The French Language Pack is Downloading

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Five or six houses down the street in our quiet Ottawa suburb lives a neighbour I make sure to avoid.

Both her son and her are a bit older than Mark and I. She must have noticed us at the park or in the street when Mark was a toddler because I don’t think we’ve ever been introduced formally but she seems to know a lot about me.

About two years ago, I was walking home with Mark and she was standing on her driveway. She greeted us and immediately mentioned it was weird I was talking to him in English—I have no idea why and how she knew I was French.

“We speak English at home,” I shrugged.

“But why?”

Why? In short, because reasons. Because we live in Ottawa, a predominantly English-speaking city. Because Feng speaks English and Mandarin and I speak English, Mandarin, French and good-enough Spanish, and English is our lingua franca. Because all of my friends and business contacts in Canada speak English (plus their mother tongue, if applicable) and it just makes sense to me to be consistent and think in this language as well.

“One parent, one language,” she started lecturing me. “My husband only speaks English to our son and I only speak my mother tongue to him. And now, he’s bilingual!”

I shrugged again. “I’m familiar with the approach. It’s great if it worked for you!”

“Did you at least try it?”

Did I? Maybe. I did speak French to Mark when he was a baby and a toddler, before he started daycare at two years old, when he was hanging out with me all day. Yes, I’m pretty sure I was speaking French. I must have said things like “allez, dodo!,” “a dada sur mon bidet” and other awfully deep and linguistically complex sentences, including a quick introduction to French nursery rhythms and a few swear words when I was exhausted after several sleepless nights in a row.

“Yes,” I replied. “I guess it just didn’t work for us.”

“You should have tried harder! Do you realize how important it is to speak several languages?”

Again, I do. I’m a fucking translator, lady. And it’s not like I woke up one morning and decided that I should make sure Mark doesn’t speak French.

See, it was all about priorities.

Our priority was to make sure baby Mark, and later toddler Mark, was reaching all the milestones. It’s been a little while now and even I’m starting to forget how stressful the first years are, but take my word for it—the ever-changing sleeping and eating schedule plus diaper changes, playtime, bathtime, etc. keep you busy.

The second priority was running the household and working, and the third priority was sleeping enough to make sure we could accomplish the above-mentioned tasks. So no, I didn’t have extra brain cells to dedicate to Mark’s linguistic experience and above all, Feng and I had to communicate and be on the same page and for that, we have to use the one language we both master.

“Babies learn languages so easily,” she added.

Do they? Because that’s something easy to forget if you haven’t been around babies and toddlers in a while—learning to talk takes forever. The first few words come fast enough—mama, dada, cat, dog, moon—but vocabulary is very limited. Making complete sentences that make sense takes another few years. Grammar is a work in progress.

I kind of laugh at anyone who claims their one-year-old baby is bilingual. Oh really? He can say “me poop” in two different languages?

“We speak three languages at home,” I added. “English, French, Mandarin… at one point, we had to use one of these languages consistently so that Mark could learn to speak and express himself. He was getting frustrated.”

“Wait… are you saying his dad doesn’t speak to him in Mandarin? What a shame!”

And this is exactly why I avoid this neighbour. Every time I see her, she inquires about Mark’s progress in French—or rather she asks if I “finally” decided to speak French to him.

Goddamnit, lady, mind your own fucking business!

Well, I’m happy to say the French language pack is downloading. Mark’s French improved a lot this summer. He understands pretty much everything we say, he makes sentences, argues in French, say very normal things like “j’sais pas” and “n’importe quoi!” and has a strong opinion on croissants vs. pains au chocolat vs. chouquettes.

The kid is kind of French, after all. Still avoiding this neighbour, though.

Eating chouquettes, Jardin des Plantes, Nantes

Eating chouquettes, Jardin des Plantes, Nantes

Café Cult', rue des Carmes, Nantes

Café Cult’, rue des Carmes, Nantes

Procé area, Nantes

Procé area, Nantes

Procé area, Nantes

Procé area, Nantes

Cour Guist'hau, Nantes

Cour Guist’hau, Nantes

Doulon, Nantes

Doulon, Nantes

Doulon, Nantes

Doulon, Nantes

Eating a croissant, Boulevard Gaston Serpette, Nantes

Eating a croissant, Boulevard Gaston Serpette, Nantes

Eating a croissant, Boulevard Gaston Serpette, Nantes

Eating a croissant, Boulevard Gaston Serpette, Nantes

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

17 Comments

  1. Martin Penwald on

    Ça serait complètement idiot d’apprendre le Français et le Mandarin et pas l’Anglais à un enfant vivant dans une province anglophone. Et sabrer l’un et/ou l’autre au profit de l’anglais est le choix logique.
    Maintenant que Mark commence à être à l’aise en Français et qu’il maîtrise l’Anglais, c’est différent. Pratiquer est le meilleur moyen de garder la langue, et d’un point de vue canadien, être bilingue français/anglais est un atout.

    • I think we both wanted Mark to start somewhere and be confident in one language to use it as a reference language. I understand some kids seem to learn two or more languages simultaneously but it just didn’t work for us.

  2. this OPOL thing seems to be introduced/encourage to Indonesian Parent community, whose spouse isn’t Indonesia and they live abroad. So when they get back to Indonesia either for vacation or for good, kids are able to communicate with relatives.
    but Ya..different family adopt different thing though. Btw, I like your fifth picture. Mark in left corner looking at the building with red door across the street. The composition is good and tells story. what building is it?

    • We were talking a walk through Nantes with my brother, this is a posh high school, the Collège et Lycée Françoise d’Amboise, just a few blocks from my own high school 🙂

  3. Cecile Puertas on

    Hello Juliette
    Non mais de quoi elle se mêle ta voisine ?
    Ton fils parle anglais, comprend le français et le mandarin. Combien d’enfants de cet âge peuvent en faire autant ? Pas tant que cela…
    Je suis certaine que Mark parlera un jour le français quasi couramment, les opportunités sont nombreuses pour lui (famille française, école avec programme linguistique bilingue, et plus tard stages ou voyages l’amèneront à améliorer encore sa maîtrise)
    Et puis qui sait il épousera peut-être une Bresilienne et parlera couramment portugais

    • The part about marrying a Brazilian woman made me smile 🙂

      My neighbour is… well, a bit bossy. Mind you, many people gave me unwanted advice regarding Mark’s language abilities (or lack thereof). I’m always happy to talk about it, trilingual households aren’t that common, but my caveat is always “sounds easy on paper, less in real life”.

  4. Your neighbor is maybe reading this post….
    I don’t have a kid but I totally get your point. One does what’s best for oneself. I don’t understand why some people still think what’s best for them is best for everyone.

  5. C’est vrai que c’est ce qu’on dit, et je connais qq familles bilingues ou trilingues qui l’ont appliqué avec succès. Mais entre vouloir et pouvoir, il y a un pas. On fait ce qu’on peut, avec son quotidien et ses priorités. Vous passez du temps en France chaque année et je n’ai aucun doute qu’il finira par être parfaitement bilingue. Ses grands parents paternels parlent mandarin j’imagine alors pourquoi ne finirait-il pas par être fluent également?

    • I think that’s the takeaway point–it takes time. Learning a language, even if spoken at home or by relatives, takes time and effort. You don’t just “pick it up”.

  6. Maybe she knows you so well because she reads your blog… and now she is REALLY pissed off 😉

    I have sooo many example of kids with bilingual parents that aren’t… or are… bilingual themselves… My nephew speaks French with him mum, spanish with his dad. A friend was born in Germany, but her parents were respectively British and Swedish. So they decided to teach her “only” English and German. Another Friend has a French-speaking dad and a Swiss-german mum. I think her mum tried to speak Swiss german to her as a kid, but she didn’t like it and so she never learned. But her older brothers did.

    So… I must admit that I was suprised the first time I read on your blog that your son didn’t speak French. Surprised, but not shocked, or anything 😉 And your are SO right when you say it is all about priorities… I had so many preconceptions on how I would raise my kids… before I had kids… Well, I discovered that it was NOT that easy. Almost nothing of what I had imagined actually happened. So… let Mark be happy, and learn whatever language he wants / can learn later 😉

    • I totally understand people who wonder about Mark’s language abilities! I think my mistake was to say Mark didn’t speak French. I didn’t realize until last year that Mark didn’t speak any language that well, period, much like other toddlers or young kids. Language acquisition takes time and we forget how long it is for kids to just use proper vocabulary and sentences in one language! I also like to stress on the fact that learning a language takes time and effort. He didn’t inherit my French speaking abilities just because I happen to be French.

  7. As long as he says pain au chocolat and not chocolatine!! 😉 I generally try to blend with my linguistic surroundings that is where I draw the line!

        • Team pain au chocolat!
          It’s such a sensitive subject as well. I have a friend (single dad) from Mexico who only speaks Spanish with his daughter. She speaks English with her mum and maternal grandmother at the weekend and goes to French immersion!
          Apparently grandma isn’t happy he speaks Spanish with her. But his daughter doesn’t like him speaking English, his English isn’t the best, and it works for them.
          I guess each family handles it differently…

          • You’re right, I think there’s no rule, it really depends on the family setting. We all agree that it would be cool if Mark could speak English, French and Mandarin but it just doesn’t work for us to use only Mandarin and French at home and let school handle English, for instance. We need a lingua franca and Mark picked up this lingua franca, which is English.

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