Five things I’ve learnt about raising bilingual children

Five things I’ve learnt about raising bilingual children

How we’re raising our children to be bilingual

Most people have heard about the One Parent One Language (OPOL) approach when it comes to raising bilingual children, but there are so many different ways you can do it, depending on factors like where you live, how many languages you speak and your level of fluency and confidence.  Because my hubby’s French and I speak it pretty well, we decided to make our home 100% French-speaking, which is often a topic of conversation when we’re out and about and I’m overheard speaking to my two young children in French. After all, I have a Geordie accent, so it’s pretty obvious I’m not French myself. However, my husband is and we live in the UK, so it makes sense to us to bring them up speaking both languages.

G and R

Our little franglais babies

The bilingual myth

Before having kids, we did a bit of research on how to bring them up bilingually and I discovered it wasn’t going to be as simple as me speaking English and their papa speaking French. As much as we like to assume babies and toddlers are like sponges, apparently it would require a concerted effort from both of us. Apparently, kids need a LOT of exposure to a language if they are going to pick it up. And while there’s no scientific proof about minimum exposure, it seems the more you speak the ‘minority’ language, the more likely they are to pick it up.  It was pretty clear that, if we wanted our kids to be able to speak both French and English, we needed a plan.

Our approach

When we had our first baby, knowing I’d be on maternity leave for a year, the OPOL approach would have meant she’d only get short bursts of French on evenings and weekends when papa was at home. Knowing this wouldn’t be enough, we decided we’d both speak French to her all the time, even if it meant she wouldn’t hear it from a native speaker for most of the day, and we wouldn’t actively be teaching her any English. This initially freaked me out a bit, but all the research seemed to suggest that she’d naturally pick up the community language over time – if not initially, certainly by the time she gets to school.

It was a natural(-ish) transition

My hubby and I have always spoken a mix of franglais at home, so it wasn’t too difficult for me to adapt to speaking solely French. At first, I worried about whether I’d mess up my daughter’s French by making mistakes and if it would feel unnatural to speak to my own child in a foreign language. Don’t get me wrong, there have been many moments when I’ve wanted to switch to English. But we’re now two years in, her French is exploding (albeit with an English accent like me) and it feels like our efforts are finally paying off.  I’m also starting to worry a little less about her lack of English because she comes back with new English words after being at nursery once a week.  We also have a five month old son now and I can only assume that he’ll pick up French even quicker with three people speaking to him.


Breton strip t shirts

Me with Gabriella at 5 months, sporting our Breton stripes (bien sûr)

Top five challenges about our bilingual approach

While it certainly feels like we’re on the right track, it hasn’t been an easy ride and I know we still have a long way to go before we can claim to have bilingual kids. If anything, they’ll remain monolingual until they start speaking English as well as they speak French.  Here are a few of the challenges we’ve faced raising our kids to be bilingual:

  1. It takes a lot of effort
    From buying French books and DVDs to learning French nursery rhymes (even my hubby didn’t really know any) I’ve definitely had to go the extra mile to immerse our kids in French.  Ultimately, our life would be so much easier if I just spoke in English. But then I think of all the years of hard work I had to put in to learn another language and I realise it’s a real gift, even if they may not see it that way while they’re growing up.
  2. They can’t communicate with others
    Being able to speak French with their papa and me is one thing, but when it comes to group environments, I really do feel for my daughter as no-one understands her. I picked her up from nursery one day recently and she was hysterical. She was begging me for some water and I realised that I hadn’t equipped her with the English words to ask for basic things like that. Talk about mum guilt. So while they say you should be consistent and stick to just one language, I have now taught her a few essential English words so she doesn’t feel completely helpless if I’m not around. I’m also very conscious that this is only going to get harder for her as kids in her peer group start speaking more and more and she’ll be playing catch up.
  3. You can’t understand them
    It’s hard enough trying to decipher what toddlers are saying at the best of times, let alone with the added language complication. Sometimes I have no clue if my daughter’s speaking French, English, a mix of the two or just plain and simple toddler speak.
  4. You worry you’ll mess them up for life
    There’s so much pressure at school these days and I worry about whether we’re ultimately doing them a disservice knowing they’ll likely be behind everyone else when they start school. On the other hand, research indicates bilingual kids have ‘cognitive advantages’ (whatever THAT means). Who knows? I guess only time will tell, but I know we’re going to have to stick to our guns even more resolutely when they hit school age as that’s when they’ll be more likely to switch to English.
  5. You feel (and sound) like a psycho
    Speaking French when we’re out with other kids is an odd one. When they’re a baby you mainly only talk to other mums, so it’s fine to speak English. But once you hit the toddler years, it isn’t that obvious. I now spend half my time speaking to mums in English, French to my kids and muddling up both with a group of toddlers. If I choose English, all the kids will understand, except mine. So I end up repeating myself in French. I’m sure other mums think I’m one of those obnoxious mothers who’s pushing their kids to become a Cantonese-speaking, fencing-champion concert pianist. Please don’t think I’m pretentious, I’d just like my kids to be able to communicate with the French side of their family.

Bebe a bord

The payoff

Although they say bilingual kids don’t take any longer to start speaking, I definitely think our daughter has taken longer than her peers.  However, she turns two this weekend and it’s like someone just flicked a switch in the past two weeks and she’s speaking all of a sudden. In a recent trip to see family in France it was so heart-warming to hear her speaking to her aunts and uncles and it’s moments like these that remind me why we’re doing it. Now that she’s speaking more, English words are creeping in too, but when you hear things like ‘I love you, maman’, that’s perfectly fine by me. In fact, I’d take that in any language.

Are you bringing up your kids to speak more than one language? Or have you decided to drop your native language? I’d love to hear about your experiences.


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  3. November 26, 2016 / 15:35

    This is such an interesting post and immediately caught my attention as I’m also raising my daughter to be bilingual – in my case, as we live in Mexico and she’s surrounded by Spanish speakers, I speak to her in English, my native language. Now she two years eight months and understands and speaks both languages, although she often mixes them in the same sentence! Congratulations on your family’s bilingual achievements so far, I think you’re going about it the right way. Since you live in England there’s no way your children are not going to learn English, it will happen as soon as they start mixing with other kids at school, so it’s good that you have French as the home language. It can only benefit them to have two languages. I agree that it’s awkward with other people – in my case we’re having a conversation in Spanish but in the middle of that conversation I’m talking to my daughter in English, which is natural for me but I think I must seem a bit weird! But it’s like there’s a chip in my brain telling me to talk in English with her and I would feel strange talking to her in Spanish! #BigPinkLink

    • November 26, 2016 / 21:16

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I love hearing about how other families approach dual languages with their kids. I think if we lived in France I’d do exactly the same as you and speak only in English. I agree with the ‘chip in the brain’ thing. I think whichever language you communicate in becomes the natural one and it overrides everything. Just recently I’ve been wondering if I should switch to English whenever we are outside the home (so making French contextual to the home) but I’m not sure. Partly I think this would help my daughter who doesn’t yet know much English, and the other part tells me she’ll pick it up quickly enough as she’ll be surrounded by it. I’m going to do a bit of reading up before I decide what approach to take. Thanks again and I’ll be popping over to your blog to have a peek at your life in Mexico! Ruth xx
      Topfivemum recently posted…Five impossible five minute jobs once you’re a mumMy Profile

  4. November 25, 2016 / 10:00

    Oh gosh, I’d never even considered how complex it would be to raise bilingual children!! This has definitely provided me with such an insight. It sounds like a lot of hard work, but hard work that will definitely pay off. I think, not only will the children have the quite necessary benefit of being able to communicate with both sides of the family, but for many future job situations, being fluent in another language will bring so many opportunities! My sister in law is Japanese, and they are bringing up their children to be bilingual. To be honest, we don’t see them that often, so I’ve never really spoken to her about it, but I know that their eldest had quite a speech delay. He was about 4 when he caught up, but he’s going great guns now at 7, flitting easily between both languages!!
    This Mum’s Life recently posted…When Your Best Friends Are No Longer Your Best FriendsMy Profile

  5. November 22, 2016 / 07:32

    I think that being bilingual is very important for so many reasons these days. I wish I was fluent in another language so i could maek their journey easier, perhaps this is something I need to change #bigpinklink

  6. October 26, 2016 / 13:30

    This is such an interesting post as I’m sure it’d be wonderful to be able to teach your children a second language, I only wish I knew more! Oh bless her about the water thing, bet she couldn’t understand why no one was listening! Thanks for linking up to #MarvMondays. Kaye xo

    • topfivemum
      October 26, 2016 / 15:40

      Thanks so much Kaye. The water thing was definitely a tough one. The other day I met with her key worker and she said she’s speaking a lot more and she’s getting more confident. That’s what we all need when it comes to learning languages I think isn’t it? Just put on a confident French accent and no-one will know the difference LOL

  7. October 24, 2016 / 16:47

    being bilingual is very important for many reasons and it’s so much easier to teach your children this skill when you have a parent who speaks two languages, good for you guys! #MarvMondays

    • topfivemum
      October 27, 2016 / 15:35

      thanks so much for reading and for your comments, Brandi. I definitely feel we’re giving them both a chance in life that many people don’t have. And, languages aside, even just knowing that people are different – either accents or culture and everything in between – is hopefully going to lead the path for connecting with others who are different to them.

  8. October 23, 2016 / 11:02

    I’d love to speak another language I could assign to my girls. I think it is a brave decision for you both to speak solely in French to them but one day they will thank you for it! When they can have double to opportunities of their peers because they have other places in the world they can get about in without issue. There are also a lot of studies that suggest language is directly linked to intelligence and the more languages you speak the easier you find it to learn in general. One day she will over take her peers with speech, it will just take her longer to get there.

    • topfivemum
      October 27, 2016 / 15:37

      Thanks Kirsty. I must say I find it really frustrating when I go to a foreign country when I don’t speak the language. It’s so funny when I got to somewhere like Italy or Spain as they are similar to French, but no where near. So I make up words. I just say put on the accent and use the hand gestures and no-one will know the difference LOL

  9. October 22, 2016 / 23:09

    C”est difficile. Je parle un peu de francais mais pas beaucoup. Like you my hubby is French and I’m English. We have fallen into speaking English but I’d love my girls to be bilingual. #ablogginggoodtime

    • topfivemum
      October 27, 2016 / 15:41

      Ooh it’s very rare I come across another couple where the wife’s English – have you found that too? I think the difference for us is that we met in France and started speaking French together as a couple. I do have French friends in the UK who I’ve only ever spoken to in English and I couldn’t imagine speaking to them in French. Strange isn’t it? I think switching would somehow feel unnatural and change the dynamics of the conversation. Does your hubby speak French to your girls? My hubby’s mum was Danish and never spoke it to her kids, and he resents her for it now. I reckon she probably tried and it just didn’t work out. The community language is always so dominant and it takes so much effort to switch. Thanks for sharing your experience xx

  10. October 21, 2016 / 07:30

    Hi Ruth
    This is so interesting – I was drawn to your post because I have friends in this exact situation! We did languages at uni and some have settled abroad and has children. My best friend dies it the other way to you and only speaks to her kids in English, but then they live in France. Either way, these small people are amazing! And you are too for working so hard on it.
    Kimberly x

    • topfivemum
      October 25, 2016 / 14:52

      Hi Kimberly, thanks so much for reading and for your lovely message. I also did languages at uni so have friends spread out all over the place, some of whom are also living abroad and speaking to their kids in English. I think if we lived in France, we’d do the same thing as that’s when it would be important to keep up the English as it would then become the minority language. I think people have to keep adapting their approach as their family situation changes. My best friend, for example, who didn’t speak a word of French, moved her family to Luxembourg for her husband’s job. The kids were 4 and 1.5 at the time. Within about 2 months at being at pre-school and nursery, there were already speaking French pretty well. Five years on, and they are fluent and they have to make a real effort to make sure their English is kept up. I always find it fascinating how every family has a different approach.

  11. October 21, 2016 / 07:28

    Yes I am raising little bilinguals although we did use OPOL as we are in Holland and so there is lots of English about. However, hubby and I speak English together too so they get more English exposure at home. I’ve written a few
    Posts about it including a tips posts. (I used to teach English as an additional
    Language to primary pupils too.) I hate the kids are sponges myth and was Pleased to see you talk about having a plan. As they get older that plan needs adapting, I am Looking at ways to get more English exposure. Thank you for linking up to #ablogginggoodtime

    • topfivemum
      October 27, 2016 / 15:45

      Thanks for sharing your experience Catie. I’m going to go and have a look at your blog posts now! It totally makes sense if you’re in Holland that you focus on getting as much exposure to English as possible. If we moved to France I imagine we’d switch to English, for example. How lucky we are to be able to adapt like this when both parents can speak each other’s language. Thinking of the years of study I put into learning French, I would have killed for an opportunity like that! Thanks for hosting #abloggingoodtime – I’m new to this blogging lark and your linky is great for getting my posts out there!

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