Saturday, August 25, 2007

profile: Suzanne learning French and English in France

Reb is an American living in France, married to a Frenchman. She's raising her 15-month-old daughter, Suzanne, with English and French and chronicling their adventures on her blog, Uh Oh Spaghettios. In this profile, she shares her thoughts on being a bilingual family with such a young child who is already starting to talk in English and in French, despite the fact that she doesn't get as much exposure to English as Reb would like.

What is your language background and history?I’m from New Jersey and I began taking French when I was in pre-K. It was part of an experimental program in the school system. I took French forever and finally quit my senior year because I still couldn’t say anything, partially due to my own shyness but mostly due to a string of bad teachers. In college, I decided to take up French again just to fill a class and then came to France for a semester abroad. When I graduated, I came back to France to “perfect” my French before going to grad school to teach. But I never went back home. I have a masters in Français Langue Etrangère, like ESL for French speakers, and taught English for a few years, which has provided me with a lot of food for thought in raising a bilingual child.

What languages are you exposing your child to, and how?
At home, we use the OPOL (one parent, one language) approach. Before Suzanne was born, I pushed for us to both speak English since I’d be working and Suzanne would be spending the day with a French-speaking caretaker. But my husband didn’t feel he could speak English with his daughter. I am now working four days a week so on days off, we try to get together with other English speakers with children or do other activities where I can speak to Suzanne a lot and show her new things like trips to the zoo or reading at the library or even the supermarket.

Why do you want your child to learn English as well as French?Both languages are essential to be able to communicate with her entire family. English is also an important cultural and emotional tie with her American half. Also, I don’t think I could speak to her in French, no matter how well I speak the language.

How well does your child understand English?
So far, Suzanne seems to understand most everything in both languages. We test her on a regular basis: I ask in English and her father asks in French. She’s usually quick to answer. (Here's a list of the words that Suzanne says in English at 15 months.)

My parents were recently here from the US for three weeks and we definitely saw a change in Suzanne. It seems like something clicked and she understood that English was a form of communication with the wider world and not just a special language with me. It seems like she is beginning to understand that certain situations require one or the other language. But she doesn’t yet make the distinction in her vocabulary which, at the moment, is mostly English after my parents’ visit. Before they visited, most of her sounds were French sounding; even words like "ball," which is similar to English, seemed more French.

There are certain situations which are only one language, like bath time, since it’s my special time with Suzanne. She also seems to be choosing what she says and to whom - there are words she doesn’t use with me that she uses with the caretaker or my husband.

How have you been able to expose your child to the culture(s) where the second language is spoken?
My parents visited from the US for three weeks this summer. Besides that, we talk to members of my family in the US on skype. I also have a couple of Anglo-Saxon friends. But the contact with English remains extremely limited. Eventually, I’d like to spend more time in the UK since we can’t get back to the US very often.

What challenges have occurred as you teach your child a second language?
Not speaking too much French in front of her, which is hard, especially when we see friends who only speak French, and especially now that Suzanne is becoming more social. For instance, in the park she wants to play with other kids. So I continue to speak to her in English, but then repeat in French to the parents or the other kid. It’s a difficult balance sometimes, especially when you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

A great challenge for me is using the correct word and not making grammatical mistakes. After living in France for ten years, my English is less than perfect!

What resources have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?
Books, books and more books. We read all the time and Suzanne loves books. They’re great to teach vocabulary, structure and a good support for general babbling. We watch some tv but not much. Suzanne’s favorite show at the moment is the Muppet Show, which might not be the most educational, but there is a lot of speaking. She also loves music, so we try to sing nursery rhymes and listen to English songs as often as we can.

We have avoided videos geared towards children and most electronic gadgets.

What do you think others 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?
Our caretaker was really worried that she wouldn’t understand Suzanne when she began speaking. But I think that it’s important to remember that children are smart and aware of the situation. You have to trust that the child will figure out the rules of the situation herself.

For other parents, I think you just need a lot of patience and perseverance. You also need to be consistent! It’s very important not to care what other people think and not to be shy to speak the foreign language in public. At first, I was shy to speak English in public – people in supermarkets would look at me and ask why I was speaking English to my child?

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you want to comment on?
On mixing languages – it’s difficult to know when it’s ok to use a word from the other language. Suzanne has a certain vocabulary that she uses in French and at first, I refused to use any of the French words. But I’ve realized that it’s ok to use words like “dodo” (the French word for nap) as long as I’m consistent. And as long as it is clear that this is a family word.

Reb, thank you so much for sharing Suzanne's story! It's clear that she's off to a good start. Readers--especially those of you who have used two languages with babies and toddlers--what resonates with you about Reb's experiences? What advice do you have for parents in her position?

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