"I don't like school. It's too hard."
My four-year-old son looked up at me in September last year, his big brown eyes brimming with tears and begging for sleep.
I felt panic. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all. We had enrolled him in junior kindergarten at a French school. Not French immersion, but actual French school.
Because my husband is French from Quebec and studied in French, our son could attend a public French first-language school. Even at the junior kindergarten level, it runs all day, every day, and, as proudly proclaimed to me by the school personnel, " on ne parle pas d'anglais ici." We don't speak English here. Not ever.
It had seemed like a great idea. My husband is French, my in-laws are French, the language is in their blood. Oui? Non. Since the kids were at home with me more often, their first language is English. While my husband tried to speak French with them, he wasn't consistent enough. The kids understood English and would stare bewildered at him when he spoke to them in French. He'd try and try but eventually he would switch back to English.
I speak French well enough. I took French classes all the way through high school. I even continued with a couple of courses in university, but it was only when I spent a six-week immersion in Trois-Rivières, that I felt capable of communicating in French. I still guess at masculine and feminine and randomly use le and la.
Although I dreamed of having bilingual kids, I avoided speaking French to them because I wanted them to learn the language without an English accent and without all my grammatical errors. It also didn't feel natural to speak to my own children in a second language.
When we enrolled our eldest son in French school, his placement test showed he didn't understand or respond to instructions in French. We could have told them that. "You need to speak French at home all the time - do it over the next few months," the teachers told us in French. So, our home became a French battlefield.
Early attempts sounded like this:
Papa: S'il te plaît, mange ton broccoli.
Son: Blah blah blah, blah blah broccoli.
Conversations that began in French would quickly find their way to English. By the fall little French had been learned. My daughter, who was two and a half and would be attending the daycare connected to the French school, didn't pick up anything either. After three days the instructor asked me if she spoke English or French. Apparently, she hadn't spoken a word at all in any language.
Two difficult months passed. My son was exhausted. He wasn't used to skipping his afternoon nap, going to school full-time and listening to French all day. My daughter paced in her classroom for the first few weeks until she tired.
In November, everything changed. We added a baby boy to the family and my two older kids added French. The difference was that it took me nine months to grow the baby; the kids grew French in only two.
They now enjoyed going to school just as much as they enjoyed coming home to see their baby brother. They held his hands and sang French lullabies to him and told him he was " mignon" (cute). They fought - in French - over who got to sit closest to him.
One day my son asked me how to say " rouge" in English. I looked at him shocked. "Red," I said. As happy as I was that his French had come along, I started to worry they would forget their English. How can he not know how to say a simple colour that he's known since he was 2?
In December, we spent the holidays in Montreal, where the kids' French-speaking cousins were thrilled they could all play together. Everyone was happy they were doing so well in French.
My now-bilingual kids were completely integrated into French school. They loved it. They were eagerly bringing home more and more homework.
One day my son had to cut out pictures from the paper that began with the letter S. No problem, I could help him with this. Socks? No. Santa? No. Strawberry? No. Sausage? Yes! But it's saucisse in French. Spaghetti? Sandwich? Yes - and they are both spelled the same in French - bonus. We cut and pasted. I wondered if his teacher would catch on that we only cut out S words that were the same in English and French.
In the spring, my son picked up the use of the subjunctive - an advanced verb tense that I only learned in first-year university. He went around saying, " il faut que ça soit égal" (it has to be equal) and " il faut que j'aille au toilette" (I have to go to the washroom).
I was amazed. I usually avoided that verb tense or went ahead and guessed, knowing that what I was saying was probably wrong. But there was my four-year-old son rattling off his newly learned French grammar.
Now I was panicking that the kids were going to speak better French than me. They were going to be perfect French speakers and would laugh at, correct or, worse, be embarrassed of their not-quite-bilingual mother. While it's every parent's dream that their children are successful, I don't think I'm ready for my kids to surpass my French ability - at least not until they reach third grade.
My plan this year is to dust off my guide to conjugating French verbs and some old French textbooks from university. Every once in a while, when the kids are sleeping, I'll dig into the homework in their backpacks and see if I can still keep up.
Nancy Soni Plante lives in Thornhill, Ont.
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