Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How I wonder what you are

I was cuddling Miss M on the couch Saturday morning, cradling my coffee in one hand and a book in the other. My arm was around her and the chill of our back family room bit our noses as we snuggled under a blanket. This is one of the most familiar and cherished scenes in my life, as comfortable and familiar as my stretched elastic waistband pajamas and my worn-out sheep skin slippers. In that end-of-book silent pause Miss M burst into song:

J'aime papa
J'aime mama
J'aime Baby Daisy aussie

"What?" I thought to myself with more than a few exclamation marks. To the best of my knowledge, my daughter does not speak French. Yet here she was declaring her love (if rather dubiously in the same company as Baby Daisy) in the language of love itself.

WASPy old me, I speak French about as well as the next box of Shreddies. I do, however, live in Canada's only officially bilingual province, a province that is butted up against Quebec. Suffice to say my ear knows the difference between Ken Dryden French and la chose authentique. Miss M was singing la langue propre. One of her sitters is francophone by birth and, no doubt, she has been singing and possibly even speaking to Miss M in French, all of which is lovely. It's just that until this moment I didn't know. This woman is accent-free bilingual and I have a very unilingual relationship with her. I didn't have a clue that she was bilingual with my daughter.

This moment of being ripped quickly and wholly from my profoundly familiar world got me thinking about the power of language to transform. It also got me really thinking about the infant ability to absorb and acquire language in all its verbal complexity. Language acquisition is an aptitude that erodes quickly as we age. This fact saddens me greatly. Just imagine what our lives would be like if we retained this ability as we got older, the ability to hear and speak the words of others correctly, as they were intended, and with all the beauty and nuance of the native tongue. Imagine if we had access to all the world's languages to pick and choose from as we wish. Imagine if we could each make a lexicon of our own choosing to describe the world according to our own sense of aesthetics. There are definitely English words I adore like "slacks," "sandwich" and "chesterfield" that I would always keep in my vocabulary but oh how wonderful it would be to augment them with multi-lingual synonyms. I could take étoile instead of "star"; casa instead of "house"; kuchen instead of "cake", and so on and so on and so on. I could find those necessary words for which there is no equivalent in English. My world would expand according to my ability to describe it.

Indulging in all these wild imaginings has led me to realize that with each passing day Miss M becomes further enslaved by her mother tongue. I see it time and again. She encounters a word, she plays with it on her tongue, and eventually she adopts it with an evolving-to-correct pronunciation. The signified gets nailed to its signifier. Each time this happens her world becomes more concrete yet somehow so much more narrow for it. It's as if all the million possible alternative synonyms die in that moment of her very concrete language acquisition.

Fortunately I do hear sounds of rebellion coming from her, indications that she is willing to take agency and name the world for herself with her own words. Her favourite song right now is "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." For the longest time she believed the word for "star" was "twinkle" and because she could not pronounce "twinkle" she substituted her version, "Wait-da" instead. "Wait-da, wait-da" she sings day and night, particularly on cloudless nights from atop the swing in the park. Her command of the language is much better now and she definitely knows that the proper term for those points of light is "star" but she has consciously decided, in this instance, to name the world her way. Those magical dots in the sky and in the books, those brilliant companions to the "moooon", they simply can't be anything as prosaic as "stars"; no, they can't even be the more mystical étoiles of that other tongue she has heard; no those sparkling diamonds must be "wait-das." It's as if her entire understanding of the cosmos is weighted upon this knowledge of the right and proper word, this perfect marriage of signifier and signified.

Oh, where is this post going? There is so much I want to say about language and the way it brings us freedom because it gives us the power of understanding; about places in the world where being multi-lingual is simply a way of life; about my own regrets at being too poor and insecure to follow through with the Au Pair posting I had lined up in Paris the year after high school only to watch my French-language skills wither and die; about the size of Shakespeare and Joyce's vocabularies; about the dwindling lexicon of high school students today versus fifty years ago; about how my own relationship to words is one of the most powerful and transformative forces in my life; about the fact that I would genuinely like my daughter to learn as many languages as she can so that her world and her mind will be more expansive for it; about how I fear that ticking time-clock of lost aptitude because I also fervently believe these first few years should be entirely about play not structured learning; about the despair of living in a province with separate French, English, and Immersion school systems and a population-base that can support none of them adequately; and about the beauty of being told "I love you" in language and song that exists just beyond my grasp.


mo-wo said...

I hear where this post went. Hmmmmm, what now.

Em said...

Your post resonates so strongly with me... I developed a passion for languages after I left school and I was desperate to learn a foreign language. I spent a year in France as an au pair (I went never having studied French and not speaking a single word), studied french at university and lived in Brussels for two years. My french is good but I'll never be truly, deeply fluent.

If I could give one thing to my children it would be a second language... when we were in Brussels my son went to a French school and he learnt to speak French fluently. It was beautiful and awe-inspiring. It broke my heart when we left Brussels - because despite my best efforts he did not retain a single word. In fact, after a couple of weeks he even resisted me speaking to him in French and told me to use English. He was determined to fit in with his US classmates, which meant being monolingual and thus he was determined to forget his French. I'll always feel sad about this.

In Australia, unless one parent speaks a second language, there is not much hope for people who want to raise a bilingual child. Bilingual schools do not exist, languages are not taught until high school and are not taught particularly well. There isn't much motivation for children to learn because there isn't much opportunity for a child to use a second language. I've tried to interest my son in attending French classes outside of school, but he'd rather play cricket now... and I guess I have to respect that :)

DaniGirl said...

This is the first of your posts I have read, and what a wonderful introduction! Any blogger who can write such a gorgeous lament and tribute to language goes instantly into my 'must read' list.

I've agonized with bilingualism all year. I struggled and failed twice to pass my government French test, and finally succeeded on the third try. I also enrolled my eldest son in a junior kindergarten immersion program (they speak English one week and French the next) despite my very strong concerns that he will end up master of neither language.

What a great post - I can't wait to read more!

Andrea said...

This was really beautiful.

I speak a smattering of French and German--enought that I get them confused and end up with sentences made up of each.

The way I heard it was that sounds heard in the first few years of life are retained--the synapses for them don't wither--so if your daughter hears French consistently at this age her capacity for learnign languages will be greater for her entire life. It is a tremendous gift, and does not require structured learning. I'm very jealous!

Beck said...

Gasp! This post was SO beautiful! I studied Latin at the university level and what do I recall of it? Nada, zilch, not enough to direct one gladiator to one Coliseum.

Mad Hatter said...

Beck, it's probably in the Gladiator's best interest to avoid the Coliseum at all costs anyway. Glad you liked the post.

bubandpie said...

I can still remember how very excited I felt as a child at the idea of learning another language. We didn't begin taking French until grade six in those days, and I always appreciated the romance and mystery of being able to speak in another tongue - even after that mystery was reduced to the humdrum banality of "Bonjour mes amis! Bonjour Madame Fortner!"

Julie Pippert said...

Oh AWESOME post!

My youngest is working on the speech thing and it's amazing.

Plus funny...you know, as she has some misses with the hits.

There's a children's authors Something Clements (not literally Something...that's code for "Having a Mommy Moment and Can't Recall) and he has a book called Frindle about a kid who questions why things are called what they are...so he makes up a different word for a pen and it catches on.

Anyway...love these musings. :)

Momish said...

Being an avid language nut, I loved this post. I am in awe of watching my daughter's language skill take off and soar higher with each day. It's truly an amazing miracle! Great, great post!

Anonymous said...

I tried to post earlier and blogger kicked me out. Probably because I said I think Raffi sings a song with those lyrics.

I absolutely love your fantasy. I truly envy the multi-lingual.

My daughter is in school with 3 Indian children this year. One asked her, "How did you learn English?" Fiona responded, "I was born, I learned the words." So simple.

penelopeto said...

I make up words all the time and i'm teaching my daughter to swear in yiddish.

how's that for contributing to the evolution of linguistics?

cinnamon gurl said...

I couldn't comment yesterday when I first read this because I had to think first.

In my marvelling at how little ones pick up language, pretty much only from social context, I have only really thought of language of liberating. But you're right; it's simultaneously liberating and restricting.

One of the many things I love about South Africa is that it has 11 (eleven!) official languages. Many signs have the 4 most common languages on them. Most of the time in public, there was at least one conversation going on near me in a language I couldn't understand.

I think I was in university before I really understood that translation is only ever an approximation, and I found that tremendously exciting somehow.

I love daufiero's anecdote about her daughter's answer.

ewe are here said...

Truly a great post.

I desperately want MF to learn other languages while he's young. I think it's so important. I had years and years of French, and then Latin in University (don't ask!), and still don't have 'the ear' for it. I actively encourage my husband's mom, who's Norwegian, to sing and speak to him in Norwegian whenever she feels like it. Just so he can get a feel for the differences early on ...

Oh. And 'Etoile'. Yes! Have always loved that sound!

Karen said...

What a beautifully written post about one of my favorite subjects! I teach Spanish at my younger son's preschool and I have to say it's one of the best jobs I've ever had. Each time I'm absolutely amazed at how quickly they pick the language up. Unfortunately I only get 20 minutes per week which is so frustrating. I don't understand why foreign language is not right up there with other subjects. At home I speak Spanish to my children, but not as much as I should. I need to work on that. Might have to print your post to use as inspiration. :)

Susanne said...

This is coming at a very appropriate time for me. I have just enrolled my son in English class again, and then a friend told me that English for first-graders is much the same as for kindergarteners (which he took for three years), and consists of learning words only like the colors, some animals and fruit. He has yet to learn to form a sentence. I'm sure that if I only threw him in a room with a couple of English-speaking children once or twice a week he'd be almost fluent by now.
It's such a waste. the discussion about how children learn foreign languages has led schools to start English (our major second language here in Germany) earlier than before but the children don't learn to speak it.

I might just look for some DVDs and board books in English and teach him on my own...

Speaking different languages as well as learning about different cultures definitely broadens the horizon... Ask me about that.