How we have been raising our kids bilingual
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
My first language is French. I was raised in a primarily francophone household, went to French schools my whole life, and only learned English through extracurricular activities and friends.
I always knew that I wanted to raise my kids francophone as well, but when I fell for the tall handsome anglophone man that I did, I instantly worried about that plan coming to life. Poor guy, I think we might've been in our second month of dating and I laid it all down on him - if we were to have kids together, they'd be raised French first, go to French schools, and that I wasn't going to budge on those demands. Though he's always been supportive of this all, he initially had a hard time swallowing the fact that he might not be able to help kids with homework down the road, or that parent-teacher meetings might be hard for him in a language that isn't his mother tongue.
Bilingualism has always been one of my biggest strengths, and my proudest asset. Especially living in a place like Ottawa, Canada, a government town in a country with two official languages - French, and English. It didn't take me long to convince Sean that the hardships he might go through in our journey to bilingual babes are well worth the price.
So, all of this said - how do we do it!? How do we go about raising girls in a household where Mama is speaking French all day long, but it's Papa's second language? It's a question I get all the time and the answer is quite simple: Papa is freakin' awesome. This guy has taken it all in stride, and is making the biggest effort to strengthen his French, and to use it every day with them.
The girls are home full time with me, and speak French day-in, day-out. When Sean gets home, he jumps right in and speaks French to them 90% of the time. The other 10% usually ends up in English in the midst of disciplining, or after an exhausting day - can't blame the guy! The girls hear English on the daily because that's the language Sean and I feel comfortable in with each other.
Now, this is likely not the advice that any language expert is going to throw your way. A great friend of mine is a Speech Language Pathologist and strongly encouraged the 'one parent, one language' model where I'd be only speaking French to the kids, and Sean would only be speaking English.
We didn't take this route because it was so important to us to have one family language.
Sean has a strong background in French immersion growing up, and from the very beginning, was definitely able to get by. It's hard for me to let go of his mishaps sometimes, but I force myself to see the good in what he's doing, and how hard he's working at it. It's allowing us to feel like a unit, in raising our girls in what was also my first language, rather than making me feel like I'm alone in my endeavours.
In the beginning, from about 9 months, we used baby sign languages for the simple words such as 'milk, water, more, please, thank you, mama, papa, food, help, finished'. That helped our girls communicate with us, as well as people who didn't speak French like her anglophone grandparents wanted to speak or understand her but didn't have the vocabulary. Side note - it's also been adorable to see our 2 year old sign to our baby since day one! I'll have to do another post about baby sign language at some point, because it's helped us tremendously.
Kids are sponges. They will learn anything. Although we don't speak English to our kids on the daily, our eldest, who just turned two a few months ago, can already get by pretty comfortably. Sure, she stumbles on her words, but what bilingual person doesn't? It still happens to me, and, she is only two!
I often get asked if having two languages has confused her, or delayed her vocabulary, but my experience has been very much the opposite. She has two different ways to express herself, now. If she can't find the word in one language, she says it in the other. It's helped us tremendously in communicating with her and teaching her words in both languages. Because my husband and I have always spoken English to each other, she was able to understand both languages from very early on, even though she might not have been able to speak them.
The most impressive thing is that already at this age, she makes the connection between certain people and the language they speak on her own. She knows that her maternal grandparents speak French, and that her paternal ones speak English. She knows that we have certain friends who speak one and not the other, and some where she can express herself either way she wants.
At the end of the day, we live in a place surrounded by English - that, she'll have no trouble learning. I'm so proud that my husband has embraced the French language as much as he has - bilingualism is such a special gift to be able to share with our kids.
The moral of the story here is that even though we're not doing it 'by the book', as experts might suggest, our daughter is already bilingual by age two. Find a balance between both languages in any way - commit to the minority language in schooling and commit to extracurricular activities in the other (or vice-versa). Commit to speaking one language at home, or abide by the 'one parent, one language' model. Expose them to TV shows in both languages, to friends who speak both, and to books in both. Find your groove, whatever that might be. Know that they will get from it as much as you put in. Whatever makes your family dynamic strive.
Yes, mama, your kids will adjust - vos enfants s'ajusteront.