Saturday, September 09, 2006

Mouths of Babes

For the last two weeks Elias has constantly babbled. Not the urgent crying, or even the more restrained complaint that sounds like Chet Baker playing "My Funny Valentine" (although Elias has more soul while achieving the same pathos). These are whole sentences, replete with rhythm, stress and cadences. He even says the words "hi" and "momma."

Ok, ok, he does not yet know the meaning of "hi" and "momma." He is imitating us, but as part of a sophisticated conversational babble that seems to reflect not only his mood, but the joy of discovering speech itself. Interacting with him is too much fun; just ask the circle of friends who will surround him and imitate his every sound.

Many people have asked me when and how I will introduce foreign languages to young Elias. It’s seem rather early to start imposing the conjugations of irregular verbs when he is just discovering his ability to speak (no matter how brilliant I insist he is). I have no plan, and no good advice, on how best to raise a baby with two languages (except by necessity). My only plan is to keep exposing him to it: hear me speak French, read French, listen to French, rather than requiring him to know it, so that he has some passive knowledge when the time comes. [BTW, Konrad Lawson has an excellent post about code switching and Soviet gulags, called Losing your Language.]

For those reasons, I watched François Truffaut’s Small Change (L’Argent de Poche), the very first French film that my parents took me to see. It’s a story of children living in the middle of ‘70s France, somewhat meandering in its plot (the only thread of a story is the ‘new boy,’ who survives on petty theft and is subjected to abuse at home). French cinema has produced numerous charming films about childhood and youth, most coming after WWII with its baby boom: La Maternelle, Jeux interdits, Au revoir, les enfants, ... . Truffaut even explored his own troubled youth in a brutal film, Les quatre-cents coups (The 400 Blows).

Small Change gives the feeling of following the children through their lives: wandering the streets of an old French town, telling dirty jokes about priests and nuns, sneaking into the movie theater, giving themselves haircuts and pocketing the money from their parents, and trying to pick up girls. Watching the film, I hope Elias picks up the language and not the tricks and jokes.
Several times in the film, the language of children becomes an issue. Certainly, the children speak differently than the adults: they communicate their joys and discoveries, tending less to pass information, discuss strategies, and try to convince others to something for them. Two scenes in particular grabbed me.

In the first scene, a young girl refuses to go without her handbag to a fancy restaurant. The bag, shaped like an animal, is ratty and soiled, and her parents insist that they would be embarrassed if she were to take it with her. They offer instead one of her mother’s more elegant (more adult) handbags. She refuses. The parents leave her, alone, in their apartment and eat out together. And in one of the movies funniest scenes, she takes a megaphone, goes to the window and repeatedly says, "I’m hungry!" This causes a scandal in the apartment bloc: instead of teaching a lesson to the girl, she turns her parents into neglectful guardians. Immediately, a basket of fine foods is hoisted up to her room.

Throughout the conversation with her parents, the young girl says "ça m’est égal." Literally "it’s the same to me," it has different meanings depending on context and usage (although it’s usually translated as "I don’t care"). Repeating "ça m’est égal," the girl obviously voices her obstinance, and perhaps in that sense, it has a stable meaning. The subtitles, however, reveal the subtleties: each instance of "ça m’est égal" is translated differently. The girl makes good use of the instability, turning the phrase into a wild card that strengthens her arguments, much that same way that a teenager might use "whatever" to express boredom, carelessness, and lack of opinion all at once.

The other scene is a news reel watched by patrons at a movie theater: the story of an incredible whistler. The news reel goes into the man’s past, to the time when he was conceived by an American soldier and a French woman in the enthusiasm of liberation. Neither parent capable of speaking to one another, the child’s linguistic future was at stake. But rather than chose between the two languages, or even a neutral language, he chose to whistle. He whistled when he was hungry; he whistled when a girl showed affection to him. Whistling allowed him to transmit his desires, but it did not allow him to communicate. He alienates everyone around him. As an adult, his whistling wins him notoriety, but he remains, expressively, a child whose words are music without content to the world around him.

Despite the issues of precision and communicability, the film made me appreciate the simple pleasures that Elias takes in making noise, in expressing himself without having to find the mots justes. Posted by Picasa

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