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.
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.