Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Profile: THW's non-native Francophone family in Trinidad and Tobago

More inspiration! THW is proof that you can learn a second language as an adult and then teach it to your child, even in a country where very few people speak that language or even understand why you're putting so much effort into raising a bilingual family. (Her situation is nearly the exact opposite of Nic's family, recently profiled on this blog.) She has also put a lot of effort into answering my questions--thank you for sharing all this detail with me and my readers! Your experiences will help us a lot. Perhaps we can do an update to this profile when Z starts school? It sounds like he will be a balanced bilingual by then!

Name: THW
Age: 41
Country of Residence: Trinidad and Tobago
Nationality: Trinidadian
Occupation: Production Manager for television station / Translator-editor for French multinational consortium

Name: EAW
Age: 36
Country of Residence: Trinidad and Tobago
Nationality: British / Trinidadian / Jamaican
Occupation: Meteorologist and Presenter for television station

Name: ZMAW
Age: 2
Country of Residence: Trinidad and Tobago
Nationality: British / Trinidadian
Occupation: Cutest baby on the face of the planet! ;-)

1) What is your language background and history?

I grew up in an Anglophone family; the national educational policy mandates a foreign language in secondary school, and I chose Spanish – which I actively disliked (even though I was good at it), and promptly forgot as soon as I left school. Many years later, I decided to take up French, but since I had neither room in my work schedule nor the extra money to spend on classes, I decided to try to learn it on my own. I gave up reading English (newspapers, internet, books) completely, converted my computer to French (keyboard, programme menus, operating system, everything!), cut every possible expense to the absolute minimum in order to subscribe to French satellite television, joined the Alliance Française – basically I did anything and everything I could to immerse myself in the language.

I was not sure that it was working too well, because I had little exposure to the spoken language (French expats like to practice their English, lol) until I had major surgery about 10 years ago and woke up in the recovery room unable to speak English for several days. Literally. I could understand the language, and I swore up and down that I was replying in English, but in fact, I could only speak French. Language schizophrenia. Not sure if it is a real condition, but that’s the best the doctors could do for a diagnosis. Since then, I’ve been fluent in both languages. During the last 6 months I have been using the language in a professional capacity for the first time, and although I love it and I am really happy, I will have to change jobs soon for financial reasons.

2) Where do you currently live?

I live in Trinidad and Tobago, an archipelagic republic in the Caribbean Sea, just off the coast of Venezuela. In spite of our proximity to Latin America, and our chequered past (Amerindian natives; colonized and/or governed by the English, French, Dutch, Latvian, Spanish, German, Irish, Scots and Portuguese; influenced by African, Chinese, Syrian-Lebanese and East Indian slaves/immigrants/indentured labourers), the population is staunchly English-speaking. We have a distinct “Trini” dialect in force, and there are some communities that speak “patois” (French Créole) or Hindi, but it is an oral tradition and almost never seen in written form. The Government has made some noises recently about making Spanish “the First Foreign Language”, but the official policy is neither well-defined nor well implemented.

3) What languages are spoken by the adult(s) in your household and at what level of proficiency?

Father – Native English, Intermediate French; Mother – Native English, Fluent French

4) How old are your children?

I have one son, Z, aged two.

5) If any of the adults in the household are non-native speakers of the language they use with the children, please tell us a little about how that works for your family.

I (the mother) have to work extra hard sometimes NOT to slip into English. I have tried sporadically to only speak French, period, at home, but this is difficult since my husband is not as fluent as I am.

6) What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?

Z is learning French and English using the OPOL method – Mother in French (fluent French/English), Father in English (fluent English, smattering of French) – in an English-speaking/Créole environment. Because of my husband’s work hours, Z will usually accompany me to most French events and receptions, where he gets to hear Maman and her friends talk, but at the moment there are very few children his age with whom he can interact in French.

7) Why do you want your child to know more than one language?

Life experience: Learning French broadened my horizons in a way that I normally would never have experienced, simply because travel abroad is a real challenge for Trinbagonians. Remember, we have to leave the island to go on a trip, whether by boat or plane, and we have a very unfavourable exchange rate (TTD 6.30 to USD 1.00) so even for the upper-middle class, the cost (monetary, time and logistics) of visiting anywhere other than North America and the Caribbean is prohibitive; our exposure to non-English speakers is VERY limited. My husband and I wanted Z to have the opportunity to experience another culture, even if we can’t afford to visit the country.

History: There are so many aspects of life in T&T which have been strongly influenced by our French history (dialect, place names, foods, culture, like our Carnival, for example) that Z really will understand and appreciate at a very early age – I don’t want him to feel that connection to and grounding in our history at age 30, but much, much earlier!

Job opportunities: In an increasingly multi-cultural world, companies and recruiters are looking for polyglots; they have a distinct advantage over other candidates pursuing limited employment opportunities. And with our educational system, he won’t get anywhere near fluency in French without a considerable head start. And even if the Government’s “Spanish as the First Foreign Language” idea takes off, with Spanish language teaching from age 5, he’ll still come out ahead.

Intellect: Thinking in a second language expanded my mind; I am a more precise, efficient, logical, rational, out-of-the-box, holistic thinker. Learning new concepts and understanding new ideas has been so much easier, not just because I think better, but because I have twice as many sources of information and explanation at my disposal.

Bonding: Maybe Z’ll understand Maman, and her obsession with France and all things French a little better, if he can at least speak the language! I hope!

8) How does your child feel about the different languages? What does he prefer?

Because of our schedules, Z gets approximately the same number of daily contact hours in French and English, even though we live in an Anglophone country. My husband will play Z’s French CDs and DVDs in between reading English books together during the morning period. At day-care (noon to 5pm), he is exposed to English only, but once he comes home with me, it’s French only until bedtime.

He’s only just started to say recognisable words, but he understands a lot more than he says. And yes, I know that all parents say that, but it’s true, because he will obey instructions from my husband in English, but he will studiously ignore him if he tries to speak French, and vice versa – absolutely no comprehension problems there! This is a problem in potentially dangerous situations, but fortunately “No!” and “Non!” are interchangeable.

Z is training his parents to be pretty precise in their language – confronted with the question “Where is the car?” in the middle of a parking lot, he will just stand there and, as they say here, “look at me in a tone of voice!” (lol), until I clarify “Where is the RED car?”

All the usual things – colours, numbers, parts of the body, furniture, kitchen utensils and common everyday objects and animals – he knows these in French for sure, a little less so in English. In terms of preferences – he generally chooses the easier word to say, to either parent, so we have “cow”, but not “vache”, “air-p” (airplane) but not “avion”, “bi-bon” (bibéron) but not bottle, “couche” but not “diaper”, “eau” but not “water”, “nez” but not “nose”.

Z sings along to his French nursery rhymes but not the English ones and parrots/acts out the scenes in his favourite DVDs. Even as a tiny baby, he very obviously reacted more to French than to English, paying attention and interacting when strangers spoke French to him and ignoring or rejecting contact with English speakers.

9) How have you been able to expose your child to the culture(s) where the different languages are spoken?

Z has French children’s books, CDs and DVDs, either bought over the Internet, from second-hand sales or as gifts from French expatriates returning home. The Alliance Française of Trinidad and Tobago and the expat community in general has also been a great support, morally and intellectually, even organising outings and get-togethers in which we can participate as a family. And we are planning to go to France for a couple of weeks at least three times in the next decade, before he turns twelve and we have to pay for a full fare!

10) What challenges have occurred as you raise your child with more than one language?

Environmental/Economic: The education system here is a rat-race that starts early – parents register their children at birth for select primary schools. In fact, the intake for Z’s year (2012 or ’13) is already complete in all the “good schools”, where the children would be more or less on the right track for the better secondary schools and any chance of a university place. So, almost every educational decision and/or extracurricular activity is based on the likely outcome for a secure, well-paying job. Language learning in such a difficult economic climate is a luxury, even under the best of conditions and we are definitely going against the grain with our choice of French, when everything around us insists that Spanish is more “practical”. There are no support structures for learning languages outside of the education system, and even in the schools the standards and methods vary so much that it is really the luck of the draw that will determine your success or failure at this venture. There is one (very) new kindergarten/elementary school which is bilingual Spanish/English, but even they insist that “He should have a good grounding in English before he can tackle Spanish.” (What the ...?)

Social: Frowns, general incomprehension and indifference from day-care personnel and some in the general public. I have also sensed a growing resistance over the past few years to any language other than Spanish, which hasn’t helped matters. Family has been generally medium-hot-to-lukewarm, but not hostile (thank God), though I do have to frequently reassure them about his developmental milestones. Friends have been more enthusiastic, lots of moral support and interest there.

Materials: None available to the general consumer for anyone under the age of 11. After that, only school texts, exam papers, dictionaries/grammar aides and the occasional “Learn XXX in YYY Time Period” boxed CD/DVD/Cassette set with easy-to-use manual. (sigh)

11) What resources and activities have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?

The Internet, the World Wide Web and cyberspace! I’m not a terribly religious person, but I DO literally thank God everyday for this resource, which gives me:
• Information and research from experts and professionals
• Moral support and helpful hints from bloggers and parents
• Access to learning materials via internet shopping

Not useful? Children’s websites (whether stand-alone or linked to other media, like books or television channels), even those purporting to be geared for his age. They are generally very limited in scope and need better broadband connections than are available here.

12) 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?

Perhaps it’s still a little early for me to answer this section. But I will share my mantra, which I whisper to myself, in French and English, whenever I get discouraged: The four P’s – persistence, perseverance, patience, and above all, passion.

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you would like to comment on?

11) In dealing with the external reactions to bilingual education, which is harder to manage, indifference or hostility?

Indifference – definitely. You can feed off of the negative energy of a hostile environment and use it to power your way through to your goal, but working against indifference is like trying to run in mud up to your waist.

Sarah again here--Hey readers! Let's fight that indifference by telling the world about our vibrant, brilliant, bilingual (or multilingual) children! Please email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com if you'd like to nominate yourself or someone else to be featured in a profile on Bringing up Baby Bilingual. Thanks!

This post is part of the March 2010 Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.


  1. Amazing! Well done THW! Very persistent indeed.
    Thanks THW and Sarah for sharing this story with us.

  2. Isn't THW awesome? She and I have known each other since University, reconnected recently on Facebook to find that we both learned French as adults. I am so inspired by her, and so glad to have a friend to support me in my own efforts to raise our son bilingal, even though we are oceans apart.

    I'm totally looking forward to the day when Z and K will meet! :)

  3. That is so fascinating! I love learning about what's a new culture to me like this. THW has inspired me once more to switch all my computer settings to German. It's a challenge for me, but I was astonished by her story of waking up fluent in French after her surgery. I'm hoping not for the surgery part but at least the good results of the language immersion!

    This was really inspiring — thank you!

    If you'd like to profile my family (non-native German-speaking & native English-speaking mother, English-only father, 2.75-year-old son), I'm game. :) mail {AT}

  4. Hi, I really enjoyed the article. I am wondering what kindergarten is providing bilingual education in Trinidad? I would be interested. jamilacross at gmail dot com.

  5. Ah, the power of books! It sounds like Z is doing beautifully--congratulations to you and your hubby! Thanks for the update.