became not only useful, but essential. As the Frenchlings went out and about in Tokyo with their friends, it was rare to find fellow Francophones but English-speakers were, if not common, certainly more prevalent.
The French school also had required Japanese classes. It was here that the Frenchlings had their first initiation into that language and from the very start the younger Frenchling was captivated. As for me, the parent who struggled for bilingualism, the idea that my children might be inspired to learn a third language was simply beyond me. I was so invested in the language wars in our home that my linguistic world was strictly limited to the two European languages I knew; I was simply not capable of encouraging a third language, an interloper in my grand, but strictly bi-lingual, plan.
We returned to France and the elder Frenchling went to an English-speaking university in Quebec (McGill) where she refined her English even more. She graduated with honors and I was so proud to read her thesis written in flawless English. The younger Frenchling on her own initiative found a French-English international program offered at a public French high school near Versailles. Delighted that she could continue her English studies, I barely noticed that Japanese was also offered and was only mildly encouraging when the younger Frenchling included that language in her program. (And I note here that the Frenchling's French grandmother was very disappointed that they never studied German - a language that she considers far superior to all others.)
In due time the younger Frenchling followed her sister to Canada. At first it was physics, but after taking her first university-level Japanese class, she changed her major and is now working on a degree in Asian Studies. I find it rather amusing that she is living in Canada, attending a French-speaking university and studying Japanese. How could I not have noticed all those years her efforts and persistence in finding ways to learn more and more Japanese? The optional Japanese language classes in high school; the request for a Japanese tutor in Versailles; the hours spent watching Japanese anime on her computer. What I dismissed as something peripheral to her main course of study is now the center of it.
When I was dreaming bi-lingual dreams for my children, I thought the sun rose and set with French and English, My worth as a mother was to an appalling extent contingent on their language skills and I never questioned the tyranny of those expectations. I could offer English up with every menu, but I could not make them chew on it with pleasure and swallow. Such are the limitations of parental power. I do not regret that they know these languages today, but I recognize that their bi-lingualism was only partly due to my efforts, and that school and peers played a much larger part.
Today what I face as a parent goes beyond accepting past truths: in a role reversal that I was hesitant to accept, my Frenchlings have become my teachers. From my talks with the elder Frenchling I am re-learning American culture. It and the American language have changed in ways that sometimes irritate me, especially when I hear a word, phrase or cultural reference I don't understand As for the younger Frenchling, she has been our guide and translator as we explored the Kansai region. For, to my surprise, my Japanese instructor who is now tutoring my daughter during her stay, has pronounced my daughter proficient in Japanese. She has a good accent, she said, and can hold her own in a conversation. A conversation?
How astonishing, was my first thought, followed by harsh judgement of my own feeble efforts to learn the language. For all that I raged all through the Frenchlings' childhood that English was not valued enough in our home, here I was making a similar judgement about Japanese. I simply did not value the language as highly as French or English and I certainly did not see it as a language to love learning for its own sake as my daughter does.
So, when I agreed to go off to Tokyo with my daughter this week, I put myself in her hands. I listened really listened to her speaking Japanese. When I didn't understand or needed a word, I asked her. And as we strolled through the Naruto exhibition at the Mori Arts Gallery and I looked up and saw a kanji that intrigued me, I turned to the younger Frenchling and asked, "What is that beautiful but terribly complicated character up there? "
And she smiled at her mother and replied, "Love, Mom. It means Love."