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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.