Je défends, tu défends, elle défend …

August 17, 2009

Of course I looked for support at the beginning, wherever I could find it. I have already mentioned Saunders; there were a couple of other books, all useful in parts but none good enough to plug here; most of all, I tried to stay positive and to get the support of others in the same or a similar boat.

To that end, I started a thread on the parenting site, Mumsnet. My partner (obviously a mum in the proper sense of the word) had already used it and found it helpful and, when she found the language and bilingualism section, thought I might too.

And I have and still do, in the main – on this thread (not my one), for example. But one thing I noticed – and I don’t for a second think this is unique to Mumsnet – is that there is always a ready queue of what my dear old nan used to call Job’s comforters, people just desperate to tell you why it’ll never work and remind you of the particularly obscure negatives you might temporarily have forgotten.

My thread – it may still be there, I can’t be bothered to look – started by setting out my situation, which you already know inside out. It asked for support, tips, or shared experiences. I then stated clearly that I had thought it all through and definitely was not after reasons not to do it, because I had already made my mind up.

I think you can already guess what the first responses were about. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that …”; “Oh, I’d miss the bond of being able to express my deepest feelings and emotions …”; “Oh, that’s going to end in failure, it did for my uncle Sid …” and so on. 

I soon put them right, you’ll be pleased to know. But I thought I might set out here a few of what I see as the advantages – not the things that aren’t bad or that you can cope with, but the actual positives – of bilingual, even non-native bilingual, parenting.

The first maybe applies more to men, but it’s such a biggy it’s worth putting down. It seems to me that childcare is pragmatically a bit of a team game and culturally normally left to women. In other words, pragmatically, it doesn’t matter which parent comforts a crying child, so long as it gets comforted; and culturally, it will more often than not be the mother, ceterus paribus. The net result is that, if he isn’t careful (or if he just doesn’t care) the father can end up having quite a distant relationship with his child.

But, in our relationship, the use of French can’t be a team game, because I’m the only one who knows how to play it properly. That means that, if I want my daughter to understand and speak French, I need to make that happen in a way that just wouldn’t be the same if we were sharing the burden of teaching her English. In other words, I spend more time interacting with my child – and interacting in a thoughtful, dynamic way – than I probably would have if she was monolingual.

Another plus – though, at 18 months, more a potential one than an actual one – is that it will, I hope, build a sense of complicity between us. Many parents have solidarity-building private games and jokes with their children that outsiders don’t get – Piaf and I have a whole private language to explore.

A third advantage is that it makes her mummy and daddy distinct individuals which will, I hope, mean a stronger relationship with each. Mummy and daddy look different and talk differently, of course, just like everyone else’s parents do – but they also use different words, read different bedtime stories, sing different songs, make different animal noises and shout different expletives when they are cross or afraid. And imagine that from the child’s point of view for a second – twice as many stories, twice as many songs, twice as many funny sounds, twice as many words for “cuddle” and “love”!

On the subject of expletives, by the way, I think this is where the doubters I faced on that first Mumsnet thread are proved emphatically wrong. If you train yourself assiduously and give it your all, in no time you will find yourself bellowing, when a cat runs between your legs as you carry a baby down a staircase, not something beginning with “f” but, “PUTAIN!” (I keep trying and failing to say “Pétain” instead. But then I fail to say “fudge” in front of Anglophone children, too. I’m internationally foul-mouthed.)

And if that isn’t “expressing your deepest feelings and emotions” I don’t know what is.

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One Response to “Je défends, tu défends, elle défend …”

  1. multilingualmania said

    Nice! Why the heck are the nay-sayers on the bilingualism forum!

    Haha, international foulmouth!

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