Wednesday, June 08, 2011

profile: Reb's bilingual child--now children!--four years later

One of the (many) joys of creating this blog is the opportunity to revisit families whom I profiled several years ago and to see the linguistic changes that have resulted as their children grow older (and as new children are born, changing the family's language dynamics!).  Without further ado, I'd like to welcome back Reb of Uh Oh Spaghettios, last featured here four years ago when her daughter Suzanne was a wee one.  Now Suzanne's in school and baby Max--now a toddler!--has joined the fun.

(Re)introduce us to your family!
I am American; My husband is French. We live in Lille, France. I’ve lived in France for 15 years. My husband and I have been together for ten years. He’s also lived in Scotland and Denmark so he’s fluent in English. Suzanne is five; Max is almost two (in August 2011).

What languages are spoken by the adults in your household and at what level of proficiency?
We are both fluent in French and English (written and spoken). Before the kids were born, we spoke a mix of the two.

How are you exposing your children to both English and French?
At home, we adhere very strictly to OPOL – one parent one language. My husband speaks only French to everyone and I speak only in English to everyone (pets included). I never speak directly to either of my children in French, although they both hear me speaking French to other people. It was a lot of linguistic gymnastics at first, but we got used to it pretty quickly.

Why do you want your children to know more than one language?
It is important that they are able to speak to their French and American families. Language is also a connection with culture, so they need to speak “American” to have that connection with their mother’s culture and to be able to spend time in the US in the future (ie summer camp or high school year abroad, etc.).

How well do your children understand, speak, read, and write the different languages? How do they feel about them? Do they have a preference for what they speak in which contexts? How has their language use evolved as they grow?
Suzanne speaks and understands English as well as any monolingual five-year-old. The only difference is that she uses some French grammar in her English speaking and sometimes uses French expressions translated into English when she speaks to me. When she does speak to me in French, it’s to tell me the exact words someone at school used or because it’s part of an expression that she doesn’t know in English. But, most of the time, she actually does translate the French into perfect English for me. Even when she’s with her friends or at school, she speaks to me in English, which I’m really proud of.  (Sarah adds: As well you should be!)

Max clearly understands English. But he uses more French than his sister did at the same age. He says many words and expressions in English, but his French vocabulary is clearly stronger because of the social context of the French-only nursery school. Most recently I was surprised by how many words he knows in French because I’d never heard him say them before. Sometimes he says things I don’t understand and then realize it must be French; and sometimes he says things in French that I do understand. I repeat it back in English which usually brings him to say it in English as well. When he does say something in French, if I tell him I don’t understand or tell him to “say it like Mommy,” he will usually use the English word. He has just begun stringing nouns together which make micro-sentences mixing both languages. Max uses English for home activities and food (things associated with me) and seems to use more French for common objects and verbs.

Suzanne usually speaks English to her brother. I get the impression that English is more the language inside the house as well as being the mother tongue, which it is called for a real reason I now understand! Having her speak English to her brother is really helpful to me because it not only adds an added English presence in the house, but also creates a little bond and provide me with support.

I think Suzanne feels happy to speak English. A few months ago, Suzanne was really upset because her friends asked her to say something in English and she couldn’t, like her brain was blocked. We explained to her that it was normal and that even if it was hard now, she’d be so happy later to have English. And, happily, the other day she told me that speaking two languages wasn’t hard for her.

How have you been able to expose your children to the cultures where the different languages are spoken?
When Suzanne was born, I sought out other English speakers where we live. We try to get together once a week so the kids can spend time together. Seeing each other regularly when we all only had one kid was much easier than when we all had our second. I feel it’s important for the kids to know it’s okay and normal to be bilingual. It also gives the parents support. We listen to English radio (BBC), read lots of books in English, and watch mainly English language movies and programmes.

We also have a three-week visit from Grandma every six months, which helps reinforce the language.  Unfortunately, we don’t get to the US very often.

What resources and activities have been most useful to you?
Books have been an amazing resource. Cebeebies radio (BBC for children) has also been great to put on as background noise when we get home.  (Reb also has organized a bilingual storytime at the public library!)

What challenges have you faced as you raise your children bilingually?
I have to say it was much easier raising a bilingual family when there was only one child. Because Suzanne is older and is now social, Max is exposed to more French than Suzanne was at the same age. He hears me speaking more French. Also, I feel that I’m not as aggressive with his English as I was with Suzanne’s. For instance, I distinctly remember ignoring Suzanne when she spoke to me in French whereas for Max, I find myself responding to his French request by reinforcing it in English without making him repeat in English like I did to Suzanne. This reinforces his understanding of English without reinforcing his use of the language. That said, kids are very different and there are many factors that contribute to their learning of both languages. It’s hard not to compare.

Another challenge is self-doubt. I wonder if I’m missing part of my kids’ personality because I don’t know their French selves. They have this whole other part of themselves that I never see. And as a parent, it’s hard to accept that you may not know your kids. But I think that’s true for anything in parenting…or I hope so.

There is also the challenge of transmitting the culture with the language. The American friends I have here try to do “American” things like Thanksgiving, Halloween…and I’ve also gone to Suzanne's school to do some lessons on English and American holidays.

Do you have any advice for us?
The best advice I can give is be consistent and strict. It is essential to stick to a system that works for you. We are really strict with OPOL but have friends who aren’t. And the result is that their kids don’t speak the minority language (my English friend actually says his thing in English and then repeats in French to make sure his kids understand, which defeats the point. The proof is in the pudding….)

Another difficult situation is when we are with family in an all-French situation. At first it was hard, until I created an English universe when we are in such situations. I always make sure there is an English presence no matter where we are so that the kids are never completely detached.

It’s hard to encourage your kids to use the minority language when they have friends in the majority language. But, I tend to speak English to their friends too so they see it’s kind of cool. I encourage Suzanne’s friends to say things in English so that everyone knows it’s okay and so Suzanne won’t feel a stigma.

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?
To be honest, I don’t think I would do anything differently so far. I would just remind myself that kids are resilient and adaptable.

I did a lot of reading before the kids were born – and based on my own studies of second language acquisition – I felt fairly prepared for the intellectual part of raising kids bilingually, but not for the emotional part. I definitely wasn’t prepared for the emotional tie I had with my native language. It’s hard not to take your child’s language acquisition personally. I think it’s important to understand the various ways to raise your kids bilingually so you can choose the right system for you. Be prepared….!

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you would like to comment on?
How has it affected my entourage? How has my entourage handled the OPOL situation in the family?

Luckily, both of our families are very supportive of the way we raise the kids. It’s especially helpful when we are with my husband’s family in a very French situation and I speak English, which no one really understands. They could have felt left out or angry, but they don’t. There are some non-English friends who felt alienated and it has caused strife in some of my relationships. But as the kids have start to grow up, I realize how important it is for me to be with bilingual people who understand the importance of my own language and culture.

Dear Readers, isn't it wonderful to hear from a mother who has been successful raising her kids bilingually, despite significant challenges, and who says that she wouldn't have it any different!  Reb, thank you so much for updating us on your family's strategies and progress.


  1. thanks for keeping up with us Sarah! I hope our experiences can help other mutillingual families!

  2. I love this profile too. We have a lot of the same issues, even though we're on the other side of the world in Japan.

  3. Hi.

    I`m not a native English-speaker, and the environment is not English either, but I raise my son in English. Do you know anybody who are in the same situation? (A blog or a book would work).

  4. Very sweet profile! I wonder how Suzanne and Max will interact once Max is in school too. My sons played with one another in English only until my second son became proficient in French. Now it's mixed -- they don't mix languages when they're playing, but one day the battles are in French and the next day the dinosaurs fight in English.

    Thanks for the blog!

  5. Loved reading about this family!! She has some great advice. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Thanks to all the comments about my little family. I hope that when I update the profile in another 4 years I'll be able to report back and say my kids speak English together. I definitely have the blogosphere to thank for the support and ideas that I've gotten in raising bilingual kids.

  7. I second Reb's gratitude to you all, the other parents and teachers in the blogosphere, for their support!

    Yes, isn't Reb's story inspiring?

    Rachael--I'd be curious to hear more about how your two children use the two languages together. Would you be interested in answering my profile questions? If so, please email me at babybilingual (AT) gmail (DOT) com.

    Yu and Tart--same question! Would you consider letting me profile your family too?

    Yu--I know how challenging it is to use one's non-native language with one's children! Several of the families on my blogroll ("Who Else?") are raising their kids with a non-native language. Check out, for example, "Big Boy and Xiao Chien," "German in the Afternoon," "Non-native Bilingualism," and "Our Non-native Bilingual Adventure," for example.

    Also, Multilingual Living and Multilingual Mania have information for non-native language parents, as do many of the recent books on bilingualism (see Multilingual Living's recommendations and what Multilingual Matters publishes). (Those sites are in my blogroll under "Bilingualism and Multilingualism.")

    Good luck! Keep us posted!

  8. Yes, very nice that their system has worked for their family. I only would like to comment on one thing...

    Reb said, "We are really strict with OPOL but have friends who aren’t. And the result is that their kids don’t speak the minority language (my English friend actually says his thing in English and then repeats in French to make sure his kids understand, which defeats the point. The proof is in the pudding….)"

    I think each family is different. I HAVE done this since my kids were small. I would say a phrase or word in English, then repeat it is Italian, to stablize the understanding that there were two ways of saying that word or phrase. I may ask them a question, and when they answer in one of the languages, encourage them to remember how it is said in the other. It worked. My kids can totally switch easily between both languages. They can communicate in both, understand in both, and are able to correct me when I make mistakes, translate for me when I go blank, and that is great. It worked for us... Again, every family is different. If something is not working, perhaps some things need to be modified, but it IS also possible to learn that way. Thank you. ;-)

  9. Hi Celita,

    Thank you for making an excellent point! Reb's English friend's pattern of translating everything into French clearly isn't motivating his children to learn English.

    But, just as clearly, this approach works well for your family! Do you also do the opposite (someone makes a statement in Italian and then repeats it in English)?

    It's fascinating to reflect on the differences (and successes) among bilingual families. Why does it work for you and not Reb's friend? Does it have to do with the rapport between ml and ML, the ages of the children, the amount of time spent with mom, dad, caretaker, school, or just the family dynamics, the children's learning styles, and the parents' teaching styles?

    (I don't have any answers, alas!)