Singing and Writing in a Foreign Language

Yesterday I met an American woman who married a man from Chile.

“Thirty-three years,” she said. “It has been thirty-three years since he left his country for California. And he’s still missing the nursery rhymes and songs of his childhood.” She sighed. “And he doesn’t know mine that well.”

Her eyes drifted away for less than a second. Was this regret for a life spent searching for each other’s childhood?

Then she looked at me and in a soft voice added, “Of course, he learned the most popular American songs with our children, but it’s never quite the same, is it?”

I shrugged one shoulder.

My French-born oldest daughter started preschool when she was two years and a half. She didn’t speak English, although she understood simple sentences. She didn’t speak French either, although her understanding was perfect. Since her parents’ move to the States when she was one year old, she only said one word: Mama.

No need to specify that her parents worried. Had they made the most terrible mistake? Would their daughter ever speak anything? At that point they didn’t care about English or French.

Preschool was recommended. Medication takes time: preschool wasn’t an immediate cure. But within a few months my little girl started to speak in… both languages. She also sang.

But only in English.

She brought home One, Two, Buckle Your Shoe and Yankee Doodle, the Itsy, Bitsy Spider and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Instinctively I would hum their French version – when there was one.

“Those are not the words!” my little girl would protest.

While her younger sister learned the songs in no time, I had to be more patient but in the end I ended up knowing the words of the American nursery songs.

“Would you say that it is the same?” the woman insisted when I had remained silent.

“I miss my French songs, too,” I admitted.

This summer I heard little French kids sing the exact same songs I had sung. And for the briefest second I wished my children had, too.

“But,” the woman added. “My daughter is having a baby soon, and she has asked her dad to sing his native songs to his grandchild. He is really looking forward to it.” Her smile then was broad and her voice warm.

“I’m not yet there,” I said with a laugh.

But I remembered that while I learned the American nursery songs, my children’s friends begged me to teach them mine.

They loved Alouette and Frère Jacques – for mysterious reasons these two remain American favorites,  but they also liked L’Araignée Gypsie, which is The Itsy Bitsy Spider.

“I’m sure that your grandchild will love the Chile’s nursery songs,” I said.

A minute later I was reading my youngest daughter’s e-mail.

“Mom, read your latest blog post. Loved it. Just noticed a couple of typos. No worries.”

Below, she had written my sentence and the corrections she suggested.

“I wish I wrote French the way you write English,” she added.

She is very nice, my daughter.

Learning the songs my children sang at school took me a while.

Writing in the language of the new country, let me tell you, is another story.

At least, I don’t have to write down the words of the nursery songs.

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