We successfully raised our kid French English bilingual. Would like to teach French to your toddler, your kid, you teen? What’s the best method? What about resources? Tip #1: keep it fun!
First, let’s see how to teach French to different age groups.
Teaching French to Toddlers 👶
Young children need both supervision and interaction.
So, a parent or sitter needs to get involved with the French book, the DVD, the French App or whatever medium you choose to teach French to your toddler.
Teaching French to toddlers – Tips
The first thing is to get him/her interested. Sit down with your toddler while you listen to a Fairy Tale in French and use simple sentences like:
- “Le loup arrive” (the wolf comes)
- Get up and dance, and repeat: “Le loup! Le loup!”.
Even if you don’t speak French, pick a word and repeat it. Chances are you’ll learn a couple of things yourself! But your toddler will pick up much more than you do, because at a young age, they are just geniuses in guessing and learning languages from the context: this is how they learn English!
Make sure you exaggerate the sounds and the shape of your lips, speak “Motherese”, that’s how toddler learn any language, including French of course. If you are not sure, you may want to study French pronunciation.
Sing along with kid songs (you can find French songs + lyrics on YouTube) Your toddler will love this special time and will definitely develop an ear for the language – and associate it with a special bonding time with you.
Develop your child’s interest in French
At a young age, the key is to help your child develop an ear and an interest for the French language, not to transform them into the next Voltaire or Sartre.
Children at a young age want to show you they understand, and live to please you.
If you can show them how happy it makes you when they speak French, it will be the best incentive!
Teaching French to toddlers – resources
At 3 years of age, my daughter had lived all her life in Boston, USA. She spoke English from 9 AM to 5 PM at daycare, then French at home.
She loved listening to my Fun for All French Tales adaptations and recordings; she seemed mesmerized by my voice and the lively rendition of the tale, and listened to the same tale over and over — for weeks.
Then, when I was telling her the story, she would fill in entire sentences that she had memorized. Just like when a child “pretends” he can read because he has memorized the lines of his favorite books.
It was cute at the time, but I didn’t read too much into it.
When we moved back to France the following year, I was quite nervous about Leyla integrating a full-time French preschool (her English seemed so much better than her French at that time).
To my big surprise, the teacher told me Leyla was one of the most advanced kids in her class in French. Although technically, English was her first language, she had a lot of vocabulary in French at a young age, and used vous really well, as well as complex tenses such as the French subjunctive.
I know this comes from hearing and memorising my Classic French fairy tales audiobook.
Of course, for toddlers, I would also suggest you get image books in French (search on Amazon, there are many).
Now let’s see how to teach French to a child.
Teaching French To Kids 🧒
Although many parents’ first reaction is to hire the help of a French tutor, one hour weekly exposure to a tutor is unlikely to do much for a young kid. It may help motivate him/her, or help with his/her French pronunciation.
Kids learn by repetition — constant repetition — and learning French is not different.
The best solution would be to hire a French nanny to speak with him/her all day, or move to France — but this is not an option for most of us!!
And what about the ever so sought after French playgroup? I never found one myself, so good luck with that…
So, in the end, the best tutor for your kid will have to be you.
How can my child learn French if I don’t speak it myself?
If you do not speak any French, then start by taking a couple of hours of lessons for yourself.
Learn things like colors, animals, basic counting, politeness, and the pronunciation for a small, easy children books. You can now easily find teachers in your area or even over Skype / Zoom /Whatsapp – read about the French teachers via zoom I recommend. Nicolas in particular has a lot of experience teaching kids and teens.
A couple of things you need to make sure when choosing a French tutor: make sure he/she is a French native since a proper French accent is essential here.
You will also find many free resources online, but again make sure you only pick the ones with matching audio recordings so you can learn the proper French pronunciation.
Teaching the basic French skills to a young child
Once you have the basic pronunciation and vocabulary down, then start doing repetitions with your kid.
- Use French numbers whenever counting anything like climbing stairs,
- Use French politeness at home (is there anything cuter than a English speaking child saying “Merci”?),
- Use French color names when drawing, etc…
Keep learning French fun
Both of you need to have fun.
So make sure you pick a time when he/she is not tired, and send a lot of positive energy: laugh, cry out of joy when she/he utters a French sound, so your kid associates French to a good time, and you too have fun in the process.
Find the right French resource
There are plenty of good tools to help your kid learn French:
- French CDs,
- French children books and bedtime stories,
- French fairy tales
- DVDs with French audio: finding kid DVDs in French is not that easy: the Caillou series has French tracks, so do many of the Disney & Dreamworks movies – not all of them do though.
- French softwares and apps developed specially for kids.
I don’t do “affiliates” meaning I will not accept to get paid to recommend a product to you (that’s how most website make money…). I suggest you look on Google, or YouTube: it’s all there at your fingertips, and many good quality things for kids are free nowadays.
With kids nowadays being born with an iPad in their hands (or so it seems) there are of course many French learning apps for kids. As usual, better check it out for yourself and check the customer rankings before you buy anything.
If you are buying some sort of word + image game, make sure the French word includes the French article (un/une – le la)… The article shows the gender, and you need to memorize it with the French nouns:
- une table (table is feminine in French)
- un livre (book is masculine)
Should there be no gender indication, you’d be missing on half of the info…
Pick something interesting for his/her age, and something you will enjoy hearing over and over as well – remember kids learn by repetition!
Teaching French To Teens 👧
Maybe your teen’s school offers French. And that’s a start. However, if you really want your French teen to learn French, the school curriculum is unlikely to be enough.
I will let you read my article about modern spoken French to understand the difference between “real” French and the typical French curriculum.
Learning French has to be your teen idea
I already talked about this in the French for kids section, but the same exact thing applies to French for teens. You teen has to be motivated to learn French: promise a trip, a French language immersion at a French teacher’s house…
If you don’t have any French speaking friends or family, and don’t go regularly to a French speaking country, unless the idea comes from him/her, it’s going to be hard to motivate him/her.
A great way to motivate a teen is to hire a friendly and encouraging tutor: read about the French teachers via zoom I recommend. Vanessa in particular has a lot of experience teaching kids and teens.
Set your teen video game to French
Your teen probably plays some video games. You may be able to switch the language to French (many popular games offer this option in the settings such as the Sims or Minecraft).
I wouldn’t start the game on the French language unless your teen is bilingual or already knows how to play, because s/he may not understand the cues at first.
However, once your child is familiar with the game, setting it to French is a good way for your kid to learn new French vocabulary.
Find an audiobook that teach really useful French
For older teens, the best way to learn French is within the context of a story: check out my downloadable French audiobooks. French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation.
They are perfectly suitable for teens – I’ve recently used À Moi Paris L1 to teach a 14 years old American boy and he loved it.
Carson said the audio gave him reflexes in French: he heard my voice in his head. He also liked the fact that the story featured vocabulary he could actually use, real life like situations.
Finally, he said that unlike his French school book, there was a lot of repetition and the grammar was explained really clearly in terms he understood. The story difficulty was progressive, so he didn’t feel he had to memorize too much at once.
YouTube – An endless and free Resource
Leyla loves watching gamers play video games on YouTube. But native gamers usually speak too fast for kids learning French.
So, we both did videos for French students.
Leyla has done a few videos using Minecraft to teach French to beginners
I created videos to teach French with the Sims
And I also did a series of videos with Minecraft in French. Follow the link to the individual episodes. Here is the playlist.
And now, I’d like to share with you my very own story of how we raised our daughter to be French English bilingual.
How We Raised a French English Bilingual Child
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.
Bilingual – twice!
Think raising a French English 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 in English and 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!
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”.
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.
A willing French bilingual kid
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.
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.
Making being bilingual 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.
Harvesting your kid’s 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.
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 15. 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 (she does have the double nationality). 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.
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.