Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Raising a Bilingual Child

my awesome school

As you may already know, I am French and was born and raised in Paris. My husband is from Central New York, where we live. Growing up, I attended what I think is the most awesome school in the world, l'Ecole Active Bilingue Jeannine Manuel, a bilingual school in Paris that teaches kids English alongside French from preschool on. So of course, it was obvious to me that my son would be raised bilingual, but it turns out it's easier said than done.

As you may know from past posts, the first thing I do when I want to figure something out is ... I buy a book. During my pregnancy, I read The Bilingual Edge, Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language, by Kendall King and Alison Mackey, two linguistic professors at Georgetown University. They confirmed what I knew from my many bilingual friends' experiences; that each parent should speak his/her own language to the child. They did explain that in order to fully acquire a language, a child needs to hear it at least 20% of the time, and also, that once a child goes to school, the other language gets kind of tossed aside, so I figured it was important to give A a strong start in French.

The Bilingual Edge By Kendall King, PhD, Alison Mackey, PhD

I strictly speak French to A, and by some kind of miracle, we found A a French babysitter! She has two little boys of her own, who speak French, so A is mostly surrounded by French, which brings us to the first "bump in the road" to bilingualism... even though A lives in the US, he mostly lives in a french world.

SleepyPapa does speak to him in English (he didn't always, but that's another story), A understands most of what he says but answers in French, and pretty much only speaks French (outside of "truck", "cars", and "hello doggie") which can be an issue outside the house. The other day, A was trying to get a little girl to play with him at Wegmans, and his pleas of "petite fille, baton rouge!" were only answered by a puzzled look on the little girl's face. Now, I know that this is only temporary ( some kids A's age don't even really speak yet) and that soon enough, A will fully master both languages, but not everybody gets the big picture, especially when you live in a not-so-big city...

People find it important to tell us about kids they've heard about who were "so confused" because they weren't spoken to in English before they went to school... how their teachers didn't know what to do and that the families eventually "had to" switch to only speaking English to stop "the confusion". Well, I feel sorry for those kids, who are missing out on a great opportunity. I feel sorry for those teachers who are so narrow-minded they can't even think beyond what they've done year after year. And most of all, I feel sorry for the parents who give in to the pressure of those narrow-minded people.
So what if my child doesn't sing "row your boat" but likes "bateau sur l'eau" instead? I'm sure he'll learn the other stuff in no time when he goes to preschool, and then he'll know both instead of just one.
Right now, the hardest part of this is to keep on doing what we're doing, without paying attention to other people's comments and odd looks.

Are you raising your child to be bilingual? What kind of issues have you encountered?


  1. I'm not a native Spanish speaker but I'm fluent in Spanish and English. I taught HS Spanish and saw my students struggle to pick up the language because at age 15 the brain is growing and storing language different from infancy.

    I was bilingual with German and English as a child and am grateful for parents who did both even if I lost some of my functionality due to moving to the US at age 11 and not having to use it.

    All that to say...keep going. Your sone will know much better how to use French and not just memorize it as his peers will later.

  2. Hi Cynthia,
    thank you for your encouragements and for reading my blog! I totally agree with you that it's an incredible advantage to learn multiple languages early. Like with your experience, seeing my college students struggling to understand basic grammar rules just reinforces my convictions every day.
    By the way, I'm into healthy living too, and think I'm going to learn a few things from your blog!

  3. Hi I just found your blog...
    I'm a Hungarian living in the States (4.5 years) with my husband and our two boys (5, 2 in May). I just want to encourage you to keep doing what you are doing and don't listen to the people who has NO idea what it even means to be bilingual. :-)
    We moved to the States when my first baby was only 5,5 months old. It wasn't even a question that I'm going to speak to him in Hungarian. My husband who doesn't speak Hungarian also had no question about it, we just knew we want him to speak both languages.
    While he was getting older we could tell he understood both languages, but took him a LONG time to start talking. (And tried not to freak out about it:-). But eventually he started talking both in English and Hungarian. We went through some times when I CONSTANTLY had to tell him...what did you say? (In Hungarian) to really have him understand that mommy speaks a different languages. It took a long time...again...but I knew I had to keep asking him and kinda act like I don't understand him and again...he got it.
    He'll be 5 in April and I'm glad that I didn't give up. But the journey is not over. Since he is only around English speaking people, (playground, church, mommy and daddy talk in English etc.) I can tell that his English is better, and has a little accent in Hungarian. Plus since he doesn't hear too many "real" Hungarian conversations only what I speak to him etc. it's a little harder, and sometimes I feel like I explain things to him in Hungarian alllll dddaaayyy looongg :-). But I'm OK with that.
    I think for our little one (2 in May) will be a lot easier to pick up both languages, since he hears real Hungarian conversations from his brother and I , and English ones from everybody else.
    Also I think it's really cute, that Noah (5) whenever he tells something in English to his dad, he turns to me and tells me the same thing in Hungarian. Like he thinks I don't understand or something. So I hear everything twice :-)))

    Anyways, I can tell you more if you'd like, but this is very long comment already :-))

  4. Hi Gabi,
    thank you for your comment! It is so heart warming to hear other people's positive experiences in bilingualism. And I love that Noah translates for you, it's so cute!!!
    I hope you stick around so I can pick your brains if I encounter some trouble in the future...