Prior to becoming a mother, I spoke French all the time. Now, chatting with Puce when we're out and about is like having a sign "I'm not from round here" on my back. I find myself getting into conversations with people that in a previous life would never even have noticed me. Kids come up to us in the park. "Are you Spanish?" I got asked the other day. Hmmm, not quite. "Why are you speaking English?" is a frequent one. Which is quite difficult to explain to a persistent 5 year old.
- Well, it's my language
- So you can't speak French then?
- What language am I talking in now?
- So, yes, I can speak French.
- So why are you speaking English?
…it can go on for some time til one of us gives up, gets bored, or wants to have another go on the slide.
Grown-ups become quite chatty too, often shop-keepers:
- So, she's completely bilingual then? (indicating Puce)
- Well, in as much as she has 10 words of vocabularly, yes. (…I mean, do you count as being bilingual when you don't actually really talk?)
But the best is other parents, people on the bus and just random characters that we come into contact with in the quartier.
- So you speak to her in English then?
- Yes, that's right.
- Does she understand any French?
- Well, yes, her dad is…
-…because you know, they're real sponges at that age. I mean, they can pick up any language you know, they understand it all…
- …yes, I…
-…I mean, take my sister's nephew for instance, her dad was actually – well not really – but anyway, they ONLY talked in…and he ended up being…understands everything...
I take on a glazed look at this point as I sit nodding and listening, realising that actually our little linguistic oddity has been hijacked as an excuse to talk about the sister's nephew. I wonder whether they realise that I spend all day with the sponge in question and an in addition hang out with other sponges on a regular basis, so I'm quite aware with what speed they pick up everything we utter be it in French or in English (including the naughty words that were muttered, I thought, inaudibly…).
But the fact is that they're all sponges, all of these little ones, and if you talk to them directly and gesture what you're meaning and speak your own language, usually, surprisingly, they seem to understand. They don't react with startled amazement and blank looks that adults would most likely wear if someone were to start babbling in a different language (which is what I would do, if it were me). Communication is an amazing thing and goes beyond simple words and sentence structures...perhaps we're all polyglot from birth and we just lose the frequencies, close our audio range, as time goes by...only to try to pick it up again much later on.
We have a lot to learn from these sponges...