Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Meet Carl and Tatie Sarah

Sixteen weeks ago, I became an aunt for the first time. From the very beginning, Carl was squirmy and smart: if he wasn't wiggling or looking at something new, he'd holler. "I'm bored!" he seemed to say. "Give me something to do! Tell me a story! Oh, okay, you can change my diaper first. And you want to feed me? That's good too. Yum yum yum. But I'm bored now! Can you sing me a song? Can I kick you?"

His parents, Elizabeth and Steve, recognized early on that he needed lots of stimulation and loved being the center of attention. Elizabeth is a chemist and Steve a computer programmer, but they are both bibliophiles, have studied other languages, and have lived or worked in other countries (Elizabeth as an adult in Germany, Steve as a pre-teen in Japan). Steve, in fact, majored in classics. They decided, therefore, that they didn't want a monolingual baby. While they would talk and read to him in English, they needed someone fluent in another language who could share that language with him from an early age. As I'm a French teacher--and live nearby and would be watching him one day a week while they work--they asked me to speak only French with Carl.

This thrilled me: I want to raise my future children bilingually, so working with Carl will be good practice. I'll be able to observe the language acquisition process for both English (his "L1," first language) and French (his "L2," second language). While a lot of research has been done on raising bilingual children(where each parent brings a different L1 into the family) and educating children at bilingual schools, less has been published about exposing a child to an L2 from birth via someone who is not the primary caretaker. I want to see what we can accomplish in one day a week and occasional shorter visits, plus CDs of French songs and stories and eventually videos in French that he listens to or watches on his own.

But it won't be easy. First of all, it will take months before Carl can say anything but "gurgle gurgle gurgle." Second, neither his parents, grandparents, nor uncle (my husband) speak French, a situation which has caused problems for some bilingual families. Moreover, we all live in northern Colorado, where there are few opportunities--or reasons--to speak French. And finally, I've never taught anyone younger than high school age! While I did lots of babysitting as a teen and have made friends with my friends' toddlers and school-aged children, I haven't spent much time with infants. Even worse, while I have two masters degrees in languages (one in French, one in Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language), none of my coursework addressed how to teach languages to children. (However, I am a volunteer tutor with elementary and middle school students; although I help them primarily with math, this experience has shown me that what works with college students definitely doesn't work with, say, eight-year-olds!)

I also need to learn "baby vocabulary" in French--I still don't know how to say "What a squirmy little wiggleworm you are!", although I can tell Carl that his diaper's dirty ("Beaucoup de caca!") or that it's time to go nighty-night ("Fais do-do!").

This blog, therefore, will track what I do and don't do with my future francophone nephew and eventually my own kids. I also plan to use it as an informal annotated bibliography of relevant books, articles, and weblinks with recommendations for other bilingual caretakers. (This will force me to do some reading that will inform my choices, instead of just making it up as I go along.) And as I have a handful of friends and co-workers who have raised or are raising their kids bilingually, I'll share ideas that I glean from them. In time, hopefully, other parents and teachers will see this blog and join in the discussion via the "comments" feature at the end of each post. I look forward to hearing your suggestions, ideas, and questions!

Caca (n.m.): "number two" (baby talk)
Faire do-do (v.): to go to sleep (baby talk); from "dormir" (v.), to sleep; also "un fais do-do" (n.m.), a traditional cajun dance party in Louisiana where the participants bring their kids who typically fall asleep to the accordeon music while their parents do the two-step
Tatie (n.f.): auntie; from "tante" (n.f.), aunt


  1. It's wonderful to hear from someone in a similar(ish) position to ourselves with regard to bilingual education issues. I have read your entry with interest and will visit again to hear how you get on. Good luck :)

  2. Sarah, I'm so glad you're blogging your experiences and research. I'll be reading avidly! And soon enough, trading war stories. ;)

    PS -- I've decided to start calling the aunts Taties. (Sounds better than the Spanish equivalent, Titis...)

  3. Hi Sarah, I've been reading your blog since yesterday. It's great ... your information will help me and other parents in raising kids multilingually. Thanks a lot!

  4. Hi Sarah,

    Great work! and congratulations - you are likely now a mom :)
    I am also a French teacher, and would like to have my child due in February be bilingual if not multilingual. My mom taught us four languages early on so the guilt trip is on. Thank you for your website - I found it helpful and good to know I'm not alone in finding this all a daunting task.

  5. Hi Santi--I hadn't seen your comment before today! A year and a half later, we're regular readers of each other's blogs, and I feel like we know all about each other's children's language endeavors. How cool is that?

    Bonjour Anonymous! Congratulations on your new baby. I'd love to hear more about how you grew up with four languages and what you're planning to try with your child--please email me--or at least post comments so we can see what you're up to! (Although with an infant at home, you probably don't have much time to sit around visiting blogs.)

  6. Thank you Sarah! My husband is French and we are planning on starting a family in the next few months...we plan to have multilingual children as their grandparents in Paris only speak French.

  7. Hi Sarah,
    I just found your site through a google search, looking for a book with the same name--we're about to have our first baby in about a month, and have been doing a lot of reading about raising our child bilingual/trilingual as well. I am a teacher of both Spanish and German, and am in the process of working through the many thoughts and information associated with it all. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your efforts, not only in your daily life, but the ones you have made thus far (and I assume will continue to make) to share with the rest of us, what you are doing, what is working, what isn't, etc. I haven't been here but for a few minutes, so I'm not sure what all you have written thus far, but the idea is stellar, and I just wanted you to hear it again, partly to just praise your efforts...and partly to inspire you to continue the process for the rest of us.
    Thanks so much! Tamara

  8. Hi, I would like to let you know my website to learn French for Free, it is http://www.frenchspanishonline.com, please tell me what you think!

  9. I am in a similar situation. As a child growing up in Canada, I was incredibly lucky to be in my town's first French-immersion class starting in kindergarten, so I grew up bilingual but missed out on the baby/toddler/preschool stages of the language. I want my three young children to grow up speaking French but I myself feel more comfortable discussing seventeenth-century literature in French than asking my baby whether he needs to burp or my four-year-old where he put his underwear. I also find it very sad that my southern Maine community, which was French-speaking just a couple of generations ago, offers almost no French resources, and the public schools do not start teaching languages until the very end of elementary school.

    I am learning what I need to know along with my children by reading them any French children's book I can find, watching French films and TV shows such as "Passe-Partout" with them, looking lots of words that I've forgotten (or never knew) up in the dictionary, and exposing them to real live native speakers as often as possible.

    I also run a small publishing company called World's Edge Books & Publishing, and we are now working on a series of books that will help parents to learn languages (including French) along with their children. Our Georgian-language edition will be released in June 2010, and we hope to have the French edition out by the end of the year. I hope that other parents and other caregivers will find this resource helpful.

  10. Oh, isn't it fun to look back at years-old posts and find new comments?!

    @Susan--I look forward to posting your family's profile soon!

    @FSO--If any readers want to check this out and comment, please let us know what you think.

    @Tamara--I just now saw your comment--thanks! I have enjoyed reading your blog this year. Us non-native speakers doing the bilingual thing with our kids need to stick together, right?!

    @Tanya--I see from your blog that you did indeed start a family and even moved to Paris recently! Please check back when your son starts talking and let us know how things are going .

  11. Sarah,

    YEP! We had a baby and we just made it to Paris about 2 weeks ago. I read your blog all the time and will refer back when he starts to talk. He is sure a lucky boy to be here in France. It should be easier for him to be bilingual here than in FL. We plan to stay here about 5 years.

  12. Five years in Paris? Oh my yes. What a gift you and your husband are giving him! Have fun.

    And you are a regular reader and I had no idea who you were! Yes, please do comment when you feel the urge.

  13. Hi,
    I was looking for bilingual blogs, and I came upon this one :)
    I'm bilingual, trilingual actually. I speak english, french and spanish (less than the other two languages) beacause my parents are American and Argentinian, and I've lived in France (first I lived in Paris, and last year we moved to Lyon) ever since I was two years old. My blog is bilingual, and I wanted to connect with other bilingual blogs. This is my blog: http://theveggiepolyglotographer.blogspot.fr/
    I hope you like it!

  14. This really is a great idea for a blog, and well done for keeping it going for so long.

    I love the term Trilingual which I have come across here on your blog for the first time. Here in Ireland nearly all of us are 'trilingual' by the time we finish high school. We all have English as our first language and learn our native language Irish (which is now only spoken in small isolated regions of the country) in primary school. Typically we have to choose French or German as a foreign language in high school.

    The idea of starting to teach a foreign language even before kids go to primary school is certainly a good one.


    1. Hello Joe--It's nice to hear from a reader in Ireland! How wonderful that the schools are making the effort to keep Irish alive. Next step: starting it in preschool!

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