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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

One Year in Toronto: Parlez-vous français?

jenmichel@me.com

I am fascinated by the way children learn language. If there were any developmental stage that is my favourite in childhood, I would have to vote for the year between 1 and 2. At that age, children are exploding with language. The twins were especially extraordinary to watch: from a very early age, one has generally been more physical, the other more verbal.  (If you’ve been reading here for any length of time, you might guess at who was the physical one, who the verbal one.) As early as six months, one of the twins learned a kind of Michael Phelps motion, butterflying around the house on his tummy until he could master the more elegant mechanics of crawling. At one, walked, and soon he was running. His brother, on the other hand, contented himself with a lot of sitting, books in hand. He'd let his head swing back and forth, following the motion of his brother, but he was never eager to get up and join him. It's the "sitter" who’s been narrating the world ever since. Last night at the dinner table, as he eyed the window screen that had fallen down and lay propped against the wall, he asked me, “Do you know how they make window screens?” and of course I don’t know, so he informs my ignorance. “Well, you have to have a big window. A square window. And they make a screen that goes up and down, and that’s how they make window screens.” It makes perfect sense. Language is the window of words, and perhaps one of the greatest gifts that our year in Toronto has offered us so far is the opportunity to have the children enrolled in a bilingual school. In a year’s time, they’ve essentially learned French. It’s not a perfect French, with all the dotted i’s crossed t’s that French requires with its sophisticated and complex grammar, but it’s a very understandable French. Their accents are beautiful, their understanding of spoken French quite good, even their ability to grasp humor in French is in place. Yesterday, Nathan explains how they’ve been playing “mots tordus” in class. Twisted words. “'Instead of “assis sur une chaise,' it's 'assis sur une fraise.'" Giggles from the girls. “And not 'salle à manger'  but 'salle à danger.'” Chairs and strawberries, dining rooms, danger rooms.

Last Friday, the older three had a day off school, and when we'd dropped Andrew and Colin off for their morning preschool, we rode our bikes through the ravine and up city streets to make our way to our favourite neighbourhood boulangerie, Le Thobors. I told the older three they could have anything they wanted (even a drink from the refrigerated case of juices!) as long as they ordered in French. Pain au chocolat, s'il vous plaît. Pain aux raisins. Oui, je voudrais un couteau. A triumph! We seated ourselves next to the window, crossed our legs and put our pinkies up. "Parlons français!" That morning, the sight of us sipping our juice and coffee, devouring our pastries and speaking our broken French, it would have made even Jackie Kennedy proud.

"What will it matter in eternity if your kids speak French?" a friend in Chicago asks after we announce the decision to enroll the kids in a bilingual school once we move to Toronto. She is well-meaning, wanting to understand how we're justifying our decision to quit homeschooling and send our children to school (a pagan, private school, no less). These aren't easy decisions we make as parents. Schooling our kids is fraught with the tensions of unknowing. If only to be a soothsayer and see the dangers that lie ahead in any of our choices.

But we don't see behind the curtain of the future. We have to trust. And maybe we can start believing God's embrace is wide enough to encircle all parts of us, whether they should, on the surface, look to be Christian or not. Maybe it doesn't initially seem that speaking French could matter to God. And why should any of our lives really matter to Him? Why should people garden and sew, practice law, and write blogposts? Why should we ever read novels or learn to speak another language or care about European economic policy? Why should we not, instead, live our lives consecrated to the things that arguably matter more, things like reading our Bible and zealously sharing our faith?

Or could it be that our categories are unnecessarily narrowed? Could it be that our classifications are too easy, and our metric of value too human? Is the landscape of, "Your kingdom come, Your will be done," far more vast than we've imagined it?

Je le pense. Oui, je le pense.