North American Contrarian

Telling it like it is… in North America

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6 Steps to raise a child in a second language

I grew up unilingual.  I took the obligatory French classes throughout school, but like the great majority of Anglophone Canadians, ended up far from bilingual.  This is incredibly unfortunate.  Studies show not only that it is hugely beneficial to have a bilingual child, it’s also relatively easy to teach children a second language.

Anyway, instead of wallowing in my unilinguality (word?) I decided that my son should not suffer the same fate.  At almost three years old, I have spoken almost no English to Nico and our communication is exclusively in French.  If you were to ask Nico, he would assume that I was Francophone (how long this will last, je ne sais pas).  While it hasn’t been easy, here are a few tips for parents similarly interested:

  1. Commit: 

    I mean this.  There is no such thing as raising a child in “sort of” another language.  Nico associates me with French.  He doesn’t perceive an option to speak in English and when he does, he does it jokingly- “why would I talk to Papa in a language that is not his own?”.  I’ll admit, especially at the beginning this was hard.  I fumbled a lot (I still do).  At 3am, when he refused to sleep, it seemed enough trouble to speak my own language, let alone a second.  But, incredibly, as Nico with me, I too started to associate Nico with French, to the point that speaking to him in English just feels kinda wrong.

  2. Make time to work on your target language every day!: 

    Sort of similar to the above, but it’s another step that I think is totally necessary.  As an adult, I personally don’t believe it’s possible to speak a second language like your own.   You can certainly become fluent, but a chat or a gato will never be a cat, it will always be the word for cat.  It’s subtle, but true.  This means that you need to work hard.  Since Nico was born, I have taken weekly Skype lessons in French and listen to French podcasts everyday for a minimum of one hour.

  3. Have your Translate app handy: 

    Nico is at an age now where he is curious.  He wants to know the name of everything, even the most obscure things.  The other day, he hopped into the bike carrier and asked for his helmet.  He looked at the strap to attach the helmet and asked “ca s’appelle?”.  I got this, I thought.  “Ca cette un sangle”- that is a strap.  “No… ca...” he said pointing to the clip that attaches the helmet together.  Even here I was ok: “Je suppose que ca cette l’attache“- that is the clip I said.  “NOOOOO” he said getting annoyed.  “CA!” he said pointing at the part of the clip, I guess called the female, where one piece of the clip goes into the other.   Anyway, you can see why having a digital translator is necessary at all times (apparently, the French word for this is la femelle for anyone interested).

  4. Let the media help you: 

    We’re so lucky that we can now program our lives in any language at the click of a button.  If you want Transformers in Hindi, or Tommy the Train in Persian it is available, easily, online.  I had never heard a french nursery rhyme before Nico, but now I could practically sing the entire French soundtrack to Mother Goose en francais.  The sneaky trick is that I am actually learning vocabulary along with Nico.  And, let it be known that the vocab in children’s stories is surprisingly difficult and obscure (just pick up a Dr. Seuss book if you don’t believe me).

  5. It can be awkward: 

    I mean this in a couple of ways.  First, is the fact that Nico can’t communicate that well with English speakers.  When a friendly neighbour talks to him, he often stares at them blankly.  I feel obligated to intervene and translate the sentence for him.  It’s a bit weird.  Second- and this may be personal- when a native French speaker is around I get self conscious.   When they hear that I’m not Francophone, I wonder if they think… what’s this guy doing trying to speak my language- and only subpar at that- to that poor kid????   Then I think of how many times a non-Anglophone speaks English to their kids and then, I start to get angry- who are you to tell me in what language I can speak to kid?  This is probably paranoia and in all likelihood the parent is probably way too busy making sure their kid doesn’t fall off the monkey bars than worrying about my French.  In any case, I am extra careful with my accent and conjugations when I hear other Francophones at the local park.

  6. You will not damage your child:

    Lastly, and perhaps this is the one that I feared most.  When I started three years ago I’m not even sure I would have considered myself fluent in French(conversational maybe?).  Would I forever ruin the possibility of my child speaking any language well?  Would my child be forever behind the other kids who happily speak English, which, let’s not forget is currently the world’s most powerful language?  Well… maybe, the results aren’t totally in.  But more likely, with the help of teachers and his mom (whose native language is French), and the media, he will be a native French speaker.  And, with grandma and the rest of the world around him speaking English, I’m pretty confident we will end up with a kid whose entire life is benefitted by the fact he is natively bilingual.

Here’s a short clip of Nico and I speaking to each other…


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Three Attributes of Life In A Facebook World

While far from a “heavy user”, I do check Facebook often. And there is something that I have noticed about the world I inhabit there.  While it ostensibly gives me a window into the lives of my friends all around the world I see only the most curated view.  This is because we connect in a pseudo world, a place quite different from the real one, with its own set of rules and regulations.  Here are some of the attributes of life in a Facebook world.

1) We wake up happy, every day!

Energetic teenagerIn this place we wake up happy, no ecstatic, every day without fail.  You see, we love our Facebook world.  Here we keep occupied with only life’s most incredible pursuits.  One day we board a flight to an exotic local (only business class will do), the next we  sip on cocktails with little umbrella’s, or stand triumphantly in front of the world’s great monuments.  Often, we are so excited about our day’s pursuits that we snap a quick selfie.  We are, naturally, locked in a bright smile.  At other moments, during a night of debauchery, our arms are wrapped exuberantly around friends in what surely includes wild sex, heavy drinking and general mayhem.  We live life to it’s fullest, and each day surpasses the last for the sheer happiness we exude.

2) We Always Know Just What to Say

ikXfBwFWe can be playful, we can be coy, but we always know just what to say.  Whether it’s pointing to a clever Meme (Cue Business Baby with caption: Susan, reschedule my 9 o’clock meeting.  I just shit my pants”), or links to inspiring articles (91 year-old man runs marathon in 3:04) we are never at a loss for words.  We talk with the self assuredness of someone who knows that what we say has great importance for our wide audience of listeners.

3) We Have the Solution to The World’s Greatest Problems

Thereimages are difficult moments in the Facebook world.  We are, after all realists, who understand that there are real issues at stake.  When we saw the movie “The Cove” we lamented the horrendous act of killing dolphins, adding a link to the film and saying “Shameful behaviour: we need to stop this- NOW” with a link to an online petition.  We make lots of these timely statements about the world’s conundrums, and explain how we have the solution at hand.  For instance, after the earthquake in Haiti, we noted that we’d already donated $100 to Red Cross.  We patiently explain that we only use biodegradable products in an effort to ward of climate change.  While we don’t outright say it, we imply that following our lead will improve the lot for us all.

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Why Gen Y and Gen X Will Do Better Than our Parents

Technically, I’m a generational hybrid between Gen X and Gen Y.  I recall Grunge, though I was too young to really be a part of the scene (though I did cry when Kurt Cobain died).  And I was also young during the advent of the internet, though I can’t say I was a digital native. So I think I can comfortably speak for both generations.  And, in my humble opinion, these two generations will do a much better job at the helm than our parents.  Here is why:

We know the world is in a precarious state:  The cost of gas just went through the roof here in Canada and it’s a struggle for many to fill up their vehicles.  The gas, product of the middle-east, fuels wars and feeds instability. We know this, and we know that, like a tumour, it is spreading and killing us.  I’m not Imagesaying that the younger generations have real solutions to the epic problems that face humanity. In fact, I think there is a general malaise, a sense of helplessness and doom amongst many.  But, I also think that the first step is understating of the problem.  My hope is that, as the gen Y’s move in and Gen X’s move up, they will begin to use this knowledge to make real changes to the way the world works.


We get technology: It’s obvious and some say it’s overstated.  I mean, does it really matter that I know how to send a tweet or keep a blog?  Who cares if I know how to tether my computer and edit movies?  It may seem trivial, but I think that these skills mean more than seem.  The workplace of the future is in technology.  You may be doing a traditional job, but the platform is all-new.  A salesperson will not be communicating by phone and a teacher will not be standing at a blackboard.  This is reality and the younger generations are many steps ahead of their parents.

We want more from life than work:  The executives at my work are in their fifties and sixties.  They get in Imageat 7 am and often don’t leave until 8 pm.  They fret about that company as if it were a child- it’s their priority and there is a sense that it’s the overarching purpose of their lives.  Then there are colleagues my age and younger.  We stay do stay late if a project needs to be done, and we check emails incessantly.  But, I perceive a real difference in our approach.  While we still do care, we also know that our employment is tenuous.  We won’t get a pension and expect to be moving through or out of the company in the next few years.  When work is done, we leave and take yoga, dance class or simply hang out.  If someone asks me what I do on a daily basis, I am just as likely to say windsurf or read as I am manage Polar product.  This is healthy and I think it will lead to a more motivated workforce that finds creative solutions and lives more fulfilling lives.

There are no more illusions: This is not meant to be esoteric or deep.  What I mean is that the childhood with mom and dad and pie and swing sets is a phantom that was created for public consumption in the 50’s.  I’m not even sure if that ever existed.  But if it did, it’s gone.  The world is more transparent now, and information- whatever kind you want, is there for all to see.    Porn- I recall seeing every variety of gender doing incredible contortions with bizarre apparatus before I could even reach the gas pedal of the car. And I had been overseas before I could even navigate my home city.  What does this mean?  I think youth today are on the whole less naive.  They have a better perspective on reality and it will lead to better decision making down the road.

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I’m a travel blogger- now show me the money!

There is a new ponze scheme that’s going around like a viral YouTube video.  It was introduced to me by a friend who attended a social media conference last weekend.  This premise is this.  Start a blog about your favorite hobby or past-time.  Travel is an especially popular choice because the world is so eager for more aspiring travel writers.  With this under your belt post an article about destinations that you visited.  It’s just a matter of putting fingers to keyboard and hacking away until something coherent arrives on your screen.  Post photos of you in these locations looking serenely at an iconic site.  Now, for those technically inclined, add in a reciprocal link.

Exhibit A: Me with Machu Picchu in the background

This is part of the “social media strategy” that you will need to employ.  The other part involves spamming your friends on Facebook and Twitter to let them know about your newly created blog.  Now sit back, let the sponsorships flow in.  Don’t settle- you should expect to be jetted around the world (first class, of course) and all incurred expenses will be happily borne by your sponsors.  You have created the ultimate alchemy, turning your words into dollars and exotic travel.

Okay, now back to reality.  Maybe I am overly cynical.  Admittedly people genuinely do travel the world and support themselves with a blog.  But here’s what I think the panel forgot to explain.  My guess is that these people have a penchant for their craft.  Had they been born before the internet they would be professional writers, had they been born in the age of film  they would be photographers.  I almost resent the idea that a room full of people at the lecture left thinking they have suddenly discovered the secret to the good life and we are all fully capable of a lucrative career as travel bloggers.  Of course, maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe those who attended the conference just took a first step towards a new career, and I just wasted over an hour publishing something that should’ve demanded a plane fare to warmer climes.