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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How I Manned Up… and Accepted the Vacuum Cleaner

I clearly remember the day I got into my first (and only) fight.  I was 16, and it happened after class in an open field. I have no recollection what started it, I simply remember that it attracted a big crowd, and that in the end I was thankful I didn’t lose teeth.  But I also recall being satisfied that the fight- along with chasing girls and sneaking into bars, was one more defining moment in my quest towards manhood.

It all seems so quaint now.

Fast forward 20 years.  Since then there is home ownership, a 9-5 job and a countless flow of bills that require “urgent” attention.   But these were all expected trappings of grown up life and drilled into me by endless teachers, professors and parents.

On being a man, however, there was scarcely little preparation.  Here, I’m not referring to the ability to fix an engine, build a fence or possess a preternatural knack to barbecue a steak to medium rare (I still struggle with all of these).

08800_pornforwomen36Instead, what I have found is that the greatest challenge to modern male-dom is the anti-archetype.   No one ever prepared me for the vacuum cleaner.

I don’t mean this in the sense that that I am bad at vacuuming and wish I had received more instruction throughout my upbringing.  What I mean is that it took me several years of internal strife to feel comfortable with the idea of Kevin vacuuming. It took even longer to reconcile doing the dishes, and I still struggle to handle my weekly garbage duties.

The older I get, the more I realize this is not a trivial matter.  There are duties that must be done in every home, and someone needs to accept responsibility for life’s most mundane tasks.  Leonard Cohen expressed it best in his song Democracy:

It’s the Homicidal Bitchin’;

That Goes Down in Every Kitchen;

To Determine Who Will Serve and Who Will Eat.

Of course, past generations of men rarely faced this dilemma when male duties were restricted to tasks requiring heavy lifting and power drills.  But as much as I would love to blame my parents and society, this too is not totally fair.

I am the first to accept that we have moved beyond the era where women should carry all the burden of domestic life.  And more than that, the truth is that I like the concept of the guy pitching in around the house.  When I see my (more enlightened) male friends changing diapers and cooking dinner, my honest reaction is: Here is my friend.  I know for a fact he’s straight.  We still play sports together, go out for beers and regularly make lewd comments about women.  Yet, he, somehow is comfortable- even content to voluntarily clear the dishes after the meal and feel no loss of pride.

This impresses me greatly.

But as much as I admire this quality,  when it gets down to the nitty-gritty- to actually scrubbing pots and maneuvering the dust-buster into tight crannies, a sense of real dissonance strikes.  And the fact is that I’m not alone in this feeling.  Numerous studies show that women- even in our modern, “enlightened” age still, disproportionately do the housework.  One study from Cornell University showed that women still do most of the household even when woman works and the man is unemployed. 

You don’t need to be a hardcore feminist to accept that it leaves women with a pretty raw deal.  They earned the right to work, but still do not make the same salary men,  Not only must they endure PMS and labour, they are also expected to be the predominant child minders.  On top of that, they are still the ones we expect will get the mustard stains out of our pants when we run into a hot-dog “challenge”.

It was this realization that led me to take another look at the vacuum.  No, not just look… I decided I would dominate the vacuum like my childhood hero Tony Hawk took on the half-pipe.  I made it a personal mission, every Sunday to get every fleck of dust out from under the bed, and ensure that no speck of grime remained on the baseboards.  I know it’s just vacuuming, and there’s a lot more than that to keeping a home, but it’s a start, one about which my wife is quite pleased.

And, strange as it sounds, accepting the vacuum also had an important side benefit.  It made me realize that, in spite of what I believed growing up, the characteristics we most associate with manliness are the ones that are easy because doing what is expected is almost always the most simple course of action.  Instead, the real test and the most difficult challenge is to act outside of these stereotypes and make our own definitions of who we are.

For me, it started with the vacuum cleaner.