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Bilingual household questions

post #1 of 8
Thread Starter 

hi all,

We have a bilingual household with my mother tongue being french and my dh speaking english. My dh has some arabic in his vocabulary as well from his cultural background that we are trying to keep alive. My ds is 2.5 and has heard both frencha nd elgish since birth. I only speak to him in french, regardless of who's in the room. My dh speaks some french but mostly english to him. He hears french and english at his grandparents homes, depending on which  household he's in (they are his caregivers when we're at work). We have books, music and videos in both languages. At age 4, he'll go to a french preschool and then french school.

ds obviously grasps both languages and will use both in a sentence when he speaks with me, or others who know french. He's obviously drawn clear lines in his mind as to who is supposed to speak what language as he will tell his english speaking grandparents not to speak french if they try.

I'm wondering how much to push things. ds has started speaking in full sentences in recent months. You can tell he's got to think through what he wants to say at times. But he's really reverted to english lately. All I get out of him is a few french words within english sentences. I'm wondering if he's just trying to figure out one language structure over the other for now and I just let it be...or do I insist he speak french to me. I tend to repeat what he's just said but in french. but there's no trying on his part to say things in french. Our community is largely french and I know from watching many households, that kids tend to talk english a lot once they're exposed to media, etc and a lot stay speaking english. So it's not uncommon to see household where both parents are fluent in french but they speak english to their kids as their kids just stuck to english at some point. I really value bilingualism and want my kids to be comfortable in both languages.

Of note, I'm due with second baby in May and will be home with both kids for a year, so he will hear lots more french.

I'm curious to hear from other parents with bilingual households about how their kids evolved language-wise - is it common for them to get stuck on one language at some point and it will settle or is it important to insist on both languages to not just fall into patterns.


post #2 of 8

First off, you may get more response to this in the Multicultural Families forum: http://www.mothering.com/community/f/438/multicultural-families

Anyway my first question is what language will his education be in? It seems like you are in a mostly French-speaking community. If this is the case, and his school will be in French, then actually you may end up having to worry about the opposite problem once he's in school: getting him to speak English. Also, which language do you use with your husband?


I live in Germany but am American, my husband is German and we speak English together. I speak only English to our son, my husband mostly only German to him. Obviously his aunt and grandmother also only speak German to him, as well as all our German friends. Our son gets German from every direction (\~he also goes to preschool in German and will be educated in German, and I am the only constant English influence in his life. I have lots of English friends so he does hear us speak English, and my husband and I speak English together....but still about 90% of what comes out of DS's mouth is German. I know the frustration and sadness you feel. I long to hear a complete English sentence from my son but alas it hasn't happened yet. I also don't want to force it because once you do it becomes like a chore to them and the last thing I want to do is build an unpleasant association in his head to English. I work in an English job and all my coworkers whose kids are here and bilingual....about 90% of them do only want to speak German, their everyday language,, the language they are speaking all day long at school and with their friends and everyone else,  and it is not always easy to get them to use English at home. This is what I hear and see from my coworkers with older kids.


The only thing I have heard really works is to spend a significant amount of time in an all-English environment. Immersion. I have heard that, for example, when my mixed-language friends go on holiday back to England or the US, after a few weeks their kids start speaking English. And the effects will last after they get home....and then fade. We are far from home but I am committed to bringing DS back to the US as often as possible to help get him speaking English (among other reasons). I hope when he's older he might want to go to summer camp in the US, and do a student exchange, and maybe eventually go to college there. I think if any of those things happen and he builds friendships and a little life in English, then it will really stick. But for now it is kinda heartbreaking in a way that he mostly speaks German.


Anyway all that advice is only if your kids are in a mostly English environment and will be educated in English, so that French will be their second (not primary) language. If French will be their first language (everyday use in school and community) then you may have to end up doing more for their English...not their French.


Best of luck!

post #3 of 8
Thread Starter 

thanks for your response PJ. We do live in a predominantly french area and his schooling will be in french. But english is the language of our society - tv, when we leave our small village. and everyone speaks english, not everyone speaks french. So I think english becomes cool, french not so much - it's an interesting dynamic in our culture as we speak a dialect of french that is only found in our province - so there is a message absorbed that our french is sub-parr since it isn;'t anywhere close to standardized french. I love my french for this reason - there is a lengthy history to our dialect (sort of equivalent to Shakesperean english in terms of the age of some of the words and phrases we use, with a lot of evolution over the decades) and its hwat makes us distinct. So it is so important to me to keep it alive. But kids don't think it's cool, so english prevails.

thanks for the link to the multicultural families forum section - I hadn't noticed it before and I see there are parents struggling with the same thing. I'll jump in on conversations there.

Sorry to ehar about your struggle with your little one. Sometimes it must feel like quite a tide you're trying to go up against. I hope your little one will enjoy time back home where they can get more exposure and comfort with english. bilingualism serves them well in their lives. I'm sure just the ability to comprehend two languages helps them in life. But I think it can be a slippery slope from comprehension but refusing to speak it to eventual loss of the language. I think that's why we're so concerned!


post #4 of 8

Since your son will be going to French schools, I wouldn't worry about him speaking only English at this stage. It is perfectly normal for them to go through phases where they only want to speak one language or the other. Forcing it will only make it a big deal. What I would not do, though, is give up speaking French to him just because he always answers in English. Stick with your French. It doesn't matter that he responds in English. It is probably just a phase, and if not, it will almost certainly change when he hits pre-school and all his class-mates speak French. 

post #5 of 8

Definitely continue in both.  My grandparents were from Canada (can't remember where, but it was backwoods middle of nowhere from what I'm told), moved to the US and spoke French in the house, but always English outside of the home.  Of their 4 children, my mother was the only one who learned to speak and understand French.  She always refered to it as 'slang French', especially when my sister started to take French (Parisian) in middle school and they were very different.  Unfortunately my grandparents didn't see the value in being billigual so while they did speak it at home, French wasn't what they prefered from the kids.  My mother taught my sister and I little bits here and there as kids, mostly songs and things of that nature, but I believe at this point she's forgotten most of what she knew since none of the French speaking relatives are alive anymore. 


Now my father's mother was also from Canada but English was her first language, his father from Denmark, and he never allowed anyone to speak anything other than English in the house, so the ability to speak Danish died with him.  My MIL is Ukranian and never made an effort to speak it to DH, just to her father, and so DH also missed an opportunity to learn a 2nd language while young.  I think even if your LO chooses to speak one over the other, having the ability to speak both is always there and it's a great thing.  All I can hope for with my DD is to pass along the tidbits of French that I know from my childhood and see where she goes from there.  Our neighbors are Jamaican/Hatian and speak a different dialect of French that they are teaching their LO (3mos older than ours) so perhaps when they play they will share with one another!

post #6 of 8
Thread Starter 

Sassyfirechick, I wonder if your grandparents were from my area originally. Our french is far from Parisian french, we live pretty rurally and it would definitely have been backwoods and isolated in your grandparents time, and so many families moved to the US, particularly New England, in that era for work. Interesting, although sad for you that little of the french was passed down. I think that was pretty common back then - assimilation into the dominant culture was usually the route taken to keep things simple.

I have been chatting with moms in the multicultural families forums about this and it's been helpful. I did decide to start nudging ds a bit to speak french, just to see what happens, as I realized if he sticks to english, he will likely use english with his sibling once he/she is born in May. And my experience has been once you establish a relationship in one language, it's tricky to change it. What I;ve discovered through my little experiment is that while he understands french and uses some words, he's not sure how to string a sentence together. So we've been starting with simple things - when he wants something, to ask for it in french. So far, he's not fighting it and seems more confident than at the start of the week to use french. there's still a ways to go, but I don't think he's going to resist too much. And yes, I will never stop talking to my children in french - it's too valuable to not do!

thanks ladies!

post #7 of 8

We're a bilingual household (French Canadian/English), but speak predominately English at home. The school that the kids go to is 100% french, but before they started school, they spoke only english at home, with only a little bit of exposure to french.  The preschool that the baby (18 months) goes to is bilingual, but most of the kids there can only speak french.


What I've noticed with the older kids is that they went from being predominately english, to predominately french.  They still speak english at home, but the fact that we didn't push them to be bilingual from birth has not slowed them down at all in aquiring bilingualism.  They don't even have english accents when they speak in french, which is pretty cool.  I've started tutoring them in english just to make sure that they don't lose that part of it, too much (and being an english world, I'm not really worried about it too much, but just want to make sure that their english spelling stays up to par).


The baby is just learning to talk, and what I've noticed is that she has some words that she says exclusively in english, and others that she ONLY knows in french (couche, for example, when she's asking for a new diaper).  The whole process fascinates me, and I'm eager to see how she'll transition into bilingualism over the next few years.  This is the first child we've had that we started in french this young, so it's kind of neat to see how quickly she's picking it up. She can understand directions in both french and english, already.

post #8 of 8

Hehe, makes me think of growing up and one of the first (and few!) things my mother taught me in french was (and please forgive my spelling on this one, I'm not sure my mother even knew how to write in french, just how to speak it) - touche pa (don't touch). smile.gif

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