Friday, November 30, 2012

Raising a bilingual child

My wife and daughter, floating down the Seine in Paris
For parents planning on being expats, raising a bilingual child is often one of the benefits. In today's world, speaking more than one language is often the key to getting that opportunity you wanted. Contrary to what many people think, though, speaking a foreign language probably won't get you a job (plenty of people probably speak whatever language you've bothered to learn), but not speaking that language may be the deal breaker.

But back to children. Quite a number of studies have shown that children who are raised bilingual tend to outperform their peers in school, are better at multi-tasking and being bilingual may help protect against Alheimer's. Expat parents are giving their children an immeasurable gift with multiple languages.

Part of the downside of this is that bilingual children tend to acquire vocabulary later than their peers, largely due to having to split their vocabulary between languages. There is, however, one aspect I notice that others tend not to talk about as much: being the parent of a bilingual child. It's a fact that for many couples, the child is going to be better at speaking the primary language of the other parent. I am that other parent.

Our daughter's first "word", if you will, was "thank you". We have been very careful to be appropriate role models for our daughter and it was very rewarding having her learn to say "thank you" when we would hand her something. She's since mostly forgotten that, but we hope to continue with this.

She also often says "please" if she really wants something (though often with prompting), but this is mostly the extent of her English vocabulary. We live in France and our daughter spends a lot of time with a French child minder, so it's natural that French is going to be the first language. I confess that this makes me a touch nervous. Is my daughter going to learn to speak the language better than I? Well, probably, but I have a some time on this one.

The other day she was running from room to room, chasing after a cat and waving a piece of sausage at it, while yelling tiens, tiens (take, take). It was super adorable. She also recently made her first sentence. When she realized that her mother and I weren't going to get her a pretty ball she saw in the store, she pointed at the ball and said ├ža moi (that me). That pretty ball is now at home.

I've no idea how well her English will progress. We speak to her in English every evening and many of her books are in English, but we're in France. Her relatives here are all French. She adores watching Petit Ours Brun, a French children's show (each episode is only 3 minutes long. We don't let her watch much). Even though we live in France, somehow it never quite entered my mind that mine would be the minority language.

Update: Ever since I arrived home from work, my wife has been pointing out every English word that our daughter knows. There are quite a few more than I thought!


  1. she will speak french better than you by the time she is 3. And then she will out do your wife's english by the time she is 4 - be good with it :-)

  2. In order for our kid to learn both language, our system was for me to always talk to him in French, and for my wife to always talk to him in English. Using your mother tongue means that you don't have an accent in the language, so the kid learns the proper pronunciation, and being consistent means that she always knows which language you are using.

    I don't think using a language that's not your mother tongue makes sense: for her you would be introducing 2 additional languages "French with an American accent" and "English with a French accent". I think that would make it harder for her.

    Later on she will understand that each of you can speak both languages, and she will make fun of your accents.

    That said each kid is different, I have seen all sorts of outcomes from the same basic configuration.

    1. I have hazy recollections of this coming up in a lecture back in linguistics class. They said what you just said. Also, that many children will choose the 'easier' route, which is speaking the language that they know the majority of people around them to speak. Having an important person in their lives with whom they can only communicate using the other language encourages them to use it, too. My particular instuctor was accomplishing this by having the husband speak only Swedish.

  3. I recommend also reinforcing her English, because you live in a French speaking country and she is naturally going to master French because of it, by reading to her in English. Reading to children really develops their brains and language skills in so many ways. Plus it's fun for both of you and also results in some serious bonding that lasts a lifetime!

  4. Don't sweat the vocab. While initial vocab learning is somewhat slower in bilinguals than monolinguals, that will even out well before puberty. If you're concerned about her acquiring English, the best thing you can do is find some small community of English speakers there in France. People do better at learning a language when they have multiple speakers around than when there's just one. And don't sweat your French or your wife's English; by puberty kids have switched over to modelling their peers rather than their parents, which is part of the reason for finding an English peer group.

  5. I have two granddaughters in Norway, who speak English only when they’re with their British grandparents. As Mirod says, each kid is different. The elder (who lived in Latin America for a couple of years when she first learnt to talk) has trouble with English idioms, the younger doesn’t. The younger says “I don’t know that”, the older “I not know that” – literally translating from the Norwegian.

    Their most recent English lessons were last summer, when we visited them. I reported this in a July blog-posting called “The weather in Norwegian”. (The title is an English in-joke, Curtis; it was the name of a wacky TV show in England back in the ‘90s.) We don’t sweat the vocab, Wren. Kids pick that up comfortably as they go along. I don’t know how ours are going to master English idiosyncrasies in spelling and word-order, but we’ll worry about that later.

    Finally, let me add one shamefully sexist observation relating to foreign accents: females are infinitely cuter than males, at all ages, so there is less pressure on them to get the accents right both socially and in business. Unfair, but true.

  6. One thing to remember as an expats, is to never let your children translate for you, unless it is done in a control learning (their learning) environment.
    It gives the kid power over his parents, leading to many behavioral problems.
    I prefer to struggle with a bit of Japanese and broken English then take the easy route and let my son translate for me.