Letting Go of the Bilingual Brag

It seems like a dream. We moved to France. My children learned to speak French. We came home and, slowly but surely, the French was forgotten. And no one cares, but me.

Just two winters ago, my two daughters went to French public school in a rural village in Burgundy. They walked through narrow streets, saying “bon jour” to everyone they passed. When she wasn’t conjugating French verbs, Esther, then 8, was reciting yet another Jacques Prevert poem she had memorized that week:

“Il dit non avec sa téte. Mais il dit oui avec sa coeur.”

Isla, my baby, brought home little French playmates from pre-school. Together, my girls mastered the art of arguing in French. I was so happy they were getting the gift of a second language, I hardly cared what else they were learning at French school. Who doesn’t envy people who can switch seamlessly back and forth between two or three languages? I can remember standing in the school’s foyer, dropping off a forgotten raincoat, and hearing the strident voice of Esther’s teacher barking instructions in French, and the quiet murmur of little French voices. So foreign, so exotic.

“What on earth is my child doing in there?” I thought to myself as I walked back across the courtyard to my bicycle parked at the gate.

This was followed by the smug-mom thought that came to me often while we were living in France:

“They’ll thank me for this one day.”

Now, two years later, the kids are back in their American elementary school. They don’t have to think before saying “hello” or answering a question. Their mother tongue is all around them. They open their mouths and, without thinking, the words fall out. That French-speaking part of their brains? It just sits there, dormant, bored–redundant. And I can’t stand it. The expression “use it or lose it” has never been more threatening. I’m old enough to take charge of my own destiny. I can read in French or listen to French radio, or study my French dictionary. But my kids: They’re not using it. They’re just losing it. And the guilt is relentless:

“They’re going to hate me for this one day.”

I can practically see the French leaking from their brains. Yet I’m at a loss to stop it. And why do I want to so badly? Is this about me, or them? Is the panic I feel about losing face? Is it about losing an edge, a false sense of superiority that my children are somehow exceptional? Or is it based purely on what I know about how much a second language can open your mind? A bit of both.

People give me advice. Some are more concerned than I am.

“You absolutely can not let them forget their French.”

Others are more resigned:

“Oh it’s still in there somewhere. Let it go. Aside from being Tiger Mom (which I’m not) there’s nothing you can do.”

I fluctuate between those two sentiments. I fantasize about finding a French tutor, or making Friday mandatory French day. But I know that neither of those things are realistic. I can’t afford a tutor. Isla refuses to speak a word of French. Esther’s French is far better than mine. But mostly, at this point, I try to let that worry– that sense that I’m the master of my children’s destiny– go.

As it turns out, “C’est la vie” is a very useful phrase. It makes me sound clever when I’m throwing in the towel.

Would you let this go, or would you force your kids to memorize French poetry after school?