Saturday, June 6, 2015

Nico Colombant - Père Extraordinaire

I first visited Reno, Nevada in 1998 because it was on my way during a 4-week long coast-to-coast trip with friends from Croatia. Maybe we would not have stopped but for the curiosity to see "the divorce capital of the world" which was all we had ever heard about it in Europe. You sort of went to Las Vegas for a quick marriage and then to Reno for a quick divorce. During this first visit, we all concluded that Reno must be the ugliest and most boring city in America and I for one thought I would never see it again. So I was incredulous when my colleague, VOA's Africa correspondent and French-speaking reporter extraordinaire, announced that he was moving to Reno with his lovely family. 

What would a person in my view closer to Europe than to America do in Reno? But Nico's online posts indicated he and his family were thriving in the desert town, which also turned out to be the home of one of the world's leading mezzos Dolora Zajick. First impressions could be wrong, so it was time to give Reno another look, this time through the eyes of local residents and see if one has to turn into a cowboy to live there. I already knew Nico's wife drove a truck.  So I made my second ever trip to Reno this past April.

Well, my French lessons surely paid off because I am not sure their kids would have accepted me quite as well if I spoke only English. I heard more French music with Nico driving us around Reno in his European size car (no, he has not turned into a cowboy), and I felt more at home being a guest in his house than I have in the longest time.  Mostly I was impressed with what a wonderful father he is.  Nico has indulged my request to share his fatherhood experience to inspire other multi-lingual families.  Much to learn from this père extraordinaire.

Nico Colombant, Père Extraordinaire, Reno, NV







French with my Kids in a Francophone Desert
by Nico Colombant, Reno Nevada

There are strict disciples of bilingualism, such as my mother. At dinner parties, these disciples will praise bilingualism to the high heavens. Every research paper indicating bilingualism is good for the brain, for living longer, for being smarter, for being more creative, they clip, repost, brag about.


A Family Tradition

For me, it was easy. My father is French and my mother is a francophile of the highest order. I was born in France, but when we moved to the United States, I went to a French school, where my mom taught English. Most of my friends were French-speaking. My parents had French parties with French food and French wine. I went to France every other summer to be with my grandparents, watching the Tour de France on a small black and white television, drawing water from a backyard well and picking raspberries.

As a kid in Washington, D.C.:  playing soccer was one of the rare activities in which I spoke English

I went back to France for university studies and got my first job in Paris, before going off for adventures in southeast Asia, and then penniless, returning to live for a while with my parents in Washington, D.C. Even though I was mostly French-educated, I felt stifled by the lack of space in France. When asked where I am from, I now say, I am a Frenchman from America.

Bilingual Kids

I now have two children of my own. Both were born in Washington, D.C., where I had many French-speaking friends with kids of their own. We now live in Reno, Nevada, a francophone desert of sorts, where French speakers are few and far in between the Sierra mountains surrounding us. For some reason, I'm not ready to give up on French and I don't think I ever will. As a part-time stay at home Dad, besides how to play soccer, I am also teaching my kids how to speak French.


My two boys seem to approve of their lifestyle in Reno, Nevada.
I don't really care about studies touting the merits of bilingualism. To me, it just feels natural. My French language is my culture, and I want it to be a part of theirs as well. French opens the gateway to new ways of thinking, laughing and being. Why not give them that opportunity?

My boys are 5 and 3 now. Most days, they are the only people I speak French to, which also keeps my own French alive. We may have mangled sentences and jumbled words here and there, but French is our way of communicating. Sometimes other boys at a park will run up to us and ask us how to say something in French. My five-year-old is full of pride when he can answer.


Desert Challenges

It's not easy to keep a language going in a desert. We usually listen to music with French lyrics. Alpha Blondy, Manu Chao, MC Solaar, La Fouine, Francis Cabrel, and Stromae are some of our shared favorites. If ever the kids watch something on a screen, it's usually in French. If I buy a DVD, I make sure it has a French language option. We subscribe to French magazines for kids. We read French books. I share Cartesian logic and doubt.

My wife, Kari, an American from Oklahoma, speaks some French, which also helps. We met in French-speaking West Africa as journalists. Even though, we don't exclusively speak French at home, I am always speaking French with my kids. On home base whenever guests aren't around, if they start playing with each other in English, I try steering their play conversation back to French.


Before we were married and had kids, here I am with Kari in Senegal
My Theory of Language Domination

To keep a second language going, I also think it can't be completely dominated by another. Unlike my mother, I am actually more a proponent of multilingualism (rather than just bilingualism).

My older boy is finishing kindergarden at a public school which has an immersion program in Spanish. Rather than complicating matters, I think the schooling in Spanish has helped his French. Sometimes when I pick him up from school, excited to have just played with friends in English at the afterschool program he goes to, he can't disassociate English words from French ones, and speaks in a jumbled way. He'll throw in a few Spanish words as well. I gently rephrase his sentences into better French, and after a few minutes in the car, he's back to speaking mostly French.

The Merits of Multilingualism


When I lived in Africa, I noticed many children spoke four to five languages, one with their father, another with their mother, a third with their friends, a fourth at school and sometimes a fifth at the market. Each language has its purpose, making each useful and alive. I would say, pompously or not, that each language gives a new window on the world, a multitude of possible connections, a broadened compassion for others, and a new perspective on abstract thought.

Buying fresh baguette as a family is part of the experience

Whenever I hear about a language disappearing, I think that's one of the saddest realities of our increasingly futuristic, tech-dominated, elites taking most of the cake world. I am not the same person in French or English, but both languages make me who I am.

Wouldn't it be monotonous, narrow-minded and restraining if everyone just spoke English or Chinese? I find efforts to diversify and to keep a multitude of languages alive on the Internet extremely laudable. I also believe more languages should be taught in schools, and at an earlier age. Language immersion schools should be the rule rather than the exception.

Of course, I'd love my kids just the same if they stopped speaking French. But to me "I love you" and "Je t'aime" don't have the same meaning, so if they were to speak only English, we would be losing out on some of the magic and depth of this curious human world. And the more magic and depth you can handle, I believe, the better.
Maseco likes to draw French flags and the Eiffel Tower.
Zinedine dressed as Super Dupont


Nico Colombant teaches radio and online video in Reno, Nevada, and also coaches soccer.  His wife Kari Barber is an assistant professor in journalism at the University Nevada, Reno.  They work on documentaries together including a current project called Struggle and Hope about Oklahoma's Still Surviving All-black Towns.
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October 11, 2016
It is with great sadness that I have to add an update to Nico's story:  his younger son Zinedine died of inexplicable cardiac arrest in early October.

1 comment:

Cvanda said...

Zee - thank you for your blog! and the photos are so nice of NIco and Kari and the boys. I am heartbroken for all of them. I met sweet younger son when he was still crawling. He was simply adorable.

I am so sad.

Love to Nico, Kari and their two sons and extended family.