Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Sky Is Bleu

It's a funny thing raising an accidentally bilingual child.  Suddenly I have a much greater appreciation for immigrant parents in the US who send their children off to school and quickly become unable to help them in many respects.

Baby Oil has been attending a French nursery school (glorified day care, but nursery school sounds better) for about nine months.  It's a few hours every morning, and a fair amount of time is spent playing with toys.  The halte garderie is private and serves a significant number of expat families (five kids from our area's expat 2011 baby playgroup attend).  We are still mostly unclear about how much French Baby Oil understands while he's there, and how much he actually speaks. 

Yet in recent weeks, his French has started bubbling to the surface.  There was the day he came home and pointed out that "the sky is bleu."  For several days thereafter, if you tried to tell him anything was the color blue, he would correct you, and say, "No! Bleu.

There was the week the school dedicated to animals.  After that, we were summarily instructed to say "elephant" ("eh-lay-foh") instead of elephant, and "girafe" ("ghee-rahf") for giraffe. 

Somewhere along the way, Baby Oil started a gimick in which he would ask, "Tap?" and then attempt to smack Mademoiselle.  This was confusing because tapping someone is not necessarily hitting, and we didn't know what he meant by wanting to tap her.  But I mentioned this recurring scenario to a friend and she pointed out that "taper" in French can mean to slap or hit.  Point to the nursery school for teaching my toddler to ask if he may hit his sister in French. 

Interpreting toddler-speak is not easy in one language, and certainly gets more confusing when the toddler has access to a second language, and the parents don't know what he's learned in that second language.  Baby Oil's love of "gateau chocolat" has been clearly documented, and his big sentence in French revolves around that love - "Tu as fait du gateau?" (Did you make a cake?)

The only word we use for pacifier in our house is tetine, both because that is what the school calls it (though Baby Oil does not take his out of the crib these days, for the record) and also because frankly I don't like the word pacifier and I really don't like the term binky.  On occasion, Baby Oil has referred to his tetine as a tetifier - a combination of English and French terms. 

If Mr. Oil or I try to talk to him in French, it usually falls flat as he expects English from us.  And sometimes if he picks out a French book to read, and we begin to read it in French, he will stop us and say, "No! Read it!"  Because apparently reading in French is not actually reading.  But when a friend who is French - though is always speaking English around us, of course - reads to him in French, he happily soaks up every word and appears to follow the story.

Most of my friends here are raising children in bilingual households because one of the parents is French.  They have their own set of stories about specific items or phrases coming out only in one language, or emerging preferences for one language (usually French) over the other (usually English).  Parenting is often a humbling experience, but so far one of the most significant realizations of my own limitations is when my son says a word that I know means something in another language, but I don't know what it means.  Or when he nods along with a story that I can barely follow.  Or simply knowing that he spends more than 15 hours each week in a French-only environment whereas I spend none in such a world.  At the same time, I also feel fortunate to be able to give my son this gift - even if its only temporarily.

The sky is bleu.  I wonder what we'll learn tomorrow!