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Bilingual child, what to do and not to do?
Thread poster: Johann Audouin
Johann Audouin  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 13:28
English to French
Jan 2, 2015

Hello and happy new year everyone

I checked several posts on that matter but I did not find anyone being in the exact same situation so I would like to ask you all.

My wife is bilingual English/French (English family and she grew up in France - no accent in both languages, lucky her) and I am a French native speaker (I am fluent in English but I still have a French accent). Our daughter is 6 months old and we would like her to speak both English and French.

My wife and I always speak French together, that's the language we have been using for 10 years and we find it difficult to speak English together, unless we are with English friends. However, my wife has always been speaking English to our baby, she finds it normal and everything is fine. Without even thinking about it, since I heard my wife speaking English to our daughter, I started doing the same. So basically, my wife and I speak French and we both speak English to our daughter.

As we live in France, I think our daughter won't have any problem learning French. I personally like to speak English to her but I was told that I should stick to French because A/ It is my native language so I don't have any accent and B/ Two of our friends (school teachers) told us that some of their pupils in a similar situation do not listen to them because they speak French, the language their parents use with each other but not with their child. The child has the impression the teachers are not talking to him since they use French.

So, basically, my question is should I absolutely stick to French with my daughter for these reasons? And maybe other reasons?

Extra question, will my daughter's English be as good as my wife's if she only speaks English with her? As I said, my wife is very good both in English and French because she grew in a fully English family in France (even the dogs did not understand me when I was asking them to sit in French...). I read about bilingualism and I know that young children pick languages very easily but I would really like her to have good level in English. I think everyone here will agree that speaking two languages is a fantastic gift.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:28
Member (2008)
Italian to English
6 months old? Jan 2, 2015

Your little girl is only 6 months old. I wouldn't worry so much if I were you. However since you're all in France and will presumably stay there for most of her growing up, French is what you should be speaking.

A long time from now, when your daughter is 18, if she can read and speak grown-up idiomatic English, you'll know you've been successful at making her bilingual. However there's a risk that her English, as a second language, will remain "domestic" for use within the family but will not be developed to a professional level.

BTW your wife must have some kind of accent when she speaks English. All forms of English are spoken with an accent. Even "correct" BBC English is an accent.


[Edited at 2015-01-02 12:52 GMT]


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Andrea Halbritter  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 13:28
French to German
+ ...
Information by phone Jan 2, 2015

I am a linguist specialized on bilinguism, worked in that field with children of different ages and have a bilingual daughter. If you want to I propose you to respond to all your questions in French on the phone next week.

[Modifié le 2015-01-02 13:03 GMT]


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Anna Sarah Krämer Fazendeiro
Germany
Local time: 13:28
Member (2011)
English to German
+ ...
Don't worry too much Jan 2, 2015

Hi Johann,

my situation is not exactly the same, but maybe my experiences can provide some inspration.

I am German, my husband is Portuguese, and our son is now 11 years old.

My husband and me have always used English to speak to each other. When talking to our son, we used our respective native language. The result: He learned all three languages.

But nowadays, I find myself using English a lot when I speak to him. We watch a lot of TV in English, so we discuss the shows in English. We read English websites, and will talk about them in English. It feels natural and comfortable. Also, speaking in German would mean to exclude my husband from the conversation. So English, although native language to none of us, has somewhat become the family language.

He still is exposed to Portuguese (because he lives in Portugal and visits a Portuguese school) and German (we still speak German a lot and he reads many German books) on a daily base.

I know that the English version he learns with us will be far from proper US or UK English - but it will be good enough to get along in the English speaking world and therefore it will be useful.

His German writing skills could improve - but I am not concerned about that now, there will be time enough for that if necessary (I don't want to overload him with tasks - school is challenging enough and there needs to be time to play).

He mixes his languages a lot at home, but has no problems sticking to one language when talking to someone who speaks only one language.

Language carries an emotional load - so if you feel more comfortable speaking English you should do so and not force yourself to do something that feels unnatural to you or your baby. Don't underestimate books, TV and internet as a source of language input - let there be a rich, fun, language filled environment. And about kids not listening to their parents - I don't believe that it depends on the language being spoken. My son listens to me in all our three languages because he knows he has too.

Andrea, I would be really interested in your input, as well (who knows if the above is totally wrong?) - are you sure you don't want to write a few lines about it here in the forum?

A great 2015 to all of you!

Best regards,
Anna


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 20:28
Chinese to English
One parent for each language, but... Jan 2, 2015

The standard advice is that one parent speak each language to the child, and that does seem to work. However, in the situation that you're in (similar to my situation), it may not be enough.

I live in China and speak Chinese with my wife. Obviously outside the home everything is Chinese, so for our oldest child (7) I was the only English input he had. He is not 100% natural in English. He's fluent enough, and reads well, but his vocab is rather limited and there are often times when ordinary phrases don't come naturally to him, simply because he hasn't had enough range of input. Our second boy (3) is much more comfortable in English, I think because he had not only direct input from me and his brother (they speak English together) but also because he had an English environment - he hears English conversations going on around him in a way that the first child never did.

So if you want to raise your daughter fully bilingual, I would recommend having more than one parent provide input. Either make English your home language, and have one parent each speak one language, or just carry on as you are, both speaking English to her. As you say, living in France she is not going to have any trouble picking French up. And your accent will not make the slightest difference to her she - she won't pick it up if she has access to English language materials.


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Johann Audouin  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 13:28
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
Many thanks Jan 2, 2015

Thanks for your answers, I will take everything you said into consideration. I am not actually worried about the situation, it is just that I want to make you sure I do the right thing as soon as possible.

I would like to insist on what my school teachers friends said : the fact that if I speak to her in English and speak French to my wife, she will start thinking that French speakers do not talk to her. They mentioned a child whose parents only speak to him in Spanish and speak French to each other. He does not respond if he is not talked to in Spanish. I think it is temporary and that he will certainly speak French very fluently soon enough but I can't be sure. What do you think about this ?

@ Tom : Yes, my wife has a southern England accent. What I meant is that she does not have a French accent.

@ Andrea : I would really like to talk to you about that but feel free to give your opinion in this conversation, I think most people would be interested to hear what you say.


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Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2014)
English to Spanish
+ ...
It is hard work, not just talk Jan 2, 2015

My kid is 8 years old. We are a Spanish family and have been based in Brussels since 2007. When we arrived, my kid was just 1.

My kid is attending a bilingual French-English school. My wife and I obviously speak Spanish to each other as well as to our kid. What I noticed, however, is that he tends to speak, and like to speak, French (not to us, I mean just generally, even to Spanish speaking expats' kids).

The reality: French will be his dominant language, since Brussels is fully French speaking place (I know, officially it is bilingual French-Dutch, but the reality is different).

The solution to keep Spanish up to the level: we bought Spanish school text books and he follows the programme from home, under our supervision.

Language entails four main areas: reading, writing, listening and speaking. If you just speak a language to your kid, they will not be able to fully master that language. The fact that they have no foreign accent does not mean much if they cannot write properly in that language.

My advice is (I am not a specialist, just have a personal opinion): leave the "school language" alone, they will get it anyway. Work on the other language with your kid: buy text books, ask them to do exercises, correct them in a funny way, let them watch cartoons and movies in that language. Obviously, speak it to them, but do not forget that just speaking is not going to do much. There are no miracles, it is hard work, even with kids.


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 17:58
Member (2006)
English to Hindi
+ ...
Similar experience Jan 2, 2015

We come from a multi-lingual family, too, with Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and English being the languages spoken.

I mainly spoke only Hindi with my two daughters as they grew up and both (the elder one is 22 now and the younger 12) are fluent in Hindi. My wife mainly speaks Tamil with them. The elder one has picked up Tamil, but the younger one is still learning.

We live in an area where the external languages are Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English (in school). The girls are bilingual in Hindi and English, and understand the other languages, but are not proficient in them - neither in speech nor comprehension.

In your case, the external language is mainly French and this will have a reinforcing effect on the French that your child picks up at home.

Even if you speak English with an accent, you should speak English to your child if you want it to pick up English. Children learn correct diction and grammar even from imperfect speech that they hear. So don't worry too much about your own imperfection in spoken English.

Your child's French will prove to be the dominant language if you continue to live in France. If you want her to grow up bilingual in French and English you should move early to an English speaking area or put her in an English-medium school.

[Edited at 2015-01-02 15:05 GMT]


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 20:28
Chinese to English
Don't make life decisions on the basis of anecdotes Jan 2, 2015

Johann Audouin wrote:

I would like to insist on what my school teachers friends said : the fact that if I speak to her in English and speak French to my wife, she will start thinking that French speakers do not talk to her. They mentioned a child whose parents only speak to him in Spanish and speak French to each other. He does not respond if he is not talked to in Spanish. I think it is temporary and that he will certainly speak French very fluently soon enough but I can't be sure. What do you think about this ?

I think it's an odd story, and I'm not sure I really believe it. Don't let a second-hand anecdote like that colour your thinking. Read some authoritative sources, then read the first hand experiences that everyone's written about on here, and use your own judgment. Scare stories told by those who don't understand multilingualism are not helpful to you at this moment.


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Gabriele Demuth  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:28
Member (2014)
English to German
Be consistant Jan 2, 2015

We live in the UK, I am German and my husband is English (and does not speak much German) so we speak English to each other. I always and consistently spoke German to both of my children (9 and 6), read to them and we watched German TV together. They both considered German to be their first and best language and they spoke it to each other. Until last year, after my youngest started school they began speaking English to each other, my oldest now often speaks English to me, but I reply in German.

I socialize with some other German bilingual families in my town and on the whole children seem to feel most comfortable with English, even if both parents are German. I feel my challenge now is to give them as much and varied input as possible.

My piece of advice would be, do whatever feels right for you, but be consistent.

[Edited at 2015-01-02 17:13 GMT]


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Helena Chavarria  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 13:28
Member (2011)
Spanish to English
+ ...
The earlier you start, the better but don't confuse children Jan 2, 2015

I am British and live in Catalonia, Spain, and my husband and I have always spoken to each other in Spanish. However, he has always spoken to our daughters in Catalan (his native tongue). Although I started speaking to our children in English from the day they were born, they speak the language with a Spanish accent.

Now one of my daughters has children of her own. Both parents speak to their kids in Catalan, which seems to be the children's dominant language, and the mum and dad speak to each other in Spanish. The children are fluent in both Spanish and Catalan.

My husband speaks to the whole family in Catalan and I speak to the children, who are 10 and five years' old, in English; although they don't speak English at a native level, at least they're more fluent than the majority of children who live in Catalonia.

Years ago, when I was expecting my first child, I read that children are capable of learning several languages simultaneously but it is important for everyone to stick to the same language. Apparently, if a person changes their language, children/babies find it confusing and it takes them longer to learn. E.g. the mother can read bedtime stories and put on a DVD in French, the father in English and a grandparent can do the same in German. I suppose children unconsciously associate a face with a specific language.


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Sarah Lewis-Morgan  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 13:28
Member (2014)
German to English
My cousin has a daughter who is bi-lingual Jan 2, 2015

My English cousin lives in France and is married to a Frenchman. Although my cousin speaks fluent French, when her eldest daughter was very young she spoke to her solely in English while her husband spoke in only French. As a result, the daughter spoke in a mixture of the two languages, even in one sentence. Once she started school she sorted her French from her English and became completely bi-lingual. She is now in her 20s and although she has a slight accent that marks her out as not being English, she is totally fluent in it. In contrast, when she then had twins my cousin spoke to them only in French. Also in their 20s they both speak fairly good English due to frequent visits to England, but they are not fluent. It shows how important it is to immerse the child in the two languages at an early age, although after staying in England (with me) for a month at the age of 15 one of the twins spoke far better English than the average schoolchild.

[Edited at 2015-01-02 20:37 GMT]


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Victoria Britten  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 13:28
Member (2012)
French to English
+ ...
A suggestion Jan 2, 2015

I agree with Phil's latest comment about not listening to scare stories. Countries with a single, entirely dominant, official language can have some strange ideas about bi-/multilingualism...

This having been said, the context in which each language is used will be picked up by your daughter. A suggestion, since speaking English with her feels natural to you: you and your partner treat her as an English-speaking friend, i.e. you speak English to each other when the three of you are interacting together, and be vigilant about for what reasons you move into French. My feeling is that since you are thinking actively about this, your daughter will understand and learn to navigate between the two quite naturally.

It's a fascinating (and sometimes hilarious) adventure - enjoy!


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Gabriele Demuth  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:28
Member (2014)
English to German
Agree, inform yourself and don't listen to scare stories Jan 3, 2015

That story you mentioned was probably blown totally out of proportion, and as the UK has a very monolingual culture and language learning is considered difficult I have heard some bizarre things.

E.g. a GP advised a friend whose daughter didn't speak much at almost two years of age that she should consider dropping the German (her native language) and start speaking English to her child. Also my son was and is often dreamy and doesn't listen well at school (especially in maths), the teacher asked him what language he thinks in and he said German. So it was suggested to me that his 'problems' could be due to the fact that he is bilingual and that he has to translate everything that is said into German!

PS. The child who didn't speak much is now speaking both languages well and doing well at school. My son still doesn't like maths, but he excels in what he is interested in and none of it has anything to do with his bilingualism. Quite the opposite, bilingual children are meant to have a better attention span, my daughter's is great, she listens and concentrates very well.


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Johann Audouin  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 13:28
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
Any other general pieces of advice ? Jan 3, 2015

Many thanks for your answers.

As my wife is bilingual, there a re couple of things we are aware of. We know that some people will say that speaking two languages is a handicap or that one of the languages will be weaker, which is why we have to be careful.

From what I gathered here, I think I should also speak English to my wife, making English the family language, what do you think about that ?

Also, are there good books about bilingualism that you can recommend ?


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