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Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Language Moms

My perspective is bound to be skewed. I don't meet a lot of dads, except through their wives, hurriedly, between bites of some kind of skewered meat at a birthday party. So I don't know how other dads feel about trying to teach an infant another language.

It's pretty clear that there is a powerful subset of moms around here who are absolutely committed to teaching a second language, going so far as to refuse to speak anything but their chosen language in the home, completely confident that their child will learn English by osmosis.

Emily and I toyed with a similar idea in our younger years. We imagined a household where I spoke only French, and she spoke only Spanish, and our children ended up speaking seven or eight languages by the time they were four. When I say "toyed with a similar idea" I really do mean that: we played with it, didn't take it seriously, laughed about it, used it to while away the time. The closest I've come to making a program of that idea is to read some books to Erin in French, every now and then.

I don't think I could keep up the effort of making her fluent very young, especially since my French has atrophied; I used to be in immersion classes and now I can barely ask someone how to find the subway.

But there are some moms I know who do make that effort, and that's pretty impressive to me. At the same time I find myself a little jealous, and can see that jealousy curdling into cynical derision. I keep it to myself, but I know the feeling is there, and I know it is born of jealousy.

I am friendly with, I believe, three different mommy groups. When I characterize them as groups I might be being a bit unfair, since I have seen overlap. But I think that there is a center of gravity for each of them, and whoever that person is generally sends initial e-mail invites and inquiries to a few people. That core, to me, constitutes the group.

The Language Moms are one such group. And last week I was finally included in their group. I think my inclusion comes in part because Erin and I participate in a signing playgroup, something we've also done in the past with the same instructor. For most of the moms this is their first time around with signing, so Erin seems absolutely brilliant and I seem totally at ease with ASL; the instructor has joked that I am going to be called on to sub for him at some point. That's all practice. But a side-effect of that competence is that I think I am unofficially a Language Mom.

Despite failing to teach my daughter French in my spare time, I think I actually am realizing that long-abandoned idea to introduce a second language early on. It's not the way I had planned, but that's hardly surprising: Dad proposes and Erin disposes.


Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Sometimes I almost want another child in order to do the ASL thing. Sometimes and almost. I think it's very cool.

TwentyFourAtHeart said...

I added you to my brand new blogroll. I think my readers will love you!

Missy said...

Especially for the younger kids who don't yet have the best grasp on verbal language, I'm pretty sure signing is way more helpful and frustration-reducing than French would be.

Backpacking Dad said...

jenn: yeah, it seems to be paying off so far.

twentyfouratheart: sweet!

missy: so far I think you are right. And if she gets fluent enough signing I think it will be a good bridge to other languages.

Manager Mom said...

I liked Steve Martin's mix up words that you use around your kids. So by the time your kid goes to school instead of asking to the bathroom, he'd say, "Mind if I mambo dog-faced to the banana patch?"

Good fun, that.

Backpacking Dad said...

manager mom: Oh, purple cheetah alabaster christmas!

for a different kind of girl said...

Does it count as a second language if my husband has taught my (or shall I say "his") sons how to speak while they're belching?

Backpacking Dad said...

FADKOG: I think that's more of a dialect than a teaching them an accent, maybe.

SciFi Dad said...

My wife did an ASL class with my daughter, and it was awesome.

One night when my wife was out, my daughter was playing at the front door when it shut on her (she was looking out the screen door before the main door closed). She made a little noise, and when I came into the room (I was making dinner) she patted her chest with both hands.

I asked her if she wanted me to open the door, and she nodded, so I did.

When my wife came home, I asked her what patting one's chest with both hands meant, and she replied, "Oh that's the sign for 'help', but don't worry... she doesn't know that one yet."

Tristan Bailey said...

I think it is really great to introduce any amount of extra language to kids as early as you can. The ones with more languages later on or a liking to learn them will get further in a generation or too even more than now. We are teaching our son German and he knows more than he will say, well at 3 he has his own ideas. But it helps when we visit the German half of the family.

If you would be interested in writing an article on your successes or not with teaching another language we would love an article on

keep it up...

Badass Geek said...

I have a hard enough time grasping English as my primary language at 23, that I have no hope of teaching my children a foreign language.

Kristen said...

That's really interesting...I have never come across a group of(or even a few)moms who were intent on that. Before our first child was born my husband swore up and down he would only speak Spanish to our son, but he found it too difficult to conjugate verbs at 4 am while holding the baby and making coffee, all at the same time.

MereCat said...

I do a little ASL and they take to it well, but I'm not that consistent. I am trying the French thing as well, but I'm only doing little exposures at this point. I have scads of children's books and CDs that I collected when I was going over there every week, so I have resources, but I'm not full throttle, nor will I ever be. My kids will know some French and they will know some of a lot of other things. I'm going for well-rounded here.

Backpacking Dad said...

scifi dad: yeah, Erin has picked up some signs from "Signing Time" that I never taught her and don't usually use myself. I'm always blown away when I see it happen. I think I've avoided a lot of baby frustration by showing her that we can communicate, in theory, even if we don't know the words yet.

tristan: wow, thanks. I'll give that one a think.

badass geek: ah, you twenty-somethings...:} At 23 I'm pretty sure I felt exactly the same way.

kristen: yeah, that's my problem with French too...I just can't use it casually enough to make it worthwhile. I'll stick to reading it outloud and maybe throwing in some vocab. Maybe use signing as a bridge to other language later (although I can't imagine myself becoming fluent enough at ASL to use it as a really powerful bridge).

merecat: you've just inspired a new post, because I'm a lot like that too, and I wonder if I ought to be different than I am.

Burgh Baby's Mom said...

I continuously feel like an ass because I am fluent in Spanish (lived in Spain in high school, in fact), but have done very little to teach The Toddler a single word of it. And yet, I've gone to the effort to learn ASL so that I can use it with her. We're up over 150 words, which is great, but it just goes to show that if I were to stick with Spanish for a day or two, she'd catch on.

Mandy said...

We did ASL with Nate. Maybe it helped communication a little.

We are sending him to an all French school this fall (preschool and daycare) because we want him to be fluent. I'm nervous, but dusting off my French.

Come to think of it though, Mandarin will probably be more useful.

Jo said...

Sign language is a very useful skill to have, not only because of being able to teach children to communicate before they can speak, but also because (as well as the obvious one of being able to communicate with Deaf people), you can communicate what you want across a crowded bar or theatre! :-)

Backpacking Dad said...

burgh baby's mom: she probably knows Spanish already, by osmosis. I'm convinced Erin learns things that way.

Mandy: you Canadians? Yeah, Mandarin makes more sense nowadays.

jo: I'm signing at you to get me a very cold drink right now, but I don't think it's working. Across a theater, yes; across the internet, no. :}

Jo said...

I'd find it hard to understand you - I'm BSL trained (being on the right side of the Atlantic ;-) ) rather than ASL. Though there are a lot of cross overs, and I imagine "a large beer" is probably the same all over the world! :-D