The Caldas Family (Caldas, 2006)

Stephen Caldas, an American and his French-Canadian wife, Suzanne Caron- Caldas, raised their three children (John and twin girls, Valerie and Stephanie) bilingual in French and English in their Louisiana home. The couple initially followed the OPOL strategy (Stephen spoke to John in English while Suzanne spoke to him in French). Since Suzanne stayed at home for three and a half months after John was born, John was exposed to a great deal of French during that time. But when Suzanne returned to work, John was sent to Englishspeaking daycare for eight hours a day, five days a week. In addition to daycare, he was immersed in English through TV, neighbors, and his American relatives. When John turned 18 months old, his parents felt that he was not receiving enough French input and decided to both speak to him in French. John remained in daycare until he was four, when he was enrolled in an English- medium preschool.

When John’s twin sisters were born two years later, the family spoke only French. As she did with John after his birth, Suzanne stayed with the girls at home for the first three and half months and then returned to work. The girls entered the all-English-speaking daycare with their older brother. Even though both parents spoke only French from the beginning, the girls were exposed to a lot more English through John, who had an obvious preference for speaking English. Caldas (2006: 44) notes:

This was somewhat troubling to us, because we had expected him to respond to us in French. This confirmed our suspicions that English was the more predominant force in John’s environment, and that our combined French speaking was still not enough to counteract the otherwise monolingual English world John lived in ... . Suzanne and I were the only mouthpieces for French, and this was only because we made a concerted and continued effort to speak it. Had we been around John all the time, the influence of French would have undoubtedly been greater. But with both of us away from home much of the day, English reigned during the children’s waking hours.

Like the Fantini family, the Caldas family tried to provide their children with a variety of opportunities to learn French. John attended one semester of partial French immersion program, and the twins attended five and a half years of French immersion programs in Louisiana. When John was nine years old and the twins were seven, the Caldas family moved from a mostly Englishspeaking community in Louisiana to a bilingual Cajun community where they heard and spoke a lot more French. This was also when the parents started recording family conversations during mealtimes. The family spent their summers in Quebec where the children had daily contact with several members of Suzanne’s family who spoke very little English. The children also attended French-speaking summer camp in Quebec where they learned new vocabulary and Quebec idioms that their parents could not teach them. Caldas reports that the summers in French-speaking Canada were so effective as immersion experiences that the children often had trouble shifting back to English when they returned to the U.S.

As John entered pre-adolescence, his enthusiasm for speaking French began to wane while his younger sisters were ever more enthusiastic about speaking French. For example, Valerie often demanded that John speak French, but he grew increasingly frustrated of these demands. Caldas notes that on one occasion, John fired back at Valerie, “I have the right to speak any language I want to speak!”, and on several occasions he screamed at Valerie, “English! English! English!” (2006: 63). Caldas reports that the language conflict between John and his sisters got intense at times. One time, Valerie was so mad at John for speaking English that she threw a cushion at him while screaming, “Parle fran^ais!!!” A few weeks later, the children’s father heard the girls scream so violently at John to “Parle fran^ais!!!” that he feared it would come to blows (2006: 63).

When the family returned to Quebec that summer however, within weeks, John was speaking more French than his sisters. The parents observed that John went from speaking almost no French around the dinner table in May in Louisiana, to speaking almost no English around the dinner table in June in Canada, a pattern which continued for the next seven years. Like John, the girls shifted back and forth between English and French depending on whether they were in Louisiana or in Quebec. But when Valerie and Stephanie entered fifth grade, they also dramatically decreased their French speaking despite their return to a French immersion school program in Louisiana. Although the girls and all of their peers in the French immersion program could speak French, they only communicated in English when not being supervised by their French-speaking teachers. Caldas & Caron-Caldas (2002) conclude that the children’s peer environment had a greater effect on their language choice than did the parents or the language immersion programs at school.

As the children moved through mid-adolescence, Caldas notes that they identified increasingly with Quebecois peer culture. The children grew increasingly confident and comfortable in Quebec because English is held with high esteem in Quebec. English is the language of popular culture and the children’s Quebec friends knew that they could speak English. Caldas notes that Quebecois youth pepper their speech with English pop-cultural words and expressions, and Quebecois adolescents who linguistically “cross over” into English are perceived as “cool.” He notes that “Quebec adolescents were saying ‘chile’ in the same sense as their American counterparts say ‘chill out.’ They were also saying ‘Moi too’ (me too) and ‘Full-cool,’ ‘Je vais caller’ (I’m going to call) and ‘Il est yo’ (He’s ‘yo,’ or ‘cool’) (2006: 134). However, once back in the U.S., French became “uncool” for the Caldas children and was quickly abandoned in favor of English. In this way, the story of the Caldas children is typical of the language experience of many bilingual children, who constantly move in and out of bilingualism.

 
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