Sunday, February 21, 2010

on being a non-native speaker

Nearly four years into this blog, I still have doubts about the practicality of raising my son bilingually and the possibility of teaching my nephew French. These days, I don't see Carl (my four-year-old nephew) often enough or for long enough periods of time to reinforce what French he already knows, much less give him new words. And now that he can read by himself in English, he devours books and doesn't need us grown-ups to read to him as much. (We did have a lot of fun three weeks ago, though, reading a bilingal English-French book about a monkey; Carl read the English, I read the French translation, and occasionally he would join in on the simplest sentences in French.)

What I really want is for Griffin and Carl to speak French together, but it's too soon for that to happen effectively right now, given that Griffin, is, you know, a two-year-old who still mispronounces a lot of words, leaves out other words, and makes up his own expressions for a lot of things. Throw in some often-mispronounced French words into his English sentences, and, well, sometimes even his daddy needs me to translate from Griffinese to English! There's no way that Carl can follow much of what Griffin says. I'm worried that once Carl starts kindergarten next year and he meets a school-full of Anglophone kids he won't see any point in speaking French at all.

But I have dreams of French becoming a special language for Carl and Griffin (and any future siblings), one in which they can whisper secrets to each other, tell stories in sandboxes and treehouses, and giggle in while playing with flashlights in sleeping bags at cousin slumber parties. I can picture Carl coming over to our house for a sleepover en francais, where we have croques monsieur for dinner, then play board games like Loto and La roue de la fortune, and finally fall asleep watching Kirikou et la sorciere or Caillou.

I think for now what's important is for me to keep speaking French around Carl but not force him to respond in kind and to keep exposing him to fun stuff like music, books, and videos in French. Give it time. Just give it time and don't pressure him.

Then there's Griffin, our darling boy who has just entered the "terrific twos," who will walk down stairs holding my hand on one side and his daddy's hand on the other, and turn to him and say, "Be careful!" and then swivel his head to me and caution, "Doucement!" He'll ask Maman for a "bisou" and an instant later clamor for a "kiss!" from Daddy. Living in two languages doesn't seem to faze him in the least.

It fazes me, though. I'm not a native speaker of French; no one in our family is. I spent two school years in France (one as a college student and one as a high school English teachers), majored in French, got a masters degree in French, taught university French for seven years, and even directed plays in French; still, everyday interactions with Griffin send me flying to the dictionary.

At first it was baby-related vocabulary: my French textbooks never taught me how to say, for example, "After two hours of pushing and seventeen hours of labor without an epidural I just wanted him the hell out of my ya-ya" or "Griffin just had a diaper blow-out all over his onesie while he was sleeping in the bouncy chair."

Now it's a linguistic race to keep up with him and describe what we're doing and why and what next!

As he started to grow and pay attention to the world around him, I tried to narrate everything I did in French. Even when I was living in France I never spoke so much French in one day! In only three stituations have I spoken English to Griffin: when he's asleep and I feel like I'll burst if I don't address him in my mother tongue; when his daddy and I are singing duets; and when we attend storytime at the library (where it would be strange and rude for me not to participate).

Reading to Griffin usually entails a vocabulary challenge for me, because so often he hands me a book in English that I have to translate on the fly. Just yesterday, during Bear Snores On, I encountered the following words and expressions that I never had to say before in French: "badger," "wren," "gopher*," and "an itty-bitty mouse, pitter-pat, tip-toe, creep-crawls in the cave from the fluff-cold snow." I do a lot of circumlocuting these days!

And since I don't have time (or don't make time, rather) to read to myself in French these days or call my friends in France to chat, and I'm not hanging out with French teachers on a daily basis, my own French is degenerating. I have noticed sloppy pronunciation, incorrect articles and pronouns, imprecise vocabulary! (Does this mean I now sound like a child or teenager?) Even two and a half years ago, when I was still teaching at Colorado State, I worried that I wasn't good enough to teach French to my baby nephew.

This hit home last week when I was talking to Griffin at the library. A woman overheard us and expressed amazement--not that Griffin was being raised bilingually, but that she could understand me! "This is so great!" she enthused. "I never got it when my teachers spoke French to us, but I understand everything you say! You speak so nice and slow!"

Dear readers, I wasn't speaking slowly on purpose! It was my normal rate!

I am so far from being a native speaker of French I sometimes wonder if I'm doing him a disservice linguistically and (more importantly) will later regret depriving myself of that maternal intimacy that comes from speaking one's native language with one's child. And what will happen as he grows up and only has the kids at French playgroup to converse with?

I still strongly believe at birth is an ideal time to start teaching languages, and I do think that non-native speakers are very capable of teaching their second (or third or fourth...) language. I just have doubts sometime about this particular non-native speaker.

*I now know that, shockingly, "un gaufre" is a gopher and "une gaufre" is a waffle. Pity the sleepy diner who thinks she's ordering a delectable breakfast pastry and ends up with a rodent in maple syrup instead!


  1. Sarah,
    Hola! I just started reading your blog a few days ago. And as it happens, I just created my own blog about raising my one year old bilingually-lamothertongue.blogspot. (I am also a Langugae instructor who now stays home with her child.) I actually have a lot to comment on your post, but first and foremost, relax. I hear stress in your voice. I think we all go through phases where we rethink what we are doing with our children. My suggestion is to think back to what we learned about language acquisition and what your goals are for your children and find a way to achieve them. Remember when you first started teaching and you only spoke in French to your students and all the protesting you received? Had you switched to English with them they never would have learned. Speaking in French to your child is a good thing, don't give up--between your language ability, and knowledge of langauge acquisiton AND learning-you should be able to tackle whatever obstacles come your way. I would be happy to chat more on a personal level if you want and not take up all your comment area. I looked for a place to email you, but didn't find it, so I am going throw my own out there:

    Keep strong, and keep believing in what you do.

    Buena suerte,


  2. heya :)

    I think my mum had similar worries about who my briother and I would speak French with when not at home, and I see now why - I feel a bit self-concious speaking French to DD when we're at a playgroup and so on, and there's no French-speaking group near here. It's basically me and, um, ME!

    But it does work out in the end, maybe not in the sense that we plan, but somehow. I found French at school vastly easier than my peers, for instance, and still speak well enough to communicate fluently-ish despite rare practice with anyone other than my own daughter *lol*

    The irony compared to your post is that I bet your "adult" French is far better than mine. My "kiddy" vocab is great, but try talking about the news, politics and so on and I will flounder XD Works well enough for DD so far, and as for the rest - well, we'll see. I have located a French-speaking group in NZ for us to join once we emigrate, so maybe maybe maybe I'll get more practice too, not just DD :)

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Sarah, I originally found your blog while searching for a book of the same name I had read and enjoyed. The author(J.Merrill)found herself in a similar situation. I really enjoy reading your blog for a lot of the same reasons I enjoyed her book. You are giving your child a fantastic gift (no matter the specifics of the how/when etc.)and I agree with the other comments, it will all work out. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I think we all have similar worries and frustrations from time to time - I know I do and I'm (supposedly) a native speaker....

    Hang in there, somehow it'll work itself out. Maybe Carl can take French in school at some point or figures out how useful it is to have a secret language with his cousin? Just keep up exposing them, something is sure to stick :)

  5. I am looking for advice. I am (was) a Spanish teacher, but am a non-native Spanish speaker. I have a 6 month old and started speaking to him exclusively in Spanish about five days ago. It's going well, but I definitely have my doubts. Am I going to have to speak to all my children in Spanish forever? I do feel a little bit of a disconnection from him since it is not my native tongue. And should I speak exclusively to him in Spanish or just set aside time every day where we go over Spanish words? I also read somewhere to maybe wait till age 2 or 3 where they have a good grasp of English and then move into Spanish. What are your thoughts? And how are things going for you? Please email me at I look forward to hearing from you. --Tawni

  6. Even if he never becomes totally fluent in French, he'll still walk away from the experience with a semi-fluent second language his monolingual peers won't have. And from what I've read, kids pick up on accents and vocabulary better than adults. Maybe some French TV shows or dubbed movies every now and then would would give him an idea of how it really sounds. My French professor in college spoke to her kids only in French and although they aren't completely fluent, she shipped them off to France a few times to visit friends and they got along okay. I wish my parents would've spoken to me in another language!

  7. Hi Sarah,

    First of all, thank you SO much for putting your emotions right out there for all of us to connect with. It's a hard thing to do, to wear our doubts and fears out loud, but the rest of us have them too, regardless of our situation in life, and it helps us in so many ways when people share them aloud.

    I, like Elizabeth, am also a language teacher (German/Spanish) who is staying home during the days to raise my daughter (now 13 months) in German. I also just created a blog--I found yours, as Brigit did, when looking for that other book, too, and was VERY inspired to add to the few resources for those of us undertaking this challenge. And that it is, huh?! I hear you loud and clear.

    I hope that my loudest point can be what Rachel ended with: "I wish my parents spoke to me in another language". I have ready many books on this subject--primarily on bilingualism, but also on the non-native aspect, too. But the piece of information that stood out for me in ALL those pages was that NO ONE ever regretted that their parents raised them bilingually--there were many regrets, however, for those kids of parents that never did; that thought about it, but didn't; or that started and gave up the "fight". When I'm at my lowest, and I definitely have those moments, too (writing about them helps me a lot), I remember that point, and it helps get me back on my bilingual horse.

    You may have read it, but I got, and continue to get, so much solace from his book, Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens. I've also just bumped into a forum that is very current, with many other non-natives struggling with similar issues. It's on at first seems only like a German book/resource site, but is SO much more.

    I also want to thank Elizabeth for writing what she did here. I like that she didn't only email you--it's helpful for the rest of us to read those, too. (and I'm looking forward to following her blog, too).

    I, as well, would love to speak in person sometime, if you're interested....or simply comment now and again, if that's your preference. I find that I gain a good bit from being in contact with others doing the same--I've been on high gear for the past 2 weeks finding resources, links and creating connections with others in our shoes.

    I hear your stress, too--you sound overwhelmed by a lot of thoughts, doubts, and mental back and forth. If I had your post in front of me, I, too, might say more--nearly all of what you said hit home for me, too.

    My vote is for you to stick with it, if that's not obvious already. Likelihood is that neither of you will regret it. His accent will be fine, even if yours only stays at the level it is now (which could only be as bad as you feel it is on some days). I'm sure you're exposing him to lots of native speech, and that will be great. It will get harder (I hear) as they get older, good for you for sticking with it this far and providing a SOLID foundation for those trying times later (once they are surrounded by English and Eng-speaking peers all the time).

    Signing off for now,
    Tamara Staton
    Portland, OR

  8. Dear all--

    Thank you for your heartfelt and helpful responses! It's thrilling to discover how many others are in this non-native-speaking "bateau" with us.

    @Elizabeth--You're absolutely right that what I'm doing with Griffin is analogous to what I'd do to my French I students: all French, only French, from the moment the walked in the door, heard the accordion music, and rolled their eyes at the stuffed Eiffel Tower sitting on the desk.

    I'm not stressed, per se, or seriously considering reverting to English, but I do (over?)analyze what what works and why and what I need to change. But I also don't want my tendency to perfectionism in areas like this to make me feel like nothing's good enough.

    @Sophie--When are you going to start writing on YOUR blog? I've checked a couple of times and would love to read more from you!

    I know exactly what you mean about feeling self-conscious about speaking French on the playground. Oh well. People probably think we sound sophisticated! (It doesn't hurt that Griffin wears a beret some days. True, I bought it in the girls section at Baby Gap, but once I took the hot pink pompom off the top, it looked plenty masculine.)

    @Brigit--Thanks for the vote of confidence! You have an adorable little girl--the photos of Maryn on your blog make me smile. So are you raising her bilingually, or perhaps you have a background in several languages? (I couldn't tell from your recent posts.)

    @smashedpea--Wait, you sometimes doubt your own abilities to raise your kids bilingually when you're already a native speaker of German? (And I've been reading your blogs long enough to know that your English is fantastic.) I'd be curious to hear more--please post! Or maybe you could do an update to the profile we posted on my blog a few years ago?

    You're and Rachel are right on about the potential for Carl and Griff to excel in French classes in school later on--I hadn't really thought about that.

    [I have just discovered that Blogger limits the number of characters they will publish in a comment! I'll continue in a second comment. Gee whiz--I've never had to do this before!]

  9. @Tawni--Bravo to you (and to all of us non-native speaker parents!) to speaking Spanish with your baby. I would disagree with the advice to wait till later: definitely do it now.

    If you're not comfortable (or just don't want to give up the intimacy of English), you could be very consistent with when and how you use Spanish. For example, breakfast is always in Spanish, the couch in the living room is in Spanish and you can only speak Spanish there, bathtime is Spanish, whenever he's tucked under the yellow blanket (whether in your lap, in the car, in the stroller) you speak Spanish, when it's just you and him in the car it's Spanish, etc. If he grows up associating Spanish with those specific places/items/actions, then it shouldn't faze him to switch back and forth between the two languages.

    Is your partner in agreement that raising him bilingually is a good thing? Can you hire a Spanish-speaking babysitter once a week? Find a Spanish playgroup? Borrow or buy DVDs in Spanish when your son is old enough to watch TV? There's lots you can do to brush up your Spanish (if necessary) and give him added exposure! Buena suerte. (And keep in touch, since it looks like you don't have a blog about him that we can follow.)

    @Rachel--You're right, these kids are "petites eponges"! I've managed to find lots of materials where Griff can hear native speakers (in accents that differ from France to Canada to francophone Africa)--audio books, CDs of music for adults and for kids, DVDs (language learning, TV shows, movies), even a couple of toys that "speak" French. (You wouldn't believe the "Tickle Me Elmo" doll who convulses and says "oh la la ca chatouille!") Plus, one of his babysitters speaks excellent French (her mom is French) and we go to French playgroup, where I'm often the only non-native speaker mom.

    According to your blog, you work with French kids every day, so if you have any recommendations for books, music, movies, toys, etc., please let me know!

    @Tamara--I'll be following your and Elizabeth's blog from now on! Thanks for commenting and for the book recommendation. (That's one that I haven't seen yet.) You're so right that our kids aren't going to grow up mad that they got exposed to two languages in their childhood. Even if they don't end up balanced bilinguals, they're still so much better off than if they only had one language, period. We rock!

    Y'all can write to me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com. But I should confess that I finally took the address out of my sidebar because I do such a lousy job of checking it regularly. Do drop back by and leave comments, though, and I'll do the same! Thanks again for visiting, everyone.

  10. Thanks for encouraging me to go and ponder my shortcomings on the bilingualism thing some more :) I've been trying not to, but it's been hard with you and Cartside ( putting it all out there pretty much at the same time :)

    And yeah, we can do an update if you want. The last time I read the original one, I was fairly appalled as to how naive I was back then about the whole thing :)

  11. Great post to express how difficult it is to raise bilingual kids being a non-native speaker. I have had all of the same doubts and I really want to encourage you to keep it up. At about two years old Diego spoke only Spanish. This caused friction with some of my English-only speaking family members. There were many times that I wanted to give up because it was so stressful. Now at four, Diego speaks Spanish at a native level and speaks quite a bit of English too. You are giving Griffin an amazing gift!

  12. Hi, I loved your story! You completely echoed my thoughts from when my son was 2 and put them into words so succintly. Now that he's going to be 4 this year, I can really say that I no longer have a problem speaking to him in my non-native tongue (Dutch). It feels so natural, and speaking English with other kids feels so wierd and unnatural that I never know what to say to them! We had the 'Why' stage around 2.5 yrs, that really taxed my language skills and pushed my Dutch to the next level. Also, watching Dutch children's shows, reading aloud to my son and following an adult Dutch series helped to fill in the gaps in knowledge. You sound like you guys are doing great, but I just wanted to let you know that it gets even easier as it goes along. Best of luck!

  13. I don't think you need to worry. Speaking to an Italian woman the other day, she commented that what she noticed was that when you raise a child in your mother language, you tend to do what your parents did (or say). And this is true. When I speak Afrikaans to my little girl, I can just hear my mother speaking through me. But when I switch to English, regardless of how much it is also a first language for me, I have to think up things to say, they don't come automatically. So when I speak English it is all me, but when I speak Afrikaans, it is my ancestors. And then French comes in between this and that, with a few books that we read and words that we translate, but the point I wanted to make was that grammar and pronunciation can always be corrected, but you are doing your child a real service by speaking to him in another language simply because you are more you.

  14. @Smashedpea--I'll email you with the profile questions!

    @Adriana--Kudos to Diego (and his parents)! I like hearing these success stories.

    @Maria--Ditto! You sound like you've accomplished so much. Thanks for sharing your success story too.

    @Keda--I've never thought about it that way--you make a really thought-provoking point. I'm going to quote you in my next post because I'm so curious to hear what other people will have to say about this! Thank you.

  15. Well, as the aunt of three tri-lingual boys, you're DEFINITELY doing the right thing!

    Anyway, I thought you & your readers might be interested in this fun bit of news...

    hide this™ has started a hilarious blog collecting all of the embarrassing stories we expats have when speaking a foreign language - called, Up Your Bottom!
    Submit your story, and you may be picked for our book, Up Your Bottom!

    Lisa R. Tucci

  16. Sarah: It was refreshing to find your weblog, as I now know I am not the only person out (t)here trying to raise I bilingual child. As for myself, I studied in France for two years as an undergraduate; I went on an academic year program to Tours, and then decided to stay in France an extra year. I returned to the US and finished up my undergraduate degree with a double major in Foreign Languages ( French and Russian) and History.
    In the mid-1990's I joined the Army and was commissioned as an officer. I didn't have much of an opportunity to use my langauges. WHile deployed in Saudi Arabia, I had to tell some French Air Force officers ( in French) that they were not welcome at our base. French remained for me as a hobby, but I never thought I would have a real use for it in the Army.
    In 2004, I got married, and my wife and I had a baby boy in the summer of 2006. In the Autumn of 2006, one could say lightning struck. The army changed my career field to that of Foreign Area Officer, meaning I would be representing the Army and the Department of Defense overseas. Moreover, I received order to go to Paris to attend the French Joint Forces Defense College ( the successor to the Ecole de Guerre). My son was three months old when I received those assignment instructions and I have spoken almost entirely in French to him ever since. Currently, I am assigned as a French language instructor at the Military Academy, so I am constantly looking up French Words and phrases, both for him and for my cadets. My career will take me to other French speaking countries later, so I think my son will be ready to enter into a French or bilingual school when that moment comes.

  17. @Francesca--Thanks for your encouragement, and good luck with your "Bottom" project.

    @David--Wow, what a story! How cool that you have found your way back to French. Does your wife speak French too? Do you (or will you) have a blog we can follow to see how your son's language progresses? If not, please drop by back by here and let us know how things are going from time to time!

  18. Salut Sarah! Je m'appelle aussi Sarah and I also studied French, majored in it, and studied abroad-however, only for 1 semester. Then I taught HS French for 1 school year before moving to South Dakota to be closer to my husbands family. I can relate to you SO MUCH. As I also never felt 100% qualified in my teaching abilities, I feel my french slipping through my fingers now since I am no longer teaching, don't spend much time reading French anymore and have very few French friends with whom to communicate. Aghhh. I am due in May with my first child and I desperately want to teach it French but I am so scared! And this blog basically sums up everything I'm scared of. Like not knowing the words to describe events/activities...and being grammatically incorrect..and as you stated, not feeling the intimacy of speaking my native language--like will this keep me from talking to my child since my own french vocabulary is so limited?? Anyway.. it was very nice to read a blog that I could so closely relate to. But.. I'm still really scared! Any more thoughts or advice on the subject would be greatly appreciated! Svp, vous pouvez m'envoyer un mel, si vous voulez.
    Merci beaucoup et bon courage!!

  19. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for your heartfelt comments and congratulations on your pregnancy! I think it's entirely normal to feel apprehensive about embarking on this journey to raise your child bilingually (even for people who are native speakers of the language they use with their children)!

    Remember, even if your French is imperfect, it's still a lot better than only speaking one language to begin with! I'd rather have Griffin speak English fluently and French with an accent and some mistakes than not speak French at all.

    And I've decided that speaking French with him provides a different sort of intimacy. It's not my native language, which means that I am very present when I talk to him--rarely on autopilot--and that I'm deliberately choosing every day to continue sharing French with him.

    Best wishes to you--you'll do great! KEep in touch.

  20. All this post describes what my fears are about speaking English to my (future lol)children, I see we all have the same worries! I have some bilingual books, and a lot of English books, would buy more by then....But I think I could not speak only English with my kids, some French will have to come out... don't know, we'll see!

    1. Since you are already planning to raise your children bilingually, you can start collecting materials and resources now--it will be a fun project!

      Does your partner speak English too, or will you be the primary source of input?

      And even if you don't use exclusively English with them, you'll still be giving them a wonderful gift. I'd say that if you can be consistent, though, about where and when they can expect to hear English from Maman (the car? during lunch but not dinner? in certain rooms?), then it will be easier for you and for them.

  21. Hello everybody!

    I am Argentinian, native in Spanish, raising my child in English (non-native).
    Once a psychologist said to me "what really matters is the message and the love that you are giving to your child, regardless the language being used; the language is only a tool of communication to get to him/her, it is only the surface of what it is in the depth"...
    And right after hearing that, I got my worries off my chest.
    Godod Luck!