Bringing up Bilingual

Nathan in a plastic box

I speak English to Nathan as much as possible, while his Mummy speaks French. Obviously, outside the house he’ll hear mostly French except for visits to anglophone friends. He’s now nearly 16 months old, and babbling away in a language which is comprehsible only to him. The more I think about it, the harder it gets to know what the best way might be to help him be bilingual.

French shouldn’t be an issue, living here. I’d love for him to hear more English though, as I don’t see enough of him to have him hear English a lot. I avoid the television, but when it’s on it’s generally in French – we only have Sky News as an English option anyway. There are a couple of children’s cartoons on old VHS tapes though, and a few baby books in English. Reading and writing (a long way off perhaps, but time does fly) will probably be best done in French in the first instance, so as not to confuse him with the English alphabet (which sounds different, though the letters are the same).

I haven’t taken the plunge and read any books on bilinguism yet, for fear of finding out just how wrong I am about things. Should I worry? Perhaps not, but it’s harder than you’d think to stick to your native tongue when your work day is mostly in French, at least when speaking. Writing email and reading English online all day is one thing, but coming home and forcing yourself to speak English when others around you don’t understand it can feel awfully rude. I lose touch with my fluency in English when speaking too… which can be very frustrating. It’s like when you’re lost for a word, and you can’t change the subject until you’ve found it. But it’s worse when you know you can express the same concept in a language which isn’t even your own!

I’ve heard stories of children rejecting the language that isn’t spoken everywhere around them, and of children who happily pick up three or more languages. In any case the effort will be worth it… the alternative would be terribly sad. One day Nathan could turn around to me and say “je ne veux pas parler anglais, papa”…

9 Responses to “Bringing up Bilingual”

  1. Carrster Says:

    I’ve heard different theories on kids being able to pick up two languages at the same time or not. I think it would be difficult! I think it’s great though that he will be bi-lingual some day. I wish I was! :)

  2. Anna Says:

    Thankfully the bilingual research is encouraging. As and english speaker with french, a teacher of french to young children, a mum and a woman thinking of setting up a business doing french classes for toddlers you can imagine I’ve been looking into this! The general idea is that one language won’t cancel out the other. So one day spent on the alphabet in french won’t cancel out the english one. They just serve to enhance the other. A child brought up in a bilingual household as a rule has delayed language development for the first 3 years or so while they sort things out in their heads. But after that the potential to learn (in all fields, not only languages) rises exponentially. Unlike us grown-ups, children rarely muddle languages or feel lost for words. Remember – they are learning sounds and languages all the time and two makes no difference to one. It is important that they hear you embracing your language in everyday situations. My friends child now loves speaking french to mum as it feels like their own special secret. A few bilingual DVDs or english DVD’s of songs with rhymes and actions should be great. Perhaps I’ll keep and eye out for the good english ones and you can tell me of good french ones for Eve? Better that Nathan has a choice than turns round one day and asks why you didn’t speak english to him. or even asks you to translate for grandma!
    hope this helps!
    proffessor park xxx

  3. fruey Says:

    Carrster,

    I really hope Nathan does grow up bilingual, it would be a real advantage for him. Especially since English would be his second language, but it’s a key language in Europe and will open doors for him.

    -Fruey

  4. fruey Says:

    Anna,

    Great to hear from you, and thanks for taking the time to encourage me :-). Sounds like you know what you’re talking about which is reassuring.

    I have been trying to get hold of bilingual toys (like a train set that counts in French and English) and bring books back from England each time I go there. If you need any good French books / DVDs maybe we could have a bit of an exchange by good old fashioned post?

    I’m a little worried about delayed language development, could make people think Nathan’s behind… but as long as he’s about OK by the time he gets to the maternelle that’ll be cool.

    -Fruey

  5. Gigi Says:

    I’m English and my three girls were born in France. I’ve always spoken English to them and the eldest one learnt to read and write in both languages (at the time I was an infant school teacher in a bilingual school).It didn’t slow her down at all – in fact, I would say it did just the opposite! Today – for some reason – only the eldest is completely bilingual…that is, she speaks to me in either language with the same ease. The same goes for reading and writing. The two younger girls do not spontaneously speak to me in English but will do so if other English speakers are present (but they don’t speak quite as fluently as their sister). One thing is sure – they absolutely HATE it when I speak French to them (which happens sometimes). Mum shouldn’t speak French!!

    I know it can be difficult but you must make the effort to speak English with Nathan all the time. Get as many English videos/DVDs/cassettes and books as you can. Of course, it’s a little different for you because you’re not with him constantly but he should still realise that Daddy speaks English and Mummy speaks French. Perhaps you or your wife could take him along to an English-speaking Toddlers’ group if there’s one in your area.

    Don’t give up though – it’s worth it. And for later on, I suggest Nathan takes German or another language at school, rather than English. I regret letting mine take English as they acquired a slight French accent and started making grammatical mistakes they had never made before! But, you’ve time enough before that decision needs to be taken :-)

  6. fruey Says:

    Hi Gigi,

    Thanks ever so much for taking time to give your valuable insight.

    I’m bilingual myself, but I didn’t speak more than a few words of French before starting senior school (age 10). I gradually improved my French during school, and did a French degree with a year in France which enabled me to perfect my accent and vocabulary. I’ve been living in French speaking countries since 1998 so I can almost pass for a native (though sometimes I’m compared to a congested Belgian). I think that makes me very much an exception compared to bilinguals who learned from a parent, and certainly doesn’t enable me to draw from my experience when bringing up my own child.

    I am curious to see if Nathan thinks that “Daddy shouldn’t speak French” later on. I’m equally curious to know if you can put your finger on why it might be that your eldest is more comfortable in English than the other two.

    Some sound advice in your comment, it was a pleasure reading you.

    -Fruey

  7. kev Says:

    Hi Simon,

    Finally a subject which I feel reasonably qualified to comment on.

    I’ve got 3 close friends who are in the same position – with children of 14, 13, and 7.

    Despite being exposed regularly to both languages, none of the kids speak English to a reasonable standard.

    I get the impression that they haven’t entirely rejected English (they certainly understand very well)and that when they need or want to, the information will be deep in the subconscience to be called upon.

    Hope that makes sense – i too find it harder and harder to express myself in English these days – all the real conversations I have are in French.

    Good luck teaching Nathan English – hope I have the same problem one day.

    Kev.

  8. fruey Says:

    Hi Kev,

    You don’t have to be qualified to comment, but if you are it helps :-D.

    I live in anguish that one day Nathan will never speak English to a “reasonable standard”, but then I have such high hopes. I wouldn’t be disappointed as such but it’s rather like anything else; I hope he’ll be good at things and take after his Mum and Dad in his interests in language, music and other cultures.

    It helps that Yasmina speaks several languages and his exposure to French, English, Moroccan Arabic and other languages will give him the baggage he needs to be lingually competent if that’s what he’s destined for.

    Of course he might be good at other things entirely, or perhaps not at all, but I’ll do my best to help him with English at every available opportunity.

    Cheers,

    -Fruey

  9. kev Says:

    Just play him everything – or ‘something’ by the Beatles – worked for me.

    Another thing – having had the misfortune to witness an influx of 30 English families into a rural village with a population of 700 in which I was previously one of only two English inhabitants – I’ve seen English children aged 4 or 5 develop into fluent French speakers after only one or two years à la maternelle.

    Maybe you should wait five or six years then move back to England?!

    As for the parents – they didn’t even want the free French lessons i was offering.

    Kev