Top tips on raising your child bilingually
Quite a few readers have asked me how we manage to raise our two daughters bilingually, so I thought it was time I shared what has worked for us, raising our two daughters with two languages.
Before I start here’s a bit of background about us:
I’m English. I have a degree in French (and Spanish). I lived in France for 12 years. I am bilingual in English and French. My parents (our children’s grandparents) only speak English.
Hubs is French. He lived and worked in San Francisco for nearly a year (before we met). He has lived in the UK for nearly 4 years now. He is bilingual in English and French. His parents (our children’s grandparents) only speak French.
L is 7.5 years old. She was born in France. She was looked after by a French childminder 4 days a week from the age of 3 months. She went to school in France full-time from the age of 2 and 3/4 until the age of 3 and 1/2, when she moved to the UK. L is bilingual (both written and spoken) in English and French.
C will be 18 months old next week. She was born in London. I look after her at home alongside other English children, who I childmind. She hears on average 75% French and 25% English. She understands both English and French, although French is her stronger language for now. She has just pronounced her first word that actually means something – “chat” in French (cat).
So here are my top tips if you want your children to be bilingual:
Speak the minority language at home
When we lived in France our language at home was English, now that we live in the UK we only speak French at home. This helps to balance out all the outside influences of the main language.
Watch TV in the minority language
L didn’t watch any French TV when we lived in France, she grew up on Disney films in English and Dora in English. Now we’re in the UK we have got a selection of her favourites in French, whether they are French classics like Asterix or American films dubbed into French like Barbie, it doesn’t matter, it motivates L to practise the minority language.
Read to your children in both languages
The more you read to your children, from a very young age, the more they will get out of books, and turn to them for enjoyment. It will also make the stories more familiar when they come to learning reading in the two languages. In general the bedtime story that we read to L is in French – at the moment she’s loving all the French cartoon books, like Tintin, Asterix etc. As for C it varies from one day to another as she already gets a lot of French daily; however if she were in an English-language setting we would only read to her in French. I recently blogged about L having learnt to read in French (as well as in English) here, and in time I will blog about how to help your children to learn to read in their second language.
Visit the country of the second language
As often as you can, go and have holidays in the country of the minor language. This helps your child see the point of learning the second language. When L was on holiday in France a couple of years ago, playing by the pool with some French children, she understood the point of us putting pressure on her to speak French all year round.
Buy toys and games that are bilingual/in the minor language
We have quite a few Leapfrog toys, as these are great for French/English children with both languages often available in the same toy. Alternatively we buy Vtech “talking” games from Amazon in France.
Listen to songs and audio books in the second language
We have quite a few books with accompanying CDs with traditional French songs/nursery rhymes, or French stories, which are great for the child to listen to in the car, or when you’re preparing dinner, for example, and you need them to listen independently.
And if your child refuses to speak the second language?
This is a tough one. It really depends how much you want them to be bilingual or not. When L was 3 and we were living in France she decided she didn’t want to speak to me in English anymore, hitting back at me with “mais tu parles français, donc je te parle en français!” (but you speak French so I’m going to speak to you in French). I had to decide whether to enforce it and risk putting her off the language, or to leave it be and see if she came back to speaking English with me of her own will.
I went for the former. I was adamant that my children would speak both languages; having spent so many years learning languages at school and university I didn’t want them to miss out on this excellent opportunity to speak two languages from infanthood. But equally I have many bilingual friends in France whose children have given up on English, as the parents found it too hard to enforce the minor language on children who just weren’t interested, especially as they got older. I couldn’t bear the thought of my children not speaking my language, or not being able to communicate with my family.
So I told L that I spoke French and could understand French, but that I couldn’t understand her when she spoke to me in French. Fortunately her 3 year old brain didn’t question it, and when she spoke to me in French and I ignored her she switched into English. Fast-forward a couple of years and she knows we understand her when she speaks to us in English (now the minor language), so we simply ignore her if she speaks to us in English at home. She soon switches into French.
It is very hard to ignore your child when they’re speaking to you, but it does work, and most of the time they are speaking in their first language without even thinking it through, just because it’s the easy option.
It is worth all the hard work though, as here is L, aged 5, announcing some big family news in both languages:
What about you? How do you work on raising your children bilingually? Do you have any additional tips for other parents? Or do you have any questions for me about it?