The Language Moms

06/08/2008 By Shawn Burns

My perspective is bound to be skewed. I don’t meet a lot of dads, except through their wives, hurriedly, between bites of some kind of skewered meat at a birthday party. So I don’t know how other dads feel about trying to teach an infant another language.

It’s pretty clear that there is a powerful subset of moms around here who are absolutely committed to teaching a second language, going so far as to refuse to speak anything but their chosen language in the home, completely confident that their child will learn English by osmosis.

Emily and I toyed with a similar idea in our younger years. We imagined a household where I spoke only French, and she spoke only Spanish, and our children ended up speaking seven or eight languages by the time they were four. When I say "toyed with a similar idea" I really do mean that: we played with it, didn’t take it seriously, laughed about it, used it to while away the time. The closest I’ve come to making a program of that idea is to read some books to Erin in French, every now and then.

I don’t think I could keep up the effort of making her fluent very young, especially since my French has atrophied; I used to be in immersion classes and now I can barely ask someone how to find the subway.

But there are some moms I know who do make that effort, and that’s pretty impressive to me. At the same time I find myself a little jealous, and can see that jealousy curdling into cynical derision. I keep it to myself, but I know the feeling is there, and I know it is born of jealousy.

I am friendly with, I believe, three different mommy groups. When I characterize them as groups I might be being a bit unfair, since I have seen overlap. But I think that there is a center of gravity for each of them, and whoever that person is generally sends initial e-mail invites and inquiries to a few people. That core, to me, constitutes the group.

The Language Moms are one such group. And last week I was finally included in their group. I think my inclusion comes in part because Erin and I participate in a signing playgroup, something we’ve also done in the past with the same instructor. For most of the moms this is their first time around with signing, so Erin seems absolutely brilliant and I seem totally at ease with ASL; the instructor has joked that I am going to be called on to sub for him at some point. That’s all practice. But a side-effect of that competence is that I think I am unofficially a Language Mom.

Despite failing to teach my daughter French in my spare time, I think I actually am realizing that long-abandoned idea to introduce a second language early on. It’s not the way I had planned, but that’s hardly surprising: Dad proposes and Erin disposes.