Minority language feelings

It’s got to be mind-boggling for any parent to watch the process of language acquisition unfold. As a linguist, I can’t tell you how much fun it is to experience Ayo picking up language at such an unprecedented rate this month. At 21 months, he is mimicking, babbling enthusiastically, using words we didn’t know he knew (watch out for those private conversations, guys!) and even starting to realize that something like a sour yellow fruit can have two qualifiers. Up until this point, there has been a distinct preference for just one noun, usually based on frequency of use or ease of pronunciation. (“Eau” being easier to say than “water” and “bye bye!” easier than “au revoir” for example). Indeed, in our home, the acidic fruit can be called a “citronor a “lemon”.

Last week, while chomping on a slice, Ayo said something like: “Mamao! Teeto” and since these days you snooze you lose, as I failed to respond with ‘that’s right, it’s a citron’, so he pressingly yelled for “papaaaa!?”. Papa responded with: “you got it, that’s a lemon!” In response, Ayo declared “neeymo!” and then wanted to hear the other qualifier again: “Mamao?”. Me: “Oui, c’est un citron!” He said something like: “Teeto! Neeymo!”. Super interesting.

At this point, Ayo understands French and English incredibly well. Almost equally well. French comes out plenty of the time. Yet, he is using many more English words than I had ever imagined possible. And this, despite me communicating with him more or less nine really long hours each day solely in French. Whaaa?! Sure, on a head level, I knew he would develop a preference for English eventually by us living in the US. After all, we’re surrounded by English every single day! But, I guess I had assumed that until he is in school, influenced by peers speaking a given language, he’d show some small preference for French spoken the majority of the day. But alas, our current socio-linguistic reality is that I really am his only real source of French input at this point in time. We’re hopeful this will change one day…

While his English language development is wonderful to watch, the speed by which he absorbs it does at times remind me just how lonely and uphill this battle as a champion of the minority language can be. I never knew I would feel quite this way. Have you ever felt this way, minority language parents?

In all this, I cannot allow myself to get discouraged if when I say “jus de pomme” approximately 3600 times and he gets it in English after papa says it all of four times. Instead, I have to continuously remind myself how much minority language teaching is not so much about today. It is a journey of faith that this is a free gift they will use and build on tomorrow. In another season. And in the meantime, I truly am having so much fun on this journey, watching it all come together…


3 thoughts on “Minority language feelings

  1. Minority language gives rise to ghetto talk, at times, I think. It’s “let’s play lowest common denominator.” But if your but if you have a vocabulary above to ordinary, it is usually spotted and people are drawn to that. It leads to experiences beyond the ordinary to relate to people. For sure, it may make baby a bit reflective as he speaks. Because apple juice is partly corn starch, whereas jus de pomme is pure. He may hesitate to find milk with salt and sugar smuggled into it. Whereas le lait is as pure as the driven snow. Olive oil may be cut with hazelnut oil, but just try that with huile d’olive in France or Italy, and you’re likely behind bars.

    Food analogies are silly, admittedly. But to get the right sense of the word, Ayo may hesitate because he knows a vast imagery of meanings that are impossible to translate 1-for-1. He will recognize love when it comes not just in casual terms, but doing things together. I started this blitz with ghetto mentalities. I’ve come full circle to a wider understanding of language. We prayed around our table, and for 7 years I thought it was “come more Jesus”…whereas it was “come Lord Jesus.”

    Ayo the analyist, the humorist, the linguist, the game player, with lightning quick reflexes.

    Applauding him.


  2. my mom mainly spoke mandarin to me all my life, but i had always replied in english. so my comprehension was decent even though i couldn’t speak. it wasn’t till we had micah that i realized what a gift it was to be bilingual so that’s really when i started speaking chinese so we could pass on that gift to him. it was SO awkward at first hearing myself speak, but four years later i’ve stuck with it and all this vocabulary keeps coming back to me. so it seems my brain was absorbing all the vocabulary and tones and storing it away when my mom was speaking to me and now that i’m actually trying to speak it, that part of my brain has been unlocked and it surprises me (and my mom!) how much i actually know. hope that gives you hope that your little boy is storing it all away somewhere and one day when he appreciates it that it will all come pouring out. =-)

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