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How To Learn French

How We Raised a Bilingual Child

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis on August 6, 2019
how to raise a bilingual child

Would you like to raise your child bilingual? Here is our own success story with our daughter Leyla, who is now 14 and French English bilingual. I’ll share our life story, our plans, and also all the challenges we have encountered along the way.

1 – Was Raising a Bilingual Child Ever a Question?

To us, whether Leyla was going to be bilingual was never a question. It was a certainty.

My husband Olivier and I are both French. Growing up, Olivier traveled a lot around the world and actually attended international American schools, so he is much more like a first-generation American. His English is excellent. He read the popular books, followed the pop-culture. He has no accent when he speaks English.

That’s not my case. I learned English in school, but when I moved to the US, my English was conversant enough to get by, but far from fluent. I still have a strong French accent when I speak English.

Olivier and I met in the US as Olivier was studying there. Not the best idea visa wise – but that’s another story entirely… In any case, we fell in love, managed to stay, ended up getting married, getting a green card. We eventually became US citizens around the time Leyla was born.

Long detour to answer a simple question: would I ever have considered speaking another language than French, my mother tongue, to my child at home?

No, I would never have.

Yet I did.

2 – Bilingual – Twice!

Think raising a bilingual child would be hard enough? Well, in our case, we had to face the challenge twice!

First, in the US, we wanted Leyla to be bilingual English French in an English environment, and a French-speaking home. Challenging, but common enough.

Then we moved back to France when Leyla was 4. And then we hoped for her to remain bilingual in English, as she now entirely lived in a French-speaking environment. Challenge accepted!

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3 – Determination & Legitimacy

Which brings us to my next point. Should you wish to raise your child bilingual, you better be determinate. You’re going to need it.

I didn’t think it was going to be such a challenge. Olivier and I spoke French at home, so we were going to speak French to our kid as well, and she’d pick it up.

French is my language. I’m her mother. French would be her mother tongue. Right?

Yes, on the paper it is. But the reality is different. We still lived in the US, in an English speaking environment. And that was indeed the reality of Leyla’s world.

I didn’t raise Leyla entirely at home. Actually, she started going to a nanny full time when she was 4 months old. And then came day-care, school etc…

So even though we spoke French at home, most of Leyla’s day was spent in an English speaking environment.

It’s something that would impact her language learning so much: actually, it’s a common mistake among people who think learning French as you live in France is going to be easy... It all depends on your real environment, and if your spouse, work, friends are all English speaking, believe me, it’s not going to be that easy! But I digress…

I know she would understand French. But it was the speaking part that was problematic. Since Leyla’s main language of communication in her daily life was English, and Olivier and I also spoke English fluently, why should she even bother with French?

One day, when Leyla was three, she asked me: “Mom, why do I have to speak French at home?”

That day will come, and you better prepare for it and have an answer.

I did. I got close to her and said: “Why do you ask?”
She said: “it’s so much harder than English!”.

First, I agreed with her and admitted it was a challenge sometimes to speak French at home, but then I said in a soft voice: “but I’ll tell you the whole truth: I wouldn’t, I couldn’t have it any other way.
You see, for me, French is the language of my family: it’s the language I use with my Mom, my Dad, your Dad and you.
For me, it’s the language of love”.

Awwwww.

It worked. Not only did it move her, but my argument did make sense. I was not in the “because I said so” situation, but I had a much stronger reason: I was legitimate.

Kids respond to that. They also want to please you, so she understood it was something very important to me, something that was linked to the feeling of family for me, and that would make us two even closer.

4 – A Willing Bilingual Child

But now, everything was about to change.

It was 2009, Leyla had just turned four and the three of us had moved (back) to France over Christmas time. Leyla was going to a French preschool.

Adjusting to the language was OK actually, but adjusting to the French preschool system proved quite a challenge!

Leyla was now totally immersed in a French environment: both parents being French, living in France close to our French-speaking family, going to a French preschool…

So, what did we do to maintain – and even develop – her English?

We switched the only thing we could control: the home environment. We started speaking English at home.

At this point, we had a huge ally: TV. Leyla is a big TV fan. And when we moved to France, the ultimate rule of the house was that TV was to be exclusively in English. And it still is to this day.

Finally, we decided Leyla would for an extended immersion stay each year in the US. That would take care of the motivation to speak and boost her learning.

We first went visit friends as a family, then Leyla went solo starting when she was 9 and has been going ever since to who she calls her adopted American family.

how to raise a bilingual child

But at this point, I have to admit we were lucky. I do believe to raise a bilingual child in a language that is not the parents’ main tongue requires a huge commitment from the kid: in other words, your kid has to be willing. And Leyla was.

At 4, the fact that she was bilingual was already a big part of her identity. And I think she was happy to keep this part of her alive, both the English language and the fact of being a bilingual girl even in France.

5 – Making it Special

Leyla didn’t speak exclusively French to us back in the US. She was flexible and would speak English with us if we were entertaining English speaking friends for example, or at the store.

It’s actually something most bilingual children cannot do: their brain usually associates a person with a language and sticks to it. But for some reason, it was never a problem for Leyla, and it still isn’t: she can switch from French to English mid-sentence with us, and make the effort to speak French with an American friend for example.

She always enjoyed being able to speak in a “secret language”, as we did back in Boston when we spoke French in the stores. I also showed off a little, so she could notice I was proud. And people were noticing and sending super positive energy: well, imagine how cute a French-speaking toddler is by American standards!

Later in France, her English teachers also helped a lot by making her their “little assistant”. Here again, everybody was telling her how great it was she was bilingual, how lucky she was, how useful it will be in the future…

So Leyla always associated being bilingual to something all positive: it made her stand out; we were lucky that other people were curious and positive about it; she could share secrets in public thanks to our secret language… it was all very practical.

6 – Harvesting Your Child Language Instinct

Kids have an instinct to communicate: one could say it’s in their genes: it’s a matter of survival for them.

But often, articulating words is the main problem a child would face at a young age. For Leyla who was raised bilingual, articulation of languages was definitely an issue and as many bilingual kids, she was a bit late to speak.

So, we started her on sign language. Milk. Sleep. Give. Play. Hurt. Dog. Hear, Watch. Thank you. I love you. It’s amazing the power of communication. We didn’t go very far because we didn’t want to put the effort into learning sign language ourselves, but we knew about 10-15 words, and it was amazing how much communication these few words unlocked.

how to raise a french bilingual child

I am also sure signing played a huge role in Leyla’s openness to languages. She realized at an early age that people could communicate, even with her, successfully, and success is the best motivation.

Leyla is now 14. She is really bilingual in French and English and also studies German and Spanish in school. When she introduces herself, she says she is both French and American. It’s essential to how she sees herself.

So, yes, we were lucky. We were determined and legitimate as well. And then we stuck to fundamental rules, found tools that were simple and right for us, and it worked. Twice!

If you manage to put all this together, no matter where you live, I’m sure you’ll have a good chance at raising your child bilingual as well.

Now, if you’d like to have more precise tips on the best method to teach kids French, or the pitfalls you should avoid, follow the links!

If you too raised a bilingual child, or have questions, please do engage in the comment section below – I’d love to read what you think.

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