When my brother and I were kids, our parents would sit us down for some evening conversation with a little girl named Hélène. Hélène was French; she lived with her apron-skirted mother, tassel-shoed father, and a brother name Pierre. On our 12-record box set of language lessons, Hélène would do things like oversleep, causing her family to break into song: “Bonjour Hélène, bonjour Hélène/ C’est le matin, c’est le matin!’’
As the turntable played I thought, nobody ever sings when I oversleep. We were utterly bored with the record, but for our Haitian parents, who spoke French and Creole at home, Hélène had a vital importance. She was the girl who would make us a French-speaking family, and ensure their heritage did not die with them.
These days, I can occasionally be found correcting my own kids’ French pronunciation. “Not ‘bienven-OO,’ ‘bienven-UE!’ Close your lips like a fish!’’ But early on, I discovered what many parents already know: The passing down of language is a priceless, powerful tie to culture, but it is also exhausting.
If parenting is the hardest thing an adult will ever do, many parents in and around Boston are trying, succeeding, stumbling, and renewing their resolve to do something much harder still: to parent in two languages.
Technology and tot-lot meetups have made preserving language more possible than ever before, says Calvin Gidney, a Tufts University professor who specializes in childhood bilingualism. But ultimately, it still boils down to this: consistent, engaging, face-to-face interaction with family and peers. “To pull this off effectively, you have to find contexts for your kids where the child must - and that’s the key word, ‘must’ - use the heritage language,’’ says Gidney. That’s easier said than done, even for the most committed parents.
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