Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Not stressing over little language "holidays"

We recently came back after spending a week at my Mom’s house.  Zach and I usually take a “holiday” from French when we visit because in order to get him to speak to me, I first need his attention, which is next to impossible at “Granny’s” house. There, I become virtually invisible: he sees only his doting grandmother who indulges his every whim from morning till night. They are inseparable, and even though she speaks a tiny bit of French (and helps me on occasion by asking him to teach her words), he is all about English on visits to Granny.

Until very recently, I would stress out over this, thinking that if I let more than a day or two go by without speaking French he would lose it all. Then at some point in the past year, I gave up trying to be their third wheel -- let alone in French -- and for the first time, just let it go altogether while we were there. When we returned to our daily French routines at home, I noticed the gaps in speaking didn’t seem to have been detrimental to Zach’s French, or at least not irrevocably.  He was a little rusty on a few words here and there, but overall retained what he knew despite not having spoken for several days.  In fact, I think we both felt more positive about French time for having had the rest.  

I suppose I’m learning that my work of bilingual parenting is ongoing, day after day, week after week, year after year.   I still try to maintain “discipline” while spending time with family members who do not speak the language, but I am also trying to remember to let us both relax and enjoy our time with them.   Because taking a break -- especially to spend low-stress time with people we love – doesn’t seem to hurt our language learning process. In fact, it helps us start fresh when we get back to our “regular” bilingual life. 

This visit drove that point home to me precisely because of how much more French we spoke than usual. My mom dislocated her shoulder in a horrible fall after the power (and heat) went out because of Hurricane Sandy. Already suffering from various health issues, my normally vibrant, funny, mother was so debilitated with pain that she really couldn’t engage with Zach. I spent much more time alone with him than usual, and we spoke more French. But I would have easily traded the language practice for an all-English visit with a healthy Granny!  Even if it meant it would set him back, which as I already learned, isn’t the case. 

Thankfully, my Mom is on the mend. But I am grateful for this humbling reminder not to sweat these gaps in language practice, especially when I’m tempted to interrupt quality time with family because we haven’t filled our quota of French for the day.


  1. Oh boy this post strikes a chord !

    It can be hard to separate out the fear that the bilingualism may fail for whatever reason from the fact that what is most important is raising happy healthy children. I find myself sometimes being vehement in my insistence that nothing will get in the way of me speaking french with my children - sometimes to the point of avoiding certain 'overly English' environments or situations. I think that this sense that we can't let go just in case may be intensified due to the non native situation ... It certainly is for me as it creates a sense of absolute responsibility as to whether bilingualism will triumph or not.

    I'm really heartened to hear that these short breaks in language have no detrimental effect in Zach's language :D and that you can relax into your Engkish speaking self on those occasions without stressing yourself out the whole time.

  2. Thank you so much "Bonnne Maman"!

    I'm so glad I'm not alone in this struggle! How do you manage the breaks with your family? Do you ever just speak English? Do you speak full-time to your kids in French? I don't - I aim for a few hours a day - and some days we don't make it. I really don't know how people that do it full-time manage. Although, sometimes I think it might be easier if I had never spoken French to Zach because then he would never know that he had a choice. But I was not fluent enough (meaning, fluent, but not able to express myself so effortlessly and completely that I didn't feel I wasn't missing out on total uninhibited communication with my baby). But I think you are right -the sense of responsibility as a non-native is big - and I don't know about you but the longer I have been at it, the higher I feel the stakes are…I don't want to have all this time go to waste! I wonder if anyone has stats on how "long" you can take a child out of the immersion environment before they really do forget. or in other words, how long before you "lose it" if you've stopped "using it"? Bonne journee!!!

  3. My worst break is the long, long summer holiday, around 9-10 weeks in all! My kids get so little French in this time and it always takes a dip! But I've noticed that it does come back fairly quickly after the rentree too!

    1. Hi Tallulah! That must have been a relief the first time to know it wasn't lost, and now you can relax over the summer! I think because I know he is not getting total immersion from me and he is not yet fluent, the breaks worry me. It makes me want to intensify my daily effort so I have a cushion when I need it. A plus!