Language Friction

Language Friction

We have entered a zone of turbulence. English, French, and Tamil used to coexist peacefully in Minette‘s mind and life. Now things have become somewhat bumpy. English is increasingly taking precedence and both French and Tamil are losing some ground. This is not an unexpected turn of events but it feels unsettling all the same.

The good news, I guess, is that the shift is mostly due to Minette’s command of English getting stronger and more versatile. School and constant interactions with her schoolmates are the main reason why, while independent reading also plays an essential role. Her vocabulary is richer. She can express nuances and modulate meanings in English in a way she cannot yet in French and Tamil. Because she is growing up in America, English is her strongest language. Because it is her strongest language, she feels more empowered when she uses it and French and Tamil are always at risk of becoming underdogs.

In all fairness, French is the lucky underdog. Minette always speaks French to me, unless we are with her friends and she has first asked me if it was OK to switch to English. But she now tends to sprinkle her French speech with English words, even simple ones, just because they come to her mind faster than the French words she knows well. I usually rephrase or ask her to rephrase. I told her that she should try to avoid franglais (the French word for mixing French and English), so she is quick to make fun of me when I myself mix languages — pleading guilty…

Lately Minette has also begun to object to my French reading and writing coaching. During the school year we have a weekly 20 minute session of exercises. I try to switch to a daily session during school breaks. Sometimes she is happy to comply. Other times she challenges the exercises as an unreasonable constraint. We spent this past winter break in India, so she argued several times that it was just not fair to have her work on her French while in India…

Her attitude toward Tamil is different. She does not always stick with Tamil when addressing her father. He usually redirects her to their common language but she often switches to what I call the minimal Tamil mode: basic words in Tamil, all the rest in English. She also challenges the “only in Tamil with Appa” rule on the ground that he is fluent in English.

I can think of several reasons why Tamil is the less lucky underdog. The first is very plainly time. Because of our respective work obligations I have spent much more time with Minette ever since she was born even though Appa is by no means a weekend only dad. By my rough calculation, by now she has spent some 21,000 of her waking hours with me vs 9,000 with Appa. The difference is significant enough to explain most of the gap between her levels in French and Tamil.

But there is more. Educated Indians are typically fluent in English and sprinkle their native language with English words all the time. Appa, like all other Indian parents I am familiar with, models this for Minette. Not doing this would require a lot of discipline and I think it would render his speech pretty artificial, hardly a desirable outcome. There is also the fact that Tamil and English do not share a common alphabet, nor common roots for that matter. Independent reading in Tamil is for example a very ambitious goal, whereas she’s already there in French.

Last but not least, as pointed out by Appa, people around Minette tend to focus on her French skills and emphasize them much more than her Tamil skills. There is no doubt in my mind that Americans’ strong bias in favor of all things French, which I talked about in this previous post, is something she perceives and somehow responds to. It’s not easy for me to figure what to do about this because a part of me rejoices in it while another part can see the imbalance it is creating.

For all the new obstacles we are encountering we very much remain a trilingual family and Minette still enjoys the special connection speaking a different language with each of us gives her. However, things are evolving and they will keep evolving. I have probably underestimated the difficulty for a single person to counterbalance a whole environment. After all, Appa and I are Minette’s only points of contact with our respective languages most of the time — except when she spends time with her grandparents and her other relatives, that is. From that perspective keeping her French and Tamil strong and vibrant is a tall order.

I wish it were easier to achieve but it is actually not so hard to keep focused on this goal because we have no mixed feelings about it and we are convinced it is entirely worth our efforts. For reasons I have explained before, this one is a battle to pick beyond any doubt in our mind. So we’ll keep at it, while realizing at the same time that we might fall short of some of our initial expectations.

3 Replies to “Language Friction

  1. I remember, clearly, the first words Minette said to me: “music” and “the Beatles”. She spoke softly, yet clearly and with a lovely French accent – MooZEEK? De BeeTELs? Over time, I marveled at the ease with which your toddler, then 2, then 3-year old maneuvered so effortlessly between three languages. It was an honor to witness her early growth.

    You are giving Minette such a rich, strong and diverse foundation for her life. And, you continue to inspire me.

    1. You’re making me blush, Colleen! Thank you for introducing Minette to the world of music and for how warmly and insightfully you did it. She is now learning the piano. Currently working on Nick Nack Paddy Wack (This Old Man). I reminded her we used to sing this song with you.

  2. I admire how you and Appa examine the process of speaking three languages with Minette as your family moves through different phases of your life together. It’s great to see how you respect Minette’s point of view as part of the discussion. Not that I can imagine you doing otherwise.

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