Ironic Comedy: Speaking a Foreign Language in America

As a non-native French speaker in America, I find that using French with my children provokes amusing responses from others. Never mind that I'm a certified French teacher--when family members first heard me speak to my children, they stared at me like I'd walked into the room dressed as Marie Antoinette with her signature wig. Some of my in-laws hadn't even realized I knew French, apparently.

Portrait by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller.   Cover photo by Angels Photography with costume via  Arabydesigns .

Portrait by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller. Cover photo by Angels Photography with costume via Arabydesigns.

Nearly five years later, my mama still makes comments like, "Did they really understand all that?" and "Wow, you sound just like a French person. I can't believe you can say that. Say that again!"

Hearing family members' responses is entertaining, but the most rewarding language feedback comes from strangers. Two years ago, my preschool-age daughter and I took an Italian exchange student on a walking tour of Portland. We stopped at several squares, and at one point my daughter stripped naked to frolic in the fountain at Director Park. Noticing many men seated around the fountain, I insisted that she put her underclothes back on. "Why?" She quizzed. "Because there are too many men around," I hissed in French. At this moment, a deep voice behind me asked, in French, "You speak French with her?" I felt a rush of embarrassment to have been understood by one of these males, but this fellow--a hip Frenchman in his early twenties--seemed only curious. I explained that I was American but had studied in Lyon and wanted to share the language with my children. He was genuinely impressed, and after we conversed for a few minutes, he thanked me for speaking French with my daughter. "You increase the Francophonie in the world," he said, and my heart warmed with the sense of global camaraderie.

Portland's Director Park by  Rosa Say

Portland's Director Park by Rosa Say

I'll always receive stares in America as people try to pinpoint my language and background, but being a language ambassador is absolutely worth the unsought attention. Last week my children and I visited the Oregon Zoo during a chilly downpour, and we took noontime shelter in the AfriCafé. I ordered a monkey-shaped water bottle for my son, but the cashier pointed out that they didn't have monkeys per se. After I caught his point about language precision, I asked my son in French if he wanted le chimpanzée or le gorille. The cashier asked about my language and we briefly chatted about my non-native effort to share the gift of French with my children. Later, as we headed back outside, I heard the cashier address his fellow employees. "Hey--she's raising her children bilingual!" And as the door closed behind me, I heard the employees jump into a conversation about bilingualism. That moment alone was worth it's weight in overpriced monkey water bottles.

A gibbon at the Oregon Zoo (technically an ape)

A gibbon at the Oregon Zoo (technically an ape)

Raising bilingual children in a largely monolingual culture is an adventure, mes amis, and I'm grateful for the unexpected encouragement along the way. I wish bilingualism weren't so unusual in many parts of America, but I love being able to add a stone to the path of linguistic diversity here.

What kind of comments have you received when you use a minority language? Do you see bilingualism growing in your community?

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