Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Home" in Paris

When I read that kids could learn a new language in four months, I was skeptical. Four months? Barely enough time to unpack boxes and install cable, I thought, let alone communicate in a foreign tongue.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

For Cole and Adele it started slowly -- a tentative "bonjour" to the elderly woman downstairs, a reluctant "a demain" to their teachers at the end of the day. After about two weeks, more words emerged. "Attends, attends!" (Wait, wait!), Cole would say while playing or "arrete!" Adele would yell during a vigorous round of wrestling. Within weeks, they could each count to 20 and even name various body parts en francais.

Soon they were coming home with new questions each day. "Mommy, what does ma copine mean?" Adele asked. How about "le pistolet" or hesitantly, "ka-ka?" Cole asked with a sly smile.

Now, with nearly 12 weeks of school under their belts, they are amazingly integrated in their new world. They've both made friends and been invited to birthday parties. They come home with little stickers and drawings friends have made just for them. They recognize friends' names only by the French pronunciation and often look puzzled when I say them. "Who did you play with today?" I ask. "Ca-meee," (Camille) Adele replies, or "Jo-vaneee," (Giovanni) Cole says, as if there is no other way.

While they know, of course, that they are American, they seem to be becoming a bit more French everyday. I can't help but wonder how long their "American memories" will last -- when their recollection of snow days, our little branch library and their pals next door will be replaced by the imagery of this very moment, that world that children so fully inhabit.

I wonder, too, when they will begin correcting my French and snickering at Mommy's funny accent. That day, I fear, is coming sooner rather than later. Hard as I try, my French will never be what theirs is going to be -- an effortless flow of words that comes easily and without forethought.

Much like their personalities, Cole and Adele have each adapted a distinct style for learning French: Adele through verbalizing, Cole through listening. Adele has long had a habit of singing to herself, providing a musical accompaniment to her games of babies, dress-up and tea party. Now, that singing has a distinctly Gallic melody and includes a mix of French and English words. It's like when she first learned to talk; the way she would babble incoherently before clearly articulating the words.

Cole, however, is learning by observing, be it his favorite French cartoons or snatches of overheard conversation. After listening in as Greg and I spoke in French (something we have always done for non kid-friendly topics), Cole proudly jumped in, "But I don't want to do that," he said, flashing a knowing little grin.

It's all taken me back to my own experience of high school French, reading incomprehensible words on the blackboard and scribbling in my notebook. Je vais, tu vas, il va...My kids' experience is nothing like this. They are learning-by-doing, by full immersion. We chose this method with speed in mind, believing that it would both quicken their learning and shorten our potentially difficult adjustment. So far, it appears to be working.

But now that we've settled on this new path, I can't help but wonder where it all leads. Will my Boston-born babies end up feeling French? Will they develop faint accents when they speak in their native tongue? As Cole abandons Spiderman in favor of Tintin and Osterix, I sometimes think about what's lost as well as gained.

We believe, of course, that this experience is a gift to them. Depending on how long we stay, they will likely be bilingual. This most storied of cities will form the backdrop to their memories -- its carousels, manicured gardens, and pierre de taille facades. They will never know that awe of first seeing Europe through adult eyes, of realizing that the world is vast after years of rarefied American youth. To them, this city will always be a place they once (and perhaps still) call home. These are things I celebrate even as I mourn them the tiniest bit as each day we become more of what we set out to be: an American family living out our dream in Paris.