Thursday, April 14, 2011

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Having two languages in the house is amusing, to say the least. During meals, my children will turn to their father and say, “Je peux avoir du pain, s'il te plaît?” and then turn to me and ask, “May I have more milk?” Now that our daughters are six and eight years old, they have passed the normal phase of mixing languages in the quest for bilingualism. Although I had been a language teacher and had read several articles and books on language acquisition, I could still be caught off guard.

One day while I was pregnant with her sister, my first daughter was calmly sitting on the couch in the living room while I was preparing dinner. She was just a year and a half but had been talking since she was ten months old. With a picture dictionary on her lap, I knew I had a few minutes to get our meal prepped...until I almost dropped the casserole dish.

What had I heard my sweet girl mutter? She repeated it again. I held on to the counter to think where she possibly could have heard that word. She was saying it over and over again. “But we don't say the “F” word,” I told myself.

Catching my breath, I inquired in my softest voice, “Honey, what are you talking about?” and walked towards her. She was pointing at something and, very joyfully, calling it by name. I peered over the book and saw a simple, gray drawing. To her, in French, it was a “phoque”.

“Wow, look at the SEAL!” I said enthusiastically with great relief.

A few months later, we headed to Cornwall, England to the family cottage located in Crantock Village. I love it because you can walk the perimeter in as much time as it takes to walk the length of an American shopping center. The bakery, grocery and post office share the same surface which is no bigger than any of the adjoining cottages.

Our little white house hugs me like a good memory every time we arrive through the front sun room. My parents-in-law have many friends in the area who like to come by and see my husband and his siblings all grown up. When one particularly nice couple heard that we were coming for the first time with our daughter, they stopped by for tea one afternoon.

I dressed my daughter in her cutest sundress, with a sweater, of course. The Cornish coast is not South Carolina, where I spent Spring break as a child. We sat in the conservatory very prim and proper like any good English family would. Although I am American, I wanted to give the impression that I knew how it was done. Biscuits (not cookies) on the table. Tea cups counted out, spoons out, sugar out. Pour the milk before the tea. This last point is a long-time debate so I went with how my father-in-law prepares his's his cottage anyway.

We saw our guests walking up through the garden (not the front yard). Past the flower beds, they beamed their smiles as we opened the front door. Lots of “ohs” and “ahs” as my little girl walked and skipped up to give them each a bisou (not a kiss) on each cheek. Frenchness seems to charm people in any country. I stood beside my husband in my English-looking, pastel floral, maternity skirt thinking everything was just lovely (not just good).

Then, my cheeks turned as red as I wished the sun would in Belgium. My brain flashbacked to the day my daughter sat on the couch with her picture dictionary, to what I heard from the kitchen...

This friendly couple announced they had a little something. They handed my daughter a small stuffed animal as a souvenir of her first trip to Crantock Beach. The sea is known to be home of wondrous mammals that like to sunbathe on the rocks just off-shore. One of these creatures even swam up to my brother-in-law on one visit.
With a mother's instinct to avoid disaster before it has time to explode, I reached over to my daughter holding her by the shoulders. “What a cute seal! Thank you so much!” I sighed and calmly reiterated for further reference, “Isn't it a cute seal, Sweetie? Thank them for your lovely seal, please.” When I heard the words fall out of her mouth, I thought my job was done. “Thank you for the seal.”

The rest of the holiday (not vacation) went according to plan – coastal walks, garden visits, rainy afternoons with a good book. My daughter watched seagulls while bundled up in jeans, a sweater and an anorak. All the other English kids on the beach were in their bathers (not swimsuits).

On the flight home, my daughter sat calmly playing with her new little toy. I smiled at her, satisfied. She had already been to England at a year and a half of age. I was in my twenties the first time I crossed the Channel from France. She was speaking her first words, sentences, full thoughts in English and French. I had to spend years in university classes and semesters abroad to speak French the way she will naturally do so. Why study vocabulary lists when life is the best teacher?

Then, she dropped it in between the seats. In a volume only children use by nature, she cried, “Mummy! I dropped my phoque. Where's my phoque?”

Just as loud, I replied, “SEAL, Sweetie! Let's find your SEAL!”

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