When our children were little, I delighted in reading to them in English – in spite or because of the fact that they were immersed in a French speaking world. Although my husband spoke very good English, he’s French, and his French family and most of his French friends did’t speak English. Our children attended French public schools and didn’t study English in school, opting for German, Russian, and Italian.
There was a good reason for that: I decided that they’d learn English from me! After all, I’m their mother and therefore English was their “mother tongue”. Right? Well, not necessarily. When I would speak with them in English in the street, for example, one of the two would invariably tug on my arm and supplicate me, in French, to “parles comme tout le monde” (speak like everyone else, ie, speak French!). Not to worry: Their pre-school and elementary school embarrassment at their mother’s “funny” way of speaking ceased as they became teenagers. Now they could boast that their mom knew or could at least figure out the words to some of those horrid hard rock songs they listened to (horrid in my opinion, not theirs). Suddenly English became “cool” and although they still didn’t study it formally, they benefitted from trips to visit their American family in the States. (One of the reasons I absolutely wanted them to speak English was so they could communicate with their grandmother, their aunts and uncles, and my friends).
Their learning of English was a natural process, no stress, and although French is their mother tongue in the sense of being the language they grew up using the most, they are totally at ease in English.
If it’s not exactly their “mother” tongue, it’s definitely their “other” tongue.
I never had any doubt about that because I was with them every single day and “on the job”. And now for a confession: I admit I have doubts about their children, though. Both sons married French women (who speak English) and in both households French is spoken 99 per cent of the time. They all encourage me to speak English to the grandchildren – and although I’m happy to do so, even thrilled, I hesitate to tell them that it doesn’t come naturally the way it did for them.
But I try. And although I didn’t have much hope, trying was all it took. Three-year-old Hannah, on every visit, makes a beeline for “her” books, especially and above all, Margaret Wise Brown’s famous classic, Goodnight Moon, her absolute favorite. She pronounces “mouse” and “house” perfectly and pores over every page. She says “goodnight bears” and “goodnight chairs” with nary an accent (well, maybe a teeny one).
One evening when her parents were here and putting her to bed, she kissed us all good-bye, as all little French children do, and as she passed through the living room in her mother’s arms, held up her little hand and waved goodnight to the room with a gay and resounding “Bonsoir salon“. It wasn’t in English but I liked her instant translation. I was proud of her.
Like my sons, English won’t be her mother tongue. But, like them, it will definitely be her “other” tongue.