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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Daring to speak the other language

Annabelle has a new friend at creche. It was her friend's dad who spoke to me in the creche hallway, recognising a fellow Brit (I was, of course, talking to A. in English, but the creche is entirely French-speaking). They had recently arrived in town from the UK. He's looking after the kids until he can find a new job, while his partner works full-time. So we met up one afternoon and the two girls, although a little reticent at first, soon clicked and had a fantastic time together - in English. 

That was about a week ago. Today at the creche, the staff told me that the two girls had just found out that they shared a language other than French and that when the group had gone for a walk, they had joined hands and gone on for ages chattering away together in English. 

The interesting thing about this is that for days the two girls had hesitated to use English in an (almost) entirely francophone environment, even though the friend is not yet very comfortable in French, having only recently moved to a French-speaking area. It took the relative isolation of walking together and leaving the location of the creche to remove an unspoken pressure to speak the dominant language, even though the two of them had only spoken English together when they had met each other with their anglophone families outside the creche. 

Apparently, having discovered this new freedom, they continued to hold hands and speak English once back inside the creche. I actually felt it necessary to ask if the creche staff were OK with this, which they are - so they don't in fact impose a monolingual policy. It's just that (obviously) not all the staff speak all the languages represented by the children in a multinational creche, so French by necessity has to be the most commonly shared language.

This story reflects a hesitation that many parents in our type of situation will recognise: when, for example, you're on the playground, do you holler at your kid to GET DOWN FROM THERE in your shared language, because that's what you always speak to them and that's what is most likely to get the reaction you want, or do you defer to the local language? For my part, I use English, partly because in our multinational area it's very common to hear parents using languages other than French with their kids, and I think I am also comforted by the fact that English must be the next language to French round here which is most likely to be understood. So I don't feel I'm being quite so rude and excluding people as I might be.

But certain languages belonging to certain places is a funny thing. A different friend of Annabelle's with two anglophone parents was at ours recently. The girls were happily playing (with parents in safe reach), when prompted by what they were doing, I started singing a nursery rhyme to them in French. The look of shock in A.'s friend's face stays with me to this day: how could I (of all people) be singing that song (which for her belonged in the creche) in this place (of all places)! I had clearly broken a barrier which she thought immutable.   

1 comment:

  1. My mother can speak some French--in fact, she used to teach it a hundred years ago, though she has forgotten a great deal now--so you can imagine Griffin's surprise when his anglophone grammy whipped out a book in French and read it to him! He had that same shocked (but delighted) look on his face.


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