Today, I’d like to introduce you to Jane and her French-English bi-national family.
Her story raises a thought-provoking question: would you ever change your family’s language policy, and if so, what would be the result? Jane is a native French speaker and her husband a native English speaker. Living in the United States until recently, French was their home language. Now, they’ve relocated to France and have decided to speak English with their two boys. Read on to find out why and the challenges (and joys!) that come with this change.
Jane has some great advice to share. Be encouraged, amig@s!
Give a brief snapshot of your family’s language dynamics and your family’s language policy (what language(s) do you speak, who speaks what with whom?).
I am French and my husband is American. We have two sons (6 and 2 and a half). We just moved from the United States to France a few months ago. Until then, French was our home language. Now that we have moved to France, it’s a little more complicated. My husband speaks English 80% of the time to both of them. I speak English 80% to the younger one and I don’t know how much to the older one. The older one speaks French 99% of the time. That’s his dominant language and does not see why that should change now that he is in France. He has a point… and because of this, the brothers speak French to each other 99% of the time.
What prompted your decision to raise your children bilingually?
Being a French teacher in the U.S. and having families in France and the U.S., it would have been almost unfair to my children to not raise them bilingually. To us, it was very important that they understand their grandparents and cousins from both sides.
What positive growth or results have you witnessed in your children/family because of their multilingualism?
I think that raising my children bilingually is giving them the opportunity to adapt more easily to situations and changes. After all, they have had to learn to switch languages depending on the situation. They also get to discover different cultures and people. I believe it helps them (especially as my older son has turned out to be very introverted) in others way, too. If not already, it will give them self-confidence and valuable skills for later. As for the whole family, I think we are more open to the world in general; we have more cultural opportunities, like the arts, travels, conversations, and literature.
What challenges have you faced or are you facing with language rearing and learning? How do you handle them?
This is interesting in our case because we just moved to France.
The hard parts have been more about educating people (and even teachers sometimes) about what bilingualism is. I realized that there were a lot of misconceptions surrounding the idea of bilingualism and that was making people and teachers spread wrong assumptions and ideas. I wish I had read more about it earlier than I did because I would have been able to answer people better.
[Another challenge has been that] my older son became really self-conscious about speaking English because he had an accent. In fact, he has an accent in both language, and so do I (even though I am a native; it happens sometimes).) We would comment on his accents (not being mean but just noticing it and thinking it’s cute), but that made him feel like his English was not as good. His preference is for French because it’s our family language. Accents don’t matter in the end if your child can communicate. According to studies, it’s actually rare for bilinguals to be accent-free. Hearing all sorts of wrong things about bilingualism is what I find difficult.
Now, that we are in France, we have made the choice to speak English at home so they don’t lose it. My older son could lose it after a while but the younger one could completely miss out on the opportunity altogether. It was a difficult and long adjustment because as a family our dynamic was in French. But I am stubborn so I did not give up. I knew it was possible but that we needed to be sensitive and careful. It was too hard because being the primary care giver, I had to switch to my non-native language. My older son did not want me to speak English which is completely understandable. He is fine with me speaking English when the situation calls for it (surrounded by English speakers for example). I don’t force English on him but explained that I was speaking English for his younger brother. It was hard for my husband to switch to his native language with the kids because he never spoke to them in English. For my older son, hearing Papa speaks English is less weird. He is starting to answer to us in English.
My younger one and I are building our relationship in English more than in French but my older son and I speak mostly French, especially if we are alone.
So, our home is a beautiful mix of both! And it does not matter because we are doing what we can with the new cards in our hands!
Can you talk about the cultural aspect of bilingual parenting as it relates to your family?
Culture is a complicated thing. A lot of it is unconscious. We get to pick a little bit from both cultures but not always realizing it.
One aspect that has been hard for me is justifying some of my actions (let’s say breastfeeding) to my family and friends in France. Because I became a mother in the U.S., I have been doing some things differently that I would have if I had stayed in France.
In general, we try to celebrate all sorts of holidays like Halloween and “Galette des Rois.” Twice more to celebrate!
Recently, I stayed home with my younger one because he was sick while my husband and son went out for dinner. I gave him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner. That was a first! And he loved it, of course!
Share a memorable moment you and your family experienced with language learning, something that shed light or taught you a lesson about bi-/multilingual parenting.
When we decided to switch the home language to English, I knew it was not going to be easy for my older son. We talked about it, but I think at some point during the process, I could have been more sensitive to how he felt. I was forcing him (not to answer to me in English but just to listen to me).
Recently, we just started (irregularly) to do a family meeting once a week. It lasts 5-10 minutes and we talk about whatever. Somehow, he started to speak in English at this time and after the meeting, he asked me “Did I do well?”. The fact that he just talks in a more formal situation for him (very introverted) is huge. It was nice to see that without forcing it, family time like meals are becoming more English. I also boost his confidence by asking him to pronounce things for me because he does it right!
How do you involve your family, community, school and/or world at large in this bilingual adventure?
When around family and friends, I speak whatever language seems adequate at the time. If the people around us (let’s say at a family dinner) don’t need to be part of the conversation (because, for example, I am asking my son to wipe his mouth), I will talk in whatever language comes most naturally. If I want the family or friends to be involved because it’s more polite, or interesting that way, then I will chose the language of the people present at the time. I offer to come to my child’s daycare or school to do some activities also. In general, I like to demystify and debunk myths about bilingualism.
What advice or encouragement can you share with other families raising their children bi-/multi-lingually?
DO IT! No matter what hurdles might come your way. Educate yourself so you can educate others about what it really is. Find opportunities for your child to be in monolingual situations where the minority language is spoken because that’s when they have to avoid code-switching.
Even if you start to second guess your decision, don’t let it win over your decision to raise them bilingually. Also, know how to relax if you see that your child is not responding to bilingualism the way you thought. Each child is different and actually develops attachment to a language in different ways.
Freebie! Anything else come to your mind about the issue of bilingual/multilingual parenting?
I found this wonderful website/blog of a psycholinguist François Grosjean. I highly recommend it. It’s easy to read and just right. The link here is directly about parenting but go on the myths page, very interesting.