Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What language(s) did you speak to your baby in utero?

Jeanne, who is teaching her children several different languages and expecting a baby later this year, asked a question on the previous post--she wanted to know if I spoke to Griffin in French or English before he was born. (That was back when he was "Croissant"!) This strikes me as a great question to pose to the readers of this blog: What language(s) did you speak to your children in utero? And why? Or why not?

Here, I'll go first. I rarely spoke directly to the Croissant while he was baking, in English or in French. Not out loud, at least--I'd "think" to him, addressing certain thoughts to him, figuring that he'd hear my voice plenty regardless. I'd rub and pat my belly, especially in response to his movements. My husband did talk directly to him (in English) through my navel, though, hoping to familiarize him with the sound of his voice.

Since I had stopped teaching at that point and wasn't speaking French regularly as part of my daily routine, I realized eventually that he wasn't hearing much of his soon-to-be-second language (except when I was taking care of Carl). But, unconvinced that speaking French aloud to my unborn child would better prepare him for linguistic gymnastics, and loathe to add yet another item to my pregnancy to-do list*, I opted not to force myself to do something that felt unnatural and thus turn my passion for the French language into yet another chore.

What about y'all? And can anyone cite research that addresses the effects of speaking to babies in utero?

*Speaking of all the things that incipient mothers are guilted into doing, have you ever read What to Expect When You're Expecting? Well, don't. Especially not the "Best-Odds Diet" chapter. As if a pregnant woman has the time or energy or inclination to fix meals with three different colors of vegetables each time, organ meats, and homemade bread, all copiously sprinkled with wheat germ and tofu flakes! (Plus Ed would have moved out if I had confronted him with bean curd--he's tofuphobic.)


  1. Okay, so I'm exaggerating about the "tofu flakes"!

  2. I don't know about any research but I'll tell you that I didn't speak much to my daughter while she cooked. My husband would. I do realize that she probably heard me speaking to my sisters and other family in Spanish so I guess she did hear in before being born.

    The curious thing is that as soon as she was born I began speaking to her in Spanish. It was really interesting. I haven't thought about it until reading your post.

  3. Errr... we called our son "Juliette" - same in French or English - for the first 4 months or so, until we found out that she was a boy in the last scan...

  4. When I did speak to "Oshie", it was primarily in English, though we were living in France until 21 weeks and so he surely heard me speaking in French to others. But, if I remember correctly, the fetus' hearing doesn't develop til later...? I also called Ronan Daphne (our girl name) til we found out "she" was a "he"!

  5. Baby Brioche is currently hearing English, except for the occasional French song that gets stuck in my head, which I feel compelled to sing to her. I've been listening to a lot of Beatles lately for some reason, so she's been hearing me sing "Michelle, ma belle..." A couple of weeks ago she heard a lot of "Aux Champs Elysees," thanks to Sarah's post.

  6. Don't get What to expect during the first year either - for bilingualism it suggested 'waiting until the first language was acquired before confusing a small child with another one' or something along those lines. No kidding. I didn't even want to think about many people may have read and followed that ridiculous advice.

  7. Coucou, Sarah.
    I talked to the children in English, mostly, when they were in utero, though I did try to speak to them in French and sing to them in French when it popped into mind.

    I've tagged you for a Meme, if you want to play. No pressure.


  8. Oops,
    OK, I apparently don't know how to make a link in the comment box, but if you check my blog, you'll find the Meme on April 23.

  9. Hello Sarah, I have tried to comment on your blog multiple times, but always get pulled away. I am not bilingual, but for the last year have been living in Belgium experiencing a mulititude of languages. French appeals to me the most, but I am just in awe of the people here who speak so many languages.
    After much deliberation, our children are in an International school where they have some exposure to French, but are not immersed. (They are 5-Kindergarten, 3-Pre K, and 15 mos-at home)
    My husband comes from a multicultural home, but his parents did not teach him or his 5 siblings a 2nd language and his mom has some regrets. Their first languages are Chinese and Spanish, but English was the only language the shared and therefore all that the kids speak. Before we moved here, we were exposing our children to Spanish which we are both familiar with. That has been put on hold as I am taking Survival French classes and my husband is tutored in German for work.
    When we first moved here I was so motivated to try and teach my children French as I learned, but it just felt so unnatural to me. I watch my friends who speak another language first change to that language naturally when speaking with their children and mine (especially the baby). It just seems so much more comfortable for them. I admire you and others who are outside of that comfort to truly help make this next generation have more opportunity. The Europeans have such amazing opportunities to learn other languages and as Americans it is scary strange to us.
    I love talking about languages with others here (who seem completely uninterested in talking about it), but struggle so much learning other languages myself. Living so far away from home, family and the familiar has been challenging and we are so thankful for our English speaking community here even though it does take away from really experiencing another culture. Because I spoke zero French upon moving here and my husband is gone a lot of the time, it has been a huge lifesaver to have an English speaking community to hold onto, but I am going to keep on working on learning French as long as I am here and hope that my children will learn some as well. I love checking in on your progress and hope to use some of your ideas with my own kids to keep them using French over the summer when not in school.
    Sorry so long!

  10. Bilingual Baby, Braunstonian, Dory, Molly, and Amy--Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    Nicole--Yikes. No wonder there's such a prevalent misconception that exposing kids to more than one language at a young age will screw them up!

    Tse Family--I would love to profile you all on this blog--it sounds like you're swimming in quite the polylingual soup! You might want to check out the profile of Jeanne's family--they're successfully teaching several different languages to young children a little bit at a time, and her ideas may help and inspire you too!

  11. Hi Sarah,
    Congratulations on the birth of Griffin! To answer your question, you may remember that I profiled a children's English teacher in Japan on Bilingual Babble last year. Talking to her another time, I found out that one of the schools in Japan where she used to work offered a prenatal English class for pregnant women. Ever since then, I've been interested in knowing if there is any research in this area. In my case, when I was expecting, I spoke to my daughter in English; however, since we were living in Japan at that time, she probably heard a lot of Japanese too.
    I really enjoy reading your blog!

  12. I spoke German to my three daughters when they were still in utero. This came very natural to me. Especially with #2 and #3, since her sisters were already "outside" and I was talking to them all day. While I do speak English with my children nowadays more than I want to (husband is monolingual and regarding school work, I always convert back to German when speaking one-to-one with them. They are 18-16-14 years old now.
    I believe, that you should speak/think to your unborn (and born) child in whatever language is "closest to your heart"... literally...that is what seems to matter the most. :) Good luck to everyone "bringing your babies up bilingual". It is an amazing journey.

  13. Thanks for your comments, Mary and Langwitches! I too would be interested to learn about research done on exposing kids to languages in utero--but it seems like something impossible to quantify.

    Mary, have I ever asked you if I could profile your family? How old is your daughter and does she speak English and Japanese now? Please email me for the questionnaire if you're interested!

    Ditto for you, Langwitches--I'm especially desirous to profile families whose children have reached the teen years and speak the languages they were exposed to as they grew up! It sounds like it's been a successful journey for your family--telling about your experiences could help the rest of us a lot!

    You can see previous families I profiled by clicking on their names in the sidebar on the main page. My email address is babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com. I hope to hear from the Tses and you two as well as any other readers who are using more than one language in their family!