To kick off the series in 2015, I’d like to introduce you to an American family living in Washington, D.C. What makes this family unique – and what I love and admire about them – is the parents’ commitment to raising their two girls in French and English even though mom and dad are monolingual English speakers.
Oui, mes amis! As I addressed in this post, parents do not need to be bilingual to raise their children in more than one language. How cool is that?! So, read on to learn about Michael and Inger’s adventures in bilingual parenting.
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?).
Our family’s language usage consists mainly of Northeast Yankee English, with dashes of the Queen’s English. Both of us parents took some required language classes in High School. Unfortunately without opportunities to practice the knowledge gained, our novice second language rolled away like a meatball down the New Jersey turnpike. In our home, the parents are trying to keep up with our bi-lingual students and it is them who are correcting our pronunciation during homework time. Our two daughters (fourth grader and second grader) attend a great language immersion charter school in Washington, D.C. called Elsie Whitlow Stokes. They both are in the French track and parle-vous francais 3 days a week in meaningful classes including science, math, and the arts.
What prompted your decision to raise your children bilingually?
Honestly, we saw it as a gift, an answer to prayer. We surveyed all the charter and public schools in our area and knew our chances of winning a spot in the lottery to the schools that got the highest accolades was going to be rough. Then Stokes (Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School) moved into our neighborhood… within 100 feet of our home. Even with it being so close we still had to enter the lottery, and get our name drawn for a spot. We did not and got added to the waitlist. Two days before school started we got the call that our oldest got accepted in the French track. While Michael had some abismal recollection of French from high school, we still excitedly jumped into the bilingual racetrack with no helmet. We worried that it would be difficult for our daughter, and also understood it would be difficult for the parents too!
What positive growth or results have you witnessed in your children/family because of their bilingualism?
Our knowledge and perspective of different French speaking cultures is growing vastly! The French speaking African regions have become a common addition to our “Did you know…” moments in our home making world that much smaller. Our girls have friends who regularly travel to Africa, Canada, France and islands to visit relatives. So cool!
What challenges have you faced or are you facing with language rearing and learning? How do you handle them?
Homework time can be a challenge even with online apps that help translate sentences… how do we handle these challenges? Like Napoleon, We never quit because as soon as the parents do, we send a signal that our daughters can too. Trust us, we’ve been tempted to c’est la vie some homework up in this joint.
Can you talk about the cultural aspect of bilingual parenting as it relates to your family?
This is the part we have enjoyed the most — seeing the whole family experience cultures from around the world. The school where our daughters receive their bilingual education embraces the diversity of the cultures represented. There are teachers and scholars from all around the world. Parents are often invited to come in and share food, stories, dance, traditions from their culture either in classroom settings or in assemblies. They are exposed to an incredible amount of variation in celebration, upbringing and tradition. We’ve even learned some Spanish while attending school events.
Share a memorable moment you and your family experienced with language learning, something that shed light or taught you a lesson about bilingual parenting.
One of the most memorable moments have been when we are invited to the school for presentations and we see our children up in front of their peers, teachers and other parents presenting the material they learned, in French! Our daughters both started bilingual education at age 5, in Kindergarten. To walk into the classroom and see all of these 5 and 6 year olds (22+ of them) engaged and laughing while their teacher was reading a story in French was amazing! We knew they would be exposed, but we didn’t anticipate how quickly they would start understanding French and responding to what they were taking in!
How do you involve your family, community, school and/or world at large in this bilingual adventure?
Our family now enjoys watching familiar movies in French. When we see grandparents we often share songs the girls have learned in French with them. That has been the extent thus far, but we have friends in the neighborhood and at church asking us all of the time about our bilingual experience. Our adult friends who know and speak in French enjoy talking with our daughters in French, and loving that we have no clue what they are saying J.
What advice or encouragement can you share with other families raising their children bilingually?
Another wonderful part of raising children multilingually is that it challenges the whole family to keep learning. Both parents, although we get corrected and laughed at a bit, are learning some French too! Not originally in our pre-kid rearing plans. We look forward to experiences in the future traveling to countries where French is spoken and getting the chance to experience more of the cultures first hand. In 5th grade the girls will get to travel with their classmates and teachers to Martinique to have this first hand experience. Exciting for them and if we did not take that jump to a French immersion school all these great opportunities would not have happened. We are grateful for the encouragement we received early on and wholeheartedly, with extra meatballs, recommend taking others to take the jump into the multilingual experience.
Merci beaucoup to Michael and Inger for sharing their family’s journey in bilingual parenting.
If you’re a bilingual family reading this interview, I hope it has encouraged you in your own journey. And, if you and your partner are monolingual speakers considering embarking on the adventure of bilingual parenting, why not consider learning a language with your child? It’s never too late to start!