Monday, February 1, 2010

Zut et Chouette

Here we are settled in after a great day at school - Daddy-o and Eleanor are listening to Peter and the Wolf (en français, compliments of our awesome municipal library), Iris is setting up some kind of elaborate narrative arc for her Playmobil set-up, and Oliver is checking out the website of his best friend's travels to Israel (he went swimming and everything!). Just as we realize that we're picking up habits and that the days are starting to flow into each other, we also realize that in two short weeks, the children have two weeks of vacation. !!! This realization has put some fire into our work - Mac vows to have something written by next Friday, and I need to vow something too (all I have thus far are notes, ideas, books read - maybe writing a short piece on an image). Yikes! We have some swell ideas on our explorations during the break - things that will definitely get creativity flowing. At some point, I'll muse about writing and thinking (but I swear that every academic's blog does that, so maybe I'll spare us all!). :-)

What we're really musing over tonight continues to be what language acquisition means for children. It is so completely different from what it is for adults. I read (with great anticipation and admiration) the blogs of two of my best students (an art historian in Rome - the dream!; and a conflict studies major in Paris - le rêve!) and their approaches (their sense of determination, their hard work, their pursuit) and Mac's, too, couldn't be more different from the kids'. We've heard it said that we're the last ones that the kids will speak French to - we're their parents and we might as well change the number of limbs we have as change our language. When they see us after school it's just a torrent of English, and it's then that I wonder if we'll ever really all speak in French to each other. They manifest their language acquisition in such different ways, it's almost more cultural acquisition right now: Oliver has picked up all sorts of French mannerisms - he was telling me that he's speaking with the little boy who sits next to him at school, and in doing so, shrugged his shoulders up and down and cocked his head to one side the way I see so many French kids do; Iris "speaks French" by alternately saying little phrases of French (and there are more and more of these) and speaking English with a heavy French accent; and Eleanor, right at the moment when I pick her up, speaks utter gibberish that sounds like a perfect blend of English and French.

So what am I saying? That I'm amazed at how much they understand, that I'm awed when I see Oliver whip through his Muzzy language games, that I'm full of admiration when Iris shoos me out of her classroom in the morning, that I'm still stunned when I see Eleanor playing happily with French kids - and that I must try to understand how they're learning. If I say to them "What French words did you learn today?" I get total blank stares (whereas I bet my students and Mac could list a whole bunch of discrete words and phrases). But then I'll say something in French that they hadn't understood before, and they'll understand. It's a long road from making the distinction between "Nutella" and "confiture" on your crêpe, to talking about your feelings and your philosophies, but I'm going to still hope we get there. I suppose that I feel somewhat helpless to the kids' language acquisition, like a spectator in some way, even though we're making an effort to speak to them in French. The real test will be during that two week vacation - I get nervous about our losing whatever ground we've gained. But again, maybe it doesn't work that way, and maybe we'll relax and let them watch more "Bob l'Eponge" on TV.

In the meantime, we play story games - lots of them. One of them involves (my very favorite) epistolary form (which Iris calls the "pistolary stories" bang! bang!) which start with a letter from Iris (invariably inventing some fabulous new thing at engineering university - she builds a ladder using nothing but toothpicks and chewing gum, that sort of thing), followed by a letter from Oliver (invariably studying some new form of philosophy at Oxbridge - the philosophy of shelter is his favorite thus far), this is followed by a letter from Eleanor (who is invariably utterly fed up at having been left behind at home with her goofy parents while her siblings go off to university and has decided to make herself the Queen of the Revolution - so there are always radical changes going on at home: she decrees that everyone shall sleep outdoors from now on, for example), and finally, there's a letter from mom and dad conceding defeat in the face of Eleanor's latest Revolution. This sounds really silly and weird when I write it down, but it absolutely cracks the kids up. The best part of the epistolary mode is the discovery in the 4th letter of what was being discussed in the 3rd letter.

Another favorite game is called "Zut et Chouette" - a couple of weeks ago Oliver was bemoaning that he couldn't express any of his feelings in French - what do you say if you feel bad? what do you say if you're happy? Enter two great French words: "Zut" (kind of like "Dang!" "Shoot!" or "Doh!" - actually, I think that the French Homer Simpson says "Zut!") and "Chouette!" (which I would translate as "Swell!" "Spiffy!" "Neat!" "Cool!"). So we play "Zut et Chouette" in which each kid describes a situation ("your dad says you can get a Kinder Egg" - Chouette! "but it's a puzzle" - Zut! "but your brother is willing to trade with you" - Chouette!) and we all vote on whether it's a "Zut!' or a "Chouette!" We have spent entire meals (many entire meals) playing this game. Iris is the queen - she puts forth about five "Zut"s - each worse than the last, and then this huge dramatic "Chouette!" makes everything ok.

Well, rather a long entry tonight ("Zut!") but I'm just trying to work out what it means for my little ones to be learning a new language ("Chouette!") - it's just not an academic process, and I realize how, well, academic, my approach is to learning (that can be both a "Zut!" and a "Chouette!" depending on the situation). I have much to learn from these three wonderful little people. For now, I will make a cup of tea and curl up with Les Trois Mousquetaires.

In the meantime......

Definite "Zut!"


  1. Hi Anne! I have loved your descriptions of your family's adventures en Breton... it sounds as though everyone is learning a great deal and that y'all are spending gobs of time together. Chouette!

  2. Hi dear Dana! the time together is definitely the gift of it all. I really understand sabbatical now in terms of a return to the human and the humane. Project #87 is to figure out how to keep this "well-being" even once we've returned to the fray. Thanks for the encouragement on the learning front - we probably won't even realize what we've learned until we return! love love - Anne