As you must know by now, we are a bicultural family. My husband is Australian, speaks a bit of German and tried to learn a little bit of Spanish at uni. I am French, having lived in Oz for almost 10 years, I speak English, used to speak Spanish and have learnt bits of Polish, German, Italian, Ancient Greek and Latin. Needless to say that we basically only communicate in English.
It was never an issue for me (although it can get frustrating to never be able to win at any word games…). Until we had kids.
My main academic training is in linguistics. I am truly passionate about language & languages and believe whole-heartedly in the benefits of being multilingual. For me, learning a new language was hard work, as it is for most French people. What I mean by that is, while things have changed – and are changing – since I left France, in majority, we are very much a monolingual people.
We do all have to learn English from the age of 5 but most of us have not reached great proficiency by the time we leave school. We also have to learn what we call “a second foreign language”, which also only gives us a very basic communicative level. It is a great thing but, in my opinion, not good enough. Especially when you consider that most of the world’s population is at least bilingual.
But I am diverging!
Now, I had studied the theories being bilingualism, particularly in children, but it is a complete different ballgame applying it to my own children & daily life.
So I thought I would discuss a few different aspects of bilingual family life, to share our insight & gain from all of your experiences in return.
- The key is being consistent.
I knew from the start that we would have to choose a ‘technique’ and stick with it. We decided that I would solely speak French to our kids while hubby would only speak English. No matter what.
In theory, this was a great idea. In practice, there are a few instances where I do end up switching to English… For example, at the park, when the boys are playing with friends, I do speak English as I do not want to frighten their little mates. (We live in a small country town, where there are only about 10 of us speaking a language other than English. It is not a common sight for them!) As the boys are getting older & playing with the same friends over & over, I do try and switch back to French as much as possible but I still use English when I know that I will be mentioning their name.
Most people react well to it or ignore it; I have had a couple of people still acting as if we were “playing it snob”. Some also think that it is confusing for little people to learn several languages at once (believe me, it is not! many studies have proven this already; let me know if you’re interested to read more about this).
The one thing I think could help strengthen their French would be for me to speak French to their dad as well. Unfortunately, kids are smart and work out really quickly that if you can speak English at home with Dad, you could with them too…
Hubby is not yet that proficient in French, and although he could probably end up understanding most things I would tell him, it just comes more naturally for me to speak English to him.
If you can, I think the best strategy is to have one language at home and one outside of home. It makes it consistent & easy to follow for your kids. They also see more of a value for the ‘home’ language.
- It can be tough on the extended family, particularly when they live abroad.
None of my family really speaks English. None of hubby’s really speak French. This means that whichever language the kids choose to speak at one point in time, there will always be one side of the family that will not know what they mean.
It might not seem like such a big deal but when your kids are just learning to speak and it’s all exciting to decipher their first few words and sentences, it makes for some very frustrated grandparents.
Let alone, once your 3 year old decides he does not want to speak French anymore… I thought we had at least a couple more years before it happened! It is slowly getting better but for about six months, Master C refused to even say “bonjour” on Skype to his “grands-parents”.
I see the difference now that Master M is a real chatterbox and loves translating words (he’s only 18 months old, so not quite to the point of sentences yet). Their excitement when he comes to the screen shouting out all kinds of words at them is quite obvious!
We try to Skype as often as possible, as our closest family is about 900 km away (and that is the English speaking side, my family is over 17,000 km away). Ideally, I think the boys’ language skills would be helped if they could see their French family more regularly. That is the ongoing curse of expat families…
- In the end, children are the master of their own mind…
As mentioned, Master C decided he wasn’t into French at the tender age of 3. And sincerely, it broke my heart a little bit.
We were reading French books every day, watching movies in French regularly. He even knew the French alphabet while I had never taught him explicitly. He was still understanding everything I was telling him too. Yet, somehow, he started refusing to utter a single word of French, pretexting he didn’t know it.
I was expecting this phase to come when he was going to start school or even preschool, but his only contact with kids thus far had been through playgroup and playdates at the park. It was too early!
It did worry me a bit but I soon realised that he was not forgetting the words (when by himself, he would point to things in French books and say aloud all the technical terms we had read together). Pushing him would only make things worse.
I am hopeful that he comes back to it; he’s already started making more of an effort on Skype.
What are your methods to get your kids speaking in the “minority” language in your family? Do you use any particular games or tricks? I would love to hear from other multilingual families!
I also realised that two cultures meant two fairly different parenting styles, but I will touch on that in another article.