Lessons in Parenting
Raising a Bilingual Child
Published on June 28, 2012 by guest author: J LeBlanc

It wasn’t until after my son was born that I committed to attempting to raise him bilingual in French and English. Not being a native speaker myself, and being the only one in the household who would be able to speak French to him, I was naturally a little nervous about the responsibility. However I knew quite well that research has indicated time and again that when it comes to learning a foreign language, the earlier you start, the better. In fact, one study determined that children learn all the sounds they need to produce in a particular language by the age of one.

There were lots of questions to debate: When would I speak to him in French? How much of the time? What happens when we are out in public? When relatives are around? The one thing I was sure of was that I was not going to sacrifice ever communicating to him in my native language by speaking only French to him.

Before I devised a plan, when my son was a few weeks old, I did a nominal amount of research about raising a bilingual child. It seems that most households fall into one of two categories. Some households have one parent speak exclusively in one language to the child and the other exclusively in another language. This works well, I would imagine, in households where each parent has a different native language. In other households, the parents speak one language at home and another in public. Neither of these options really fit our situation, so I decided that I would speak French to my son during the day, while my husband was at work, and English to him in the evenings and on weekends.

It has been exhilarating to watch him come to understand more and more words and to think that this will, at least to some degree, come naturally to him; that he will be spared some of the frustrations of looking up words he doesn’t know, of struggling to understand a different culture’s approach to grammar. For a long time, the only signs of his progress came in the form of recognition: I would ask him to identify the parts of his face, for example, excited when he would touch his nose or his ear in response to the word.

I began to notice some interesting trends as he began saying his first words: cat, tasse (cup), and chat (cat). At first, he would only say “cat” in reference to the animal, despite the fact that I frequently talked to him about our cats while at home during the weekdays. Suddenly, he began saying “chat” instead, and this replaced the word “cat” altogether for quite a while. Then he finally began going back and forth, as if trying to adjust: After a week of speaking French with me Monday through Friday, he would continue to say “chat” until the end of the weekend, when he would finally, after two full days of English, say “cat” again. It would take a day or two for him to switch back to “chat.”

Recently, however, his speaking ability has exploded. A mere three months ago, he was saying only three words; now I have lost count. In the meantime, he started signing, using some basic sign language I had taught him, and then just as abruptly abandoned some of it in favor of speaking the word. 

He definitely says a lot more in English than in French, which is understandable. He really has no one but me to practice with, although I play French children’s music for him and listen to the news on Radio France to give him a chance to hear other speaking voices. Although I was excited that he was speaking so much more in English, I was sad and a little daunted that the same wasn’t happening in French. I noticed that my husband had a habit of “practicing” words with him in English: pointing out an object and repeating the word for it over and over a few times with the result that, a few hours or a day later, he would suddenly say the word. I began doing this with him in French more often, which helped, but I also noticed that a lot of the words he said in English: book and car, for example, are two-syllable words in French (“livre” and “voiture”). I racked my brain for one-syllable French words like “chaise” (chair) that would be things he interacted with daily, but it seemed as though I was coming up short.

I shouldn’t have worried. My son has taken matters into his own hands and simply shortened whole words and phrases into manageable portions. One of his favorite foods, “fromage” (cheese) is just “mage;” another of his favorite foods, sweet potato, is just “douce” (short for “patate douce,” which is amusing because English speakers think he saying “juice”). He also has noticed that the French for “strawberry” (fraise) is a convenient one-syllable word and employs it rather than the English, although he recognizes both.

As his facility with language has grown, so has his confidence. Where before he would quietly say a word that I might have to ask him to repeat in order to understand it, he now shouts. At mealtimes, he has taken to barking orders at me: cup! Cheese! Strawberry! If I don’t respond right away, he gets even louder. I guess now it is time to start working on etiquette at the table ...

J LeBlanc is a former high school teacher who resides in Lebanon, N.H. She is currently taking a break from teaching to stay home with her 8-month-old son.

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