Friday, June 09, 2006

Language Barriers

I mostly speak English to my children. Acquaintances who comment on this sometimes seem to think I am aiming at some future linguistic advantage for them when they enter the corporate world or some top-secret research organisation. I suspect that they don't make the same sort of assumptions about parents who speak Arabic or Portuguese to their children. Obviously however, I speak English to them not to give them a head-start on other children when they learn languages at school but quite simply so that they can communicate meaningfully with me and the rest of their family. [People with teenage children are probably rolling on the ground laughing now at the very idea of meaningful communication with the monosyllabic troglodytes that have replaced their chatty children. Mine will, of course, be different.]

I speak English to them because it comes naturally about 60% of the time. The rest of the time, French comes more spontanaeously either because we’re talking about something they don’t have the vocabulary for in English, or we’re with French speakers and it feels rude to exclude them. And some of the time I hash up both languages in a single sentence which I know you’re absolutely not supposed to do, but I’ve given up worrying about that because that’s the way my brain works now — intermittently.

Perhaps that background partly explains my horror and disbelief at the French government’s latest pronouncements on legalising illegal immigrants and their children some of whom have been going to French schools for years. To avoid deportation the children have to meet three conditions: they must have been born in France, they must have had all of their schooling in France and they MUST NOT be able to speak the language of their native country. It would be hard to think of a more effective way of promoting inter-generational incomprehension, of hastening the disappearance of certain minority languages, and of maintaining the idea that linguistic and cultural diversity is divisive rather than enriching. What hope for language teaching in France with that sort of ethos? What hope for the respect of other ppeople and cultures?

Bah, words fail me.

11 comments:

David (TEFL Smiler) said...

Wow, that's a shockingly racist, uneducated and old-fashioned move by the government. Is it law yet, or just a bill being discussed? (He asks, probably showing ignorance of how the French political system works!)

ViVi said...

My god, that's completely shocking!! I'm trying to imagine someone telling me as a parent that I would be not only discouraged, but penalized for speaking my native language to my own children!

I have to admit that when speaking to (French) friends and family, they often comment about what an advantage our children will have because they'll hear English from me. Never mind their grandfather, aunt, cousins, etc etc...

Lesley said...

David: No, it's not law yet but it will be if the wicked Sarkozy gets his way.It just couldn't happen in northern Europe, could it? I tried to give you a couple of links here to articles on the subject but Blogger is acting up. I'm sure you can do a Google news search yourself.


Vivi: It will probably be easier for you to speak English 100% of the time. For me it has been much more difficult than I anticipated because P. and I had been speaking French at home for mumble-mumble years and I just can't help regularly lapsing into French. It really does surprise me, though, the number of people who think I'm doing it to give my children an edge over others.

misha said...

WHAT?! WHAT????? next will they only be able to stay if they have blue eyes?

I, too, have been trying to leave comments this last week ...no luck.

Ms Mac said...

I'm shocked beyond belief. Having spent 12 years in Australia where my two of my closest friends were South American, I heard then switch from English to Spanish to English to Spanish all the time and it made me green with envy. The thought of being able to speak two languages with ease was one of the deciding factors in our move to Switzerland, to give our children that opportunity of one day being able to claim bilinguality. We speak English to our children in the home because our German is dreadful and in fact by now the children have surpassed us, proof to the French powers that be that children can learn a new language perfectly well without losing their mother tongue.

Ugghhh!

Léons Life said...

Lesley - I am in the same situation as you having spent mumble, mumble years in France before Leon came along it isn't always easy to speak to him in French. We in fact speak around 90% French at home and that works too.

I have had exactly the same reaction around me too, 'Oh this will be soooo good for his future' (as if I was worried about that now - he is only 7 )I constantly tell people that he needs to speak english as if he wants to eat when he is at his grannies house, it's the only language that works.

It's also funny people seem to think he is extra clever because he is bi-lingual too...without realising that for small children it's just so easy.

Léons Life said...

I meant to say always easy to speak to him in English

David (TEFL Smiler) said...

Sadly, I think that if they get away with this in France, then a lot of other European governments will give it a go, too It's exactly the kind of thing I can see the current Danish government doing, as they aim for French-style assimmilation ('make them Danish') - even if they call it 'integration'.

As for the UK, I think it's fortunate that Blunkett is no longer in charge of these things, as it's the kind of policy he might have been tempted to copy, too.

Mrs Independent said...

Wow, what a shocking policy........I hope our resident anti-immigration minister doesn't hear about that one.

That's just shocking.....

deborah said...

yes, and the Breton children were beaten if they spoke their mother tongue at school .. not so long ago.

I think you can get rid of that 40 per cent of French, Lesley, just for a couple more years ..... say to everyone, please excuse me if I speak English to my children, I am not saying anything interesting, then you won't feel so rude. For the vocabulary they don't know for those mysterious subjects under discussion they would understand the English in a trice because of the context and 'learn' it at the same time.

My lot spoke a sort of ok English but always got bad marks at school because they never did their homework.
But it was hard work, like good table manners and being polite I did nag quite a lot along the lines of 'speak English' every time they spoke to me in French, (as in 'sit up straight etc) or the very useful 'if you speak in French, go and ask your father'

Lesley said...

On the Breton children being beaten theme there's an interesting discussion over at http://www.languagehat.com/archives/002396.php more or less on this theme, sparked of by a post on the revival of French in Maine.
I experienced the opposite phenomenon when children in my class at primary school were given extra gold stars if they were heard speaking Gaelic amongst themselves.