Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trip home -- worth every penny

Well, there's a lot to cover about Stinkerbella's language development over the last few months and I should really be in bed...but at the rate things are going I'm just going to have to give up some sleep to do everything I want to do in a day!

To be brief, we went home to the US for a month over the summer. Stinkerbella has always been a bit of a chatterbox, even as a tiny baby, and while her first words were in English, her French became stronger and stronger after she started day care for 2 mornings a week. She had a much broader vocabulary in English, but she was able to express herself in longer, more accurate sentences in French and sometimes she'd tend to stick to French in her imaginative play unless I'd join her. She was able to switch to English without problem, but I think French came more naturally to her when playing.

In the US, she switched over to English automatically and since we've been back, there's no question that English is her mother tongue. It was a little weird to hear her speak English to me and then French to her dolls, and then it was equally weird to come back and see her struggle a bit to get back into the swing of French. Now she seems able to handle both quite easily and can code-switch without effort, which is amazing to watch.

The trip back to the US really proved to be an important step in establishing her bilingualism. Even though I worked hard at describing things in detail, singing, reading, playing, and all the things that are standard practice when raising a bilingual child, she really only heard English from me and she needed to be immersed. Plus I think it was very important to her that she hear other children.

The process was so automatic that it really seemed that she was programmed to speak English and had all the knowledge in her head, but it took a trip home to really flip the switch. I'm still waiting to see what will happen when she goes off to school, but I'm feeling a little more confident that if we can save our centimes for trips home that she'll continue to express herself well in English.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Howdy! 'Round here we speak Southern...

One of my goals in 2009 was to find Stinkerbella more English-speaking friends her age, and thanks to Message we've been able to meet this goal. Many of the other families are from somewhere in the U.K., and every now and again there are little vocabulary issues that arise. I remember going through that when I first moved to Japan, but the topics were pretty different as we were all a bunch of single people in our early 20s.

Since our babies are all in the early 2s, I make a good faith effort not to confuse other people's children when I'm talking directly to them but find it a lot harder to switch around my English vocabulary than to switch to French with my French friends' children. It's funny how that works. Before moving here, I already knew what a nappy was, but lately we've been talking about welly boots, pushchairs, buggies, jumpers, and I don't know what all else.

Stinkerbella seems unfazed by the most part by all the different vocabulary, although when we sang the ABC song she said, "No, no, no! Not zed, it's ZEE!" when my friend said the last letter of the alphabet. I tried to explain that our friends used a different word than we do, just like daddy uses different words than I...so we'll see how she reacts the next time we sing.

I have a hunch, though, that out of us all, my vocabulary is the most special since I do find myself speaking "country" to my daughter. It's what comes out the most naturally, and to be perfectly honest I quite like the way my family and friends speak since it's mixed in with our cultural identity as hillbillies. Last week I said something along the lines of "Come here and let me pull up your britches" and my friend said, "Oh, so you say breeches for trousers?!" I'm sure there must be other things that she hasn't (yet) commented on.

In addition to the what must be bizarre vocab, there are the grammatically incorrect expressions that I've kept because it's just the way they are said. I try to speak correctly in front of other people's children but sometimes I get tangled up if my daughter is part of that group. When we sang the famous Sleeping Bunnies I confused myself and everyone else in the room by saying, "Now, lay down, little bunnies -- I mean, LIE down -- no, I mean, LAY down -- um..." and then just gave up and started the song. I do not have this problem when teaching since I'm in teacher mode, but it's odd how the mom mode and teacher mode can come into conflict in playgroups, especially since mom mode seems to override teacher mode more easily than vice versa. The brain is a funny thing.

In a little over a week we'll be leaving for Virginia to spend a month with my family, and I cannot wait to see the effects on her language. I'm now opening up bets to see how long it will take for her to start saying yeller when I ask her what color Big Bird is.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Introducing the family

How did this little Franco-American family come about? Well, I was literally swept off my feet by my husband when we were the only unregistered singles that showed up for swing dance lessons. There was a huge crowd of people who had just shown up unexpectedly on the first day of class and the teachers herded us into another room to try to figure out a way to cope. They asked all the singles to raise their hands and we were the only two, so they put us together as partners. We clicked from the beginning, and now we're married and living in France with our bilingual toddler.

My husband is the outgoing one and picks up languages quickly. He lived in the US for 6 years, and during that time we established English as the language we communicate in. After we moved, we tried to switch to French but invariably kept switching back to English. As long as we're concentrating we can manage in French, but English is what comes most naturally. It makes sense to me to keep it as our home language since his English is still much better than my French, and it does provide more opportunities for our daughter to hear English spoken in the home.

I'm definitely more introverted than he is, but I've always loved foreign languages and been fascinated with the idea of living in another country as long as I can remember. I studied French for 4 years in college but after living in Japan, it was practically nonexistent when I met him. I really struggled to put a sentence together at first, and I won't mention what a disaster it was when I first met his family. While my French has definitely improved, there are still times when I have to really concentrate to express myself and there are plenty of nuances that are lost. Reading comprehension has always been my strongest point and listening comprehension has obviously skyrocketed, but there's always room for improvement.

Some of the key factors in deciding to relocate to France were related to bilingualism. We felt that with my background in teaching ESOL to kids, we were more obviously more likely to succeed if we lived in France and I could stay home with the kids for the first few years to get them settled in English. I already had all the resources, and it just made more sense. And heaven knows I needed to boost my French and it wasn't going to happen in the US.

So that's us in a nutshell! In the next post I'll introduce our daughter, Stinkerbella.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Back from the dead

*dust, dust* It's been well over a year since I last posted here, and I think it's clear at this point that I'm just not going to manage to keep up a teaching blog! Next year I think I'm going to take a break from all the FLEX classes altogether, so my role is going to slide over to 100% Momma and 0% English teacher.

Having said that, I do have this knee-high constant companion who is running around with bobbing ponytails and repeating everything I say, so in that respect I am also very much an English teacher still. And it's here that I am blessed with the enormous rewards and satisfaction of seeing her language develop on a daily basis.

So, I'm thinking of trying to resurrect this blog and use it as a place to write about her journey towards bilingualism, and document the fun moments of her early years with respect to language development. I'd like to do some book reviews and also use this as my little space to talk about how wild it is to see my daughter communicate in a language that isn't my own. This is why I'm here, in fact -- my husband and I both wanted our children to be as fully bilingual as possible, and we felt it was much easier (and more likely to succeed) for me to be able to teach our children English while living in France than it would be for them to pick up French in the US. And for the moment it seems to be working!

Another goal is to figure out how to record her speech over time and post the snippets. Right now she is saying, "Yes, I do!" to every question with a positive answer and it totally cracks me up:

"Stinkerbella, are you hungry?" "Yes, I do!"
"Did you go to the park with Daddy today and see the ducks?" "Yes, I do!"
"Were the ducklings there, too?" "Yes, I do!"

I'd also like to record her "reading" her books, which is something I think she picked up from her older pal, Clementine. Stinkerbella quickly discovered she could put off bedtime by asking for a turn to read, so she's been pretty motivated.

That's the plan for this blog in a nutshell! If you're here, I'm guessing you're either related to us or interested in bilingual toddlers, so thanks for stopping by!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Focus on a children's book: From Head to Toe

Margie gave an excellent suggestion for a tie-in activity on my earlier post about Valentine's Day activities, and I used it in my other class since it was very appropriate there, too. In general I find Eric Carle's books to be flexible and easy to use for a broad range of topics, and From Head to Toe is no exception.

The basic premise of the book is that various animals can do various things with body parts (a donkey can kick its legs and a gorilla can thump its chest, for example) and on the adjoining page there's a picture of a kid doing the same exact gesture. It's a very active book in this respect and kids are generally happy to go along with acting out the pictures. The structure is also very, very simple and repetitive so students really get the feeling they understand the entire book and can read it. The drawback to this of course is that there really isn't an exciting storyline or "punch" at the end, so the older elementary kids aren't as excited by it as some of the younger ones. They seem to like it okay, but I try to make it more challenging for them when I can.

I'm going to give an example of how I used the book this time, but am always looking for other ideas, so please leave a comment if you've used this book before!

The focus of the unit we're currently working on is jungle animal vocabulary and being able to describe what they can and can't do, so the book was also a really good fit here. I work with a small group of students ranging in abilities from just learning how to read and write to going into middle school next year, so I end up supporting the younger ones a lot when we do literacy-focused activities. Earlier in the class I divided them into groups and asked them to make a t-diagram that listed what a certain animal can and can't do -- one group did bears and one group did birds. We then got together as a whole group and created a Venn diagram to compare bears and birds. These activities went over well enough and with the exception of the kid that always tries to rush through activities so he can be the first to finish, they all seemed able to complete them accurately. You can find more graphic organizers at Everything ESL. Judie Hayne's website is a good resource.

I had intended to introduce the book by asking them to quickly brainstorm about other animals, but time was running short and this was the last class before the break so I moved right into the book. The vast majority of the class seemed to really get into it with the exception of the oldest girl who was a lot more low-key about the actions. She doesn't seem to share my willingness to look goofy, and I can't blame her for that. She's really a nice girl so I'll just chalk it up to being reserved and move on.

Anyway, we read the book together...once they understood the pattern I teased them a bit by giving the name of the animal and seeing if they could predict what they could do. I "quizzed" them afterwards about the gestures that went with specific animals. The vocab for some of the verbs was new to them so I was happy enough for them to know the name of the animal and body part and be able to do the appropriate action after just one reading.

As a culminating activity I asked them to create our own class book that's similar in pattern. The thematic stationery came in handy once again, so I used the border with jungle animals and asked them to pick an animal they liked and write what things the animal can do. I would have preferred for them to get really creative but they tended to use the words they already knew, so I'll work on that in later classes. It seemed to go over well with the exception of the youngest student, who needed a lot of support with this activity. Oh, and that same kid who wants to be the one to finish first. I'm nice about it, but I don't let him get away with it. Most of them do fairly well with bringing back work so I'll see if they remembered to finish their page over break. I like the idea of a class book but want to find a way to make it a little more interesting and challenging for the older kids next time.

ETA: Here are some ideas I found on the Eric Carle website. I liked the idea of asking students to come up with things that they didn't think anyone else could do. This might not be as appropriate in a large group of 30 students, but in small groups like mine I think this would have encouraged them to really be creative and ask for new language that they really wanted to know. I'll try it out next time.

Okay, it's your turn!