Bilingualism: 3 Myths

It is amazing how much unsolicited and unfounded advice you receive when you expose your children to multiple languages. These misconceptions often come from individuals who never had a bilingual upbringing, let alone raise bilingual children. Today, I want to share just three of my favorite myths about the bi- and multilingual experience. Hopefully, it will provide encouragement to those thinking about taking the multilingual plunge with their families.

Myth #1 - “Raising a bilingual child leads to speech delays, you know!”

This misconception is perhaps one of the most important for me personally, because it has led several friends I know to choose not to raise their children bilingually. It is one of the nearest to my heart because I have encountered it often. Even from the lips of our pediatrician. That is because my own son was slower to babble. It took him longer to piece together complex sentences than many of his peers. And let’s face it, for the uninitiated in Ayo-speak, he can still be hard to understand at times. Instead of grasping the concept of language interference coming from another language (“it’s a cat black”, “U is for Parapluie!” (=umbrella)) or unintentional code-switching (“maman said the sapin is in the garage”), it is assumed that children like mine have speech delays.

“That’s because he is mixing it up in his head”
“You do know that he won’t speak as early as other people, right?”
“He’s still mixing languages, you know!”
“Don’t expect his English to be as good!”

Perfect strangers have said such things to me, after experiencing two minutes of interaction with my child. While it is true that bilingual children are asked to process a lot, language acquisition and its mouthpiece, speech, is developed on a huge bell curve. Let’s not forget that monolingual children too, develop speech on a very broad spectrum. I have met a one year old little girl growing up in a solid albeit reserved monolingual home who could flawlessly string together a five word sentence with correct pronouns and verb conjugation. I have also met an almost three year old boy, from a stable and extroverted monolingual home who, apart from mastering “yes” and “no”, almost only responds to his parents in animal sounds. While I too once wondered if I was slowing down language acquisition or maybe even damaging my kid forever (*gasp!*), every study I read invited me to trust the process. I think it was Naomi Steiner who debunked the supposed “speech delay” myth the best for me in her simple, yet practical book “7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child”. Today, I sincerely believe that fluency or the perfecting of speech isn’t just about how much data we flood the brain with or solely how much we talk to our children. It is closely tied to temperament, gender, birth order as well. Theory confirmed for me with a daughter who is already more verbal at almost one year than Ayo was at 15 months.

Myth #2 - “You need to be a native speaker to raise your child bilingually, you know!”

It once crippled me to think about teaching French and more recently, Mandarin, to our kiddos. I held fast to the idea that native speakers and maybe simultaneous bilinguals are the most apt at teaching their language. What would that mean for me? I am just a successive bilingual. As for my Mandarin knowledge, I’m a timid conversationalist at best, more rusty than an old drain pipe as the months go on that separate us from life in China…

At times, I wondered how will I discuss what happens on a construction site or how I can teach them classic nursery rhymes that I never grew up singing. But like anything, if you are committed to the process and are willing to be a learner, putting in the hard work, you can reap beautiful fruit. Think about how many things you learn on a daily basis in your mother-tongue. Most English-speaking parents don’t know the definition of “pratfall”, “chiaroscuro”, “nidificate” or “diffluence”, yet become their children’s main language instructors. Why then, do we think we have to know everything in our language(s) of instruction?

Can I just come out and say this? While there are risks involved in raising a kid in your non-native language (yes, sure, emotional connection in later years, mistakes they may inherit from you..), it is never ever a waste to use your mustard seed of a language skill to teach your kids. That is because you aren’t just teaching them an extra set of cognates, but a whole new way of seeing the world. You are teaching them awareness of and compassion for the other, you are teaching them how to be a bridge-builder, you are teaching them that there isn’t just one way to do things. Opening up their world.

Let’s not kid ourselves, it is already bloody hard work raising bilingual kids when parents have a native command of the languages they speak, let alone joining your kids in the language learning process. But I have seen parents do this, with their own shakey vocab or questionable accents on multiple occasions. I have to take my  hat off to their blood sweat and language tears.

I also know parents who step out in faith and hire a foreign nanny or throw their kids in immersion school, speaking not a word of the minority language their children are learning. Think how bold that is! How much vision and foresight must you have for the future to be persistent in the language marathon today – with a non native command of a language?

These heroic examples have led me to invite Mandarin into my home, to teach my children what I know. And already, the 20-30 odd words my 2.5 years old knows in Mandarin have opened up a whole world of mutual affinity to the Chinese community around us. Provided you have an internet connection, it has never been easier to find resources out there to teach your kid the nursery rhymes you didn’t know or the language you haven’t fully ‘mastered’.

Myth #3 - “Bilingual children are more intelligent than their monolingual peers”

In the past 30 years, we somehow went from saying bilingualism would confuse the kids to saying they are smarter. This is quite a destructive myth, breeding snobbish bilinguals and an inferiority complex in monolinguals. This is so harmful to relationship. This myth has led us to talk about our children living with two (or three) languages, rather than saying “we have bilingual children”. Somehow, it feels more like a normal part of our life, much like saying “our living room has a red couch” and less like we are preparing Junior Awesome to graduate with flying colors in his Ivy league university.

Today, we know that bilinguals aren’t faster at performing brain tasks. Rather, that the brain activity is very different to those of monolinguals (read more here, and here). Children raised with a consistent input in multiple languages must filter out the important information from the less important information. There is talk of higher executive function of the brain in the process of having to sort the relevant information. This leads to many cognitive benefits: I think I can attest to a remarkable dexterity in matching games, puzzles and in many ways a propensity towards learning other languages (“Maman! Papa says papillon, Señor Chufo say Mariposa!”) from the brain building required from the constant triage. This has zero, zilch, nothing to do with intelligence quotient or emotional quotient.

So there you have it, three of my favorite myths surrounding bilingualism.
Over to you, what are some of the things you have heard about bilingualism? Have they led you to question raising your child with other languages?

And as a special bonus, just for kicks, here was Ayo at 26 months, playing around with us with sounds: French vowels vs. Southern American English three way diphthongs. That leads me to what would have been my fourth myth, that language learning can’t be fun!

(For the sake of this post, I referred to ‘bilingualism’ throughout, even though most statements are applicable to multilingualism on the whole, that is to say, children and adults consistently exposed to more than two languages.)

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This post was written for the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival.


'Raising multilingual children' blogging carnival

This month’s carnival is hosted by Annabelle Humanes, author of The Piri Piri Lexicon. Head over there this Monday, November 24 to read fascinating blog posts written by a wide range of multilingual parents on the theme of ‘Bilingualism – Pulling Apart the Myths’!

Inside the frame

After the kids’ naps, we brought them outside to lounge with us four adults outside on this spectacular October afternoon in the Vallée Verte. My parents, Tall Mountain and I pretended that we were going to get some reading done.

Tall mountain, recovering from long hours of a film shoot, was technically “on duty” with the kids. You would never have known based on his distinct light-hearted smile, on the verge of a giggle, always a tell-tale sign he is relaxing. “Don’t worry! Mum won’t let anything happen to the kids” he whispered.

He was right, mum busied herself to help everyone unwind. Her trademark autumnal tartiflette was sizzling in the oven. This was TM’s comfort food of choice; a fresh reblochon cheese from the village dairy, sliced length-wise, begging to melt all over the potatoes and crispy lardons below it. Dad had selected the best regional wine in his cellar for the occasion – more lush fruit of the land, as it were, to accompany the dish. It was a Gamay varietal with a distinct brick red hue, showing off gorgeous notes of vanilla, ripe blackcurrant and a bouquet of spices bursting out from the mineral undertones, in its absolute prime.

Scurrying out from the kitchen into the garden, mum made sure no one was eating grass or rocks and she assured us she was “weeding” too. Délice was content for once, gumming on metal cars and plastic train tracks as the slight breeze caressed her darling fluffy hair. Ayo was in high heaven, lining up cars, sending crayons down a toy car garage ramp and what not. My father’s hearty laugh echoed throughout the valley as he gladly divided his attention between ‘reading’ a novel and interacting with his two grandchildren.

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As much as it pained me, I willfully chose to extract myself from the glorious scene unfolding beyond my book, in my parents’ front garden. I just had to take a step back to allow my mind to remember this serene but fleeting moment forever and ever and ever and ever. To allow my body to relax into the Sabbath. To let my soul soak in the wonder of this Sunday. To remind myself that life with young children isn’t just chaotic and stressful. To realize that, believe it or not, I was inside the picture frame for once.

Bright rays of sun illuminated my parents’ “friendship garden”, a marvelous assortment of clippings collected over time from family and friends’ gardens and the city’s end of season ‘waste’. Intense light shone pierced right though the crimson leaves of the cotinus grace, illuminating its veins far better than the most ornate of stained glass windows.

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The slightest breeze tickled its leaves like a paper chandelier. Grass under toe was sponge-like and gentle. While our own grass back “home” in America mirrors the chaos of the season we are in, weeds have no chance to grow here. Each neighbor in my folk’s hamlet takes great pride in caring for their garden. Everyone knows the one neighbor who doesn’t have a green thumb. It was also the end of the main harvest. The raspberry bush had clearly been pillaged by an unattended Ayo, free to roam…

My eyes returned to the French book I had borrowed on a whim from the neighboring village library. I certainly didn’t need to start another book, but I had been pulled into the back cover. Jean-Christophe Ruffin, a member of the famous French language authority, the Académie Française, recounted his journey along the Camino de Santiago. The breeze and the beauty around me enabled me to pay special attention to the rich French descriptives popping out of each page. I scribbled down those gorgeous sensory adjectives that make my life richer.

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In that rare moment back home in France, I wasn’t the tyrant of the “kids bottoms need to be changed” or the “kids need to be fed” or “the dishes need to be cleaned” police. Giving a morsel of dark chocolate the chance to melt in my mouth and admiring the crema of my espresso, I was along for the ride.

I was inside the scene rather than observing it from the audience and missing out on all the fun. What a treat to cherish for many years. Being inside the picture frame is what I desire for my day today, even far away from the help of my parents or a papa on his day off. I choose to embrace life with my children over [briefly] clean floors today. I long to be inside the picture frame today, rather than just capture the scene from the sidelines.

Silent Sunday

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Lullabies of the World

Looking for peaceful lullabies that you will like / won’t drive you totally bonkers when played over and over in the car? Check!
On the hunt for lullabies from all over the world with outstanding vocals? Check!
How about authentic accents and beautiful melodies? Check! Check! Check!

After renewing and renewing and renewing this CD from our library, the time has at last come for us to part ways with this masterpiece. We promise that we loved it even before we found out that the producer is German. :-)
Lullabies of the World
Listen to a sample of one of my absolute favorite contributions, the Latvian one, here.
Yep, gorgeous.

A perfect gift for any family or lover of the world. Enjoy!

This gift of diversity

How desperately, do I want to teach our kids to be lovers of this world. Interesting then, when it actually came to inviting the so-called ‘world’ into our home (without us present), how radical it first felt. For us and for our friends.

Our Muslim nanny Fatima finally started two weeks ago. She speaks our OPOL minority language, gifts me with a few spare hours in a week and relates to the munchkins so very differently. It’s been wonderful for me to have some time to look into future opportunities. It’s been an adjustment. And it’s been a breath of fresh air. Especially when papa is away on a trip. Phew.

After watching the kids last September 11, I got the chance to chat a bit more with Fatima. She was planning on laying low after babysitting. Maybe, she said, she might take a nap. Actually, maybe it would be best to stay indoors. She wondered what her short drive home would hold after receiving so much verbal abuse last year on the anniversary of 9/11. After all, last year, at a red light, someone yelled “terrorist!”, “b$%tch!” and other obscenities when they saw her head covering.

I was saddened to hear this, but in a way, not really surprised. There is a whole lot of latent baggage we carry around with us, and a whole lot of ignorance behind that knee-jerk reaction. But just think with me for a moment about how devastating those words are for our Muslim neighbors, widening the religious divide and further opening up the sore racial wound.

Fatima’s story reminded me of a friend who, when in a childcare bind, took her toddler (let’s call him Johnny) with her to work on her door to door telecommunications job. When together they opened a door and caught sight of an imposing black man, her child burst into tears. Can you blame little Johnny? The poor kid had never seen a black person before.

So then, how do we teach our kids that it should be normal to interact with an African, a Muslim, an Asian, a Jew. And from a young age?

Fast-forward to a seemingly insignificant interaction today at the park. As we arrived, a Muslim family from Sudan was sitting on a bench. Actually, the father was on the bench, rigorously filling out an application for Medicaid with his loaner pen, still scotch-taped to a disposable spoon. The veiled mother “Isa” was somehow nursing her baby girl through her djellaba, while balancing her hot pink mobile phone under her chin, and all the while chasing her older son. This pretty much looked like my life. Yes, yes, minus the djellaba and the Arabic. Ha!

Ayo watched the other 2.5 year old boy, who we later found out was named Mahmoud, play for a while. Then, he very intentionally located his shiny, red necklace in the stroller storage area. He wanted to please give the little boy his necklace: Maman, help Ayo give collier this garçon! – he insisted. After giving the little boy his prized necklace (see photo), Ayo fetched a couple of his favorite animal cookies from the stroller. As always, surprised by motherhood (didn’t he last hate to share his things?), I smiled and let the beautiful scene unfold before my eyes.

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“Ask his mama if it is okay first” I told him. And, as if nothing were, Ayo slowly but courageously approached the woman dressed in a stifling black coarse wool djellaba and pretty head covering. “Garçon eat this?” (Boy eat this?) he asked Mahmoud’s mother Isa. This simple heart of a child, blind to color and head scarves, opened a significant door for MY meaningful conversation with my Muslim neighbor.

Of course and absolutely, this could have happened without Fatima’s recent interaction with our kids. At the end of the day, you can’t force kids to share willingly and you certainly can’t fabricate love for “the other” by simply inviting a nanny into a home. I guess, my point is that we cannot just conceptually desire multicultural living without living it out, and yes, modeling it in our home… in the middle of America. It is a lifestyle choice to interact with people different to us, is it not? And such is the lifestyle we want for our family. Fatima’s gift of diversity is already stretching me and equipping me to reach out to others like her. And, it looks like it is already transforming Ayo, Délice and papa as well…

Silent Sunday

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Silent Sunday

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River rock

Blogging conundrum.
How do I move forward?
Not writer’s block. More like ‘blocked by a waterfall of transformational thoughts’.
Thoughts, triggering realizations so life-changing that so many of my earlier blog posts seem irrelevant. Uninformed. Motherhood 1.0.
Somehow, I keep reading, learning, absorbing. Writing down thoughts, writing out quotes.
Like a beautifully taut balloon, pricked by a needle, my world of budding thoughts is always, always interrupted by a young child’s call. Always.
I am learning too much and my journal cannot keep up. Too many started entries. How then, can I find the time to blog?
There are plenty of 3am cataclysmic ‘aha moments’. Because, that is the only time this house slumbers. Sometimes.
I pause to take a breath and realize I am a different person. A new person. A changing, work-in-progress person.
Like my friend said so well, I am a river rock, changed by each moment – more than any once-in-a-lifetime event.
So, do I reinvent my blog to follow suit? Look for a new virtual home to harbor thoughts from a new me? Do I erase all the irrelevant posts or keep them as the very real start of my journey of being a mother?

Growing up, my composer-mentor, turned secret-romantic-admirer (gross, man!) burned all of his previous symphonies. I never respected him again.
You can’t be who you are today without acknowledging who you once were. That is an integral part of the journey.
I am today because of who I was. The good, the bad, the hidden, the exposed.
That time my parents sealed all of our things in a massive container and shipped its belongings to a foreign land.
That time I tripped over a stereo system in music theory class and everyone laughed and pointed at me.
That time I held a Romanian man’s bleeding skull together after a horrific road-accident.
That time I said ‘yes’ to an American boy, with great vision and talent and compassion, who won my heart.
That first time I tasted victory in giving birth to a perfect little baby boy. That first time I discovered he wasn’t just perfect. That first time he threw food.
These things and all those in between have changed me forever.

As I pluck up the courage to face the repetitive, the mundane, I notice I am falling in love with my progeny.
Wait, I hated being at home! I wanted to be a CEO by 30!
One floor sweep after another of nasty, sticky goop, I am learning more about myself and more about them.
Learning about myself, my short-comings, even my strengths, is terrifying. Empowering. Humbling.
Motherhood is humbling. Tantrums in public are humbling. My rage is more humbling.
Learning how to remedy 2% of those tantrums because I start to understand my child is empowering. Discovering my children’s personalities has been a watershed moment. But so is the daunting exercise of looking in the mirror.
Wow, I look haggard. I look disheveled. I look sleep-deprived.
Thinking I was on the street corner begging with my daughter, a homeless man gave me money, for crying out loud! Damn!
My body will never be the same. Never ever.
It is so disheartening. So wonderful. Because great love is so often born of great sacrifice.

Oh my, look at me! I am starting to look so beautiful. Not the media beautiful, mind you.
Not plastic-beautiful. Not the big hair and waxed legs beautiful. Not the perfect.
I spit on those images now. More like, my daughter spits up on me. Which makes me spit out my coffee onto my keyboard.
I am becoming the real beautiful. The beautiful real.
Way more rewarding than being a CEO.

The beautiful real that acknowledges who I really am. And who I am becoming. Not the image I want to project.
Welcoming guests when my house is unclean. I have always loathed that. But God forbid I miss out on a chance to love because my home looks imperfect.
Sure, I want to be loved and accepted. We all yearn to be loved and accepted.

I once thought raising kids was a competition. Because I pour my blood, sweat and tears into the task and wanted some affirmation.
To the mama who recently told me her son was so much greater, brighter, wiser than mine, I want to say: “yes, he is absolutely amazing. And you are doing so well as a mother. YOU are loved. YOU are valued. YOU are sacrificing much of yourself. Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I want to see behind the words into the windows of their souls. Behind tinted glass, a frail little girl, blushing, timidly asking if she was doing an okay job.
I want to learn to lavish love on other mamas. Grow in a deeper understanding of sisterhood.
Because motherhood should come with a superhero cape.
Because it is an exhilarating, daunting, terrifying roller-coaster and we all want to know we are doing a decent job.

Instead of affirming, I compare. Later, I judge her to look like I am doing a better job than she is.
And then I am so ashamed of my childish behavior. And then, I remember that mercy triumphs over judgement.
All sense of community is destroyed when we believe it is a competition. It is not a competition.
Are we not stewards of such different treasures? How can I acknowledge that on this blog?
Let’s be honest. Let’s be real. Most of the time, I don’t know what the heck I am doing as a mother. And, by some huge act of grace outside of myself, my children learn to hold their head up, walk, talk and once in a while be compassionate towards one another.

So, then, what to do with this blog?

And just like that, naptime is over.

Silent Sunday

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The case against bilingual books

Our local library branch recently purchased a handful of English/French bilingual books to add to their collection. Knowing our excitement for new books to read in French, the library staff put them on hold for us. I was eager to bring them home and to see first hand what they were like. I tried hard not to judge an incredibly challenging concept too fast: quality translation and native-like storytelling in two languages.

Papa was the first to read one to Ayo in English: Bear’s Birthday. The experience was largely a positive one. The illustrations were beautiful, the colors vibrant, the story was a good length and each book in the series had a little activity to do at the end: remember where Mr. Bear went throughout the book, tell the time on Mr. Bear’s clocks, or count the balloons at Mr. Bear’s party. Clever, clever.

When it came to my turn the next day, we read that same book, this time in French. What a completely different experience! The story didn’t flow. The translation was poor and the vocabulary weak.

Sigh.

At bedtime, I do tend to translate English books the kids choose to read into French, on the fly (simply because reading to them in English feels quite unnatural to me now). Even without knowing what might happen on the next page, I can humbly say that my spontaneous translation is largely superior to what I saw in print in the French book before me. I was so disappointed. It’s almost like a translator sat in front of a screen, unable to see the finished product, a French story.

Below are some sample pages of L’Anniversaire de l’Ours, English/French bilingual edition.

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Here are the four main reasons this bilingual book didn’t work for me:

1) Line by line translation. This story was translated line by line to the point where the English (source text) permeated right through to the translation (the target text). Think permanent marker seeping through a thin piece of paper. I knew exactly what the original text said as I read the French. A better solution might have been to simply retell the story. Easier said than done, you might say. True, the translator is only partially at fault in the case of illustrated books since pictures do add some level of complication. Still, I was surprised to see how foreign the storytelling style felt in French. Very often, I notice French authors adopt a much more anachronistic and creative approach to storytelling in French. Have you noticed this as well? This is very different to the anglophone storytelling art, often focused heavily on the beginning and the (happy) end. When short text is attached to illustrations, it is of course impossible to change that Anglophone sequence. However, it would have been fairly straight-forward to use the two English phrases as a starting point to recount the story in maybe one, maybe even three much more natural French phrases.

2) Choice of verb tense. I have come to realize that it isn’t rare to read children’s books in English in the simple present (or maybe in the present continuous) tense: “Bear unwraps the treasure and looks inside. He has a wonderful birthday surprise!”. But, translating everything into a present tense in French felt tragically unnatural, as if there was a need to dumb down the story. Most French speakers have heard of the most faithful verb-tense marriage in storytelling: Mr. and Mrs. imparfait-passé simple. Like in most couples, they each contribute their own strengths to the marriage. The imparfait is a past tense used for description or habitual actions like eating breakfast whereas the passé simple is for those sudden actions like the ‘UFO landed in our kitchen!’, ‘the rock just broke a window!’ and so on. How unfortunate then, to read a whole narrative in the present tense in French.

3) Choice of register. This is a basic problem all translators face at some point. Just like you wouldn’t go to a formal dinner with the president in your pyjamas, you just have to resist the temptation to translate “The table is covered with tasty treats” by “Sur la table, il y a plein de gâteries savoureuses” (which sounds like “a ton of delectable treats”). The book was littered with such a flip-flopping of registers, that it made it hard for me to read out loud.

4) Weak vocabulary in French. Sadly, this book taught us zero new vocabulary. This could point to a non-native translator. Vocabulary was bland like unseasoned, overcooked cauliflower. When comparing vocabulary in two similar books, I find that French children’s books generally seem to feature rather advanced vocabulary. It isn’t uncommon to see something like “herb garden” translated as “le parterre des plantes aromatiques” (a flowerbed containing aromatic plants), a real-life example taken from T’choupi dans le Jardin, a little book geared towards 3 year olds.

I didn’t want to throw the poor translator under the bus. As I have mentioned before, excellent translation is an incredibly difficult task. Still, I felt it was appropriate to contact the publishing house and gently tell them about the quality of the translation…especially when small libraries like ours choose to invest in books like these for the benefit of a wider community. I informed them that I was planning on reviewing the bilingual book series on this blog. (On a related note, it is never a waste to drop a line to a publishers who care. They kindly sent us a complimentary copy of a monolingual (translated) French book 1, 2, 3, partons en safari: une Journée en Tanzanie to review later on, on this blog.)

Putting translation mistakes aside, because some of the other books in this bilingual series certainly featured better translations, I still struggle to understand the market for bilingual books. I mean, who do they serve if they don’t tell a good story, use unnatural verb tenses or fail to build vocabulary. Fellow multilingual blogger The Piri-Piri Lexicon wrote in one of her posts that she felt like bilingual books most often cater to non-native audiences – to children learning a second language rather than to the child growing up with two languages. I think I would tend to agree. Confirming this theory, we have certainly checked bilingual books out in Spanish, German or Mandarin on occasion, frankly just so that the kids (ehem, the parents too!) can experiment with the sounds of another language. I have to say, we have never read a bilingual English/French book prior to this series.

Perhaps this is because the bi-/multilingual learning experience can’t simply be about living in a translated world or life at the mercy of your translator. Isn’t multilingual living so much richer than this? If cultures are different, lullabies are different and fairy tales are different, why then do we need to limit ourselves to translations? Indeed, why read an awkward rendition of  Goldilocks and the Three Bears when we can read Le Petit Prince in its original version? I believe Annabelle over on The Piri-Piri Lexicon drew a similar conclusion on one of her other fantastic blog posts.

I am really curious to hear your own thoughts on bilingual books. Have you read any that have been helpful on your journey? Which ones? And do you feel any different about monolingual translated books, like the one I was sent by the publishing house?

Silent Sunday

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Silent Sunday

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God Bless America.

The first Fourth of July I experienced as an Adult Third Culture Kid was in 2008. We went to some highly political parade in the middle of the country. We saw cool vintage cars and confident marching bands. I was offered artificial food at a fair: bright red candied apples on a stick, funnel cake, “cheese curds”, hotdogs on sticks (called “corndogs”), bright purple cotton candy. “I’ll pass” I said, completely in awe that people would eat this stuff. That weekend, we went to a church in which the pastor proclaimed “this is the greatest country on earth!”. Guys, he wasn’t even joking. As someone who has traveled extensively, this statement was not only inaccurate and offensive but absolutely infuriating. I mean, let’s at least compare apples with apples at a minimum. “We are the best at artificially colorful food” or “We have the greatest rates of obesity” seemed to be more accurate statements, since a country obviously cannot be the greatest at everything. We sang some cultural pro-military songs and proclaimed “God bless America” as if it were the Lord’s Prayer. “Gag! Puke” I wrote in my journal as the others were pledging allegiance to the American flag. I was absolutely appalled by the sheer arrogance and poor theology of this church. As if God didn’t want to bless all the other countries in the world. I’ll spare you of the words I used to describe that day in my journal.

Fast-forward to 2014. While I still feel like such statements are a bit sheltered, I think I have come a long way in this TCK journey. Today, I can see how immigrant neighbors would want to celebrate the opportunities they have found in this new land. With my cultural glasses on, I feel like it is not a bad thing in itself for people to celebrate their country and values that are unique to this land: family, faith, generosity, creativity, kindness.. Even fun to have BBQs, enjoy family, friends and fireworks. I still do not feel like the American flag particularly represents freedom to me, and I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat all-American food. But, I can go about my daily life without dreading this holiday quite literally 364 days out of the year. I have to say, I was especially grateful to the American government for giving the country a holiday so we could enjoy a brunch and watch the France-Germany football match at our place this year. ;-) Indeed, we were all appropriately dressed in the French supporting colors bleu blanc rouge, which double up as American colors. That must have been the very first Fourth of July we were all dressed up in Red-White-Blue! After a lazy day, TM and I even enjoyed watching some fireworks on our porch, white Russians in hand, long after the children were in bed. All in all, we had a pretty great July 4th. God Bless America! …and all the other countries in the world too for that matter!

Hope for this weary mama

Two lanky girls stumbled into the coffee shop. One following the other. They both wore glasses. Their gait was either demonstrative of high intelligence or the insecurity that comes with being a pubescent teen. Or perhaps both. Unshowered and with that fresh-out-of-bed look, they plopped themselves at an empty table next to mine around 7:50am. They neither moaned nor threw sugar packets at one another. As what appeared to be their mother and father proceeded to order coffee for themselves, the girls stayed seated at the table and occupied themselves. One with a smartphone, the other with a book. The whole scene was so serene. So unfamiliar.

‘Will my kids ever be capable of that?’ I asked myself. ‘Or is this self-entertaining business only reserved for intellectual, well-behaved, bookie kids?’ Oh, sure, my kids could join me at this coffee shop, but they would be the center of attention. In this case, that isn’t a good thing. At present, mine constantly require some form of supervision or some need to be met. Picture a game of ongoing ping pong until you no longer want to play. Change one diaper, change the next. Nurse an infant and run after the toddler about to throw a glass bottle. Glass bottle!? Where did he get that glass bottle anyway?

Here I am, escaping my own progeny for three hours at a coffee shop, for my own sanity. Actually, for the health of the whole family. Because if I don’t, I may just hurt someone. And I am not just throwing words around, friends.

On the heels of Tall Mountain’s work trip number five since mid-March, I needed a bit of a reset. A time to debrief what happens when I am sleep-deprived and stretched to my limits. A time to process these long days of solo-parenting, trying to keep the household together around the clock. A time to understand how I can be swept within minutes from absolute tenderness and infatuation for my kids to the evil tyrant, wreaking havoc and terror in my home. I am so ashamed of myself. I am so surprised by what I am capable of. I am so humbled by this stage of motherhood. Father God, forgive me, for I am weak. This shattered vessel desperately needs your grace and your mercies, that are new every morning. Can it be that these are available to little old me?

Was it really so important that little guy cleaned up his toys in the living room? Was it really so important that little miss got full naps? Was it really more important for my home to be presentable than for me to get a few minutes of sleep? How could I have brought my own flesh and blood to fear and trembling? How does it escalate so fast? And why on earth is she still needing to be fed all-night long? I promise you, I was a much better mother without kids. I never bribed, I never spanked, I never raised my voice, I never shook with anger, I never cried with fatigue and in utter desperation.

So, putting my own stay at home mama pride and judgement aside (judgement towards myself – I mean, if this is mainly all I do, certainly I should be able to hack it, right?), Tall Mountain and I went onto care.com for the first time last night. We’d thrown the idea of an extra pair of hands around for a while. Forcibly, it was back on the table again. With help, I could do that professional work that keeps me otherwise busy from 10pm-midnight, research new opportunities for our family, care for myself and my household or catch my breath – especially while TM is on further overseas trips. Alongside the French that the kids are getting from me, I have always wanted a French speaker to support our minority OPOL language. I had shrugged off the possibility, thinking we would never find a match, right here, in the middle of America. I no longer remember how but last year, we had indeed found Lucile, babysitter extraordinaire. She helped out so we could enjoy a couple date-nights one full year ago. And then she broke the news she was leaving back to France.

Back to square one. Six head shots popped up after we entered all our requirements: not too pricey, French-speaker, car owner, older than 21, cleared background check, kid lover, available at our proposed times. We weren’t just looking for French citizens per se. As I have written previously, we long for our children not to become little French kids or little American kids, but rather to become lovers of their world. That might help explain our reaction to what happened next. One profile picture caught our attention immediately. She wore a black head-covering in her photo and wrote that she actively participates in raising her siblings. I don’t doubt it! TM smiled, saying “What about her, babe? I think she might be a good fit. What do you think?”. As I read Fatima’s bio, I slowly started to get hopeful and even excited at the prospect of a non-Westerner helping to care for our children. I had never thought about this idea before. I have always adored that fierce but loving mother-hen-like nature so characteristic of many African, Arab, Asian women. It brought me back to my new middle-aged mama friend from Mali who I met at the library last week. Within three minutes of meeting her, she ordered my son around, getting him to obey and giggle at once: Ayodelé, tu lâches la boutan dé l’ascenseur tout da sweet! T’écoutes ta mama, ah?!* she lovingly yelled. No Westerner could ever get away with that. But that is besides the point.

You may find it peculiar how we could think that a Muslim girl might align with our family’s values enough to care for our most cherished possessions. While we have yet to meet Fatima, I think we fell in love with the potential for intercultural and interfaith exposure for Ayo and Délice. We also know Muslims to care deeply for family and siblings, to know how to cook (minus during ramadan – hehe) and to be responsible from a young age. Sadly, Fatima got back to us this morning saying she was out of country for two months. Now, we have to decide if we will wait until the Autumn to interview her or if we look into other leads in the meantime.

While solo-parenting will never be easy, it is exciting to imagine a helper that won’t just keep our children busy but may even enrich their view of the world. Not to mention, give this weary mama a break. After a long week, the prospect of someone like Fatima coming by to hold a baby from time to time in the Autumn, so that I can get down to Ayo’s toddler level and ask him if we can clean up together, is more freeing that anything I have heard in a long time.

*Get your paws off that elevator button right away, Ayodelé! You listen to your mama! (more or less ;-) )

Play dough and Creamsicles

It feels like the summer is in full swing. I love all four seasons, yet it is undeniably easier to entertain kids in the summer without turning your living room into a preschool. Diaper bums, eating outside, playing with dirt, watering a garden in full bloom, bubbles, painting, chalk, splashpads…the mess stays OUTSIDE! Yahooo!

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Still, in this life phase, there are plenty of days when I simply don’t have the energy to review my countless saved recipes to add a bit more outdoor fun in the day. I’m talking homemade plaster, bath paints, glue, papier mâché, new snack recipes. This is when I love to rely on friends’ blogs to come across über simple ideas for tried and tested, all age fun. Ideally, recipes so simple you can make them with your kids.

Perhaps you are like me? If that is the case, here are two super easy recipes for those many many hours spent outdoors. They are not my original recipes, but tweaked by yours truly to even further simplify them. Tell me if you end up making either of these and why not share your own summer favorites in the comments below…

Play Dough (inspired by Laughing Kids Learn)
I like this one for its natural ingredients easily found in your kitchen, for its wonderfully soft texture and lack of salty residue often found in homemade doughs (or worse, headache inducing chemical smell found in store-bought “Play Doh”). Here we go…

  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tbsp any oil
  • 2 tbsp cream of tartar
  • 1 .5 cup boiling water
  • food coloring (optional – we use Liquid Natural Decorating Colors by India Tree)

This is actually a good, no bake recipe for once! Mix ingredients and you are done. I did say it was an easy one!
Enjoy when cooled (5 mins) and then store in air tight container.

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By now, it’s getting hot in the day and you need to grab a healthy treat but even YOU are tired of “just” frozen juice popsicles. This is where my Youtube buddy (errr, well, she doesn’t know she is my buddy yet) Katulka2 saved the day with her family fav’ recipe for..

Orange Creamsicles:

  • 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 cup coconut milk (or cream of your choice)
  • 3 TBSP honey or sweetener of your choice (optional)
  • 1 TBSP orange zest (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

Combine ingredients trying not to lose too many in the process to hungry toddlers, pour mixture into popsicle mold, wait a couple of hours (the hardest part) and serve when frozen (duh!).

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Today, we substituted oranges for berries we had in the fridge: blueberries and strawberries. In this case, boil down 1 cup berries in 2-3 TBSP water for 5 mins. Use potato masher to mash berries. Combine with other ingredients listed above and… ENJOY THE SUMMER.

France & Greece

Returned from Europe. Two kids on jetlag. Ayo 26 mos, Délice 5mos.
Tall Mountain leaves for long trip to Asia. Kids use it as an excuse not to sleep at night anymore.
Guests in town. Sweet guests.
Translation project looming. Burning the candle at both ends to finish in the wee hours of most nights. Loving the work, hating the 3-4 hour nights.
Amazing, thoughtful friends take a toddler, hold a baby so I can meet the deadline.
It takes a village. Maybe a city? … to raise kids when you are solo-parenting.
TM returns. Spend my self-allotted vacation morning working.
Eventually get work done and go home early because I miss my family!? Funny how that happens.
Phew!

FRANCE
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Our home away from home. It was entirely good to be at my parents’ home. TM joined us for a couple days before leaving for an assignment across the Swiss border and couldn’t wait to commute 1h30 back for dinner at mum’s. So good to see friends. So good for Délice to have an extra pair of arms to snuggle up into – thanks, papi! So good for me to have some company with the children, not to mention a little break in the kitchen. Thanks, mamie! So good for Ayo to run around the French countryside or to have trampoline play-dates and lots of natural opportunities to be around French. He totally remembered all the little things about the Haute-Savoie from last November. Who said children don’t have memories this early on? We almost started to get worried about his English by the time papa returned from his work trip. Mamie gets a well-deserved 5 out of 5 for maximizing the linguistic opportunities. All in all, the time was so, so relaxing and carefree. It’s perhaps it’s no wonder Ayo keeps saying: “Mamaaaaaan, Ayo taking the avion in da maison mamie papi!!”.

GREECE
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From my parents’ place, we all went to the airport where we met the rest of the family and flew to Athens for my parents’ 40th Wedding Anniversary bash. I got to be the designated driver of the minivan: 6 gears, signaling not useful, lanes and speed limit optional, straddling the emergency lane.. polite! After three hours we made it to the house on the beach my parents had generously rented and it turned out to be a mansion, equipped with swimming pool, expansive garden for the kids to play in and many indoor and outdoor areas to sit with a friend. Ayo and Délice loved waking up to their cousins every morning. Papi and Mamie were in a mini heaven-on-earth surrounded by their kids and grandies. We all took turns cooking dinner and we all surprised my parents one night inviting a couple of Greek chefs who cooked for us at home! We were all free to come and go or just to be. The mamas even got a kidless coffee out – since when does that happen? Given the set up (house on the beach, fun country and food, good weather), TM and I think it was possibly the most restful vacation we have had since having children. Movie nights, book reading by the pool, food shopping and café crawling in a foreign country, shooting the breeze for hours and hours with ‘mah sis’…it was so perfect.
We stuffed a couple bottles of olive oil and chocolate-tahini spread into our wine cellar bulging suitcases and sadly said our farewells, thankful to have two awesome and incredibly enthusiastic munchkin travelers and such a wonderful family to spend time with. And thankful to travel via Frankfurt for a last real latte and chatter in German. Have I mentioned that we love Europe?

I could write a whole lot more about our time but that was it in a nutshell. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves..

France…

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100 meters from mamie and papi’s house lies the green valley of rainbows and unicorns. Or other farm animals.

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Someone is loving this. :-)

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How you clothe a baby after 30 years!
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Greece…
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Watch this space…

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Back in America with an abundance of memories and plenty of thoughts from a lovely few weeks in France and Greece.
We’re busy catching our breath, doing laundry and trying to readjust to Mountain Standard Time. New blog post to follow…

Lost in translation

Words are spinning around in my head. I am living and breathing equivalents, false cognates, brilliant translation techniques like compensation even when I put a script down. Currently submerged in two translation projects with two different target languages, I’m in translation mode!

I inherited the one video dubbing project, with a horribly clunky translation. We’re talking 30% too long to fit into the video time codes. Pity the voice over, out of breath, racing to record the text. Think Cinderella’s grotesque step-sisters’ feet being shoved into her cute little glass slipper. Both are technically feet you can walk on, but the one picture of bunions stuffed into dainty high heels ain’t pretty.

I was actively thinking of ways to improve the translated script I was given as I dropped the hubs off, on the other side of Lake Geneva. On our way back to my parents’ place in France, the kids at last fell asleep in the back seat and I needed a break from translation woes. So, I switched on an expat radio station. As if haunted by the ghost of translations gone wrong, my ears suffered through a poorly translated advertisement for patio furniture. You could make sense of the words, but it was so painfully awkward, I wondered which volunteer had been awarded the project. You see, there is such an art and a responsibility in translating. How do you maintain the target text length, translate meaning and not only words, find the right register and style and create a beautifully natural text in your target language without taking too many liberties?

Ok, so I virtually see your eyes glazing over. So, to preserve the identity of the poor souls laboring over the initial dubbing draft, cause God only knows how hard it actually is, let’s instead bash the dilapidated ad I heard in the car. It went something like this:

“You are going to love our sturdy patio furniture. Honey yellow or cherry red, they will be a delight in your home.”

The words are certainly English but tragically, all oomph, urgency and product unique selling point have been lost in translation.  In fact, I know that something got lost in translation without even having access to the original source text (which sounds like it may well have been in a far more factual language like German).

What might it sound like in an English-speaking ad, you ask? How about:
“Discover our contemporary, high-quality, durable outdoor patio. Available now in honey yellow or cherry red.”

I don’t have the source text so it cannot be perfect, but it’s modern. Concise. Skillfully punchy.

With this example in mind, I had a new spring in my step, enough to finalize the dubbing project at midnight last night. My mission: to stay as close to the meaning, register and style as possible, mimic the English length but use French style of sentence structure, French idiomatic expressions and so on. I put it to bed shortly after putting one of the kids to bed. You know, before the other one woke up.

Beautiful translation is bloomin’ hard and I can’t blame the dubbing team for their clunky translation. If they don’t have access to the author and aren’t aware of how much liberty they can take, it is absolutely their responsibility to be as loyal and close to text as they can. I just got lucky enough to consult the author.

Similarly, I sent a translation sample to the creators of my second mammoth project: a juice cleanse start up website and all their marketing collateral. Their feedback breathed life to the static words sitting on my virtual pages. As a translator, I am no longer handcuffed to the word but instead I am empowered to, in turn, breathe life into the translated text so that the passion of the message isn’t lost in translation…

Introducing Mandarin

Ayo’s first introduction to Mandarin was uneventful. I didn’t take him to some toddler class. Oh no, it wasn’t that glamorous. I have come to realize that the best language learning opportunities do not always come in a beautiful school package, tied with a perfect teacher bow. I simply selected two very short YouTube videos: one song about colors and one video on the topic of fruit. After a nap one day a few weeks ago, I asked him if he wanted to learn his friend Micah’s language. “Yeah!” he assured me. So, two year old Ayo was plopped in front of a screen and eagerly watched the two videos after a nap one day. I sat quietly beside him, watching his reactions.

At first, he was riveted and completely silent, clearly intrigued by this foreign language that was neither French nor English. He has definitely heard Chinese before but never been sat down in front of a screen to listen to a third language. It must have felt strange and perplexing: he thought he knew his colors but now it seemed he didn’t at all. Next I knew, Ayo was relying on his eyes. He began to chant the color louder than the Chinese color. “Orange!” he chanted, over the “Chéng sè” [romanized]. At this point, I intervened, telling him that was right, that was Mandarin for “orange”!

Many fond memories of Chinese school came back to me as we watched the fruit video. I am so fond of the Chinese as a people-group, as a culture and with Mandarin as a language. The lively and hospitable culture, the amazing food, the beliefs hidden behind the characters, the history behind the four letter sayings (called 成语 “chéngyǔ”), the coexistence of the artistic and the orderly in each character’s strokes, the melodic of rising and falling tones … just some things that are so beautiful to me. Such are some of the things I am eager to share with our children.

That said, I have to write that I chuckled as we watched the fruit video. This is because I remember how Mandarin taught by a mainland Chinese native was so authentic, and to the Western mind….and at times…umm…rather illogical! Similarly, in “our” fruit clip, we “Follow Jade!” to the market in China and learn the names of a few fruit. Then when we go to review the fruit, Jade asks us which one is the watermelon. A fruit we hadn’t heard of previously at all. I had to giggle as many memories filled my mind of me scratching my head when confronted with typical Chinese language teaching pedagogy.

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Actually, we got lucky because there was at least no Westerner featured in this video. In so many of the language learning material coming out of China, the foreigner (typically Caucasian) is portrayed as clumsy and ignorant. In contrast, China is glorious and perfect and the Chinese character is intelligent and all-knowing. As a language student, you have to simply take this with a grain of salt and realize that most foreign language educators and publishers have never left the country and this is the lens through which they view the 老外 (“lǎowài”), the foreigner. If you are thick skinned enough, you’ll be able to see that it’s hysterical. Government subsidized CCTV[.com] has its own range of free language learning videos, that are absolutely fascinating from a sociological and cultural perspective: white guy trips over his huge nose onto the dinner table. Chinese friend comes to rescue with band-aid. Good entertainment, but the videos are absolutely useless for most Western language learners. The level is often way too high for beginner/intermediate learners and too low for the advanced learner…

This digression leads me to separating our own Chinese language learning material in two categories: those from China and the Western ones that have high-quality producers / publishers. I still view Chinese material as very valuable for our family in understanding Chinese culture and have a nice selection from our past trips. However, I have found that sources like Chinesepod.com or, say, Little Pim DVD that have Western curriculum or directors but use Chinese native speakers are sometimes more accessible and helpful to the learner when coming from a Western context.

Back to our colors and fruit. Ayo watched them both and then wanted to watch them again. Then, in the middle of a video, he told me he was “all done”. I watched him physically relax his shoulders and return to thumb sucking as he was granted one French video. Little to no work was required to understand this one. Fascinating how the brain works.

Most linguists would agree that videos should not be the only method of language input. Ideally, one could learn and practice it with a native speaker. But there you go, that was our real-life first introduction. :)

Constant acts of kindness

I find that the mundane often meets the extraordinary these days.

Date: Friday, March 7, 2014
Time:
11:30am [Read: soon to be collective meltdown time for kiddos.]
Place:
 Our little neighborhood
Situation:
Snow day. Toddler refuses to wear hat, gloves, coat on our walk home from the park. I stop to explain the benefits of wearing warm clothes in front of someone’s home.

Enter an older lady with raspy voice from years of talking. Lady observes toddler from her living room hardly wearing any clothes. Lady runs out to the sidewalk, armed with a blanket for Ayo…

Her: Do you have enough clothes for your child? Please, please take my blanket to keep him warm.
Me: Oh wow, thank you so much!  I actually have a jacket, gloves and hat but getting him to wear them is another story!!
Her: Alright dear, just making sure he was warm…

Date: Monday, March 10, 2014
Time: 10:45am
Place: First: home, then: doc’s office, later: store
Situation: TCKmama hasn’t felt this ill in about five years. Fever, weak, flu-like symptoms, throat feels cut up by shards of glass. Papa is on the other side of the world, on a work trip. Getting to a new doctor is going to be quite the challenge between a wailing, hungry daughter and an active son who is tired of being plopped in front of another YouTube video. Drat! GPS drops us off in front of a fitness center. Finally find road of doc’s office 30 mins late. I call office. Office says they will do all they can to still try and fit me in.

Enter man exiting a bank who watches sick mother run with toddler and teddy bear on hip, infant in stroller and bag around my neck.

Him: Wow, you have your hands full. Where are you trying to go?
Me: 360 South Logan!!!
Him: Let me see.. that way is the 200s block…must be this way. Let’s find it together…here it is, 360 Logan.. good luck!

Enter 50-something female doctor who reads forehead temp and throat swab sample

Her: Dealing with this without your spouse? You must feel terrible. Can we help you arrange a nanny service or something? Here is a prescription for Streptococcus Group A, also known as strep throat. Go to the drive-through pharmacy on Colorado Blvd so you don’t have to unbuckle the kids. And, do you want to feed your daughter now while I play with your son for a bit?

After realizing I would have to wait for prescription, I run to store to pick up a few essential groceries for our really sick toddler friend staying with us at home. Enter Turkish cashier lady.

Her: You look so rough! Can I go through the aisles and help you pick your groceries up?

Date: Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Time: 11:30am. [Read: soon to be collective meltdown time for TCKmama and kiddos.]
Place: Local library
Situation: TCKmama babysits, thus attempts to go to library storytime with Délice in stroller and two toddlers ‘walking’ alongside. Storytime comes to a close. Ayo runs for the steps. Library staff assists in calling him back and playing hide-and-seek with him. He melts down and wants to be in stroller. TCKmama tries to bundle three kids up, lug a huge diaper bag, carry Ayo, push stroller and hold a cute extra munchkin hand.

Enter Mary and Yolanda, two of the sweetest and brightest young library staff you will ever meet.

Them: Can we help you guys out?
[They then proceed to hold a small hand and some belongings and walk with us to the elevator]

Date: Wednesday March 26, 2014
Time: 10:30am [Read: toddler snacks running out. Baby sister more than ready for her first lunch]
Place: Grocery store
Situation: Mama is finished with her groceries. She is just waiting in front of rotisserie chicken for them to be cooked. Wednesday means $3 savings on a delicious freshly cooked chicken… We wait another 20 mins, struggling to entertain ourselves.

Enter a family-man clerk wearing white latex gloves who checks the roasting chicken temperature with a thermometer.

Him: Sorry ma’am, they are going to need another 10 mins.
Me: That’s okay. We can wait… I think! *nervous laugh*
Him: I’m really sorry we weren’t ready in time. Your time is precious in this life phase, that I know. Which chicken would you like me to remove when they are ready? This one is on the house.

Date: Yesterday, Wednesday April 2, 2014
Time: 11:50am. [Read: collective meltdown time for TCKmama and kiddos.]
Place: Grocery store parking area
Situation: Mama weight-lifting her groceries into the car, a heavy carseat and infant within, and strapping in the finger-sucking brother into his carseat. This grocery trip followed our 100 steps of leaving the house with a toddler (minus the potty training element but plus the baby sister)..

Enter a middle-aged gentleman with striking silver hair and one full brown shopping bag.

Him: Hey, can I take your shopping cart back for you? I remember having young kids and always hated leaving them in the car to run the cart back.
Me: Well, it’s this beastly “car cart” that has to be left at the front of the store. It’s okay, I can manage…
Him: It’s really no problem!
Me: [Hears Hallelujah chorus] Oh my goodness, thank you SO MUCH!

—-

For as physically tiring and hectic this season of life is, I receive so much compassion, support and kindness from people who don’t or barely know us. Think about it, these encounters all took place in the past month. They are just some of the mind-blowing (not so random) acts of kindness I experience on a day to day basis as a young mother in the United States. Such are the stories I will tell Ayo and Délice one day when we no longer live stateside. When discussing friendliness and kindness, I will tell them what a rich American heritage they have.

My hope is that they will one day grasp how contagious, powerful and transformational such acts of kindness are. My hope is that they would learn to slow down and also gift perfect strangers with kindness, simply out of the abundance of their hearts.

Mama thoughts at TWO!

We have a two year old! We once marveled at our infant boy’s mini features, wondering who he would become. Today, we already have glimpses of who this little boy is becoming and the journey is truly a lot of fun…

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Perfectly renamed “happy activist” by a gracious family member, two year old Ayodelé is strong-willed and persistent yet carefree, enthusiastic, fun-loving and utterly hysterical, observant and caring, snuggly yet independent, rambunctious and high-energy, adventurous and doesn’t feel much pain, yet he is a cautious little boy…

He is tall and lean like his papa, grins just like maman and looks very much like his eldest maternal cousin “Zozos”. He has a frighteningly great memory, very good comprehension of French and English used in daily life but jumbles them all up when he feeds them back, thinking that surely, everyone must understand both cognates. At two, his speech is not terribly clear to the uninitiated and his sentence structures aren’t all that complex, but he makes himself perfectly understood within the confines of our home. He is the kind of kid who will repeat a word 50 times with persistence until you figure out what he means. He loves his maman and loves to cook and taste all ingredients used. He loves to eat, loves his extended family and loves most women who are given the name “tata” (auntie). He also is fond of his play kitchen, toy cars, small containers with marbles inside or real pots and pans with frozen veggies therein. He is weary of most men besides his papi, his uncle TJ and his papa.
Go figure.

Some days, it is perfectly clear that Ayo is still a toddler and on others, he seems like such a little boy, who needs a rock in his pocket, wants to be thrown on the couch or have dirt under his fingernails and the right music played in the car. Two years old feels like a significant milestone around which time we start to wonder how to get him to stop sucking his fingers, how to teach him to dress himself, how to get him excited about the potty. I wouldn’t say that Ayo is an over-achiever, yet as his cognitive abilities increase, including thirst for things like colors, numbers, letters, song lyrics or more descriptive vocabulary, I feel he is at last about ready to learn a third language with some level of intentionality. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to language learning, I certainly believe in windows of opportunity. I do think Ayo is approaching a really good window of opportunity where his French and English foundations won’t be so compromised and yet before a new language feels funny to the ear and on the tongue. For where our family is at in life, Mandarin seems to make the most sense as a third language. So just last night, we were starting to think of ways to bring the gift of Chinese culture (a huge part and parcel of language learning) into our home: not the easiest challenge given our relatively monolingual geographical context, but not impossible either. Of course, that starts with me returning to language study, which has been on the back-burner given our new life with a toddler and a newborn. In this pursuit, I checked out several books on multilingualism from the library. Some great books that I have already read, which seem more relevant now than with an infant Ayo, and new ones that specifically guide parents in navigating the specificities of cultivating more than two languages. The critical difference between bi- and multilingualism is of course that you have to provide enough input in not only two but three (or more) languages to truly enable acquisition. We’ll take it easy and see how Ayo takes to it. As I am on the subject, there is a really interesting book that has just been published surrounding trilingualism, recently promoted on Multilingual Living‘s website: Language Strategies for Trilingual Families: Parents’ Perspective. Do let me know if any of you have read this. (If not and you are curious about it, you can win a copy here!)

We are also just starting to face terrifying decisions surrounding school and education, made even more complex by a questionable American public school system but appreciation for diversity and then there is our desire to further nurture multilingualism without going broke. Then, there is the question of his peers, which you of course can’t choose. Not to sound like a mama bear, but yesterday he tripped and fell as he was helping papa take the rubbish out. A couple of kids cycling past mocked him when he cried. Few things will make a mother more sad than to hear her child is laughed at by other kids. And yet, we must must must allow him to become autonomous and grow up to face people in life who won’t have his best intentions in mind. As his mother, I do know Ayo is growing up, but yet I believe he still strongly craves our parental nurturing and protection. On an encouraging note, Ayo is slowly able to move beyond behavioral instructions (“we don’t throw our food”) to more character building and reasoning (“we want to be good stewards of our food, so we do not throw food”). Of course, we know that character is first and foremost modeled by us. Also modeled by us, how do we show Ayo how to love and care for people around him?

Back to our constantly picketing happy activist… as Ayo’s parents, we want to cherish his fantastic persistence, independence and strong will rather than just crush these gifts. As a family, we want to learn how to harness and cultivate them. Parenting this child can be such a challenge on a daily basis and I repeatedly fail at stewarding his gifts. But by God’s grace, papa and I won’t give up. We absolutely love who Ayo is, we are excited to watch him grow into a caring big brother and love when we get glimmers into who he was created to be.

So many thoughts at two.

The iconic American cookie

I was driving the hubs to the airport the other day when I noticed this hotel shuttle with a gargantuan chocolate chip cookie on the side…

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The branding person inside me had a brief argument with my cross-cultural inner person. Why on earth would an aspirational hotel chain affiliated with Hilton, feature a child’s snack on the side of their airport shuttle? And then, my cross-cultural inner voice had to agree with the hubs’ expertise in the matter. He wasn’t renamed “uncle cookie” by his niece for nothing! Turns out, the sweet fresh chocolate chip cookie, is one of those iconic indulgences that most walks of life and socio-economic classes in America can identify with. Ideally, the fresh cookie is enjoyed with a large glass of cold milk. Maybe even leaving a mustache on your lips in signs of appreciation. That reminds me of a friend’s new American husband who was offered a glass of wine as an apéritif in Switzerland. He declined, asking for a cold glass of milk instead, which definitely didn’t go down too well. Never do that.

Back to our decadent fresh cookies with chocolate spilling out of them – this being apparently a key component to their appeal. (Uncle cookie never goes for the hard, pre-packaged kind…no memories of granny in those packages.) There must be something nostalgic about them that wakes up the child in grown adults. Maybe this comfort food awakens memories of grandma’s kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, I too, like a good batch of cookies at select times, I just think it is hysterical when grown men eat them at the most formal of occasions: at a business meeting, at a movie, or after a working lunch. I have been so perplexed by this sight that I have googled all sorts of things around the American chocolate chip cookie over the past few days.

If you have traveled across the US on United Airlines business class (lucky you!), you might have noticed that the perk is one large warm chocolate chip cookie. The first time I saw a load of men in suits munching on their hot cookies in business class, while working on excel spreadsheets, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I am not sure I will ever get used to this, let alone hearing a grown man ask for a large glass of milk to accompany his baked good. This is the case in any setting, but in business class, it is really a peculiar sight from my cultural lens. Have you ever thought about how funny that is? Perhaps it is only funny given my cultural context. Maybe an individual from another cultural background would giggle at macarons or fine chocolates to accompany an espresso or something.

Anyway, just a light-hearted post today.
Happy Thursday all. Almost the weekend. :-)

Guitar in the park

It was about 3:30pm when we arrived at the park.  We had so much fun there yesterday that we had to come back for more. The intense mountain sun again soaked through to our skin as we slowly made our way to the playground. I pushed Délice in a stroller with one hand and held a bag of sandbox toys in the other. I occasionally called for Ayo not to run too far away from maman. He was thoroughly enjoying the freedom of meandering and shouted with sheer glee as he made a new discovery: a new rock or a big stick. After the buzz of the weekend, the park was still and peaceful, with runners and dog owners silently whizzing past us. Between the unrestrained toddler squeals and his mother beckoning him to come back as he ran for the cars on a nearby street, we definitely made our presence known.

As we reached the playground area, catchy music drowned out our noise pollution and quickly caught our attention. A man in his late thirties sat alone on a bench, playing a mini guitar, singing as he strummed in a striking male Edith Piaf voice. It took me about two seconds to realize that he was singing in impeccable French. I decided to park our stroller in his vicinity and let Ayo play there with the sand toys so we could enjoy his music. It was such a beautiful picture. About 20 children swung on swings, raced down slides and ran around the park on this warm day to gorgeous French vintage music. My mind imagined the scene immortalized in a black and white photo but yet the weather was too beautiful to let it linger in black and white. I snapped a quick photo of my own to record the moment. Mine was a little less idyllic. It was one of Ayo dumping sand upon himself. I couldn’t keep snapping because I didn’t want to be so obvious that I was actually trying to take a photo of guitar-man.

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Ayo eventually made his way to a slide and I told him to move away from the bottom of the slide so that other kids could come down: “Il faut que tu bouges de là, sinon tu vas te faire écraser par les plus grands, poussin! ” That is when I heard a young girl say: “Qu’est-ce que vous avez dit?” By her use of French, it was pretty clear to me that her daddy was the one playing guitar for the glorious benefit of all the rest of us.

It didn’t take long for her father to overhear me yelling across the playground to Ayo in his native language. Guitar-man eventually walked over to Ayo, who had his eyes on that ‘toddler-size guitar’. “Vous êtes française?” he asked me as I burped Délice over my shoulder. Am I French. Shoot – how hate that question! I muttered my ‘yes but no but yes’ answer. In his confusion, he turned to Ayo and had a mini conversation in French. He asked him if he liked the music. Ayo nodded. Guitar-man asked if he should play another song. Ayo nodded and squealed and clapped. And he asked him a few more questions, which resulted in timid responses yet perfect comprehension from my almost 23 month old.

Given the minority language feelings I shared in one recent blog post, my heart jumped for joy to be able to witness this little exchange. Here we were, in the middle of America and Ayo thought absolutely nothing of it, that he understood and could respond to a random Frenchman talking to him in the park.

Times like these remind me why we are on this multilingual journey.
Times like these remind me that the effort is not in vain.

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This post was written for this month’s Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival, organized by thepiripirilexicon.com.


'Raising multilingual children' blogging carnival

This month’s carnival is hosted by Olga Mecking over at The European Mama. Head over there to read fascinating blog posts written by a wide range of multilingual parents on the theme of ‘Multilingual Stories and Anecdotes’!

 

Chatty blog “reduction”

Struggling to find the time to do the many things that I love.

One of those many things is to journal. A few days ago, I started using the voice function on my phone to journal in the car at red lights. Too many thoughts that I don’t want to see vanish. Another of those things is blogging. So many topics to blog about, so little time. One late night, I wrote a long chatty “one month alone” update blog in my drafts but sadly, somehow when I went back to it this morning, I found it blank. Sigh.

So, to use a cooking term, here is the essence of that blog post in a 20 minute “reduction”. No, really. I just started my stop watch. :-)
Truth be told, I love a good reduction. Usually, by boiling, you reduce your mixture, thus also intensify the flavors…

Délice is seven weeks young and Ayo 23 months. That means that I have been handling the two on my own during the week for one whole month now. Someone recently asked me how it is going with two under two. I had to respond this way: It is both harder and easier than I thought. It is lonelier and yet busier than I had imagined. It’s way more fun and way more mundane than I had thought it would be. It is more thankless yet so full of snuggles and hysterical laughing. Finally, it is more of a wonderful challenge and a more frustrating than I had thought it would be. For example, last week, I realized it had taken me a full two hours to get out the door. You remember the children’s book “Everyone Poops”? Well, the more accurate title for our life phase would be its sequel: “Everyone has Pooped AGAIN!”. I counted nine poops between two kiddos one day. Sometimes it feels like these are the only thing I am doing: changing diapers, clothes and feeding. It’s a lot. Both for me and for TM – even if I am the primary care-giver during the week. We have not fully figured out a good balance between kiddos, time for us and time for each of us yet…but that will come in time. Still, mentally and emotionally, I think I am in a fairly good place.

I am in the thick of the tension of not being sure I actually enjoy being at home full-time and yet trying to be diligent in the task before me, knowing full well that I am giving to these two munchkins what only a parent could give linguistically, nutritionally, educationally, spiritually etc. This is the hardest and most mundane job I have ever had. Give me a board room jam-packed of Chinese architects to present to in that urban design firm in Shanghai. Give me the volatile French boss who wanted me to decide if he should buy a company that evening based on my report. This job now is simply harder. Yet, I am the luckiest mother in the world not to have missed out on a single moment of my babies’ lives for the past almost two years. Surely, that is worth a short-term sacrifice?

The reason I feel in an okay place mentally and emotionally is not only because I am slowly getting the hang of things with two under two (namely learning to endure the inefficiencies of small humans) and easing back into running, but because a few life-giving opportunities seem to be cropping up. It’s often feast or famine like that in my life. First, there are good reasons to believe that I will be starting a sizable translation project this week. Translation is what you might call my “Starbucks job”. Nothing too exciting but pulling shots is sometimes more therapeutic than the repetitive task of getting a toddler to wear a jacket. Secondly, a company I had contacted five years ago (!!) would like me to host a cross-cultural training seminar for soon-to-be-expats. To put this into context, if I had to pin one down, I think this would be one of my dream jobs. I just had to say yes! Sure, these are “only” side gigs, but truly solid opportunities I am really excited for. I honestly don’t have the time for much more than this. Actually, I do have a couple of night feedings during which time I can research opportunities for the future. Nothing I am comfortable sharing yet as I am still in the dreaming phase. Still, it is SO life-giving to think about life after diapers. Will that be in the birth world, in the cross-cultural marketing world, in the speech and language pathology world? Only time will tell..

I also still have one personal branding client. Sometimes, I regret having kept any work at all as I feel guilty for not exceeding my clients’ expectations but as I am learning about mothers of small children, they just make time out of not much at all. They sleep less. They prioritize more. To be blunt, whether they are working at home or going into an office, they work their ass off. I pray to God that I will remember to encourage that frazzled mother in the grocery store for her freaking amazing work when I am older and not just tell them to “enjoy the moment for they pass by so fast”.

So,  I see I went over my time by seven minutes. More thoughts later…

Sweet moments

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It’s going to be a good morning!

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Not safe or recommended but practical!
You’d never know that we are headed out the door.

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Papa on duty!

Here is how I found them when I arrived back home:

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Discovery of the car at the grocery store.
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Just some fun moments captured by my phone camera recently.