You Are What You Speak

One of the most common and funniest mistakes my children make when they speak French is mixing words genders.
Although I only spoke French to them when they were babies and young children, and still favor French to English when I talk to them, their French remains imperfect. It’s only when my oldest ones started high school that they received the formal teaching I never provided since I favored the total immersion in English when they were younger.
Yesterday, my husband pointed to an article he had found in the last NY Times Sunday magazine.
Written by Guy Deutscher You Are What You Speak is a fascinating article that discusses the old idea that your mother-tongue shapes your experience of the world. A large section of the article is about a remote Australian aboriginal tongue. I spent more time on the part about words’ gender since this is the most important difference between French and English.
My children, born in the USA from two French native speakers have heard French at home from the day they were born but their exposure to French is limited to their home. That’s why they misuse the articles un and une with regularity. A car (une voiture) is feminine in French but a train (un train) is masculine. To anyone who hasn’t grown in France, it’s bizzare.
My children also refer to themselves based on their own gender but French possessive adjectives match the object and not the subject in the sentence.
For example: Sa is feminine for her and son is masculine for his. The word soupe or soup in English is feminine in French. So while my son eats his soup in English, il mange sa soupe in French or her soup in English which has always upset him. “I’m not a girl,” he reminds me each time I correct him.
And his sister plays with her ball in English but elle joue avec son ballon in French since ballon (ball in English) is masculine. She also reminds me that she is a girl and not a boy.
It is funny but also sometimes irritating for the French native speaker I am. I have no trouble at all to refer to a table (une table) as a “she” but to a desk (un bureau) as a “he”, to a dog (un chien) as a “he” but to a giraffe (une girafe) as a “she”.
After reading You Are What You Speak, I realized that my children can’t naturally navigate this French gender complex thing without lots of practice and making occasional mistakes and I can’t expect them to be right each time. That’s maybe what acceptance is.
It also became clear that perhaps we don’t see the world exactly the same way. I have learned since I was a child that every word is a “she” or a “he” while for my children only people have a gender.
I correct them as often as needed, always with patience and understanding. After all I am a work in progress too. I still sometimes forget that a ship in English is a “she” and not a “it” like a plain boat.
Not my fault, in French un navire and un bateau are both masculine.

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