Tuesday, August 23, 2011

second language, second child

Six weeks after the birth of my daughter Gwyneth, I pull away from her wide-eyed-in-wonder dark-blue-nearly-violet gaze, her eyes milk-drunk and awe-struck and dreamy beside my breast, her eyes sighing contentedly as she slides into sleep with pure bliss and trust. I raise my head from her tiny face and let the lullaby trail off my lips and realize that we have been in this position for six weeks. Surely I have moved from this chair at some point every day--someone drove to the doctor's, tucked in the toddler, prepared the pasta--but it feels as if I have been cradling this lovely being nonstop for six weeks.

And for six weeks, I have spoken to her only in French, my second language. Songs, rhymes, narration, even exasperation as she slimes me with yet another slick of spit-up down my shoulder--all formed in French. She responds with coos and cries, grunts and groans, whines and whimpers and wheezes, hiccups and burps. Gwyneth speaks Baby and I speak Maman.

Mother tongue.

Her mother.

Her mother's adopted tongue.

I am giving my two children two languages, fiercely, determinedly, imperfectly. And because French and I didn't really meet until I was 15 years old, my speaking it now with them is a deliberate, constant choice rather than a natural, careless comfort. Using French with Griffin and now Gwyneth means that I have to think actively about what words to use and keep a bilingual dictionary in every room (and spend too much money on amazon.fr and eBay Canada). 

And I embrace the challenge and know it's worth the effort (and the endless explanations to acquaintances and strangers). Three and a half years of French with my brilliant and beautiful boy have shown me that I can do this, even though I am not a native speaker. Three and a half years ago, it was awkward, newly-child-centric French gasped out as I struggled with Griffin's colic, reflux, and the hell of nursing a baby with a tongue-tied frenulum, plus the difficult transition from being a successful teacher and library program coordinator to a bleary brain-dead new mommy, unsure about everything.

This time around I am a maman whose child doesn't scream (nearly) nonstop, who knows how to take care of a baby, who knows a lot of the lingo even though it never appeared in her textbooks or her conversations with other young people while living in France.  I'm finally getting it figured out!

And so is Griffin--his ability to understand and play with both languages still amazes me.  While he clearly prefers Engish, the language he hears most often from a greater number of speakers and materials, his comprehension in French is equal to that in English, probably because of the huge number of books we read together and songs he hears.

Each day, I make this conscious decision to use my non-native French with my children. It keeps my mind sharp and ensures that I pay close attention to my interactions with them.  It increases my sense of wonder and piques my curiosity and makes me want to record their every utterance and accomplishment on my blog.  (Fortunately for you, I'm too tired to do so!)  I can't tell them often enough how much I aime them.

So why are my monolingual American husband and I raising these kids bilingually?  Well, it makes all sorts of synapses connect in their busy little brains, teaches them to be world citizens, and opens up opportunities for them later on in life.  Yes, this, and so much more--researchers and parents and teachers say so, yes.

But me?  Moi?  Ultimately, I am a better mother because I choose to speak French with Griffin and Gwyneth, and to me, that's the most important reason.


  1. Thank you for the reminder that we don't have to be a native speaker or speak perfectly, as long as we are doing it!

  2. I am a soon to be dad who will be bringing up my soon to be child in my non native Italian. This post is very comforting to me as I have a gigantic myriad of doubts and concerns about my new challenge.

    I have noticed that most of these multilingual family blogs are dominated by mothers, are there no other dads who bringing up their children in their second language?

    1. Nearly a year after but yes, there is at least one: me.

    2. Hooray! Surely there must be others...maybe these dads just aren't blogging in English.

      Here's my profile of Dani's family:


  3. congrats to you on both the new baby & raising children bilingually. we're doing the same (except with spanish thrown into the mix) & i totally relate to many things you've experienced. i also believe as an ex-foreign language teacher & now turned SAHM that continued independent study of french keeps my mind active (along with all the benefits my daughter's receiving, of course). glad to see there are like-minded & equally determined people out there!

  4. have you tried frenchbooksonline.com & schoenhofs.com for french books? lots of goodies there!

  5. Fantastic post and congrats on your success in raising your children in non-native French. I speak non-native Spanish to my son, and love reading about the success stories of others.

  6. Go you! Congrats on the birth of your daughter! Isn't it good that all the hard work you've already put in can be put to good use again? I like your point about it all making you so much more focused on what you and they say. So true.

    Plus, maman is such a lovely word.

  7. This is a beautiful post. I am inspired, both as a mother and a non-native speaker of a foreign language. We are struggling with the idea of a second child, and your description tugs so forcefully at my mother's heartstrings. Thank you for that! I also love the way you describe your determination and the deliberate way you choose to speak French to your children every moment of every day. It's true that we non-native-speakers have a very different feeling about the language we speak to our children. But it makes it all the more special. Congratulations on your beautiful baby and your continued successes. You are an inspiration!

  8. Who said there are no dads raising bilingual kids? I´m one. Spanish dad of a 16 months old cutie boy speaking my imperfect English (and reading stories, Pocoyo, internet viedos...) while the rest of his world speak Spanish and most frown at us when they detect what they consider weird. Last week a belgium workmate told me the wird thing in Belgium is to speak ONLY ONE languaje to the babies!! I´m really touched by your words, you described my feelings perfectly. It´s comforting to find people who share this, cause I don´t have anyone around me to share my fears with apart from my wife (who is absoluty supportive and participating in the project by the way). First results: My little one is producing 60% Spanish 40%English, but there they are!! Recognizable utterances for star, stone, bear, sea shell, lizard, ham, ball, turtle, poo, and I hope there are many more to come... Thank you so much for writting this wonderful post. You have a faithful follower in Madrid.

  9. Oh, thank you all so much for your comments which brought tears to my eyes! (Or maybe that's just the hormonal changes and sleep deprivation that Gwyneth brought with her.)

    I love this feeling of connection to other non-native speaking parents, and it's so helpful and valuable to know that others are embracing this challenge too!

    @Liavek--Felicitations on your success! It would be such fun to get our little boys together and watch them play in their non-native French....Maybe some day!

    @Dominick--Congratulations on the incipient arrival of a future bilingual baby! While it seems like most of the bloggers writing (in English) about raising kids bilingually are moms, surely plenty of dads are doing so too. You'll have to start your own blog to let us know how it works for your family.

    @Anonymous francophone mom--Enchantee de faire ta connaissance! Where are you located and how old are your kiddos? Would you be interested in letting me profile your family here? I'd love to hear more about how it works for you.

    Thanks for the recommendations--a long time ago, I bought a storybook for Griffin, and he loves it, but I couldn't remember where it came from. Now I can get another one in the series!

    (This one: http://frenchbooksonline.com/les20plbehil.html .... expensive, but not if you calculate the price per story!)

    I'll add these two sites to my resources page and spend more time browsing them soon.

    @Spanish anglophone dad--Thank you for writing in and sharing your perspective as a non-native speaker. It sounds like you're doing a fabulous job. You should have a blog too, please! Or at the very least, when your son is a bit older, perhaps I could do a profile of your family as well?

    @Everyone--In fact, that offer is open to you all--I would love to hear about your choices, your strategies, your "we-wish-we-would-have-done-X-differently"s. I have a list of interview questions and then I post your responses. If you're interested, please email me at babybilingual@gmail.com!

    Here are the previously posted profiles: http://babybilingual.blogspot.com/search/label/profiles

    @Lynn, Ann, Sonushka, German, and other Anonymous--Merci and Danke and spaseeda!

  10. Thanks for sharing this!! I'm due in March and my husband and I want to raise our child to be bilingual (Spanish is my adopted language....he's of Mexican descent, but doesn't speak it and wishes his parents had taught him.) I'm so glad I stumbled on this blog!!!

  11. @berry31--you are welcome! Congratulations on your pregnancy. How fantastic that your husband is on board to raise your kiddo bilingually! It will be fun to watch them learn Spanish together. Keep us posted on how it all goes!

  12. Sarah! I haven't checked your blog in a while but am so glad I did. You describe perfectly the way I feel about raising my daughter in my non-native German. It's better than I could have described myself and I think I'll just show it to anyone who wonders 'why.' Thank you.

  13. It's all been said before but I too am so glad to hear that other parents are doing and going through the same challenges as I am. My native language is English but I've been studying French since I was in the 8th grade. I continued on and earned my degree from college in French in 1999 and now I have spent the last two years speaking French with my daughter. I can't help wondering if the benefit of teaching her how to speak in French, to the best of my ability, is somewhat undermined by the fact that I can't be and therefore teach her to be, as articulate in French as I can be in English. There are moments when I want to say something and she knows it so she waits with a blank stare as I ponder the correct way to say something. Other times I say something twice like a broken record because I made a gramatical error the first time. I keep wondering if I am harming her abilities to communicate natuarally? On the bright side, I have always carried some hurtfull comments my mother said to me when I was a child. I'm sure she did it out of frustration but it still stuck with me. Luckily, when you speak in a language that is not your native tongue, you really have to think before you speak. I think this helps avoid some of those moments when parents wish they wouldn't have said something. We don't have any choice...we have to think, then speak. My husband is also on board for this project but I don't think he can understand, even though he wants to, what it's like to want to express yourself to your child and to not be able to do so. I know I can go look up the word or research the issue so that I am prepared for the next time that particular situation arrises but it's disheartening sometimes to not be able to express myself in the manner I want, at the time that I want. I wonder if this doubt ever goes away. Finding your post and those of the other parents is helpful. Thank you.

    1. Bonjour Anonymous--thank you so very much for your comment. I know--oh, do I ever!--how challenging this is. Bravo for you (and your supportive husband) for making it happen over the past two years. I have a lot of the same questions and fears as you do about the long-term effects of my imperfect bilingualism on the kids' ability to communicate later in life.

      But our kids' English will be fine, and their French will be good enough.

      Thanks also for sharing your story about how speaking deliberately can help us avoid traumatizing our children when we get frustrated.

      Do you have francophone families in your area that you can interact with, like playgroups or storytimes or an Alliance Francaise? I think it would be so hard to do this without exposing the kids to other children who speak French.

      Oooh, here's an idea: wouldn't it be cool to have a week-long conference/camp for the families of non-native speakers of French where the children would play together, take mini-classes, go on field trips, and the parents shared their best ideas and socialized and met with native-speaker teachers? (And the non-French-speaking spouses could get together for a support group.)

    2. Thank you for your comments and ideas. As for groups to meet with, I am fortunate that my town has a French Immersion school. I am hoping to be able to send both of my children (my daughter is almost 2 and my son is almost 6 months) to the school when the kids are old enough, if I can afford it. For now, looks like it's just going to be me. The school had been offering a little weekly group meeting for kids up to 24 months. We sang songs, played and did crafts and it was all done in French. Since money is hard to come by and due to my childrens' ages, we won't be able to participate in the group anymore.

      I was wondering...do you or anyone reading this, discuss in front of your children, the langauge topic? Do you allow family to make a big deal about it? I mean, I agree it is a HUGE deal but I want her language learning to be as natural as possible. Everytime she says something I am ready to explode with joy and pride but it seems like lots of "pointing out" that she is doing something out of the "ordinary" will not be positive.

      I have tried, without as much success as I would like, to tell people not to make a big deal over her speaking in French. The family members get so taken back that they laugh, smile, giggle and looked puzzeled as they tell my daughter things like "honey I don't speak French..do you like speaking French?...do you speak French with mom? When the adults don't understand they laugh and act very confused and go on and on about how they need me to tell them what she is saying. It just seems like my daughter looks a little confused and almost has the appearance that she is doing something wrong when she gets that reaction from them.

      I don't want to be rude to people so I don't say too much but I'm starting to get a little cranky about it. Any advice on how to deal with family members that mean well but are not on the same plan as the one I am on?
      At the moment, I just tell them not to worry about it and if they dont' understand something she says, just tell her that.

      Anyway, I apologize for another, extra long, post. It's just so nice to feel like I am not alone in this and to see that there are SO many of us out there. :)

    3. No apologies necessary! I love hearing from other non-native parents. What a shame that the French immersion school in your city is fee-based--any chance of scholarships or bartering (cleaning, for example) to reduce the tuition?

      Maybe you need to create your own (free) French language playgroup for toddlers! You could try using Meetup.com to organize something, put notices in school newsletters and at foreign language depts at local colleges, etc....

      As far as the idea of not making a big deal about my children's speaking French, no, it doesn't bother me when people exclaim over it--in fact, I prefer that people praise my kids for what they can do as opposed to, say, what they are wearing. I think it's very cool that they're bilingual and want others to recognize this as well!

      Your toddler will quickly learn who speaks which language and address them appropriately, so her speaking French to family and new acquaintances will probably become a non-issue very soon--they'll understand her just fine (or as well as you can understand a two-year-old, at least!).

      I can empathize, though, with not wanting to appear rude when speaking French in an anglophone country, and also with not wanting to make such a big deal out of the bilingualism that the kids start to see it as strange and/or feel stigmatized.

      Perhaps looking at an analogous situation in English might be useful? For example, when Griffin says "please" or "thank you" unprompted, we let him know that we like that and are proud of him. He glows with the praise, and yet this doesn't send a message that politeness is an usual trait.

      I do also recognize that I'm lucky to have family (including in-laws) who are supportive and understanding of our quest for bilingualism.

    4. Hello again,
      Just thought I'd give an update. Things are going so....great. My daughter is doing great with her French and easily switches back and forth from French to English. She speaks French with her brother when I am there and speaks English with him when she is with her dad. I will tell her in French to say "Merci" and she turns to the other person and says "Thank you". It's wild how she acts as my own little translator. I will say something like "Tu veux prendre un bain?" and she turns right around to whomever is there and kind of explains by saying "I go take bath." It's not a direct translation but it's awesome to see her do it and it really helps all the non-French speaking family memebers because they are not lost in the conversation. I told her the other day to speak louder because her grandmother's ears don't work very well, which is true, and she turned to her grandmother and told her that her ears don't work. It was really funny and we all laughed. It's so rewarding to be at a point where she is really speaking and I can see that it's all coming together. It is so...inspiring to see that the sacrfices made early on and that I continue to make are all worth it! I still have a certain concerns but overall I am so glad I stuck with this. My confidence has grown so much so quickly. There were some moments early on when I wasn't sure if I should be doing this but now...I'm thrilled.

      To top it off....the immersion school here in town has asked me to teach the baby class. I'm so excited. This is the class I spoke about in an earlier post that my daughter and I attended last year. I feel really ready for this and look forward to helping other parents achieve the same goal that I am working towards. It gets better...they now have a toddler class that my daughter can attend twice a week and with me teaching one day a week, I can now afford for her to go. The owner of the school is awesome and her French is so...BEAUTIFUL! I'm just so thank you for this opportunity.

      Thank you again for all the advice!

  14. Hello,
    I am now taking French as a second language with my daughter who is 11 and my husband. I've wanted to take a second language for so long but it always seemed so daunting! We are learning as a family and I have to say that each time I hear and understand a new French word or phrase I get so elated! I'm very happy that I stumbled onto this blog..It is my hope that we will get comfortable enough to speak mainly French as a family...more to come:)

    1. Bravo to you for getting the whole family involved with learning French! Are you taking classes, working with a tutor, planning a family trip to a French-speaking country?

      Bonne chance, bon courage, and keep in touch!

  15. Thanks for this. I have a doctorate in French, lived there for many years, and now have two boys, 4 and 1.5. I stocked up on materials while pregnant with the first - in Paris! - and had every intention of speaking French with my kids. And then I didn't do it. Too much insecurity and concern with "authenticity," etc. Recently I got over it and am starting a French-speaking playgroup, led by me. I'm just going to go for it! When searching for ideas for comptines, games, etc., your blog came up first. I am so grateful! Mille mercis, and I look forward to following your adventures in bilingual parenting.

  16. Sarah,

    Thank you for your blog! I just had my little one at the end of March and have been speaking to him in French pretty much exclusively, much to my amazement. I am a very non-native speaker, and self-taught, at least for most of my successful learning. I wonder if you might know of other families in our shoes? It seems like most of you other brave souls are teachers, or have lived in a foreign country, or do a substantial amount of work in your target language. I, on the other hand, largely expect to be doing a lot of even very basic learning with my baby. (I still don't really believe that I will ever master all of the French tenses, though I guess linguists see perfecting French as the ultimate challenge for a reason!) I am extremely nervous about the effects of my broken French on my little one's brain!

    If you are interested, I started a blog-- we haven't been at it long, so obviously it is new, but you can find us at http://bilingualexperiment.wordpress.com/.


    1. I hope it's okay to reply to your comments. I am not sure if the reply is just meant for Sarah or anyone so...here goes....Wow! I laughed with eyes watering over when I read your story on your blog! I have always felt the exact same way. I'm basically a stay at home mom who took French in college. It has only been over the last couple of years, being forced to speak in French everyday and being forced to speak in public, that my confidence has grown. I tell myself that the cold, very rewarding, hard fact is, I made the choice to speak French with the kids and I can't stop communicating just because we are in public so...I have been forced to do it. As time goes on, it gets easier and you will not notice the invisible linguist...well not as much. I study a lot and most of my vocabulary now is coming from my kids. My child may want something or refer to something in English because she doesn't know the word in French. I just go with it at the time and then look up the word. The next day, I use it with her and we both learn it. Sometimes we learn several words in a day. Something else I do that you may find useful is, if I discover that I have taught my kids something incorrectly I do a transition to fix it. For example; I have been using the verb "pousser" when I want them to push a button. I discovered that recently I should have been using "appuyer" or "presser". So now I always start by says "pousse..." but then follow it with "appuye...". Then after doing that a bit, I start with the correct way and leave out the other. It only takes a couple of times and the kids will catch on. This transitions the kids without them being confused and needing to make a big deal out of it. Hope that helps! Good Luck!

    2. Sorry for the spelling error..."appuie", not appuye. :)

  17. Thank you very much for your blog and especially for the inspiring posts about being a non-native speaker of the target language. That's my situation exactly. I speak to my 1 year old son in English since he was born, and not only I am a non-native speaker of English, I've never actually visited any English speaking country.

    Your blog helps me overcome my doubts.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Deniko. That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me all day! It's been challenging to keep my blog updated since my second child was born, so I appreciate hearing that it has made a difference for you.

      Bravo to you for embracing this challenging of raising your son in your non-native language! I imagine you take advantage of the multitude of resources in English for children available online? While I hope that you and your son will eventually make it to an English-speaking country, I know--personally, definitely--that this can be done without visiting a place where the target language is spoken!

  18. Hi there, just stumbled across your blog on Pinterest. I'll be adding a section to my blog about other non-native bilingual parents and will link to your amazing blog. I just started mine a few weeks ago, but have been raising bilingual kids in my my non-native language for over 20 years. Here's the link: http://nonnativebilingualparents.blogspot.com/

    1. Guten Tag, Nina, and thanks for visiting my blog! I have added yours to my sidebar and look forward to reading more about your bilingual success stories!

  19. Thanks for this post, as i am reading it I think about my own feelings about raising a bilingual child and they much correspond with the words in your article. I am from Russia and a Russian native-speaker and I raise my daughter bilingual with English which is a foreighn language for me, though I am not sure, may be not foreighn but a second language. It sems after 2,5 years of bilingual life i start to think in English sometimes. I love your site very much and dream to start speaking French with my daughter too. I adore french, i can read and understand this language though i don't speak it as fluently as English and it's going to be a great challenge for me but i know the result and the feeling of success are worth my big efforts. Thanks for inspiration. I see you are interested in other stories of bilingual experience, welcome to my site about bringing up a bilingual Russian-English girl on http://inyaz-mama.ru/ and our youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/inyazmamavideo/feed, though the site is in Russian for Russian mothers who just start learning English.

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