Guest post by Gillian Gover
“No – let’s play in French today. We played in English yesterday.”
“OK. But you speak to me in French and I’ll speak to you in English.”
This was my first inkling that perhaps our youngest daughter wasn’t quite the same animal as the others. As a British couple living in France, we’ve always spoken English at home. But our three (between us) daughters are more exposed to French – at daycare, school, with friends, shopping…. anywhere except at home really. The eldest refused to speak any English until age 4. The second, now 8, speaks exclusively in French if she thinks you’re too tired/lazy/distracted to call her on it.
So it was something of a surprise to find that after two native French speakers, we now have a native English speaker. We still have the same language problems – just the other way round.
So how do you bring up bilingual children?
Well, better folks than I can help you with concrete advice, data-driven conclusions and all that good stuff. But generally, I find it’s the same way you bring up other kids. Simply by muddling through….
- Set your house rules: To help you decide when and how to help/prod/correct/encourage/praise your kids, figure out just how bilingual you want them to be. Is the “80/20” rule good enough? Or do you want them to sound like native speakers in both languages? I have a tendency towards “Eats Shoots and Leaves” punctuation geekiness, so no guessing where I fall. But believe me, getting from “Please may I get down of the table” to “Please may I get down from the table” definitely requires 80% of the effort for 20% of the gain.
- Decide your exceptions to the rule: As any parent knows, rules are made to be broken. And, like the pirates’ code, they’re more “sort of guidelines anyway…” For example, halfway through discussions of math homework – which take place in what can only be described as a bastardized form of franglais with an accent that hovers somewhere between Calais and Dover – I usually wonder if I shouldn’t just do this bit in French. It would probably be fairer – and easier – on all.
- Make the effort, and keep on making it: If you only speak one language at home, don’t expect your children to pick up the other language naturally, as if by osmosis as it were. They won’t. Kids might be sponges but they can only soak up knowledge – and that includes languages – to which you expose them. You need to make the effort to use the second language with them – and be strict and consistent about it over time.
Having bilingual children is wonderfully rewarding and, quite frankly, has masses of pure entertainment value! And just occasionally – usually when I head back to the UK – I get a little smug about the fact that my kids speak two languages and how lucky we are. Fortunately, I’m usually brought down to earth pretty quickly by some of the other families we know, like the one whose children speak French, English, Spanish AND Portuguese! Pride and the corresponding fall would seem to be a rule without exceptions.
And what of our kids? Well, they seem to have agreed to play in English in one bedroom, and in French in the other ….
For those who are interested, here are some of those better folks:
- SpanglishBaby: http://spanglishbaby.com/
- Bringing up Baby Bilingual http://babybilingual.blogspot.fr/
- Francois Grosjean Ph.D. at Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual
- Ana Paula Mumy at ASHASphere – Tips for Parents Raising Bilingual Children http://blog.asha.org/2012/08/16/tips-for-parents-raising-bilingual-children-when-the-home-language-differs-from-the-community-language/
Gillian is a Brit abroad, start-up marketeer and gadget girl. She also plays mum to three girls (through both merger or acquisition) and an ever-changing number of dogs and cats. Follow her on Twitter at @gilliancg