Omma, a true polylingual, is raising her daughter, Skyla, with both English and French; like me, she's not a native speaker of French, so I'm paying close attention to what she says! Skyla is only a year older than my nephew, so her profile gives me some ideas of what we can expect from Carl in a year or so--and also of what I can expect as a non-native speaker trying to teach French to a child. (I'm very envious of the resources available to her in London--like French schools and French libraries--and of their proximity to France!)
What is your language background and history?
I grew up in Wales and attended a school with Welsh immersion until the age of 7, and continued Welsh lessons until the age of 14, so was pretty fluent by the time my family moved to England at that point. Growing up with two languages really gave me a thirst for them, as I then studied French and German to the MA level.
What languages are you exposing your child to, and how?
I am teaching my child (non-native) French via the OPOL [one parent one language--each parent speaks a different language to the child] method. She is due to start at a French immersion nursery this autumn.
Why do you want your child to learn French?
So many reasons! A second language is a wonderful gateway to another culture and way of thinking, and therefore aids in broadening the mind, giving a child more information to think about the world in manifest ways. Looking further down the line, it is a great addition to a CV. And, peculiar to our situation as Londoners raising a French-speaking child, the French schools are among the best in London, but at a fraction of the price of the British fee-paying schools!
How well does your child understand and speak French? Does she have a preference for certain languages in certain situations?
My daughter is 2.5 and, so far, French is her clear dominant language, unsurprising given that I am her primary carer and speak only French with her. Her English is not too far behind, which she speaks with her father. She is very resourceful in getting what she wants - she generally tries to speak French to people first, then if they don’t appear to understand, will try out English. She always speaks French when playing by herself. So far, she doesn’t seem to object when I speak English with her father, although she is starting to notice that I understand the language and has tried out a few words with me (I always respond in French).
Have you been able to expose your child to the cultures where French is spoken?
At this stage, we’re not focusing too much on the culture side of things, although it naturally crops up in her French storybooks, DVDs and so on, but we do plan many trips to France once she is a little older. We are lucky in that it is not too far away!
What challenges have occurred as you teach your child a second language?
As French is not my mother tongue, lack of vocabulary/grammar/idioms/etc have proved the greatest challenge. But I have compensated for this by offering my daughter as much exposure to native French as possible.
What resources have been most useful to you?
Again, with French not being my native tongue, improving my own French has proved almost as important as working on my daughter’s! I have helped set up a French playgroup, where I can speak French with the other mums, while my daughter benefits from being surrounded by French conversation. A French tutor comes to the house once a week and speaks the language to both me and my daughter. This has become especially useful lately, now that my daughter is very chatty! For myself, I read in French and study French grammar/vocabulary online (wordreference.com and verb2verbe have both been excellent resources). For my daughter, she watches about half an hour of TV a day and this is always a French DVD. She also adores her French LeapPad and regularly quotes from it! We read a lot in French together and are members of the French library at the local French Institute, which has an excellent children’s section.
What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now?
It would be great if more people were more aware of the benefits of speaking a second language to a child, even a non-native one. I wish I had decided to start a little earlier – I began when my daughter was about a year old, but if you start exposing your child to the native language earlier, there is less chance of a non-native accent creeping in.
Answer your own question now!
Here’s my own question – What is the best thing about raising a child to speak more than one language? It is so rewarding – I remember being utterly astonished when I saw that my child understood instructions in both French and English with ease, and these days we are a lot further on, as she can express herself in both languages and translate from one to the other. Despite all the hard work, I feel as though I am giving her a wonderful gift that will last her a lifetime.