Bi/trilingual families-- need advice - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 01:30 AM - Thread Starter
 
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Hi multi-cultural mamas!

I need some advice.

DH, DS and I just moved from France to the US. DH is Lebanese and I'm American. DS was born in France and from birth on I've spoken to him in English and DH has spoken to him in Arabic. DS picked up a lot of French just from day-to-day life, in fact his forst word was in French.

Now we're in the States, so English is everywhere. It's really important to me that DS learns French-- after all he was born there and has citizenship. So what should we do? Should I start speaking to him in French exclusively? It doesn't feel totally natural to me, although I am fluent.

Any advice would be appreciated.
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#2 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 12:23 PM
 
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Are there any French families with which you could schedule play times? Where I grew up, Michelin had a headquarters nearby, so we had French families within our community.
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#3 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 12:35 PM
 
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i've always heard that to avoid confusion you should have one person per language, like you speak french and DH speaks arabic. because he is in the states he will learn english from others.
we had a german next door neighbor that would have me come babysit and speak french so that only daddy and the babysitter spoke french, mom spoke german and the world around her spoke english. My french is poor, but good enough for a baby : ) she ended up speaking grenglish for a while but it worked out in the end. I think being multi lingual is one of the most important things you can expose a child to, Kudos to you!

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#4 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 02:37 PM
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Are there any French families with which you could schedule play times? Where I grew up, Michelin had a headquarters nearby, so we had French families within our community.

:

Playgroups with French speaking children your son's age are definitely the way to go. Children learn SO MUCH from one another, and being able to play and communicate with a fun friend is a very strong motivation for learning language. I would start the lanaguage at home first--speak with him in French, read to him in French, watch French cartoons, sing French songs. When a foundation has be laid, find him some French speaking friends to play with regularly (especially if those French speaking friends speak ONLY French)--in most cases, you will see his language take off from there.

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i've always heard that to avoid confusion you should have one person per language, like you speak french and DH speaks arabic.
You know, there may be some confusion initially, but it does work itself out. It is certainly not necessary to stick to one OPOL--in fact, depending on a family's specific circumstances, OPOL may NOT be the most effective way to go. Like anything, it works for some, but not for others. Really depends on the family. I think people get overly worried about language confusion in children--it is perfectly normal for bi/tri/multilingual children to confuse languages, mix languages, etc. But it's not a big deal, really. It works out as the child grows older and develops more linguistic finesse. The important thing is the early exposure to each language (preferably from birth, preferably for a large part of the day). Any confusion generally does work itself out as the child gets older

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#5 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 04:58 PM
 
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Yes! Do it now before the habit of speaking English takes over and you really think it feels awkward. I moved to the US (from Sweden) with my 3-year old son with whom I'd exclusively spoke English with. Overnight we switched to Swedish and he was fine. It was a little bumpy for me but we got through it and now 4 years later he's fluent, goes to Swedish school and of course has great English.
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#6 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 05:09 PM
 
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I think he's probably young enough that you could switch without it being weird for him, but if it's not natural for you to speak to him in French, it could be confusing for you.

I am actually in a similar sort of situation. dh and I spoke purely in English to Benjamin and he got spanish from the rest of the community, his nursery, his babysitters, our housekeeper, our friends, etc. Now we are in Scotland, and I don't want him to lose it, but niether do I want him learning MY spanish.

I've just arranged for him to enter a spanish speaking playgroup once a week, and as a result I've hooked up with lots of other families that speak spanish, so that he can have some playmates and some native speakers around him.

With luck he'll keep enough of his spanish until we go back to spanish speaking country again.

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#7 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 07:11 PM
 
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Originally Posted by Marylizah View Post
...Should I start speaking to him in French exclusively? It doesn't feel totally natural to me, although I am fluent.
In your situation, I would not begin exclusively speaking to him in French. I would look for playgroups, read books in French, play DVDs and music in French, and maybe speak French some of the time, but there is something to be said for the authenticity of communication. Speaking multiple languages is valuable (I speak four fluently myself), but the quality and naturalness of the language is important, too. I am looking at this from a kind of opposite perspective though, having studied language and child development, and education, and coming from an immigrant culture within the U.S. in which a lot of people don't value their native language enough to speak it to their children. What often ends up happening is that the parents speak English exclusively to the children, but even when that English is "good enough" or fluent, there are tons of things that they never talk about with their children, because of the effort it takes to translate life experiences into a second language, when you live and think about them in the first language. In other words, many opportunities for spontaneous conversations are lost, leading to a less rich language experience at home.

You could conceivably force yourself to provide as close to an authentic language experience for your son in French as you would in English, but given that you have already established an English language mode of communication, I think it would be a bit harder to switch. Just to give some examples - I speak French exclusively with my son, but I can't force my mouth to make more than one sentence in English to him, ever. And when he speaks English to me, it is only to make brief jokes, or try out some phrase he picked up from television. I have some friends who speak Spanish to their children. I can speak to their children in Spanish, but having already mentally assigned English as our common language, my friends and I can't carry on natural conversations in Spanish to each other, no matter how hard we try.
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#8 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 07:14 PM
 
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when i started hearing about this OPOL method, i wondered how to make it work. im spanish speaking, my partner english. we use english between us, but i try to do more spanglish so he learns. i speak spanish to the baby when it's just us, but when my partner is around, i tend to use english....the community is mostly spanish...wow, i'm dizzy now...no entiendo....
anyway, i think my son is going to learn both languages, doesn't matter wich one first, and it's ok if he mixes them a little.
but the question is...if i teach him to sign...wich sign language?american?english?argentinian?
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#9 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 07:40 PM
 
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Well, my opinion is that if you want your kid to speak it passably living in the US, you'll have to spend a lot of time on it at home and sort of fence English time in instead of the other way around. I think it will start to feel natural once you do it a lot. I speak Russian to my kids even though it's not my native language and I still have to look up some things in the dictionary when they ask me-- and I figure all that does is make it more natural to them to use a dictionary
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#10 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 09:17 PM
 
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I think yamilee21 has a lot of good points. I personally don't think it's only a language you pass on to your children, it's a whole set of values, a sense of humor, etc. Things you just can't pass on if it's not your mother tongue. And as someone who grew up speaking two languages, I can tell you that I as a kid thought it was really funny that my Dad had an accent in English, whereas I didn't (not then, anyway). His English is perfect grammatically, but I just always knew it wasn't his language, it just didn't feel right. I think I would probably try to find other French speakers, and then speak French when you're with them, but I wouldn't speak French with him just for the sake of it. But I'm also a purist when it comes to languages, so you might find other advice more helpful.....
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#11 of 27 Old 02-15-2008, 10:55 PM
 
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... I personally don't think it's only a language you pass on to your children, it's a whole set of values, a sense of humor, etc. ... His English is perfect grammatically, but I just always knew it wasn't his language, it just didn't feel right...
Exactly... things like jokes, proverbs, idioms and colloquial expressions tend not to translate well, if at all. They tend to be used in less formal ("natural") language settings, rather than being taught in school, and often mark the distinction between "native" and "non-native" speakers of a language. I don't have a noticeable accent when I speak English, but I tend to use very few idioms and colloquialisms, and people can often tell that English isn't my first/ only language because of this. Or, as my goddaughter once told me, "You speak English like someone who doesn't *really* speak English."

Another thing to bear in mind is that true bilingualism is relatively rare; many bilingual people are actually what the research calls "composite bilingual" - changing between languages depending on the setting, for example, using one language predominantly at home, and a different one at work or school. With immigrants especially, this can be as extreme as not having certain words in their native vocabularies when their experiences necessitating those words have only occurred in the second language/country, and vice versa. The knowledge of both languages may be equally strong overall, but there will usually some gaps in both, and the gaps will be usually be quite different.
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#12 of 27 Old 02-16-2008, 01:24 PM - Thread Starter
 
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Thanks for all the advice!

Where we are right now there are basically no French people. We'll probably move soon, but I don't know that we'll end up in a place with a larger French community... So that may not be an option.

The problem is that since neither DH nor I are truly native French speakers (tho DH's schooling was exclusively French and he started learning it at age 3) neither of us could truly give him that "pure" linguistic experience. But I still think it's really, really important that DS speak and know French. So I'll probably do what I can to speak to him in French and in English, and supplement with music, books and DVDs in French. Hopefully we can at some point get him into a French school situation.

It's a tough situation, but I'm sure it'll work itself out. And kids *are* very resiliant linguistically! Ideally I'm a purist, but practically if I want my child to learn this language I'm going to have to compromise....
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#13 of 27 Old 02-16-2008, 11:40 PM
 
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You may want to look into "international schools" that are in several large US cities that are sponsered by the French government for French expatriots. For example, here in Dallas there is the Dallas International School (sponsered by the Mission Laique Francaise, an international organization that sponsers French schools outside of France) that is at least 50% American (and growing up English speaking), but has students from France, Canada and other countries whose parents want their child to learn French fluently enough to go to university in France. I believe that if you are of French citizenship, it may be tuition free. You may want to check out the French Embassy to the United States' web site at www.frenchculture.org.

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#14 of 27 Old 02-17-2008, 04:38 PM
 
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Slightly off topic, but in thios and the other bi-lingual/multi-lingual thread I kept reading, "We do OPOL" OPOL this and OPOL that, and I was like...OPOL? what's OPOL? That sounds good...maybe it could help us?

Then I googled it...

derr..One Person One Language...I could not feel any dumber.:

That's what we have done, too, with great success. Our babysitter/housekeeper/and pre-school spoke in spanish to Benjamin while his dad and I speak in English even though we do speak Spanish well enough. Of course now that we are in Scotland...just his pre-school and and some friends will be the spanish speakers.

Rebekah - mom to Ben 03/05 and Emily 01/10, a peace educator, and a veg*n and wife to Jamie.
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#15 of 27 Old 02-17-2008, 07:27 PM
 
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The other option is for you both to speak to each other in French and speak to ds in a different language. I know that dh picked up a couple languages that way. His parents were multilingual and so when they wanted to to speak to each other without him understanding they would speak Yiddish. And then he learned it, LOL so they switched to German I think

He learned Spanish from his cousins also so if you can do the play group thing that will work too.
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#16 of 27 Old 02-18-2008, 12:00 PM - Thread Starter
 
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The other option is for you both to speak to each other in French and speak to ds in a different language. I know that dh picked up a couple languages that way. His parents were multilingual and so when they wanted to to speak to each other without him understanding they would speak Yiddish. And then he learned it, LOL so they switched to German I think

He learned Spanish from his cousins also so if you can do the play group thing that will work too.
That was actually our original plan. The family language would be French, then each parent individually speaks to DS in one language. So far it isn't working very well, maybe because we're living with my parents for the moment and it feels kind of rude to speak in a language they don't understand. Plus I worry that it isn't enough exposure. Hopefully when we're on our own we can enforce that better.

We're currently in a border city and most parents that we meet at the park are switching back and forth between English and Spanish with their kids. I thought that was interesting, since that's sort of what I'm doing with DS.
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#17 of 27 Old 02-19-2008, 08:00 AM
 
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Plus I worry that it isn't enough exposure. Hopefully when we're on our own we can enforce that better.
Just wanted to say try not to worry about it too much. Even if you and your DH only speak French together some of the time that's already more exposure than if you don't speak it at all. And you and DH don't feel like you have to enforce anything.

You can also speak to your DS in French sometimes, you don't have to do OPOL. That way you can still speak in English to him when you want or need to and he's getting a bit of French everyday from you as well.

I would definitely read him books in French and put DVDs on in French. I wouldn't engage in a power struggle over it, though. It should be fun and happy. People can get a little crazy when it comes to languages. They'll do things they'd never do if language wasn't an issue (like ignore their child if they don't speak the "right" language or send the child away for most of the day in the name of immersion).

Really I would just try to give him some exposure to French everyday without stressing out about it at all. When you move you can see what's available as far as playgroups or French community.
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#18 of 27 Old 02-19-2008, 08:13 AM
 
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That was actually our original plan. The family language would be French, then each parent individually speaks to DS in one language. So far it isn't working very well, maybe because we're living with my parents for the moment and it feels kind of rude to speak in a language they don't understand. Plus I worry that it isn't enough exposure. Hopefully when we're on our own we can enforce that better.
well, we're in france -- both dp and myself are native english speakers -- and ds1 speaks english really well and french not so much. he goes to maternelle in the mornings but hasn't had a load of exposure to french other than every day life! anyway, he's only just starting to assign french words to things (doudou, pomme, gouter). so this has been a roundabout way of saying that just having the parents speak the language is enough. your son may not grow up reading and writing french perfectly (and we won't get into the handwriting!) but he will have the experience of french as a living, spoken language.

it may seem rude for a bit, but i know i'm fairly accustomed to switching between english and french (and my french is horrible) for the benefit of our audience -- for ds and the other kids at the playground, for example.

good luck and i hope your transition goes smoothly!
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#19 of 27 Old 02-20-2008, 11:17 PM
 
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Very interesting and helpful discussion! I love having more food for thought. I just wanted to add a recommendation for a great, thorough book called Raising Bilingual Children: Parent's Guide series. It was the best one I read.

One thing I took away from this book, through families' stories, was that changing a language that you use to speak to your child could possibly be difficult emotionally. Depending on age and other factors, children could feel confused, rejected, lost, etc.

I currently speak to my children in a language that is not my native language, and I am deciding to slowly transition to English (native).

I think it also cannot be stressed enough that finding other sources of the language, especially real live people (although tapes and videos could help), will really help them develop fluency beyond passive receptive skills.
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#20 of 27 Old 02-21-2008, 10:57 AM
 
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I think native English speakers living in the US will end up speaking to their kids eventually some in English, to help with homework, etc even if we have another home language. Without any policy.

Exactly what you do at home I think it's a question of situation. If there are plenty of other places to get practice in the other language, then maybe what you do at home is less important. If not, than it's very important because without a lot of practice at home, the chances of a kid speaking more than on a basic level are pretty slim. Also context -- if there are family members who do not speak English, and they are seen frequently, then maintenance is more important and also more real to the child (rather than an abstract concept of speaking another language is good). If we only did what seems "natural" we would do little in this life (is learning algebra natural for most people?) so I don't think of that as the most important consideration, but that's just me.

At any rate, you could do both "English" time and "French" time at home to see how it works out and eventual find the routine that works, and that routine will be natural for your family. Of course, rebellion will come eventually, but all of us trying to raise our kids with another language will face that I think. However, I do tend to lean towards more of the foreign language at home, based on what I've seen in Russian families. If the parents do not really institute a Russian at home policy and do a lot of extra enrichment stuff in Russian (reading, films, etc) plus speaking to relatives, etc., the kids by the time they are 12 or 13, they can't even put a sentence together. They understand quite a bit, but they can't even hold not terribly complicated conversation, much less read or write.
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#21 of 27 Old 02-21-2008, 01:02 PM - Thread Starter
 
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This has really become an interesting discussion! Thank you all so much for your insights / experiences / opinions.

It is a huge priority for me that DS be a fluent speaker of all three languages, otherwise he will not be able to communicate with his family. Which I think would really be a tragedy-- so many children of immigrants are deprived of their cultural and family history because they don't speak the language!

So far, at age 21 months he is already speaking in Arabic with DH and in French and English with me. So he's sorting out who speaks what. He will hear a great deal of French over time since that is the language I have in common with DH's family. We also sing in that language and read books, when he starts watching DVDs he'll have some in French, too. So hopefully it will be, as one poster put it, a living language for him.

All the comments here really reinforce to me that I need to speak in French to him as often as possible to make sure he acquires vocab and grammar early on.

Thanks again for all the interesting input. Vive les enfants bi- et trilangue!
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#22 of 27 Old 02-23-2008, 02:31 PM
 
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Subbing just in case. We do OPOL but with a third language between us, also for baby's sake, so she will learn it. It is not a native language for either of us but our goal for her is fluency, not native speaker level. We just want her to have it as an option.

At first in the US we didn't use it between us when others were around but I think that in the future we will need to let people know that we speak another language together to keep our language skills and so that our daughter knows it, so please do not be offended as you will not hear your name without us translating for you.

It's not that the stay-at-home-parent gets to stay home with the kids. The kids get to stay home with a parent. Lucky Mom to DD1 (4 y) and DD2 (18 mo), Wife to Mercenary Dad
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#23 of 27 Old 02-25-2008, 11:46 AM
 
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I have not read all the other posts so forgive me if I am repeating someone but I don't think you should speak French to your son unless you speak it like a native. Anything less, and well, first of all it will be wierd and artificial feeling and secondly, you will inevitably be teaching him mistakes as well as the wrong accent.

Have you looked into whether there is a French or international lycée where you live? That would be by far the best option. Just register him there for the petite section of the maternelle as soon as he turns three and his French will be fine. The one in NYC is super expensive though. Don't know about the ones elsewhere. Your son would have priority for admission because he is a French citizen.

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#24 of 27 Old 02-26-2008, 02:48 AM
 
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Roman Goddess, forgive me, but didn't you used to have a different user name? Sorry. Just curious.

It's not that the stay-at-home-parent gets to stay home with the kids. The kids get to stay home with a parent. Lucky Mom to DD1 (4 y) and DD2 (18 mo), Wife to Mercenary Dad
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#25 of 27 Old 02-26-2008, 03:20 AM - Thread Starter
 
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I have not read all the other posts so forgive me if I am repeating someone but I don't think you should speak French to your son unless you speak it like a native. Anything less, and well, first of all it will be wierd and artificial feeling and secondly, you will inevitably be teaching him mistakes as well as the wrong accent.

Have you looked into whether there is a French or international lycée where you live? That would be by far the best option. Just register him there for the petite section of the maternelle as soon as he turns three and his French will be fine. The one in NYC is super expensive though. Don't know about the ones elsewhere. Your son would have priority for admission because he is a French citizen.
Well, to recap: there is no French school here-- we're, um, waaaaay to the left of NYC on the map. As far as I know there isn't even an Alliance Francaise. And, part of the reason we left France is I don't want my kid to go to French school, so coming to America and enrolling him in the petite section of a maternelle doesn't make much sense.

My French isn't perfect, but I have a pretty good accent and rarely make mistakes while speaking. And, not to brag, but my written French is much better than most native speakers'. So given the current situation and the lack of available options in French I think I'll split my time and speak both languages to him.

Mahtob, that's a good way to handle speaking a foreign language around others who don't speak it.

This discussion is helping me clarify my goals for DS. He needs to speak, understand, and eventually read and write in French. If he isn't native-speaker level, that's ok with me.
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#26 of 27 Old 02-27-2008, 01:57 PM
 
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Marylizah -
I am glad this has helped you clarify your goals. we are going to be in a similar situation next year - right now ds is at an immersion preschool but we are moving across the country and there are no spanish preschools there.

My spanish is not as good as your french it sounds like, I do not have better written spanish than native speakers, that is for sure! But I have to do this for my child. I have to speak more spanish with him, read more books in spanish to him, and seek out opportunities for him to be around native speakers. He has a couple of tv shows that he loves - little einsteins and wonder pets - and we only watch those in spanish.

Yes he will not get the idioms and slang in spanish from me, but he has a strong enough background in spanish now that he can understand everything, and when he hangs out with spanish speaking people later on, he can learn their slangs. Since spanish is in so many countries and it is slightly different everywhere, he would have to learn those differences as he travels anyway.

The most important thing to me is that he doesn't lose his spanish as he gets older.


I think the goal of speaking languages like a native speaker without an accent is wonderful, but it shouldn't keep us from teaching our children other languages. Heck, I speak English like a Southerner so even in my native language, I know I have an accent. Sure, French (or in our case, Spanish) without an accent would be fabulous. But to not speak French or Spanish at all because you might have an accent? That doesn't make sense to me.
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#27 of 27 Old 02-28-2008, 05:29 PM - Thread Starter
 
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Originally Posted by AladdinsLamp View Post
Marylizah -
I think the goal of speaking languages like a native speaker without an accent is wonderful, but it shouldn't keep us from teaching our children other languages. Heck, I speak English like a Southerner so even in my native language, I know I have an accent. Sure, French (or in our case, Spanish) without an accent would be fabulous. But to not speak French or Spanish at all because you might have an accent? That doesn't make sense to me.

I agree! You put that better than I could.
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