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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Battle for Bi-lingualism

"Making sure my children are at least proficient in conversational French is a goal I have set myself despite the setbacks. A recent event has given me reason for hope. At a market in London's east end, overhearing excited shouts in French, we stopped to watch some boys playing football in a yard. They were being overseen by a group of besuited men on the steps of a nearby community centre. The boys and their fathers were from several Francophone African countries, the Ivory Coast, Congo, Guinea. Noticing my son’s interest, they asked if he wanted to join the game. As the football was kicked back and forth, I heard my son speak French, not just once, but several times over."

Ben Faccini
In a world that converses only in English, we’ll talk only of banal things: that’s why I want my children to be bilingual

This is a moment that a frustrated minority language parent will treasure forever - hearing the children use the other family language in public.  

When I listen to people in France or the United States who are shocked that there are innocent children out there whose parents are foisting another language on them at home, thus destroying any chance that they will learn the official language of the country, I literally erupt in laughter.

Their concern is misplaced.  The problem is not learning the official language which they will do because children are social creatures with intelligence and a desire to communicate with their peers, but that the minority language of one or more of the parents will be completely lost in a sea of English, French or whatever majority language the children are being exposed to.

This is the battle that many migrants and partners in a bi-national couple fight every day.   Not to make their homes a bastion of the minority language against the country and culture they live in, but to impart, however imperfectly, some of the mother tongue of a distant land that the parent or parents once called "home".

It's hard to raise children to be bi-lingual and the results of the efforts are uncertain.  Maybe the children will grow to be bi-lingual adults or maybe not. What I've seen is a continuum of children raised in bi-lingual households ranging from the ability to understand a little and say a few words in the other language to full fluency (accent, understanding, reading, writing, speaking). 

And that is just as true of children whose parents are trying to teach them a "useful" or "important" language like English or French, as it is in the transmission of other languages with less prominence and perceived utility.  A child doesn't necessarily understand those adult prejudices - all he or she knows is that mom (or dad) talks "funny". 

Faccini, a bilingual French/English speaker who lives in London and whose dreams of raising French speakers was crashing on the shoals of reality, describes beautifully the forces against the minority language parent:
"Introducing French into the family equation has undoubtedly been an additional complication. It skews mealtimes, often setting off lopsided conversations, pitting my French against everyone else’s English. It makes the children feel they are being judged and tested. And, despite their growing comprehension of French, they’ll find any excuse to walk a few steps behind me on the way to school in case I’m overheard. They stick their fingers in their ears when the Petit Nicolas CD is played in the car. They wriggle their way out of talking to French-speaking friends and family members by perfectly mimicking Gallic shrugs, sometimes accompanied by Parisian-sounding ‘errrrs’, or else they clam up completely. Most of their conversations end up wordless. A thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, offered with a cherubic smile, usually settles a wide range of issues."
One important omission in Faccini's post is the role played by the other parent which in this case is his wife.  From the article it appears she is a native English speaker and he neglects to mention how she feels about his effort to promote French in their UK household.  One thing I have learned from the readers of this blog and from Gabrielle Varro's work is that the attitude of the other parent is crucial.  

Where the native speaker parent doesn't value the other language, doesn't show any interest in learning it, and demonstrates by word, deed and attitude that this is not a common project, he/she subtly undermines the parent with the minority language.  In a bi-national couple this can become the source of much anger and frustration which may never be openly expressed, but festers at the heart of the marriage. 

Is the effort to transmit the minority language worth the trip?  Faccini thinks so and so do I.  He has his reasons and I have mine -  some of which I admit have a lot to do with my struggles as a woman migrant (guilt, pressure from the homeland, and identity crisis).

What we share, I think, is the utter delight we felt when all those efforts  paid off and we heard our mother tongue spontaneously coming from the mouths of our progeny.  Like Faccini  I had to wait many years for those moments and allow me to share with you one of the very best ones.

At the age of 14 the younger Frenchling decided to write a novel in English.  Took her two years of struggle but she finally finished it at the age of 16.  It's a fabulous first effort.

And when I read it, I cried.


Catherine said...

:) Love that moment you've left us with. Not picking up my mother's language is one of the bigger regrets. It isn't just about the ability to communicate, but also better identify with a heritage & a culture.

Kristin said...

As Catherine said, loved the ending. Bravo to your Frenchling for this accomplishment!

When the old ladies in our village overheard me speaking English to our then toddler, they could not help themselves, "But he will have mental problems. Speak only French and CEASE to jumble his mind!" Yikes! What was a young migrant to think? If not to think for herself.... And so began the difficult, sometimes impossible endeavor of teaching the mother tongue. Our children were embarrased to. And then the day came when they were so very proud!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Catherine, My mom feels the same way. She was kicking her mother (my grandmother) and her great aunt for not passing along French. But when she was a kid French was the "secret" language that great-grandma used with her sister when they didn't want the kids to understand what they were saying. :-)

@Kristin, Loved your post and the pictures. And I just had to laugh at your story. In my case it was the local French public school - oh did they give me a hard time for speaking English to my Frenchlings.

But today yours are happy and proud to be anglophones, right?

The revenge of the moms who talk "funny". :-)

Blaze said...

@Victoria: I have a Canadian friend born in the Netherlands. She immigrated to Canada in 1951 with her family when she was 364 days old. She was able to fly for free because she was under the age of one.

The only time her parents ever spoke Dutch was when they were arguing or when they were talking about something they didn't want the kids to know.

She never told them she could understand every word. When she visited relatives in The Netherlands about 10 years ago, she and they were amazed she was speaking fluent Dutch within four days.

Sally said...

@Blaze: I have a Czech friend who says his parents and grandmother used German for "secret conversations" that the children weren't supposed to understand. Needless to say, his German is excellent. And he doesn't get it mixed up with the other 3 languages he speaks fluently.

Anonymous said...

Canada is almost unique in choosing official bi-lingualism
as a force toward national unity.
most countries including France choose official unilingualism.
the Viliers-Coteret proclamation made French the language for judicial documents replacing Latin and supplanting regional languages Provencal, Alsatian etc
as well as community languages like Tsarfatit and Shuadit

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Good point, Anonymous, and I've seen that Canada is often criticized for choosing a policy of bi-lingualism.

But France is also heavily criticized for her stand on minority languages. Here's a post I wrote about France and the European Charter for Minority Languages: