Out of the Mouths of Babes: Speaking French With Ease

MY five-year-old son Josh is learning to speak French in kindergarten.

"We live in a maison hantee - a haunted house," he's been telling me since Halloween. "There's a spooky fantome in the basement."

"Quelle horreur!" I say, wondering how long I'll be able to keep up with him.

My husband Greg and I chose Josh's school for several reasons, but the early start in French was one of the most compelling. Greg, a banker whose languages are English and finance, believes that the United States may not offer the best career opportunities in the future, and that it will become increasingly important to be multilingual. My reason is simpler: I wanted to speak French when I was 7 or 8, but my school didn't offer it until seventh grade. I studied French from junior high school through coll ege and spent my junior year in Paris, but I never did conquer la langue francaise, mainly because I was too shy to practice outside the classroom.

Some people have wondered why I chose French as a second language for myself and my son. After all, I'm a Korean-American, and aside from being part of my heritage, Korean would be a useful language to know as trade with Korea increases, and more Koreans come to the States. Unfortunately, I didn't learn Korean as a child, and much as I'd like to speak it now, I know I'll never make the commitment of time and energy to study a language so different from English.

Of course, there may be other languages more closely related to English that are more useful than French. One of Greg's friends, whose child is also learning French in school, feels his son would be better off speaking Spanish. For those who view the study of language in strictly utilitarian terms, it's true that French is not the foremost language of commerce and that with the large number of Spanish-speaking people in the US, it's not the most practical. But for me, the importance of studying another l anguage - any other language - lies in having a window on another culture, and realizing that there are other ways of thinking about the world besides one's own.

I also happen to think that most things sound better in French. I'm not sure when my fascination for things francais began. Perhaps it's because my mother has always been a fan of those romantic leading men, Charles Boyer and Lois Jourdan. Maybe it was the influence of my ballet teachers, who had been principal dancers with the Paris Opera Ballet. M. and Mme. Pacaud had glamour (they were French), sophistication (ditto), and artistic temperament (they yelled a lot, in beautiful accents, if you got the st eps wrong).

As I grew older, my father became concerned that I was infatuated with France rather than Korea. When I started cooking, I was trying recipes from a French cookbook.

"Why don't you ask your mother to teach you Korean cooking?" my father would say.

"I'm tired of Korean food," I told him.

THAT wasn't entirely true. My mother was such an excellent cook of Korean food that I wanted to find another culinary area to explore outside of her domain. She encouraged my experiments in the kitchen, mainly because she had wondered until then if I'd ever learn to cook anything. When I made my first coq au vin, my family, especially my mother, was impressed. I turned proudly to my father, who had just finished his first mouthful.

"This is delicious," he said. Then, he reached for the ever-present bottle of soy sauce, and doused his chicken.

In an effort to steer me back to Korean language and culture, my father sent me to summer school in Seoul before my freshman year of college. I learned the Korean alphabet, Korean and Chinese numbers, and some basic conversation, barely enough to help me shop and travel. I came to enjoy hearing the language spoken, and tried to imitate the more expressive sounds. Whenever I took a taxi to school, I pointed to the road past the gate, and told the driver, "Chogi, cho-o-o-gi," over there, wa-a-ay over there , trying to stretch the vowel as I'd heard native speakers do. It sounded great, but I didn't know how to explain where to stop, so I shouted, "Yogi, yogi, yogi," here, here, here, which usually resulted in a slamming of the brakes and strange looks from the driver.

When I returned to the States, I couldn't study Korean at school, and since I wasn't living at home, I soon forgot the little I had learned because there was no one to practice with. Besides, I still wanted to speak French, and the idea of studying two languages simultaneously seemed overwhelming. In fact, I have been overwhelmed by the study of languages - I haven't managed to achieve fluency in Korean or French, despite another summer in Seoul and my year in Paris, as well as classes in both languages back home.

Since I see myself as a linguist manque and Greg is a linguistic wannabe, we're happy that Josh can learn a second language at such an early age. He's singing songs, playing games, and learning greetings in French everyday, without the intimidation of vocabulary lists and rules of grammar (reading and writing will start in third grade).

I also have a private theory that once a second language is mastered, a third language becomes easier to learn, so maybe Korean will be a possibility for my children someday.

But for now, we'll concentrate on le francais, and I'll help Josh when I can. He seems to enjoy speaking French and tries to teach his two-year-old sister Alicia what he's learned. "Ali, say bonjour," he orders.

Ali usually laughs at him, but she sometimes says, "B'juh," and Josh corrects her accent.

Lately, I've been thinking of having another go at French. If I ever speak a second language, it'll be French, simply because I'm further along in it than I am in Korean. Maybe I'll enroll at the Alliance Francaise again after Ali starts school. I hope to have more time for studying by then. And Josh will be there to help me with my homework.

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