Non-native speaker teaching a child?
Thread poster: Charlie Bavington (X)

Charlie Bavington (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:54
French to English
Nov 28, 2005


I'd welcome your input on the following situation, please, regarding teaching my son French.

I'm a native English speaker, although I can speak French reasonably (:-)) but I obviously have a English accent and make my fair share of mistakes (especially with gender, but others too).

My girlfriend is English mono-lingual, as is the rest of the immediate family. We all live in the UK, and English is the only language to which our son has currently been exposed.

Our son, 20 months old, is at the stage where he is now starting to be able to repeat certain individual words, although not very clearly. His understanding of English is fine - he'll happily go into a different room to fetch something if asked, for example. In short, we are expecting the language floodgates to open shortlyicon_smile.gif

For some time, the family have been asking why I don't speak to our son in French. My basic response has been that I don't want him to pick up my appalling accent and atrocious grammar (or possibly my atrocious accent and appalling grammar). They see it as being a wasted opportunity (bearing in mind they're all monolingual) and seem to think that I'm denying him the chance to become bilingual.

Now, we all know that he's not going to be bilingual if I, a non-native, start to speak to him in French. At most, he can only learn what I know, and I'm not bilingual, ergo he won't be.

But am I being unduly cautious in being reluctant to start this young? I was thinking more in terms of starting when he was, say, 4 years old, when it could be a bit of fun, just to give him a head start if and when he starts learning French at school. Even if I leave it until then, I'm still unsure of whether I might do more harm than good, teaching him things that are wrong and that he'll find it hard or impossible to correct later. And let's not even start on how I'm supposed to deal with things that I don't know how to say in French - Let daddy kiss it better, for instance, when he falls off the top of the wardrobeicon_smile.gif

A similar thread was started here
and after initial postings which tended to reinforce my reluctance, it veered off to au-pairs, Goethe and family situations which do not reflect mine (parents speaking different mother-tongues) and was ultimately inconclusive...

I emphasise, this is an essentially English monolingual family, living in England and likely to remain so. My son will have no contact with native French speakers as things stand. (As an aside, you may wonder whether this is having a detrimental impact on my own French, and yes, this is a concern I have for the long term, although I'm not sure how to address it.) I do intend to get French TV via satellite at some point, but we're currently renting our flat so I'm not allowed to install a dish - besides, TV is only a useful addition IMHO, not a solution in itself. Getting a French au pair or any other paid language assistance directly or indirectly is not financially viable.

So, anyone with any positive or negative experience to report?icon_smile.gif Did you learn a language as a very young child from a non-native speaker and did it work out, or do you still suffer from errors learned on your father's knee?
(I'm not talking about learning a lingua franca, such as English used in a Japanese-Italian household for example, that's different.)
Since you may well be thinking - well, it depends how good your French is - as an indication I will say that, on the positive side, when I lived in Paris, one or two people mistook me for a Belgian (which I thought was an improvement on being obvioulsy English!). On the negative side, I do have what I consider to be serious issues with getting the gender right.

Thanks in advance,
perplexed of London


Benno Groeneveld  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 22:54
English to Dutch
+ ...
A friend of mine Nov 28, 2005

grew up in New York as the daughter of European refugees after the war. Her parents insisted on speaking English to her, so when she got to Kindergarten in New York she was the only child who spoke English with a German accent.

She now writes for a major U.S. newspaper.

I had my first English lesson when I was 12 (in Amsterdam) and now broadcast in English, plus I passed the Associated Press entrance exam.

Don't worry, don't make a big deal about it, speak to your child in whatever language you want. Open his/her eyes, ears and mind to the fact that there is a whole big world out there. And know that you're never to old to learn at least the basics of any language and meet all kinds of interesting, boring, scary, wonderful people.


Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:54
Dutch to English
+ ...
I'm with Benno on this Nov 28, 2005

Get your child used to hearing a different language. This will make it so much easier for your son later on. My kids are being brought up bilingually in English and Dutch (father English native speaker with a good grasp of Dutch and mother trilingual in English, Dutch and Spanish). When we lived in the Netherlands, we spoke only English and now that we live in the UK we speak only Dutch (even though my husband does not speak it well). Our son is truly bilingual (but he is in the Dutch section of a European School) but my daughter speaks very good English and OK Dutch. The bonus, however, is that she understands it all. The other bonus is that my son is learning German too and it comes easily to him and my daughter is learning French and it also comes easily. I do not think they will end up working with languages but think what a bonus it will be to them in any future career when on top of being able to do whatever job they decide to do, they can also speak 3 languages quite well (maybe even more as they continue learning). I'm working on the Spanishicon_smile.gif


Maaike van Vlijmen  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:54
Member (2009)
Italian to Dutch
+ ...
read about it Nov 28, 2005

Hi Charlie,
I have no personal experience with being raised bilingual, but I read a lot about it during my study. I know that Sibylle Herzer makes a good point (in the other topic), so keep that in mind. I read that if the parents screw it up, the child can get serious identity problems later in his life. But that's only the case when the child doesn't have a real mother tongue, so when it learns a bit of both. I had a professor in university who raised his kids with three or four languages, so it is possible. I only wanted to tell you that you should do it properly, but I think your kid will be fine since his first language will be English and there will be no confusion about that. Maybe it's a good idea to read a bit about it, so you know what to do. Good luck!


Jeff Steffin  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:54
French to English
+ ...
Go for it! Nov 29, 2005

The idea that only "native-speakers" speak a given language properly is quite debatable in my book. The fact that one may have an accent doesn't make one any less qualified to speak a language, and it certainly shouldn't hold you back from speaking to your child in it, in French in this case. You might want to complement your child's language learning by enrolling him/her in classes for kids, if your really keen on the idea, even at the local école française if there's one in your area. Other ideas include hosting a French-speaking au pair, travel etc... but if they're not fin. viable at present, perhaps later on...
As far as accents are concerned, everyone has one... whether regional, foreign or other... Take the Québecois, who are native speakers of French, yet most European native speakers take them for anglophones...
Anyway, my advice is: go for it! If I ever have kids, I'll be sure to speak to them in one of the languages I speak besides English!
Best regards and good luck to you,

[Edited at 2005-11-29 04:25]


veit oettermann
Local time: 04:54
English to German
+ ...
can't do no harm Nov 29, 2005

Having lived in many different countries, haing taught four differnet languages to as many different native speakers, having studied linguistics and ethymology, raising a child in two languages I only can say go for it.
There is no garantuee for helping your child etting an easier approach to language, and as far as my experience goes, the reward for teaching your child a second language comes in very late. And as far as I've learnedm speaking two languages to a child slows the process for learning one language - but noly in the first two years. But the seed is planted, and that's the important thing. As far as the accent is concerned, forget about it. First of all, every body has one, there is no such thing as a Native speaker without one. In German they have what is called High German - a convention as to how German should be pronounced. As of today I haven't met one German who speaks German this way. You always can tell where people come from( see Professor Higgins in Shaw's play Pygmalion). However, research shows that if children are exposed to a second language ( and if they satart speaking it even a little bit ) before the age of seven, they have very good chances of later speaking it without a strong foreign accent if not none at all. IN addition to that, if children are exposed to second language, they somehow automatically understand this secong grammar - no need for teaching! If you're interested, read Steven Pinker (i.e. "the language instinct" ).
In any way, you can do no harm to your child, if only that he might be confused for a couple of weeks. So don't hesitate.
All the best


Dina Abdo  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:54
Member (2005)
+ ...
You better think again Nov 29, 2005

Think of it this way: Your French isn't perfect, and your son is in the age he'll be repeating everything you say exactly the way you're saying it.

My suggestion would be using simple French dealing with him.

I'm in an Arabic monolingual family, and the only person speaking good English is me. I was able to teach my son (3 years old now) so many English words and simple sentences in a simple way. I just used a combination of the ancient grammar and modern communicative teaching methods:

I kept talking to him in Arabic, but I had English words within. For example, I wake him up in the morning saying "Sabah elkher" and follow it up with "Good Morning". That's a simple sentence I'm sure I'll commit no mistakes with, and I'm sure he won't be confused with its meaning as it is a direct statement that is said in an exact situation only. Another example for words not sentences, I ask him to hand me a glass of water for example saying "hatly water mama please", that is "mammy, get me some water please " in English, and he perfectly understands and uses both the words water and please in simple sentences now.

My English isn't perfectly native, but I don't mind teaching him all I can as long as I'm sure it's perfectly correct. I'm depending on my plans for him in the future having enough English lessons, or even joining an English language based school.

This may not sound effective for you in the beginning, and I know that so many linguistic theories usually go against that. However, you should also remember that despite the ancient teaching methods focusing on vocabulary and grammar, the modern communicative approaches states that the major purpose of learning a language is to communicate.

I'd recommend you teach your kid all you know as long as you're sure he'll be able to communicate with (that's to understand what others say in French and be able to get them understanding him). You may fix any future lack of perfection in his French language with lessons or language courses, but don't lose the chance of teaching him another language ... that's an opportunity not every child in the world is having today.

Good Luckicon_smile.gif


Local time: 04:54
French to English
Whatever you decide, it has to feel natural and comfortable or can become a counterproductive chore Nov 29, 2005

Hi Charlie, you raise an interesting question.
Sometimes I feel sorry for our children - they're not even out of nappies and we're already worrying that they only speak one language!
I have a lot of sympathy for your position. French isn't your first language - although you're clearly very competent - and I suspect an entirely monolingual bunch of relatives don't really understand what that can mean. While accent isn't everything, if you're in a wholly English-speaking environment and it doesn't come naturally to talk French to your little boy, why should you? I sometimes had difficulty explaining to people here in France that I wasn't speaking English to my children to help them "get ahead" with English, but because it was my language and that's what came naturally - and besides I didn't know any French nursery rhymes.:-) I know a French-Norwegian couple where the (monolingual) French grandparents couldn't understand why the father insisted on speaking to his children in Norwegian (his own language) although he can also speak English and wouldn't that be more useful? I think it's really important to be comfortable and natural with how you talk to your children - and always to bear in mind that whatever you do they'll criticise you for it one day, it's part of the deal of being parents!icon_smile.gif
There are plenty of indirect ways of raising foreign language awareness, which I'm sure will be valuable as your child grows older: music, childrens' picuture books to look at together, French children's cartoons perhaps, trips to France, French friends to stay (especially if they also have small children). I am the child of two British French teachers, if you see what I mean, who never taught me or my brother French; however, we had the "assistant" lodging at our house more than once, French guests sometimes, a couple of French holidays - and both went on to do degrees in languages. So something must have rubbed off. If nothing else, this sort of awareness teaches you not to be "afraid" of languages, which gives a positive can-do attitude to any new language.
Yes, of course it's a wonderful opportunity for a child to be bilingual, and the great thing is very young children have no hang-ups about it all. But, IMHO, it's not so great if being bilingual is an end in itself at a very young age and happens in a forced way, with family worrying that the child isn't making enough progress. I'm undecided as to whether your concerns about "teaching mistakes" are well-founded, but pretty sure that given daddy's job your son would think it's cool to speak another language anyway...
Decide what you think is best and if it doesn't seem to work, try another tack! (or as some friends told us when we were expecting our first baby: our advice is, listen to all the advice everyone will give you, thank them politely, and then do what YOU want to do). ET puis, bonne chance!


Natalia Elo  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:54
Member (2004)
English to Russian
+ ...
My 3 cents Nov 29, 2005

Well, I tell about our situation.

I'm Russian native, my partner is German native, we talk to each other English. Our younger son who is 26 months old now is apparently understands three languages. When I noticed that I have started to make some conscious efforts to get some English native input. I went to English mother-toddler group and though in the beginning I was feeling bit odd, as I was so much for a strict OPOL before, now I enjoy it. My son can distinguish languages and mostly addresses his father in German and me in Russian using 'bye-bye' for strangers.

We have fourth language in the family, Finnish. My older son from my first marriage is born in Finland and lived there for most of his 8 years before we moved to Germany two years ago. I'm confident in Finnish as well.

He attends Finnish extra curriculum school once a week and gradually we have came to the decision to have one Finnish day a week. That would be one day when we talk to each other Finnish. Of course the little one has to listen that as well, but amasingly he doesn't seem to care about it at all. He's equally enjoying listening me reading books in Finnish and in Russian. Well, we have just started it few weeks ago, so I'll see how it will go on.

Wishing all the best


Local time: 22:54
+ ...
And how many of us were taught by a native speaker? :) Nov 29, 2005

It might be interesting to launch a quick poll on PROZ and find out how many of professional translators and interpreters were taught by a native speaker of the language. My guess is - not so many. And we still made the language our profession and most of us are even pretty good at iticon_smile.gif. Whatever you son will be doing in life, he will benefit from his knowledge of French, so do not hesitate, teach him what you can!

[Edited at 2005-11-29 20:30]


sarahl (X)
Local time: 19:54
English to French
+ ...
Why don't you learn with him? Nov 30, 2005


I'm sure there's a way you can get French channels in Britain. You too could enjoy cartoons and cute shows then move on to children's movies, so forth.

The way I see it, learning a language should be fun, so should raising a kid. So quit beating yourself up about your grammar or your accent and have fun with your kid while you can.icon_wink.gif


Charlie Bavington (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:54
French to English
Thanks Dec 3, 2005

Thanks to all those who posted an opinion (or emailed me separately). Looks like the consensus is that it would do much more good than harm, so I'll give it a shoticon_smile.gif

Thanks again, your time and effort is much appreciated,



Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 04:54
German to Serbian
+ ...
An example Jan 19, 2009

A friend of mine grew up in England, with a British dad and a German mum, and he speaks English with an evident German accent!

Namely, this is because the first person who taught him the native language while his brain was developing was his mum who had a German accent ! This trait stayed with him for life, as he is now 30 and still speaks English with an odd German accent ( rolling Rs , etc ).



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