Friday, September 5, 2008

Our Bilingual Experience

My husband is a second-generation American. His grandparents were from Canada and their family roots can be traced all the way back to France. He grew up hearing his grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles speak French. As in many American families, B's father (and his siblings) never learned to speak French. Partly because the older generation wanted a private language to only speak amongst the adults, but also to make sure their children were fully integrated in the United States.

As my husband grew up, hearing more and more French but not really understanding, he became more interested in learning. He took French in school, and when an opportunity to do a foreign exchange to France was offered, he jumped on it. Oddly, he was sent to a small town in Brittany, which was in the same region of France his ancestors came from. There were no English speakers around, and even those that spoke a little knew better than to help him. So, he sat in a French high school, and with his French family every night at dinner, and didn't understand a word... for months. Then one day, around November, he suddenly realized that he knew what the teacher was saying in history class. From there, he never looked back. His new goal was to perfect the accent, and he did. Even years later when we moved to France as newlyweds, he fooled most people and they believed that he was a native speaker.

Even before we knew we were moving there, we always talked about being a bilingual family. We always planned on including French in our daily lives, but we didn't work out all the details until we were actually expecting Love Bug. Our techniques may seem extreme, but our goal is total fluency. Many children achieve a good level of comprehension with just a little exposure. I've even met one ten-year-old who could speak perfect English. When questioned about how she learned it (since no one she knew spoke English and she didn't learn it from school), she said it was from American TV shows. Here's how we planned to handle everything:

- We agreed to start right when Love Bug was born. We read in books that the earlier you start, the better. This is true for two reasons. First, as you age, even in childhood, you become less receptive to new languages. (My husband learning so well as a teenager is the exception to this rule.) The other advantage to starting at birth, according to many books, is that it's easier to make a big lifestyle changes at the same time. We already had the crazy disruption of bringing Love Bug home, why not start with a new language in the home then too.

- We agreed to have B speak only in French, and respond to me in French. I speak only English, and respond to his questions in English. Around English speakers, we continue this and I just translate to family or friends if they would like to know what he is saying. The only exception is that B will speak to other people in English, when he's not speaking to Love Bug too. We read that many children struggle if you don't make clear language division... between parents or between the home and outside world.

- We had the wonderful advantage of actually living in France when Love Bug was born. We stocked up early on books and toys in French, and many friends in France have helped us (since they know our hopes for her and our other kids) by continuing to send us more books, toys, and even a few t-shirts with French on them!

- Our family knows that if they buy any language toys, these toys must have French on them. Any DVDs they buy must also have a French language track on it, not just subtitles.

- Our goal is to have Love Bug (and now Dragonfly) listen to, and eventually speak, French for 20 - 24 hours a week. This is the recommended time period to make sure they are completely fluent.

- We plan to enroll her in French preschool (yes, they have one near our place in Italy) and as we move around the world for my husband's job, most places have a French school. There is even a French Montessori school where we will end up living in the US. Once they start middle school, our kids will go to regular public school in the US, or American schools if we're overseas. While they are in French grade school, I will work with them at night on spelling and vocabulary in English, so they will learn both.

So far these techniques are working very well for us. Love Bug understands B in French, and she understands me in English. She prefers certain languages for certain things, but this is normal. She also confuses words sometimes, and this is normal too. To describe things, she uses words like "chaud" for hot, and "belle" for beautiful. She also does body parts in French, like "nez" (nose) and "bouche" (mouth). When talking about toys or food, she speaks in English. Love Bug also calls us "Mommy" and "Daddy", but B also uses these words instead of "maman" and "papa" to avoid confusion in what to call us.

If you want your children to learn a new language, it can be started at any time really. And you definitely don't need to be bilingual yourself. There are many language schools that offer a few evening classes a week for kids of all ages or you can enroll them in all day immersion schools if you would like. There are also summer programs, including summer camps, with complete immersion, which are very effective. Obviously many programs offer Spanish, since it is so useful in our country. Another good choice, my husband has said, is Mandarin Chinese, due to their increasing wealth and power in the world. Most new language-oriented jobs opening now are in Spanish, Chinese, and even some Arabic. It's important to anticipate what languages will be useful if you would like your children to use them. They can really learn anything if you're not concerned about usefulness.

Do you have any questions about teaching your children another language? I might be able to help with all the books I've read on the subject, and in living overseas myself. Does anyone have a bilingual family and want to share how it works for them? What techniques or learning programs have your used? I'd love to hear what others hope to achieve!


*carrie* said...


This was really interesting. As a child, I wanted to be fluent in French, and I did study it for 4 years in school. Then I went to Paris for the summer, and was totally overwhelmed! I think my biggest problem was the fear of making mistakes (in front of native speakers), and now it's been so long since I've even used it.

I think I like the idea of being fluent, but was not willing to put in the effort it demands. You guys both sound really committed to this goal, which is wonderful!

Kathleen said...

That is so awesome. I really applaud you for doing that. Your kids are really lucky.

I would love for my son to be bilingual, but my French is pretty rusty, and I was never fluent in it. I do sometimes say a few things in French to him, but it's not the same. I really wish our schools would teach foreign languages starting in Kindergarten. I may enroll my son in a class when he starts school.

Jacquie said...

That is awesome. In the province we live in now (Alberta) french is not a huge part of the curriculum in the schools as it was in Manitoba (where we moved from).

My DD's jr high offers, french/spanish/mandarin as options. I thought the spanish and manadarin were a cool idea, she was going to take spanish but became a band geek instead (just like her Mom LOL).

Kids are pretty smart and pick up tons, go Love Bug.

Danielle said...

What a great opportunity for your children! We have our guys learning spanish but with my husbands frequent travel to China we have fallen in love with the Chinese language. We have looked for classes around here but it is not a big sell:-( We would love to speak a language in our home apart from English. Maybe I need to try a little harder while my guys are so young!