Navigating the tricky waters of bilingualism

So our family is bilingual. Father and mother are both Francophone, with a father who grew up speaking both French and Creole, and a mother who grew up speaking both French and Spanish. My husband and I speak French together, and it was always clear to us that French would be the language spoken at home. Sounds easy enough.  Except when you start realizing that speaking French to your children is not the same thing as speaking French with your children.

Our first daughter spoke French with us exclusively until the age of 6 or 7, when school (always English medium ones, at first because we didn’t have a choice, and later for a number of reasons to complex to go into, here) started occupying an ever-expanding place in her life. Also, by that time, her little sister had joined the same English-medium school and was becoming quite talkative.

For years, I fought an ongoing battle with my older and very strong-willed first child, tutoring her as she took a long-distance course that follows closely the language and literature curriculum taught in French schools. I just had to mention the acronym CNED, and a rebellious look would spread across her face. Some days, a little cajoling was enough. Other times, the conflict escalated into a power struggle, a war of wills between two equally stubborn people, the young one clamoring that it was profoundly unfair that she had to do boring grammar exercises and writing assignments when she could be playing, the older one responding that it was of paramount importance that she should be able to not only express herself in her maternal language, but to write it well as well, something she would understand later. Nowadays, the child has turned into a teenager, and she still follows the CNED at her 8th grade level. In other words, were we to move to France, or was she to end up studying in France, she would be perfectly able to. She still grumbles from time to time, but as the course has now been taken over by the school, she also understands the futility of arguing about it.

I’m now fighting with her younger sister, who has a very different way to express her defiance and dislikes, but I’m now a seasoned warrior. Most importantly, because our second daughter lived her first few years in a family environment that was no longer entirely francophone (from the moment both girls attended school, English became the language they spoke together), I feel the pressure to impose this curriculum even more than I did with her older sister.

But now, I face another dilemma. Neither of my daughters wants to speak French with me. “Parle français” is something I hear myself repeat practically every other minute from the moment they walk through the front door at the end of the school day. The little one manages to slip back to French, but the Teen, who has not lost her spunky spirit, well, she just won’t.

Now what?

Should I give up? After all, she IS bilingual by now. She WILL continue with her French until she graduates from High School.

But it’s no longer about that only. And here comes one of the many threads of contradictions that run through the tapestry of my multicultural life. I love the English language. So much of what I’ve done in my life, so many of the roads I’ve traveled are a direct consequence of my falling in love with the English language. Am I not writing these words in English?

But I also love the French language. I’m still French. Besides, as I  once told an English lady who’d asked me who edited my English before I published anything, seemingly implying that it couldn’t possibly be good enough without someone bringing out their red pen: “No one. Maybe I write English better than I speak it.”

And Spanish. I already gave up part of my heritage when I chose French over Spanish as the language I would use with our children. It was an obvious choice, and yet, it does pain me that when we go to Spain, they can’t understand a word, nor can they communicate with their aunts and cousins there (although our little one started learning Spanish this year – she had a choice between Serbian and Spanish, and it was a difficult one, and I was even pushing for her to learn Serbian, thinking it might give her a better advantage, on top of helping her to fit in better in her host country, but her mind was made up and I didn’t insist). And I’d bet it somewhat pains their father that they cannot speak or understand Creole when we go to Haiti, even though communication is not an issue, there, as everyone in the family speaks French and/or English.

I don’t want to speak English with my children. Of course, words, expressions or idioms will slip in from time to time, as the conversation flows. But I don’t like these disconnected conversations we have, nowadays, where I speak French, the Teen speaks English, and the little one alternates between English and French, depending on how much energy I have (because it takes a lot of energy to interrupt them constantly with a reminder to speak French to me.) I worry about what this will do to our relationship.

And yet, how do I justify the importance I’m attaching to the issue? Shouldn’t I let go of that, too, and accept it as a direct consequence of the displaced life I have happily chosen. I wanted it to be a beautiful, multi-colored patchwork, didn’t I? So what if the patchwork now has to accommodate multiple languages, including at the dining table?

Last night, the teen came back from her ballet class and wanted to tell me something. Parle français, I interrupted, on auto-pilot. She got angry and went to that place where she retreats whenever she’s asked to do something she doesn’t want to do (and also when she’s asked to do something she might have happily considered, but since someone else asked her to do it, well, she’s no longer interested.) And she went to bed without sharing what she had in mind.

This is where I need to draw the line.  I know – it’s about time. I’m slow, what can I say? What matters, right now, is to work at keeping the channels of communication wide open. Life, and the normal course of things will create enough interference without my adding to it. Forget about the language. Put it in your pocket with your handkerchief on top, as we say in colloquial French. Maybe it will come back. The important thing, here, is that she communicates, in whichever language she chooses –  which doesn’t prevent me from continuing to speak the language that feels right to me.

I know this is the right decision. I just would never have thought it would be so hard.