Some of our family’s best conversations happen around the dinner table. I’ll reassure you, some of our worst happen there too. Dinner in a home of young ones is a fleeting moment that wraps up the events of the day. Often, the youngest members are utterly exhausted and emotions are heightened. But, if you listen hard enough, you’ll no doubt capture a precious gem. It’s a magical moment from the day. A thought from the hectic week gone by. Or, a profound understanding of a spiritual question. Sometimes, it’s a whole conversation that’s still twirling around in your head long after all the under sixes have entered lala-land.
Not too long ago around our multilingual table, we got talking about papa’s language skills. Passing the peas, Tall Mountain jokingly asked the children if he should show up one day at school and speak French.
“No waaay” giggled the kids in unison, imagining the absurdity of the proposition. “Papaaaa, your French is not two thumbs up, only two thumbs in the middle!” You can always count on kids for encouragement.
Attempting to offer an equally absurd scenario, my husband turned the tables. He asked them if mama should start speaking English when she comes to school then. We expected the same dismissal. Obviously, both would laugh off the strangeness of the idea that maman would one day switch to English in that Francophone environment.
We expected that “of course not” answer as I’d previously tried to approach switching back to English at home. It was another day, several moons ago, where I was met with a different peculiar answer. My son hadn’t wanted me to switch back to English, because he desperately wanted the red (French) passport and with it, the ability to vote. It was such a startling answer for a five year old, that I swore to revisit the proposition down the road, thinking perhaps this was just a phase in a justice passionate child’s mind.
I could never have predicted my kids’ answer this time at dinner either. Both voiced a very strong opinion, straight from the heart. As different as they are personality-wise, that’s how different the answers were.
My 4 year old daughter said: YES!!!! Let’s switch back. Please speak English to me, that would be a fantastic idea. We could have our own secret language in school. Let’s do it from now on, please don’t speak French anymore! Come on, mama!?
As for my 5 year old son, he said, “no WAY!”. No thank you, don’t speak in English, because he would be… and he whispered: ‘sooooo ashamed’.
Woah, what was going on here?
Why did one purposefully want to be different and use language as a secret tool? And, why on earth did the other long to conform so badly?
Our rebuttal would have been far more polished had we had longer to think about it. But, parenting would be far too easy if we had the time to reflect on all of our answers. Still, we felt the weight of the moment, knowing that this dinner time was our chance to talk about the sheer gift of language. Language is not meant to be a divisive tool, meant to keep others out. Quite on the contrary, we view language as a bridge-building tool, which breaks through cultural walls and reaches his hand out to the other.
We told our son that language a gift that many adults have to work hard at for years. And here they were, handed these languages on a silver platter, already able to thrive in communication with many people around the world. Surely, that is something to be proud of. Definitely not ashamed of. Let’s all get it straight, right now, that we’ll forever be different to other families at their school. This is a wonderful thing, and we celebrate the richness in our diversity.
Soon after our chat, it was back to reality. Dinner finished in the way it always does on a school night at our house with little littles. It unravels, often with tears of fatigue and the urgency to move towards bedtime.
But this conversation keeps tugging at my heart, today again, wondering if we have embraced integration in France to such an extent that they aren’t dancing the cross-cultural dance as much as we once thought they would. They are yet children, but it’s painful to admit that they don’t see their multilingualism as a gift as of yet. One just wants French, the other just English. This, on some level feels like a complete failure on our part. On another level, we have confidence they will grow into that identity if given the right environment to feel the value.
Practically, I haven’t yet decided how to handle their differing requests. Of course, we don’t choose a language based on their current preference. But we do think strong thoughts in this area merit being honored and worked through as part of their identity building.
Do I speak a different language to each child? My daughter’s English would benefit from it, but how odd would it feel to speak a different language to each child? I had read about those families who spoke different languages to each child and vowed I would never do that. Never say never.
In moving forward, I don’t have all the answers. But, what I do have, is a renewed fire under my bum to continue to uncover the joy and wealth of the languages we have already dabbled in. This week, we found all sorts of moments to learn Chinese. When waiting for a dance class. Over lunch. Then, last night, bedtime routine was all in Mandarin. Their hearts and minds aren’t always open to mama’s latest linguistic game. Sometimes they hate my language antics. But, last night they loved it. It was so fun. They caught on to the fun, cross-cultural vision of it all.
It has to be us, the parents, leading our kids in the vision of it all. Ours is a vision they can’t yet truly grasp yet. It’s a vision of a multilingual marathon, run day by day. One step in front of the other, leading to a life of bridge-building opportunities. Time for us to pick that baton up again.