I want to know if I’m alone in this, so tell me if this scenario resonates with you:
You’re a parent who speaks another language, and your child is younger than, say, two or three. You’re talking with someone, and they chuckle and say, “Oh, are you, like, talking in Welsh to your kid all the time? Wouldn’t it be awesome if your kid grew up talking in Welsh?” (Or French. Or Chinese.)
I have a feeling some of you are shuddering and nodding along (please tell me I’m not alone), and maybe others are thinking something along the lines of “Wait, you know Welsh?” To which I say, “Why do people always italicize Welsh?”
The thing is, it’s not just Welsh. I’m an academic, so I know a number of languages and I get people who, whether because they think it’s funny or because they’re really dead serious, inquire quite minutely into just how much I do in terms of introducing the Changeling to French, Hebrew, and, through my husband, Chinese. Reminder: she’s a toddler.
I would like to note with great pride that, thus far, I have refrained from saying anything remotely rude to anyone, even when they proceed to give me advice about how singing songs with my toddler is pedagogically inadequate for conveying the finer points of syntax. To be honest, my restraint in that case wasn’t due to self-control: I was just too stunned to think of anything to say apart from, “Oh?” I didn’t even have the brain capacity to say, “Why the [expletive deleted–ed.] do you think this is remotely your business? Also, your pedagogy seems somewhat flawed, not to say it’s complete bull [expletive deleted– ed.]” Ah, how we are haunted by life’s missed opportunities! [Editor’s note: I would like to apologize for the author’s terrible behaviour. I won’t let it happen again.]
Well, after nearly three years of being questioned, I’m finally thinking through an answer, and here’s my explanation. I love languages madly, passionately, and deeply. I have a particularly intimate relationship with French, which is as much a part of me as English. I love how it sounds, I love the literature that’s accessible to you once you know it. I love how closely it’s intertwined with English, like cousins: each their own world, yet visiting back and forth. If you know about French and English, you know about families: their loves, their quarrels, their fights, their reconciliations. Obviously I want to share this love with my daughter the way I want to share my love of music and of animals and of books and of needlework– and it would be super nice if she took to it. If not, well, we can still talk about cats.
So, yes, we sing songs and read books in French, because I love them and she loves them, too. If she doesn’t want to read or sing something at a given time, I shrug and put it down. Maybe she will another day. If she does– yay, awesome, I love that! That’s my approach, really, and I find it much easier to resolve than how to respond to being questioned about said approach. And, perhaps most importantly, no one else gets a say in any of this (unless you know some really good books or music we might enjoy). Especially because I think the more interesting question is this: Have you discovered anything new and interesting through re-experiencing a language you know at an adult level with the Changeling at her own level?
What an excellent question! Why, yes, I have. I’ve discovered that The Very Hungry Caterpillar works gloriously in Welsh, but only OK in French. Interesting, right? I’ve learned a number of new songs which my daughter and I both love. And I’ve found some really lovely books. You see, when I learned French it was through New Brunswick’s early French immersion, and I learned it at school. I’m sure we did some story books, but I don’t remember much apart from worksheets and conversation. By doing things just at home, for the fun of it, I’m finding all kinds of beautiful books, including some I recently bought at Schoenhof’s: the Bébé Balthazar books by Marie-Hélène Place, illustrated by Caroline Fontaine-Riquier. If you don’t have a good French bookstore near you, it may be harder for you to find these, although I do link to the French publisher, if you don’t mind paying shipping from France.
These books are simple, simple, simple, and perfect in their simplicity. They are at precisely the right level for my daughter: French being a foreign language, she can’t quite handle anything with too much of a story, but these are about at the level of Pat the Bunny, which is a bit too simple for her in English. But what we love about these isn’t just the text; we love the books as a whole. The layout, the text, the printing, the illustrations, the concept– the books as physical objects are, there’s no other word for it, charming.
I’m sorry that the only images I could find for you are somewhat blurry, but take a look at the covers up above and think about what you see at a glance. There’s the gingham background, like a classic child’s shirt or dress. There’s the beautiful script for the title. And there’s the little illustration set in an oval: the little bébé Balthazar in his rabbit outfit hugging the big, fluffy grey cat, or walking in the water. Pépin, his teddy, is the little fellow in red you see leaning up against the cat’s hind legs. The covers encapsulate almost everything to love about these books.
Naturally, they do have something of a story. In Bébé Balthazar Caresse le chat, Balthazar goes from animal to animal hugging, or kissing, or otherwise interacting with it, and the book is something of a touch-and-feel book. You can feel the soft fur of the cat, the feathers of a duckling, and the prickles of a hedgehog. In Bébé Balthazar Je t’aime, Balthazar goes for a walk in his garden and tells everything why he loves it: “Je t’aime fleur qui sent si bon.” He loves the flower which smells so good, the water which runs over his feet, the ladybird which trusts him enough to let him hold it, and, in the very end, he loves Pépin, who has all the best qualities of everything he meets in his garden. (Awww!)
In other words, the text is completely sweet: it has no disruptions, no cracks or ruptures to tease out. It doesn’t teach you any huge lessons about the world. These books are simply sweet and charming, and sometimes that’s all you need. Sometimes you don’t need pedagogical complexity or deep lessons, sometimes you just want to enjoy curling up with your daughter and a gingham-patterned book with lovely, soft watercolour illustrations and whisper, “Je t’aime,” over and over again. “Je t’aime, ma fille!” I love you, Changeling! And we both love reading these books together, and that, in the end, is the only part which truly matters, much more than pedagogy, and, I remind myself, much more than worrying about what anyone else thinks of our pedagogical methods.
Let’s all curl up and read a book, shall we?