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?
Wow, some tough decisions, but they clearly really paid off. My problem is that my husband doesnt speak enough Dutch for us to speak only Dutch at home. But i may have to do the ignoring, as my son only speaks English and Dinglish atm. 🙁
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Sorry, I meant to write about that and promptly forgot! It is far harder when only one parent speaks the minority language, but still doable. Try only speaking to your child in that language at all times, it’s incredibly hard but does make a difference, especially as they get older. Good luck!
Hello Franglaise mum! I like what you’ve you’ve written here however being an older version of you (i’m english married to french we have two kids 13 and 8) I have to say that I have found all of what you have written is SO much harder to control once the kids get a bit older. At the moment YOU TWO are the centre of their little world but soon this will all change and once a stream of friends start invading more often it gets harder – or that is what we have found! We are in ireland and visit france as often as we can and get french family over regularly too. But the TV and games thing is tricky when there are other children in the home and don’t understand – this is complicated by the fact that here the kids have to learn Gaelic too!! The oldest is more or less still bi-lingual but we have found trying to make our home french just doesn’t work with the amount of other people that are always around!! Good luck!
I have to admit that the future does worry me a little, especially as it’ll no doubt become embarrassing to speak a foreign language at home when she hits her tweens/teens. I suppose the upside of a 6 year age gap between our two means that there has not been the whole siblings speaking in the stronger language amongst themselves. Yet.
OHHHH just watched your little movie, congratulations!
I am happy that I am doing most of these anyway; the main difficulties we have are:
– watching French tv; it almost never happens, although we are trying with Peppa Pig and Trotro in French on YouTube. unfortunately, Little Girl invariably ends up choosing the next episode herself and they’re always in polish. Very odd…
– I am struggling to keep it all in French, as everything I do is in English otherwise. So although she understands everything, she almost always responds to me in English. Her French speech remains underdeveloped comparatively. I am hoping she’ll get a boost when we’re in France in the summer!
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I would say go for all-out immersion in France and then try and maintain it when you get home. It is very hard as we get into our habits, but it is doable. Good luck!
Great post, Sophie. We really, really need to speak more French at home. Our first is bilingual, no doubt about that, but English is his strongest language. Beanie (3 1/2)is refusing to speak French at the moment, but she understands everything. It must be a phase in the language acquisition process. I find it becomes harder when they speak so much English to each other. We have French TV at home and I read to the children in French as well. Same for the toys, I agree with you. Some companies make great bilingual instruments etc. x Mel
It sounds like you’re doing brilliantly! We find it easier with the siblings as C isn’t speaking yet, and her strong language is still French, but I’m sure we’ll have obstacles once she starts talking!
Great tips Sophie that sadly we can’t put to use being typically English and not really speaking any languages other than our own.
What an amazing gift to give your girls though – i would love to speak french, such a beautiful language. My parents and currently looking for a house over there though so maybe there is still time to get a bit more practice yet 🙂 x
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Thanks Katie, it’s hard work but I really think/hope it’ll be worth it in the long run. I’ll have to give you some tips in slang/sweary French if your parents get a house there so you fit in 😉
Totally with you on every point! 🙂 this has been exactly our experience too… Although we have a third language in the mix which can make things interesting… Still, our eldest (almost three) is completely trilingual and our youngest (16 months) has a good few words in all three languages, although she’s not yet distinguishing who to speak what to! Think once the girls are at school, the challenges will come, but for now its working perfectly! Fab post!
The hardest part I’m beginning to find is getting the girls to speak the minority language (French) at home. L’s dominant language is definitely English so she naturally speaks in English to C, and then I worry that C will switch to English as her dominant language before even starting school. Anyway, we’ll keep battling away!
Where do you buy French/English Leap Frog ext.? Please list other resources.
I can’t find online french leap frog.
I’m not sure where you are based, but if you are in the UK, here is a list of places you can buy Leap Frog toys: http://www.leapfrog.com/en-gb/where-to-buy I don’t know if they still stock their French/English products, but if they don’t you could try eBay for secondhand ones. Otherwise I tend to buy Vtech or other such electronic toys from Amazon.fr to get the French version. Hope that helps.