Not Speaking French

Lessons from my son’s monolingualism

| January-February 1996


The first time my son left home he was only 10 years old. My wife’s sister, an antiques dealer who lives in Paris, wanted him to stay with her for the summer. Any fears were easily rationalized by the vision of his triumphant return—whereupon my extraordinary son, having been given this unique opportunity so early in life, would reveal the incredible things he had seen, his fantastic adventures, and above all, his newfound ability to speak rudimentary French.

The summer passed. There were occasional phone calls about trips to Mont-Saint-Michel, visits to chateaus in the south, solo travels on the metro, and early morning jaunts to buy croissants in a nearby market. I was impressed, delighted, proud. So it was with enormous expectation that I met his plane, lifted him into my arms, hugged him, and exclaimed, “Bienvenue, mon fils, comment va-t’il?”

He looked perplexed. I repeated my welcome, smiling and awaiting his response. “Oh, Dad,” he said. “Don’t be silly.”

I thought perhaps I had inadvertently threatened him. I laughed. “All right,” I said. “Just say anything in French.”

He shook his head. “Don’t know how,” he said.