Money and Bilinguilism

An interesting article in the New York Times caught my attention and I recommend it to anyone who speaks more than one language or just is interesting in languages.
When I was in school in France, the study of English was mandatory from 6th grade to 12th grade. A second language, German and Spanish were back then the two principal choices, was mandatory from 8th grade to 12th grade.
Did it mean I was fluent in English and German when I graduated from high school?
Let’s say that I spoke German well enough to help with the wedding of my sister-in-law when she married a German in the 80s.
My knowledge of English, it turned out, was also good enough to get by when I moved to California, but many more years in the US would be necessary before I could say, “I’m fluent.”
What about French? My husband being also a French native, we always speak French together.
My American-born children spoke a very decent French as long as they were little and home with me most of the time. When they entered elementary school, they lost some of their French and only regained it when I insisted they took French in high school.
Their high school is located on a state university campus, allowing them to take some college level classes. In sophomore and junior year, my two daughters took French classes taught by a university professor. 
Do I consider them bilingual? Tough question. Their American accent when they speak French is not as distinct as mine when I speak English, but my English reading and writing skills are superior to their French skills.
For the majority of people, an accent is what targets a non-native speaker. So for most Americans, I remain a foreigner.
A foreigner who speaks French. And some English.
In France, my children become the Americans who speak some French.
Americans are often, and especially from a European perspective, perceived as ignorant people who only speak their own version of English and expect everyone else to speak it as well.
It is true that English has become so universal that foreign languages are rarely taught in American high schools.
On the other hand, French children and teenagers are still taught English and at least another foreign language in school. Does it mean they are all bilingual or trilingual? If they don’t spend extensive periods of time abroad practicing their formal teaching, they aren’t.
The New York Times article is interesting and quite complete. One aspect is left out.  
The key to true bilingualism, in my opinion, is the possibility to make frequent trips abroad and spend enough time with native speakers. And sojourns abroad are costly for an average family. In France or in the US.
Some of the kids I went to school with spoke English better than I did, although I loved foreign languages and was a good student. The reason was their frequent trips to the United Kingdom or  to the United States (a dream for me back then!).
This is why, besides immigrants who keep speaking their native language at home, and military personnel who learn foreign languages in the field, most people who speak another language are wealthier.
Bilingualism like any other educational field remains too often linked to money.

World Book Night

Want to participate in a million book giveaway on April 23, 2012 as part of World Book Night?
The list of books is outstanding.
The Namesake, The Book Thief, The Kite Runner, Because of Winn Dixie, to name only a few of my very favorites, are just gems.
Have a look!

The Cost of an Apple Product

Somehow disturbing to read this well documented and conscience provoking article just a day after the State of the Union.

President Obama spoke of American manufacturing versus abroad manufacturing that has made American companies richer than ever, while Mr. Jobs’ wife sat feet away.
I believed in Mr. Obama more than most did, admired Mr. Jobs as much as anyone else and like my MacBook Air more than any computer I ever had. But 60 hours a week, five days a week to make more and more Apple products?  
The Chinese are still ahead of most Americans even though many work two jobs and definitely far from the weekly 35 hours French workers enjoy.

Winter Formal the American Way

All immigrant parents live each milestone in their child’s life with the hope it will bring them closer to understanding how their adoptive country works.
My younger daughter is going to winter formal tonight. It is the second time, but last year my husband drove her alone to her date’s home. I stayed with our son who was too young to attend. So this year is really a first for me.
I should know more about formals from my two oldest daughters. But my first one, fearing the possibility of a formal a la française did her shopping on her own and got ready at a friend’s home. 
My second one has never been traditional, and although she embraces our family origins, she never followed rules and went to formals or proms with friends and boyfriends or simple dates, preferring low-key outfits and restaurants.
My younger daughter loves traditions, American and French alike.
Weeks ago, she shopped for her dress and shoes. I was sent on a mission for a corsage and a boutonniere, which for the French reading these lines, don’t mean blouse and buttonhole.
Like pie a la mode that has nothing to do with a fashionable pie, but only a slice of pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, a boutonniere in the US is a flower pinned on a boy’s jacket lapel. A corsage is not a blouse but and a small bouquet of flowers slipped as a bracelet around a girl’s wrist.
My explanation to the friendly young woman who took care of the order last week, and ignored the French meaning of the words, earned me two scrumptious chocolate truffles.
When my daughter’s boyfriend showed up at three o’clock, he looked stunning. Any guy or man wearing a well-cut suit or tux looks good, in my opinion.  He was no exception.
Rain has finally arrived in California, and my daughter was eager to take advantage of the few sunny moments to capture the special day on her camera. My husband, although worried to see her seventeen-year-old daughter on her way to a night event, was appointed photographer and played his role to perfection, immortalizing the day on a camera and a few iPhones as well. 
Standing under the fragile afternoon sunlight, my daughter and her boyfriend looked so young and happy that I understood in a flash why formals and proms matter so much to American teenagers and their parents, and also why we don’t have such events in France.
The pursuit of eternal youth and constant happiness, as well as the importance of school rituals, are perhaps what separate the French and Americans the most.
My fifteen-year-old son is also going to formal this year. He got a blue tie to match the color of his date’s dress. She is one of his classmates and they decided to skip the corsage and boutonniere. My son is also a mix of traditions and non-conformism.
Ten of his friends are meeting for dinner before the dance. Since none of them is driving yet, (yeah!), several parents will be their chauffeurs.
Then, my husband and I will have dinner. Not an early dinner, but a late dinner that will remind us of our Parisian dinners.
None of us back then had heard of winter formals, of corsages and boutonnieres.
None of us had a way of knowing that some day, our American children would explain to us the rituals of their native country, a country often seen abroad as lacking traditions but that, in my opinion, is built on rituals that any immigrant ends us embracing with a fervor similar to the one of a native.

Still Quiet

Thinking of yesterday and of the need for silence to quiet the racket of the outside world and sometimes in our own heads.
Children crave as much as adults for meaningful pauses in their busy lives.
One of my favorite picture books on the topic is The Quiet Book from Deborah Underwood. I heard the author read her story shortly before it was published. I liked it immediately. Check it out.
Deborah Underwood has published The Loud Book since then.
But today, as it seems like rains might finally make its way to California, conjuring quiet pictures of reading and writing, quietness is still very much on my mind.

The Luxury of Quietness

Today was a busy day, filled with several meetings in different locations. I drove a lot, and although I love driving, I was aware of the loudness of the highway. Motors roared, music blasted from the rolled down windows, honking startled me.
I dreamed of silence.
The cafés where I met were lively and friendly but loud conversations wrapped all around me.
I wanted to shut out the sound.
Tonight, as I drove down our long windy driveway, I sighed a sigh of relief.
A flock of quails left the rosemary bush in a silky rustle of feathers. A couple of hawks soared above the house. A squirrel climbed an oak tree. 
I opened the door, dropped my bags, hung my coat, and listened to the quietness of my home.
A blanket made of cashmere fell instantly on my shoulders.
I didn’t turn the TV on (even though we can watch the French news now!), I didn’t put music on (although I love the latest Julien Clerc my mom sent for Christmas), and I didn’t talk to anyone as I cooked.
Silence can be heavy as a wall but light as silk when we’ve craved it for a day.
When I moved from Paris to Palo Alto, it took me a while to adjust to the quietness of a small town. I missed the honking of the taxis and the sirens of the ambulances at night. When I moved from the Bay Area to the foothills, it was another major change. Since 1990 I had lived in densely populated areas on both coasts of the country.
At night, the coyotes, crickets, frogs, owls and even the bright stars illuminating the pitch-black sky kept me awake. Now I have a hard time to fall asleep amidst the constant noise and artificial lights of any big city.
I still love Paris, San Francisco, London, Los Angeles and Chicago a lot. Sometimes, I crave them as much as I crave water on a long summer hike.
But tonight, in a loud and louder world, I feel lucky to have the luxury of quietness at the tip of my fingers.
Or at least, at the end of a long windy driveway.


Perfect thoughts for today, on a favorite blogs of mine:

What else to add? After so many years, they are as thought-provocative and relevant as they were back then.

California Winter

You are a true Californian when you go to the movie at noon, and the weather is gorgeous. That’s what I was told in the early 90s when I had just moved to the Bay Area.
After many more years in the golden state, I can say that you are a true Californian when mid January, the peek of rain season, you are still watering your trees, and you envision with panic the devastating effects of a drought.
We’ve received less than an inch of rain in the Sierra foothills since early October. Back then it signaled an early rainy season, and we all thought we would have a wet winter for the second time in a row.
Last year, feet of snow and inches of rain fell above California. The waterfalls thorough Yosemite ran so full that the Mist Trail was considered too treacherous, and remained closed well into the summer. Hundreds of mountain people lost power for days or even weeks because of the weigh of snow.
Ski season was outstanding. The air was pristine and the wild flowers were in bloom until late May.
The October drops of rain are now only a memory.
Tioga Pass, often closed before Thanksgiving, is still open and Badger Pass, the quaint ski resort nestled in the heart of Yosemite National Park, still closed.
My two younger kids went skiing with their school over the last two weeks. Artificial snow is used to maintain a few open chair lifts at China Peak, a larger ski destination, higher in the mountains.  Short hikes have replaced part of the ski program. Kids wear long sleeves shirts and even shorts instead of snow jackets and pants. Temperatures mid day reach the 70s.
Deer graze closer to houses, hungry and thirsty. Rabbits and squirrels leave their burrows. Grass has not turned to its usual deep green and is as dry as it is in the summer. The air is unhealthy in the valley. In the distance, a thick layer of smog masks the coastal range that separates the mountains from the ocean.
Environmentalists talk of global warming, elderly say that California has always known cycles of dry and wet seasons, and optimistic believe that rain in the end always arrive, as late as April or May.
As for me, I miss winter, the hot cups of tea that I drink as I write to the sound of the rain beating against the windows. I miss the fog that wraps my house in quietness. 
Skiing in short sleeves in January seems like wonderful if you aren’t Californian.
But I became one, and I worry for the land, parched and thirsty, and keep checking the weather channel that forecasts half and inch of rain for late next week.

Galette des Rois

Today I had a meeting at La Boulangerie, a popular French bakery in Fresno. I had forgotten about the French Galette des Rois but when I left I couldn’t resist, and purchased the golden puffed pastry filled with almond paste.
Epiphany that marks the visit of the three wise men to baby Jesus is officially celebrated on January 6 in France, but the French, who never say no to an occasion to eat and share a dessert with family and friends, celebrate the entire month.
This is such a delightful tradition that I wrote a story about it for my son when he was still a little boy. He liked it so much that I submitted it and it was my very first published work.
King for a Day was published in Spider magazine in January 2009 and was lovely illustrated. Like Max, the protagonist of the short story, I was tempted more than once to cheat and steal the fève, the special token hidden inside the yummy cake, that would make me Queen. I’ve never been lucky with this kind of random thing and envied my sister or cousins who got luckier than me and year after year became queens and kings.
Tonight, my two younger kids were as excited as they were when little they couldn’t wait to find out who would get the fève.
My son hid under the table and decided who got each slice. His sister found the fève and he was disappointed. But she gave him the golden paper crown and he crowned himself.
The cake was delicious. The almond paste was sweet and sticky as it should be and for the time of a dessert I was back in my parents’ kitchen where my sister, the youngest in the family, hid under the table and told my mother who got each slice. 
I didn’t mind about not finding the fève. and not being queen. 
I was happy that one of my childhood favorite traditions had crossed the ocean and had become my American kids’ favorite tradition too. 

Happy New Year!

Only three hours left before a new year opens up with its load of promises.  As my family is preparing for our favorite New Year’s Eve dinner: a fondue that we have adapted over the years to fit our different appetites (red meat, shrimps and fish cooked in a vegetable broth, accompanied by boiled red and white small potatoes, mixed greens, and all sorts of condiments), I take a few minutes to reflect on 2011 and admit being glad to say hello to 2012.
In the US, 2011 has been filled with natural disasters from floods to fires, a surge in unemployment leading to more foreclosed homes, the failure of Occupy Wall Street protests that, although fueled by legitimate anger, lacked focus and drive, and of course the loss of Steve Jobs, a man who shaped our modern lives.
Abroad, a tsunami took Japan by surprise and changed the fate of the nuclear energy, the Arab Spring led to the death of several rulers, the execution of Bin Laden brought closure to September 11, and the financial crisis in Europe is redefining the European Union.
In my modest home, a ski accident led to two knee surgeries, the brutal cancer of our gentle Lab forced us to put her to sleep just before Christmas.
As 2012 looms closer, I realize that often, like most humans I tend to remember the bad events, personal or not, that happened over twelve months.
Not unlike the characters in Midnight in Paris who thought that another era or another place would make their lives better, I think that my last year resolutions, that were of course unrealistic, will really happen this year. I think that another year will be better.
That’s what I think every year.
If only for three hours before midnight.
Happy New Year!

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