In month three of teaching her sons French, Louise Tickle hits a few bumps in the road
“A gauche!” pipes up a little voice from the back of the car. Mungo, my nearly three-year-old, has a French accent so sweetly perfect that my heart almost breaks to hear it. But pronunciation isn’t everything. He’ll have to learn at some point, I think to myself, as I turn – left, as it happens – that both directions are not “a gauche”.
And tonight, it turns out, is when Mungo finally grasps the difference that has eluded him for the last couple of weeks. Increasingly gobsmacked, I find myself accurately directed, in French, from the childminder’s house to Sam’s afterschool club. It’s a matter of two miles and six distinct bends in the road, three to the left and three to the right. When we park up and I look round at Mungo, he’s not triumphant so much as quietly thrilled that he can make the car do what he says.
Scootering nippily up the numbered rocketship painted on the playground, he grins as I call out – as I now do every time we pick Sam up from school – “un” to “dix”. He can count to 10 in French but resolutely refuses to say the numbers out loud in any circumstance which might naturally lend itself to the notion, “I’m not a performing monkey, Maman,” his grin seems to tease me, as he disappears round the corner on his scooter.
Mungo’s success with left and right aside, this month’s French project has felt as if it’s gone rather less swimmingly than the last. This is entirely because of a failure of planning, imagination and application on my part. For starters, the overcrowded, overheated and very dull six-hour train journey to visit my sister in Newcastle did not lend itself – as I’d breezily intended – to a fun game of learning the names for tante, oncle, cousin, cousine, grandmere and grandpere. Nor was the French-dubbed DVD of Madagascar 3 much welcomed as a distraction from the journey’s tedium. The moment the earphones went in and Sam realised he couldn’t understand the dialogue, his face screwed up in misery and to avert the prospect of a wildly sobbing child in a packed carriage I had to rapidly change the language selection back to English. And English it has stayed.
Second on my hastily typed-up programme of activities was learning another French song – not least to give me some relief from endless Frere Jacques. Well, despite another very kind email from my Canada-based correspondent Ian Rahn suggesting some brilliant children’s songs, we’ve, aggghh, not got round to it. However, thanks to him, my life-long ignorance of what an “alouette” actually is has now been addressed, and we will soon – hopefully – be singing lustily about the pleasures of plucking feathers from the various body parts of a lark. Kids songs, eh. Here’s the YouTube video Ian sent that will from tomorrow be played for our breakfast viewing pleasure (yes, my kids watch YouTube on my phone as they eat their Cheerios – don’t yours?)
Talking of breakfast, I’ve found that a great way to incentivise the boys to learn the words for crockery and cutlery is to tell them they can’t have their tea unless they can say in French what they’ll be eating it on, in and with. I’m certain this will be frowned on by parenting experts, but given that I don’t pretend to be one – I know perfectly well that I’m just struggling through with whatever ideas happen to strike me day to day – I thought it was worth a go.
We learned the names for each item using the colourful plastic Ikea plates, bowls, cups and cutlery they eat off, and as a little competition, they had to see which of them could get the whole set. With their dad taking part too, primed to get most of the answers wrong, it proved a brilliant success. Well, they are only five and nearly-three. It turned out that my “no food till you can say correctly name l’assiette, (hands over plate with the horrid mess of fishfingers, beans, sausages and potato waffle that is all Mungo will currently eat); le verre (hands over his glass of milk); la fourchette… )” was a hit, demanded daily for a week or so until the novelty wore off. I reckon I might try it next for the individual food items themselves. If the kids want to starve themselves by not learning the words for their dinner, that’s up to them, non?
But as Professor Alison Mackey warned me at the start of this project, dreaming up and then doing all the language activities yourself can be tiring, and – like me this month – you might just find yourself slacking off. So it’s useful to get input from outside sources, which is why I was so thrilled to meet Cate from children’s language company Babel Babies for coffee one afternoon to discuss her plans for setting up an after-school languages club for primary age and pre-school children in Stroud. She and her Babel Babies co-founder already run sessions for babies and toddlers in Bristol and Cheltenham, focusing on songs, nursery rhymes and getting kids (and their parents) to engage with foreign languages in ways that are playful and fun.
I was a bit worried going to meet her – would I be expected to speak French? My grammar is embarrassingly ropey and though I can fumble my way through a conversation, it’s not the way I’d want to interact with another adult on first encounter. But thankfully Cate, who has small children of her own, is the antithesis of a scary French teacher, and couldn’t be less bothered if you don’t know whether a noun is a “le” or a “la”, let alone whether your verbs are correctly conjugated. And the second I pressed “send” on this blog, I got an email from her confirming that she has a venue in Stroud and will be kicking off sessions in the new year. Anyone want to join us on Monday after school? If so, sign-up details are here. I’m looking forward to sitting back and letting back someone else take the strain. Well, at least for one hour a week.