Raising Bilingual Children

Anna Dusseau | 2nd March 2020

It didn’t happen straight away for us. The bilingual thing. My daughter prefers English but speaks French well, albeit with a plummy, British accent. My middle son speaks French and English equally well and, astonishingly, without accent. The little one has adopted the Marseillais growl of his father and sounds ‘obviously foreign’ when pronouncing English words. So bilingualism – rather than a goal which we set out to achieve – has rather grown upon us and gradually been sewn into the fabric of who we are as a family. It is natural, but by no means effort-free, and here is my advice if you are considering this path yourself.

Don’t lose your nerve. It seems simple, but you must push through the first 2-3 years to begin to see results. Studies show that bilingual – or multilingual – children often speak later than children raised in monolingual families but, when they do, their speech in both languages is often on a par with children of the same age. This sounds reasonable in theory, but it can be quite a different thing when applying this method to our own children. Many parents who, themselves, speak more than one language, have informed me that they abandoned the bilingual approach when they saw that their 2 year old was falling behind his peers in his speech. This fear is natural; however, it is only once you pass this stage that you will see your child begin to externalise the linguistic dual input and successfully shape both languages for themselves. 

Books, books, books. Need I say more? It is essential to maintain reading exposure across the two languages and to keep the ‘level’ uniform. By this, I mean that you mustn’t fall into the trap of replenishing the English books frequently with trips to the library and Waterstones, while the second language books stagnate and remain at toddler reading level. Challenging though it is to source a range of interesting texts in both languages, it is nevertheless the foundation of what enables your child to take adventures, imagine and articulate confidently across two languages. Don’t chuck the baby books straight away, though, as they come in handy when your child starts learning to read independently. 

Walk the walk. And for a long time, I will admit, I didn’t do this myself. Shame on me. My daughter’s huge frown when I informed her we would try re-reading the Harry Potter books in French, is testimony to my sleep-deprived-devil-may-care attitude to my first child’s language acquisition. The truth is that, although my husband and I speak fluently in both languages, when we first became parents, English just felt easier. It was, in fact, a natural default, since we lived in London at the time and both worked full-time in English-speaking environments. We had to change this mindset for ourselves in order to see our daughter begin to communicate with her French family and show familiarity using French at home with us. So to clarify, when we are in the UK, we speak only French at home, listen to French radio, read French newspaper articles and, of course, when we are in France, the opposite is the case, and our kitchen rings with the sound of English podcasts and the crisp flick of Guardian supplement magazines and Lemony Snicket. 

Do not translate. A simple but hugely effective method of stretching your child to truly think in the both languages, without defaulting to a ‘first’ and ‘second’ language. Put simply, when faced with the common and natural question ‘what does that mean?’ in whatever language you are conversing with your child, avoid the temptation to resolve the situation by directly translating using a piece of vocabulary that she understands from your other home language. This is unhelpful for two reasons. First, it shuts down the child’s brain to thinking and operating in the language you are using and provides a simple word-for-word answer, rather than taking the opportunity to explain and describe using a richer vocabulary. Second (and this is so obvious, really) it is simply untrue that all words and terms directly translate, so by offering your child a schoolroom-style simple translation, you are obscuring all the fascinating complexities of their bilingual world and, in fact, giving them a rather basic schoolroom response.   

Car time! Travel time is great for enriching your child’s exposure to interesting literature, podcasts and radio shows across both languages. Try not to force it if, like mine, they prefer singing along to pop songs and compilation CDs (yes, I know, how retro of us!). Longer journeys though, are a good time to weave this in and I find that audiobooks of favourite stories in translation are often a popular choice, as well as affording plenty of scope for discussion and laughter at the translation choices, if the text is a particularly familiar one. This is also, I would argue, an essential practise if your children attend the local school, where they will be spending most of their day speaking and thinking mono-lingually. Certainly, there is an argument in favour of home schooling for bilingual families where the setup is right; however suffice to say for now that you can also successfully wrap your child’s exposure to the second language around the school day, whether your travel by car or use headphones when walking or on public transport.

Ultimately, this is just the beginning of an extensive list of practises which now feel ingrained in our family but which certainly required some degree of effort and repetition to instil. Bilingualism is a labour of love and is a gift that you really do owe your children if you are able to deliver it. I wish you luck on your journey. 

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Published by Anna Dusseau

Writer | Educator | Homeschooling Mum

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