Monday, October 31, 2011

The Language of Love

Each week, we come away from our French class with plenty of reinforcement on the basics and lots of new material. As I've mentioned in my previous blog entries, our vocabulary continues to grow and the girls and I are having more and more fun working French into our day to day routine. We are comfortable with talking about general things like our meals, choosing which color dishes or crayons we want to use, and expressing how we are feeling (hungry, thirsty, tired, sad).  We can even talk about the weather a bit, something that got a little more exciting this past weekend with an unexpected October snow:  Mommy! Il neige! Il fait froid! Since we started our Language Stars classes in the summer, we haven't had many chances to to use these particular phrases till now, so the girls were just as excited at the sight of the flurries as they were in their ability to describe them in French.

Still, these phrases are generic and though they are necessary and we are diligent about practicing them, we don't typically stand around each day asking each other our names or having conversations about what color cereal bowl we prefer in English. Every family has their own personal lexicon of pet phrases and inside jokes. One of our latest little pleasures has been translating some of ours into French. For instance, where we used to have a back and forth exchange of "I love you! / I love you more!", we now have fun with it in French:

--Je t'aime!
--Je t'aime plus que tu m'aime!
--Jamais! C'est impossible!

This little exchange had an unanticipated benefit. Carys (5) approached me 30 minutes after finishing her breakfast last Friday:

"Mommy, j'ai faim." (I'm hungry)

Now, this is an ongoing battle with my little one. I'm trying to teach her to identify between actual hunger and thirst or boredom, because there is just no way she can be hungry again so quickly after a meal!

"Carys, that's impossible. You just ate.  Let's go have a glass of milk."

She scrunched her brow in what I thought was disappointment or defiance and said nothing for about 20 seconds. It turns out, she was thinking of her French.

"Mommy.  Jamais j'ai soif."

Never I'm thirsty.

It may not have been grammatically correct, but I got the message (and still made her drink her milk). I knew she didn't just mean that she wasn't thirsty right now, but that the next time she says she's hungry, she won't be thirsty then either! More importantly though, she was plucking vocabulary and meaning from other situations and putting them together herself. 

It was sort of terrific actually.

I've also had the chance to use French to turn around a situation that was going downhill fast.  Carys hates to wear any shoes except Crocs. This means that anytime I try to get her to wear tennis shoes or boots, the whining and crying begins. During one such incident I asked her, Pourquoi pleures-tu? She had no idea what I was saying at first, but with enough gesturing and pointing to her tears, she eventually blurted out, "I'm crying because I don't want to wear shoes!"

As I laced up her sneakers, I distracted her by translating her complaint and repeating it with as much melodrama and as thick a French accent as I could manage:  Je pleure parce que je ne veux pas de porter des chausseures! Sure enough, she was soon trying to hide her smile from me and finally had to give in and burst out laughing.  Bronte and Chloe soon joined in and asked me to keep saying it, adding, "That's why we love French:  Even a goofy sentence like that sounds beautiful!"

Friday, October 28, 2011

Making Friends with Mrs. Darling

"All children, except one, grow up."  
--J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Here is a picture of one of my favorite, most serene moments from our 2011 beach vacation:

Watching my husband and children play on the beach, I felt total peace and contentment.  A verse from one of my favorite hymns came to mind:
"What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease..."
To know me is to know I am a neurotic wimp with some pretty specific and enduring fear issues, so I won't pretend to put myself forward as some warrior mother or a model of unflappable serenity.  But there are some fears that have been stilled. Some strivings that have, at long last, ceased.
To say I had not looked forward to my forties would be an understatement. I had truly dreaded it, taking as my motto that line from When Harry Met Sally when Meg Ryan sobs that 40 is "just sitting there, like some big dead end."  
I was convinced life would be all downhill from 40. I would no longer be able to fool myself that I was still young. I would need to mourn the end of the childbearing years with a considerable measure of wailing and gnashing of teeth. And all those aspirations I hadn't quite managed to achieve yet--write a book, lose 20 pounds, take cello lessons, learn how to work my camera--?  Too late: I had missed my chance.
Man, 39 year olds can be so immature!
As I sat on the beach watching my family this summer, I remembered these things. I laughed about some of them and cringed over others.
I thought of how I whined about turning 40, when a family friend struggling with breast cancer was praying to make it to 40.  She died a few weeks after the birthday she had longed for and I had dreaded.
I thought of my younger brother and sisters and how wonderful it is to watch them come into their own, start their own families, and that the age gap between us that always seemed so huge has diminished and become irrelevant.
I thought of how Anthony and I, no longer run down and harried from caring for infants and  chasing toddlers around the house, have the energy again to stay up past 8:45 and the freedom to have actual, uninterrupted conversations again and have even managed a few trips away--just the two of us.
I thought of my daughters and the pleasure of seeing their personalities take shape and the list I keep of funny remarks they make.  I sighed about the little pain I feel when they don't seem to need me as much and the relief when they decide they haven't quite outgrown me yet.  I smiled thinking of the conversations we have, the topics of which have finally expanded beyond snacks and tattling and wants, but about friends, plans, fears, and dreams.
Today is my birthday. I'm 42.

My fears about turning 40 were, of course, totally unfounded, as all my 40 year old friends had told me beforehand.  My life did not end.  

But my perspective about it has changed.

At the end of the summer I read J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.  I wasn't all that interested in reading it, to be honest, but my sister Megan begged me to, as it is one of her favorites. She had suffered through James Baldwin's Another Country at my request and hated every word of it,  so I really did owe her one.  As I read the first paragraph of Peter Pan, my throat tightened painfully and my eyes stung with tears:

"All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end."
This is where the focus of my life is, not in wishing I could "remain like this forever," but in wishing my children could! It isn't seeing my life rushing by that makes me wistful, but watching them rushing through theirs.  I don't identify with Peter Pan (though I obviously did at 39!) or even Wendy, who loved to play at being a grown up, but knew full well she was really still a child. 

No, I am happy to be a friend of Mrs. Darling, savoring those prickly-sweet moments of my daughters' childhood adventures. I still have dreams, but they mostly come down to this: Being what they need me to be while they still need me and, however much I put my hand to my heart and try to resist it, helping them grow up until they don't.

My girls took me out to my favorite Thai restaurant for my birthday lunch: My treat! :)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Language Mash Ups

We have been homeschooling our children since 2006, but for the past two years we have used a Classical model, which includes studying Latin. My husband was skeptical at first. Why does a 4 year old need to memorize Latin declensions? I was vaguely aware that at their age, the girls have an amazing capacity for memorization.  But I mainly flashed forward twelve years and savored the idea of brilliant SAT scores and fantasized about replacing readings of The Polar Express during the holidays with this:

Reality is not my forte.

The truth is, my daughters weren't that thrilled with memorizing their Latin last year, but this year things are different. And I believe in large part, it is because they are studying French. We all know that French is a Romance language, meaning it is Latin-based, so we have found many opportunities to draw a connection between our Latin and French studies. Some of those connections are obvious:  et in Latin and French means and; est translates to is in both languages. Illum is a form of him in Latin, while in French, il can mean he.

Other comparisons might be less solid, but still help them as mnemonic devices, if nothing else. For instance, one of the first French words they learned was lunettes (sunglasses) and they had plenty of occasion to tout their new word all summer (Mommy, could you hand me my lunettes? Or, more often:  Mommy! Chloe took my pink lunettes! Her lunettes are the blue ones!). When we were learning the Latin word lucet (shines), they struggled. We settled on the idea that we wear our lunettes because the sun lucet.  I started to go down the path of lune is moon in French and then the moon roof in our van cuts the sunlight and then their eyes glazed over and I decided the lu- connection and the kind-of rhyme was good enough.  And it was. 

This week, Carys (5) was having a hard time with the Latin word principio. It means beginning, so I plugged it into her Sunday school memory verse, saying "In the principio, God created the heavens and the earth."  Enough said.  She had it. A few days later, we were in the car and the girls were singing one of their little French songs about putting the trash dans la poubelle. The next thing I hear is Carys stating, matter of factly:  "Mommy! Dans la principio, God created the heavens and the earth."

What shall we call this new language? Frengtin? Latfrish? 

Whatever we decide to call it, it illustrates the real turning point in the girls' increased willingness to work on their Latin memorization and that's the confidence they've gained each week in French. They understand now that they are capable of learning a new language. I've watched their intensity shift: First, they were nervous they wouldn't be able to understand what Clémentine was saying to them. Now they know they can trust her to make sure they will understand. With this assurance, I see them challenge themselves and each other to be able to respond to Clémentine in French, quickly and correctly. 

Our French vocabulary is growing weekly, but is still very limited. The girls are hungry for more, so on top of practicing with our Learning Stars handouts, we've added a translator app and a French tutor app to my iPhone to give us a boost. 

In the meantime, we continue to speak in mash ups, forming sentences with a mix of French and English and, yes, Latin. Who knows, maybe one day we'll write our own Seuss translation: One Fish, Two Fish, Rouge Fish, Latfrish.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Owning It

In my first post about our French classes at Language Stars, I promised to answer this question:  

"Why, when your children's father is fluent in Spanish and their grandparents are native Spanish speakers, did you sign them up for French?" 

The reason is simple: Because their father is fluent in Spanish and their  grandparents are native Spanish speakers.

Can't they teach them Spanish? It's true we dropped the ball when the girls were babies. As I've said, I realize now that the smart thing would have been to make Anthony and his parents speak to the girls only in Spanish. Still, it seems silly to put the burden of teaching the girls Spanish on their gringa mother now.

The rest of my reasoning is this: I studied French for 7 years from middle school through my first two years in college. In fact, I was originally a French major when I started at George Mason University 24 years ago (though my proficiency has long since evaporated). I don't speak Spanish and, to be frank, I would simply prefer to relearn my French than learn Spanish. If that sounds selfish, so be it. As a homeschooling mom, I have to teach my girls everything, whether I like it or not. Is it so wrong to choose one subject for them that I want to learn, too? I'm not afraid to admit to the fact that I'm as thrilled with the French classes for what I'm getting out of it as I am for what the girls are gaining: It gives us something extra to enjoy together, to bond over. It keeps me motivated to stick to it with them!

So, last Thursday, when we had to miss French class because my husband and I had a conference to attend, I was as disappointed as the girls.  Brontë and Chloë had new French books to show Clémentine and Carys was eager to "show" her that she could now count to 15 in French. I was worried missing a class would slow us down. We are already feeling impatient to learn more and though I would love to add an extra 90 minutes of class a week, it just isn't realistic for us at the moment.

The girls didn't let missing a class break their stride, however. They turned to their new books and picked out words they knew and asked me to help them with words they didn't know. They used the phrases they are most familiar with more often and with less prompting from me. They don't have everything down perfectly yet, of course. Carys doesn't seem to get that je means I, so she will ask for a drink by saying, "Mommy, I'm j'ai soif."  They asked me to read to them in French: Though they don't understand what I am reading (and neither do I half the time), they love hearing the language and scream with delight even at my pitifully rusty accent. 

They are digging in. They are claiming this project as their own.

A few weeks ago, Brontë mentioned to a visiting friend, "We go to French classes."  This week, I overheard her tell someone, "We speak French." While we may not "speak French" yet, it illustrated to me that she wants to speak French, that this isn't merely a class she's taking but an experience she's incorporating into her life and forming goals around. 

This mental shift, if turns out, was right in step with yesterday's class. Our new material centered around the alphabet and then the topic of recycling with Clémentine asking if various objects were recyclable (Est-ce que je peux recycler le journal?) and the children answering ("Oui, je peux recycler le journal!").

When it came time for snack, the routine changed a bit. Instead of Clémentine asking the group the usual questions, each child was given the task of making the inquiries. It was exciting to see them take on this responsibility and challenge and even more so to catch a glimpse of their satisfaction in knowing, for that moment anyhow, they could say, "We speak French."