Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Bilingual children? Erm, not quite

We're still in France and I have ten minutes Internet time, so I thought I'd quickly post about something which has been eating away at me for a while.

My children are crap at French.

Now that may sound harsh coming from their own Mother, especially one, who entering a room full of French people will navigate towards the tiny spattering of English she can hear in the corner, rather than bravely confront the realities of her rusty second language. But then I'm not French, at least not if we don't count the 16 percent handed down to me from a long-dead great-great grandfather.

But my daughters are half French. Fifty-fifty. Neither one thing nor the other. Both things together. Except to listen to them speaking French you'd be forgiven for thinking that they may once have spent the weekend there. Once, a very long time ago.

When I first met my husband and we decided to get married, I couldn't help but be secretly pleased that, amongst other benefits of marrying a French man, my children would be bilingual. They'd be beautiful, sun-kissed, curly-haired, cherub-faced French speakers who would automatically be top-of-the-class in one subject without actually having to work at it. I was thrilled.

Ha. Who was I trying to kid? They speak about as much French as I do Thai, and probably not even as much as that, because at least I know how to say "I'm completely drunk already" and "I have small tits but a big penis". Although on second thoughts I'm glad my children haven't reached this level of expertise in French, but you get my gist.

Once, when I was a student, I shared a house with a boy called Jean-Michel Wu. Now given that name you can probably guess his ancestry, but I'll make it easy for you anyway. He was half-French and half-Chinese. But did he speak either of those languages? Abbsolutely not. The only language he spoke was English and that was with cockney variations. But Jean-Michel Wu's linguistic capabilities were nothing to do with me. What I do remember thinking, though, is what a wasted opportunity it was and how his parents should have made more of an effort with him as a child and if I were ever to marry a non-English speaker, I would never make that mistake. You see, even all those years ago, I had my sights set on someone other than an English man. Poor hubby never stood a chance.

So where has it all gone wrong? Why aren't my two children telling each other to "ferme ta gueule" whilst sipping their citron pressés and munching their croissants?

Well, first thing's first (and this is where I hand over the blame) - I think it helps if it comes from the Mother. If it was I who was French rather than my husband, then they might have stood more of a fighting chance. When Renée was a baby, I did try to speak to her in French, singing nursery rhymes and teaching her parts of the body, but it all became a bit much when I'd call after her in the playground.

"Renée, doucement. Viens ici", only for the proper French mothers (and there were some) to see me as a fraud and for the English mothers to see me as pretentious.

It wasn't that I gave up or even gave two hoots about what the other mothers truly thought. It's just that after speaking to various people about the best way to bring up bilingual children, it was generally agreed that the most successful cases were when one parent spoke exclusively one language and the other parent exclusively the second language. Given this, it was obvious that it should be my husband speaking French and not me.

So he did. For a while. Until he had to go away for a job which would sometimes last three weeks. And in those early days of learning languages, three weeks was a long time. Long enough to forget what had been learnt and to frustrate Papa when he came home.

It wasn't easy.

So apart from reading bedtime stories in French, I also decided to invest in French lessons for Renée once a week. But aside from learning to count up to 20, being proficient with her colours and animals and knowing the words to 'Frère Jacques', she is still far from being bilingual.

My husband insists that they'll pick it up, simply because they're half-French and it's in their blood. But that didn't help Jean-Michel Wu did it?

For the sake of my daughters, I haven't and won't give up on their French. Edie will be starting her weekly lessons in the Autumn and as I sit here typing this I can hear them watching a French cartoon in the next room and it lifts my spirits;

"Papa...the film is fini".

It seems all is not lost.


  1. Salut, ma chère!

    Being bilingual doesn't necessarily mean you'll be top of the class in French - one of the most difficult things for bilingual children/adults to do is translate from one to the other. We had a bilingual (French + English) guy at school and he failed his French A Level. Yup. Failed. Completely.

    Renée and Edie will be fine. In fact, lovely though it is to be properly bilingual, they may actually find what they come out with more useful than that. Because they'll have the experience of learning (as opposed to just speaking) a language from a young age, along with the benefit of a dad (and mum!) who can help them and practise and chat to them in that language. Which will make it easier for them to learn new languages when they're a bit older. Really.

    I also had visions of bilingual children - and a desire to marry someone whose mother-tongue was not English (settled for Scottish - hee) - and was very disappointed with myself when I realised, in Rosemary's early days, that my time in France and university degree had not equipped me with words like 'nappy' and 'cotton wool' and 'coochie coo', though I was very proud that I knew 'poo'! I was even more disappointed, to discover that she hated it when I spoke French to her. But loved it when I spoke Spanish to her. My French is much much better than my Spanish.

    But, after a while, I realised that there was no way I could manage OPOL, because neither my Spanish nor my French was actually fluent enough. I also realised that it would be just as useful, if not more so (though definitely not as cute), to expose her to lots of languages from a young age, so that she would appreciate different languages and different accents and start teaching her more formally when she was a bit older.

    (All that said, and come to terms with in my head, deep down I would still love to have a couple of perfectly fluent bilingual children.)

  2. I wrote about our experiences on bilingualism and one thing I wrote is that it has not been anywhere near as automatic and easy as I had expected (and everyone else makes out!!)- you're right that with their dad having the foreign language it will be more difficult for them to pick up French but I'm with your husband on this one - it will happen, having French lessons will certainly help but what will help even more in my experience is having cool times in France with French cousins and friends etc

  3. I know the problem with the husband slacking a bit on the second language front. I know it sounds impossible, but if he would just start again, they will pick it up in a few weeks. You just have to be 100% consistent and refuse to let them speak the wrong language. We go as far as to not give them a drink if they ask for it in the wrong language. They soon catch on.

    Bon courage!

  4. It always takes a bit more than one parent just speaking the lingo. It's good to have various contexts where the second language is used, so the "lessons" sound like a great idea! I laughed out loud reading your post, imagining that swing park scene...

    Tasha, funny you should say that about the baby words you don't in the "other" language. to me they come first in Spanish because once upon a time I was an au pair in Spain. I still struggle to say "dummy" in either English or German. It's still chupete to me. We are all creatures of habit.

  5. My mum's a French teacher and she tried so hard to teach me and my brother from a young age. Despite this all I can do is ask for a white wine and I can't do that without turning crimson.

  6. OH Mon Dieu!! It feels like you are telling our story... but the very very shameful thing is that I am French and I am the mother... so it doesn't help that much I have to say *hidding my shame*
    I am going to write an article about that for Cartside's carnival and I will explain how I got to that point and sometime feel like a Jean Claude Vandamme in a skirt :)
    Love your post and no don't give up on their French, try as much exposure as you can and they will get there. On the other hand you can't help the fact that they might feel more English with French origins, afterall they are being brought up in the UK. It might be the same with my boys and singing the Marseillaise at rugby games doesn't seem to improve their French language :)

  7. Husband has ONLY ever spoken Dutch to the boys. Since day 1, that's all he's done, I promise. And what do the boys do? Answer him in English, everytime. Having said that, they do understand when he and his family speak Dutch, so I suppose that's something. I'm told that it will come in the next couple of years, but they're stubborn - so we'll see... (Oh, and of course, once they DO speak it? I'm toast. The moment they work out I can't understand them and they have a secret language I'll rue the day we started this, I'm sure!)

  8. Aww, that's sweet though. At least you are still trying, they will get it eventually, and they will thank you for it one day :)

  9. Hi Emily - really interesting to read this - my children aren't bilingual and don't have any connection with relatives - close or otherwise - in other countries but I have always been interested in this. I did French and Russian as a degree and spent some time living and working abroad - if I try and speak French, the Russian gets in the way - I never thought I would see the day - as I was far better at French than Russian but as I have spent more time in Russia that hampers my brain..I echo the comments above that say they will get on fine and wonder,as is my eternally simplistic wont, if the more they are immersed in French life the more their skill will blossom - so all the foundations you are laying with the lessons and stories etc is bound to help but may not truly come to the fore until they are having to use it more? Don't know if this ramble makes any sense but your girls are beautiful in any language. All the best. xx

  10. If it's any consolation both my parents are Irish....and I can't speak a word of it. Well I tell a lie I know how to say shut up in Irish....guess what they used to say to me all the time ;)

  11. Aww, what a shame. Languages are not our forte in this household. I'd love to be able to talk fluently in another language.Surely it's not too late for your children?

  12. In order to try and maintain some dignity in front of Daddy I practise French and Italian everyday for ten minutes each... all because of the foreign films we watch together without subtitles and I have to pretend to understand! I forgot all my French and Spanish about five seconds before I took my French and Spanish GCSE's!

  13. I had enough trouble trying to get my 4 to remember their English, let alone another language. Well done, and with the lessons and bedtime stories it wont be long before they can argue with you in two languages! At which point I'm sure you'll wish they only had the one!! They will get it..I'm sure...

  14. i've been trying to improve my french online and 4year old is picking it up better than moi!

    i hope my girls will be good at languages i unfortunately am very good at reading french but not so good at speaking. I'm off to paris next friday so wish me luck and i don't insult the local with my poor french.

    Your girls are fab i'm sure they will pick it up :) xxxx

  15. So I wrote a big comment then clicked away before putting in the code. Oooo so annoyed. Anyway, I said something like "I bet it will come. Kids are kind of spongy that way, but I suppose it must feel more pressured when you're children are part French.
    Hope you're having a fab time lovely. x

  16. First, I'm laughing at the "I have small tits but a big penis" bit!! Hahaha. Second, they'll pick it up - just give them a little time. They're still really young. I think at that age I could count to ten and say please and thank you just about. And I was going to say now I'm fluent but that would be a lie... but I can get by. And neither of my parents are French!

  17. I think you're right about the French coming easier if it is from the mother. My great-nephew, Xavier, has a French mother and an English father (my sister's son, still with me?). I think if the child learns any English he'll be lucky, which probably won't get him very far in Bath.

  18. I think you hit your nail on the head by saying it's all down to the parent who speaks the 2nd language. The friends I have whose kids are bi- (and even tri-!) lingual do exactly as you say, so the Spanish Dad speaks Spanish to his son and the Polish Mother speaks only Polish whilst they both speak English to him when all together. But given how much your hubbie has to work away, that kind of presents some problems - or at least, as you say, inconsistencies. I'm sure though that as the girls get older it will all sink in and become 2nd nature to them. And whatever smatterings they do speak, at least it'll always be in a truly authentic accent, lucky things!

    Hope you had a fab holiday xx

  19. Haha. I hope you never had to use your Thai? Just trying not to imagine the situation. But what really made me cracking up is your husband. 'they'll pick it up, simply because they're half-French and it's in their blood'. It's in their blood??? Only a Frenchman could have said that.
    If it's true, let's see if little L starts to speak Swedish. After all, it's in her blood.

  20. Yep, they really do have to be immersed in it and have a parent who only speaks that language to them. It also should really be done when they are learning to speak because learning a mother tongue uses a different part of the brain than learning a language having already adopted a mother tongue. I'm sure that lessons will help them to learn and then your husband can help with pronunciation to make them more fluent. Good luck!

  21. Aah bilingualism, my daily grind..How weird is this..we live in Spain and my 5 year old can't speak Spanish except for a few words here and there. We don't live in a heavily expat area. Nursery and school have been Spanish only. It's really quite sad as he wants to communicate with his friends but says he 'can't'. His head teacher thinks he can't be bothered which is very sad. The whole thing mystifies me and I have still never met anyone with a similar experience (both parents native English btw)...

  22. It is just up to us mothers to teach the kids to be bilinguil and it is indeed a big effort. Most kids in Malaysia are tri-lingual - mother tongue (what ever the ethnic group the mother is, Chinese/Indian), English and Malay in school and they are fluent in all 3 languages. Don't ever give up talking and teaching them French.

  23. Sounds like a job for Papa n'est pas?! However if he doesn't have the time they will still be more open to learning a second language which is half the battle. They probably understand a lot too - non? In which case it'll come with lessons and holidays but perhaps not to the extend you'd like.

  24. I think you're right, it's daddies fault totally!! My friend is married to an Italian, and they've taken the stance that he should speak exclusively to the twins in Italian, and she in English. It's working. At the moment the little girl repeats everything twice in both languages. The little boy speaks half a sentance in english, half italian. She said when her english friends come to visit they def' speak english a lot more..... not sure that any of that helps, but thought I'd add my two pennies xx

  25. I randomly came across this post and just had to leave a comment! It sounds like you and your husband are trying to give your kids the gift of bilingualism, but I love your honesty while talking about the daily logistics of the whole thing. It is certainly not a question of "being in their blood", but if you guys keep at it I'm sure your girls will come to know and love their second language as much as you do. Good luck!

  26. Hi,

    if you don't mind me doing so, I got a couple of ideas reading your post which I might as well share. My idea would be to do some planning, it sounds boring, but it helps tremendously. Sit down with daddy, talk about all the things you do right and those you might differently and identify few things you are going to change. The trick is that instead of saying a generic "you should put more effort", or "we should do everything differently", you identify few specific things and focus on changing only those things. Just to give some ideas, it could be things like:
    - every tuesday eve it's french dinner, you eat and talk only french, no english allowed
    - daddy will pretend he does not undrestand when addressed in english (tough one, don't go for it unless you are 100% sure)
    - french speaking baby sitter or better au pair, who shall not be allowed one word of english in the house
    - depending on your rules on TV etc you might establish exceptions once a week providing they watch it in french
    - daddy will stop code switching, i.e. speaking a mix of english and french, you can make this become fun, like kids are entitled to make fun of daddy every time he says a word in english
    - etc etc, every family can come up with so many ideas, but again I think the trick is to choose few, make a committment (like hang the list on the fridge) and stick to them. once they become a habit you can do this excercise again and introdue new ones.

    By the way, few points to remember:
    - no, it's not in their blood and they won't learn it unless they feel the NEED for it
    - consistency is key
    - never give up, if they understand it they are already bilingual, passive bilinguals that is, they might become active bilinguals later in life.

    Hope this helps...

    L. by Bilingual For Fun

  27. I truly enjoyed reading your post! Chinese was my first language growing up, but after attending American schools (K-12) and university, my Chinese started slowly disappearing. My mother refuses to speak to me if I respond in English, and gives my father the dirtiest look when he speaks to us (his children) in English. *sigh*

    I recommend French cartoons for easy and fun learning. Many of my friends that moved to America from a non-English speaking country learned English quickest via cartoons and even melodramatic soap operas.

  28. Tasha - If I didn't want my children to be bilingual so badly then this comment would be soooo welcome (not that it's not but you know what I mean)!! It would make me sigh with relief. But I want my hubby to try harder so if he reads this he'll cling to it and say - see we never wanted them to be bilingual after all!! But seriously - that guy failed his A-Level?? Crazy stuff. Must have been embarrassing for him. I understand what you mean about it almost being more difficult if you're truly bilingual because you never actually 'learn' the language and I know they'll be 'ok' at French when they're older, but I can't help but want them to be a little bit better. Although your comment has cheered me up about it. All is not lost!

    Kathryn - You're so right. I kind of assumed it would happen without us having to make an effort, but it's been really difficult. And yes, definitely having cool times with their cousins is important, but at the moment they're having trouble communicating with them and I find that upsetting (even more so with the grandparents).

    Mwa - I know. I think you're so right. I just can't see my husband doing that. He's away working a lot and when he comes back he wants it all to be lovey dovey with the children, so for him to be an 'ogre' (if only for a while) I don't think is possible. I know it's the only way though. I'll keep trying to make it happen. Thanks for the advice.

    cartside - yep, definitely wasn't easy in the park. I cringe with embarrassment when I remember! It's just not as easy as people think. And as for baby words - we always use do do (sleep), caca (poo), pipi (wee wee) and bo bo (hurt) in French rather than in English for some reason. Not quite sure why, but it makes it slightly less embarrassing when one of them shouts out (I need a caca) in public...

    Womanatwork - I know - I'm the same. I did a degree in French for crying out loud and whenever I speak the language I go red and start stuttering...I will always rather speak English. My poor children don't stand a chance!

  29. PHM - Hello darling - I know - it's hideous isn't it?! I saw you had written a post for the carnival too and I'm really interested in reading it, although I'm so behind on all my reading because we've been away. But I promise to catch up and yours will be the first I visit when I get a mo (and I won't stop until I fix the 'feed has moved' either)!! But yes, you're right - it's easy for them to feel more English because they live here and because hubby and I speak English together. It's much more difficult than you think, but don't worry - I won't give up. Yours are younger than mine, so I think you'll be fine...time will tell!

    PM - Hee hee. Yes indeed - they'll be able to speak about you behind your back (or in front of it which is even worse)! But well done all of you for being so disciplined - we're been totally crap (and guess what - I never even wrote this in the post, but I have a French degree)!! I have no excuses, but hey, if they ever do manage to learn to speak French, at least I'll understand!

    Margarita - Yeah, if they manage to speak it properly, then they'll thank me one day...not sure they're thanking me now though - every time we try they seem to switch off. So difficult!

    Linda - Thanks for such a lovely comment - yes, you're right, the girls are beautiful whether they speak French or not!! Same as you, I have a degree in French, so when I married a Frenchman I thought it was a done deal that we would have bilingual children...but it ain't easy!!! But yes, just having spent a week in France has done wonders for their French - Edie (who only 2) has been calling me Maman all day...and then giggling when she says it. She knows the difference... Problem is, we only visit France a couple of times a year if we're lucky, so it's not enough to make a huge difference, but I'm hanging on in there...

    magnumlady - It is a consolation - thankyou!! Yeah, at least they know how to say poo and wee in French...that's a start I suppose!

  30. Chic Mama - I know - I hope it's not too late for them - it's such a fine line - it's been said (in these very comments) that learning a language when you are a baby and learning a language when you are an adult uses different parts of the brain, so part of me thinks I may have left it too late (at least with the five year old). But I'm not giving up. I just need hubby to read these comments and both of us to make more of an effort...

    Pippa - Crikey - that's very disciplined of you! I wish I had been...Hubby watches French news every night and although I speak French, it always makes me glaze over just a tad... my poor children don't stand a chance!

    Brighton Mum - Hee hee. Imagine - some children are brought up tri-lingually...how that's achieved I have no idea since I'm having so many problems just with two! But yes, once they start arguing in French we'll know we've been successful!

    Amy - I can't belive all the things you do - 4 children and learning French online!! You truly are a Super woman. Hats off to you. How exciting - are you going to Paris just with huby or with the girls too?? Hope you have a fantastic time. I'm very jealous. Can't wait to hear all about it x

    Jo - Hello darling - ooh I hate it when that happens...and it always happens to me because I'm such a wally!! Thanks for persevering. Yes, you're right - kids are likes sponges, but the problem is, I've kind of relied on that thinking that any day now they'll just start babbling away in French...and it's only just recently occurred to me that they haven't and they won't unless we make much more of an effort. Not easy. Not easy at all. Yep, had a great time thanks. Totally exhausting, but fun, especialy for the girls.

  31. Lady Mama - I know that they'll get better and pick it up eventually - it's just that I had such high hopes for them. I do think it's too late for them to be bilingual, but I know they'll be better than average. Problem is, I've been resting on my laurels a bit too much...thinking it was a done deal. Not easy.

    Maddie - exactly - I do wonder what the French family think of us all - the Grandparents especially must be so disappointed that they can't communicate with their own grandchildren. Obviously if it had been down to me this never would have happened (!!!!)

    Mamma Po - Yep, that's the problem - hubby is always away. There are loads of things to try (speak French to them every Monday, Wed and Fri, etc), but things like that are never possible with us and when hubby is home he wants it to be easy for him and not to have a constant battle with languages, so it's easy for him just to speak English. So difficult. I can't imagine the discipline needed for children to be tri-lingual!!

    Met Mum - Hee hee - I used the first saying in Thai rather a lot I'm afraid. The second, well I was taught it by a transvestite - never used it apart from making the massage ladies laugh out loud, but it has stayed with me ever since...And as for hubby saying it's in their blood - you're so right (only a Frenchman)!! As you can tell, I need to try extra hard with him!

    Working Mum - Ooh I never knew that - about using different parts of the brain - how interesting! Interesting, but totally depressing in our case because it totally means we've left it too late (but then I knew that already)!! What fools we've been... But yes, at least what French they speak will be with good accents...

  32. hjeffries - That is very odd (but makes me feel a tiny bit better in a 'at least it's not just us' kind of way). I wonder what has happened? I really think, though, that this is a case of 'he'll pick it up'. He has to - he must have it all there, just waiting to come out. People say that about our two, but I'm not so sure - they don't hear that much French on a daily basis - but your son hears tons of Spanish - it will be interesting to see how your second one fares and what the situation's like in a couple of years. Very interesting...

    Kestrel - Yep, it's definitely up to the Mother - if only it was I who was French!! I know it would be different. Gosh - trilingual children - how they do it I can't imagine! But, no, I won't give up - it would be too awful for the children.

    Reasons - yep, oh so defintely a job for Papa (the lazy git)!!! Ooops...well if he reads this it might make him get his arse into gear. We shall see. But yes, I'm sure they know more than they're letting on, it's just that when I hear other (proper) bilingual children I get all sad, thinking that that could have been my two...

    Mrs OMG - your two pennies are always welcome my dear!! Yep, I know it - I really wish I could turn back the clock - I'm not quite sure back until when exactly - but we need to start all over again with the French. I think bilingual is gone forever now, but fluent in later years isn't. That's what I'll have to aim for I think.

    Deanna - Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment - always appreciated. Yes, I totally know that it's not just down to it being in their blood - I just have to convince hubby to realise too!! But we won't give up - it's far too important for them and their future...I think serious changes have to be made in the meantime though. Deep breaths...

    Bilingual for fun - Thank you so so much for your tips. Really, they are so helpful. You're right - we need to plan our changes and not just say we need to make changes. The main problem we've had so far is that hubby works away a lot, so it's been hard to set aside any specific time (like every Tuesday for example) - but I know that's just another excuse we have for not having succeeded yet. If we truly wanted them to be bilingual it would have happened already. BUT, I am definitely going to implement ALL of your suggestions - I know how important it is for them. I will read these to hubby tomorrow (who just so happens to be leaving for ten days working in Botswana). You see - never easy!!

    Kim - Thanks so much for popping by and leaving a comment. yes, I think you're right. cartoons for the girls are definitely the way forward. For the first time, I think Renée started to understand the cartoons in French (or at least she didn't get bored after 2 minutes), so I think some of it must have sunk in. Thanks for the tips! x