Wednesday, July 02, 2008

enough English?

A new reader, Kate, a French teacher from Denver, writes that she "just had a daughter, Eleanor, in March…. I speak French to Eleanor, but not exclusively because I'm the only one around her who does speak French. I worry that since I'm her primary caregiver (and therefore spend the most time with her) that I'm responsible for her English language development first, and French comes second. Do you have any thoughts on that?"

Actually, I think that Kate should try to speak French exclusively with her daughter! (Admittedly, I'm biased.) Eleanor's first words might be in French if she spends most of her awake time with her mom, but she'll probably end up more fluent in English by the time she's a toddler. After all, just about everything else surrounding her will be in English--interactions with the rest of the family, friends, neighbors, and babysitters; playgroups, playground time, library storytime, swim lessons, etc; television and radio and movies; library books and books received as gifts; and so much more. Eleanor will hear her mom answer the phone in English, speak English at home with non-francophone family and friends, and use English in the outside world.

Eleanor will have no trouble acquiring English from everyone else as naturally and easily as she will acquire French at home with her mom. I'm not too worried about Griffin, because he's getting tons and tons of exposure to English from his dad and his caretakers (Ed's parents one afternoon a week, daycare two afternoons a week) and as the "background music" for much of everything in his life, thanks to the media and the sheer number of angophones I interact with on a daily basis with him listening from the stroller or the sling.

Those of you who have children who are growing up with a primary caregiver who speaks the minority language, what have you found? Should Kate and I be concerned?


  1. I sometimes have similar thoughts as Kate, thinking I should be making sure Ronan is learning English the way I would have taught him, had I not chosen to speak French with him. I don't, however, speak English with him because logically I realize that just because his English input is "real" (not baby talk so much as overheard adult conversations, etc.), this doesn't mean he'll learn English less, or not as well, as he would have from me (since I'm with him mostly all day). Does that make sense? I guess I want to speak English with him for emotional reasons sometimes, though. Those feelings are harder to contend with than worries about his linguistic development. I know French only is the best for him linguistically, since we'll only have this much alone time for a couple years, and after that I'll be worried he'll never use French!

  2. I completely understand your comment about emotional motivations for speaking English. I sometimes feel that my French is limited in the "mommy-lovey-dovey" area, since I've been trained in the academic realm and also as a high school teacher. I find myself sometimes frustrated that I can't convey exactly what I want in French because I feel that my French seems lacking in emotional value. Does anyone have any suggestions?

  3. Here's what is helping me stay in French with Griffin right now: using French in ways that I use English with other babies and children. I use French nicknames for him ("lionceau," lion cub, "ourson," bear cub, "petit hurleur," little screamer, "bebe baveur," drooly baby, etc.); I invent songs about him (such as "Caca caca magnifique/Caca caca pas tres chic/Caca sur mon pantalon/Caca caca sent pas bon/Caca caca dans la couche/Ne le mets pas dans la bouche!"); I read him French translations of sweet, sappy books like Robert Munsch's "Love You Forever." It's as if we're building our own mother-son intimacy, developing it together rather than falling into it automatically. All this helps imbue our interactions with that emotional connection that's so important.

    Also, having seen Carl reach toddlerhood with our auntie-nephew intimacy intact, despite the fact that I only speak French with him, is very encouraging. He doesn't feel any less close to me, even though overall my use of French with him is sometimes imprecise or incorrect.

    But Kate, I know what you mean. Parenting a baby requires an entirely different lexicon than teaching passe compose to adolescents or writing an "explication de textes"! Here's what I'm trying to do:

    --Read a book in French on babies and toddlers to learn the lingo (for example, a bouncy chair is a "chaise transat")
    --Seek out native speakers who have children to chat with them (one such woman told me that a onesie is "un body" in French)
    --Visit parenting websites in French (a couple are listed in the sidebar of this blog, but I'd like to find more)
    --Watch French DVDs and videos for kids to hear how adults address the children (sorry, can't think of any specific examples right now, but I've seen some Babar, Caillou, and Sesame Street episodes)

    Of course, everything is challenging when ytou're taking care of a baby. It's not as if I do all of the above every day (or even every week, to be honest). Probably the most important thing I've learned to do is to lower my expectations (for myself) to the realm of reasonable. Feeling (reasonably) competent and in control lets me more fully enjoy my time with Griffin, thus increasing our emotional connection.

    Anyone have other ideas?

  4. Oh, and I also wanted to say that I actually prefer being called and referred to as "maman" rather than "mommy"! That increases the bonding in French as well.

  5. I have three bilingual baby/toddler stories:
    1) My friend's three and a half year old daughter has a nanny who only speaks Spanish to her. She speaks English perfectly now in evening with her parents and the rest of our Anglo group and Spanish perfectly during the day with her nanny. No problems there with a daytime/nightime split.

    2) my 18-month-old goes to French daycare and has about 11 words right now, almost all of which are in French. I am not worried about this right now because we speak only English to him at home (except when we read French books to him) and he clearly understands English too. We plan to keep him in French schools etc (we are in Canada so there are lots of French public schools here). We expect that he is just going to develop as a totally bilingual child and all signs are pointing that way.

    3)My friend grew up in a francophone household and went to French schools until highschool but she spoke English perfectly from pretty early on and speaks it now with no accent at all. She just picked it up from TV, other kids, etc. We live in the English part of Canada and, according to her, she couldn't help but learn the language, even though her parents only spoke French to her. I wouldn't worry about kids not picking up English if they are in an Anglo country.

  6. Sarah, thank you for your wonderful posts! It is really great to visit your blog and realize that we are all on the same boat.

    I wanted to share a few tips that my husband and I use in our family, where we speak English with our son and Czech with everyone else including one another.

    YouTube is a great resource of home-made videos, especially those involving children. I found videos of children playing "pat-a-cake" and children playing in the sand box. It is an assurance for me to see that I am, in fact, teaching my son the right version of "pat-a-cake." I know this could sound silly to some people, but I am sure that you can all relate to me.

    It's has also been great to use English parenting books. I have used the "What to Expect..." series all along. It's also great as the advice given there is based on the American culture and it corresponds to the way a lot of children in the U.S. are raised.

    I must admit that I now have a hard time speaking Czech to my son. I always use English when speaking to my son directly. Being emotional was difficult at the beginning, but is not a problem now at all. It’s funny because we are so used to saying things like, “It’s O.K. honey.” Or, “You’re going to be all-right,” that I sometimes catch my husband saying the same to me in English instead of Czech.

    Greetings to all families raising their children in two languages!


  7. That's interesting about wanting to be called "Maman" instead of "mommy." I always wanted to be called "Mama" and my four year old did spontaneously call me that. With the twins (with whom I speak German) I have occasionally almost referred to myself as "Mutti" and my husband as "Vati" (the traditional German names for mommy and daddy, although I have heard German children call their mothers "mama"). But then I decided not to. Since my twins are speaking so late, I decided that I would only use one name for people. I do not call my mother "Oma" - I say things like, "Grandma besucht uns!" (G'ma is visiting us!) or "Daddy ist zu Hause!" (Daddy's home!)

  8. I'm American and my husband is Israeli. We live in Israel, and our son is four years old. While I was pregnant, my husband decided that in addition to me speaking to our child in English, he would do the same. I would never have asked him to do so, given that it's not his native language, but I didn't have any problems with his decision.

    For the first two years of our son's life, we both spoke to him only in English, and his first words were in English (the woman running his daycare program also speaks to the children in English). Everyone around us was concerned that he wouldn't know Hebrew, which of course was not the case. Aside from us, the woman at daycare, my family in the US and a few random friends in Israel, everything else he heard was in Hebrew. The English may have come first, but the Hebrew came very quickly too.

    These days, he completely understands both languages, and while his Hebrew speaking is better than his English speaking, he switches back and forth quite easily, and I put a lot of that down to the fact that we went out of our way to expose him to the English so completely when he was younger.

    I definitely agree with Sarah. Speak as much French as you can, and try to stick to it! The English is all around, and will be absorbed with no effort at all.

  9. Anonymous--Thank you for sharing these three success stories! Would you or your friends consider letting me profile your bilingual families on this blog? I think it would be very helpful to see what has worked for you all! You can email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com if you're interested.

    Jana--I love the idea of using YouTube to reinforce both the parents' and the child's use of the target language, especially for things like children's nursery rhymes! YouTube definitely shows authentic language use in context with lots and lots of culture thrown in. I'll see what it has to offer in the way of French and post some links eventually. Speaking of culture, it also hadn't occured to me that learning about French culture would be a side benefit of reading child-rearing books in French for vocabulary building purposes. (The book I referred to earlier is actually the translation of an American book, so it doesn't "count" for that.) I do know that the principles can be very different, even between two western countries like the US and France. Probably even noticeably different from one European country to another? What about among the French-speaking European countries? I have no idea about that! Oh, and Jana, I'd love to profile your family too!

    Jeanne--That makes sense that you want the twins to call you and other family members by the English names consistently. It surprised me that Carl has begun to pick up the French words for "mommy" and "daddy" and use them when I'm around. Well, he refers to them that way--"Maman travaille" (Mommy's working)--but still calls them "Mommy" and "Daddy" when he greets them.

    Liza--Thanks for your point of view, too. I'm glad to hear that your son has not rejected his English even with all the Hebrew he hears outside the house!

    Other readers--If you want to hear more about Liza's and Jeanne's linguistic adventures with their kids, check out their profiles (under the "who else?" section of the sidebar of this blog).

    Keep those ideas coming!

  10. I was at home (in France) with the boys (half-French, half-American) for their first three years and while I know other people were concerned about their French, I wasn't. It's everywhere and I knew once they started school it would quickly catch up to their English, which it did. It's easier for me though, it's my native language - I admire all of you who've chosen to speak a non-native language to your kids.

  11. To be honest...we came from the opposite direction. We thought that our girl wouldn't learn enough French given the amount of English she was being bombarded with each and everyday from family members, tv, friends, etc. So we tried to be exclusive with using just mainly French. We even got other people who didn't know the language to speak to her in that language also. But I quickly realized that this was a mistake. You should only have those who are somewhat fluent talk to your kids in the foreign language exclusively or you will run into mixed speach like spanglish, franglish...etc. In the meantime, have everyone else speak to them in english and they will catch both. They will realize who speaks what and correctly associate the correct language to dialogue in by person, location, or both. So don't worry about not learning enough English...stick with French and you will be proud of how they can decipher and learn multiple languages without skiping a beat. Our 3.5 yr old is doing fantastic...I actually believe she is way better in English that French...but that happens when most people and things around her are in that language.

  12. Sarah-- Of course! Email us your profile forms, and we would be happy to fill them out. I have previously sent you an email so you should have my email address.

  13. I say speak French exclusively!

    I was brought up bilingual. My mother spoke exclusively English, but I grew up in Sweden... I turned out fine.

    My only regret is that my father didn't speak German with me, in which case I would have turned out trilingual.

  14. Bonjour! Just wanted to chime in on this interesting discussion. I'm a French teacher, and the only one in my home who speaks the language. I exposed my oldest child to a lot of French, including play dates with some friends from France when he was a toddler. We read a lot of French picture books, and he was always puzzled when Daddy or Grandma could not read them, too. He's not bilingual, but very comfortable in both languages. Unfortunately, I kind of dropped the ball with my second child. He's 3 now, and I 'm teaching French at the kids' day care in order to get them more interested. My youngest is resisting. He doesn't like Mommy "talking that way." He's just not used to it from me. The other little ones in his class only know me speaking French, and they are actually more open to it. I know it's not too late, but, oh, how I wish I spoke more French at home earlier!!!!

    BTW, I'm loving this blog!!!! I'd love to add you to my blog roll.

  15. I'm late to the commenting, but I wanted to add my two cents as well. I'm Costa Rican-American and am speaking Spanish exclusively with my twin boys, who are 2 1/2. Their nanny is from El Salvador and speaks no English. The only English they get is from their father and from friends when we go out. Right now, they speak way, way more Spanish than English, but even this young, they really "get" that there's a difference. (One of my boys loves bringing his bilingual books to me to read and demanding, "¡En español!" or "In English!" depending on his mood--and he knows which is which.

    I have to fight a few outside influences (such as Midwestern grandparents who lament the fact that their grandsons don't speak English), but it's all worth it and I know the tide will turn soon, once they start school. My parents brought me up bilingual and I remember my rebellious phases, when I thought Spanish wasn't cool because my friends didn't speak it. They stuck to their guns, and obviously, I'm glad they did!