Home > Bilingualism > Bilingual Parenting: It’s About More Than Just Bilingualism

Bilingual Parenting: It’s About More Than Just Bilingualism

Today we have  new writer who will be writing a series about her attempts to raise bilingual children. Christine Thuau is mom to two kids (8 and 6) who might, with a little bit of luck, be bilingual someday! She is currently working as a freelance translator and editor, and has a doctorate in medieval French literature (yes, really). She enjoys reading, walking, gardening, photography, painting, writing, baking and the internet—among other things. You will be hearing more from her, so check out her first post:

I spent all morning following links through the world of the online bilingual parenting sphere, and I came to the conclusion that I really need an angle—a fresh angle—if I’m going to be able to contribute anything worthwhile to this discussion. So I thought and thought. I felt in awe of many of these parents and educators, and I felt a little like a poseur, since our kids could be truly bilingual but aren’t… and then it came to me: I could be the bilingual parenting world’s voice of underachievement!

But I’m mostly a glass-half-full kind of girl, so you can expect me to go fairly lightly on the self-recrimination.

Here’s what I’d like to do: I’d like to speak for, to and with all of those parents who could have seized the day and created a happy and super-brilliant bilingual family, but who instead seized a baguette sandwich and decided (consciously or not) to champion biculturalism through earnest and joyful consumption of carbohydrates and fat. I’m not alone in this, right? Because, I mean, speaking to our own situation (I’m American, my husband is French, we live in Los Angeles), yes, the French language is beautiful and widely-spoken, and French literature is grand and important (although frequently dark and full of “Um… what?” moments). But what I really, really love about France and French culture (besides my husband, of course) (and my in-laws!) is breakfast and that snack you can have at four o’clock in the afternoon.

Let us all just take a moment to think about coffee, chocolate and croissants.


So anyway, back to our sheep… revenons à nos moutons: I think there really must be a sizeable population of parents who have done a lot of the groundwork for bilingualism, but who haven’t gone all the way—for one reason or another. When that is the case, it is natural to ask ourselves what we can do to keep pushing toward bilingualism. But I think we also need to ask ourselves, “What sort of positive things have we given our children in place of outright bilingualism?” Because I’ve met bilingual people with no particular affinity for their “second” language or culture, and I’ve also met adults who speak a second language atrociously but who are crazy about the culture that it comes from and about the process of acquiring the second language. Of course I would prefer that my children speak French perfectly, but if I had to choose between enthusiasm motivated by a certain sense of incompletion and perfect indifference, I would choose enthusiasm.

When I look at our family’s situation and where our children are vis-à-vis bilingualism, I see that we got to this place through both circumstance and a number of decisions that were made consciously, unconsciously and (probably most often) semi-consciously. Our decisions are, of course, informed by our hopes as parents, and so I’ll end this first entry on bilingual parenting by outlining my own personal hopes for my kids:

I hope they will continue to be good people. I hope their prejudices will be benign. I would love for them to eventually be completely bilingual, but more than that, I want them to identify as French and to have more in common with their father than just the language. I want them to eat the same foods he ate as a child, watch the same shows, read the same books and know his people and their homes. I want them to run in the parklands behind their paternal great-grandmother’s home, and to remember the smell of old books in their maternal great-grandmother’s library. (And also, where she hides the candy.) I want this for them, of course, but also for their father—for whom the continuity that facilitates bilingualism and biculturalism is also a pleasure and a comfort.

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Categories: Bilingualism
  1. February 17, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    This is really interesting.
    I am sort of a notreallytrilingual mama too… though the languages we are doing aren’t heritage to me at all. I learned French in school and then living here in Quebec… so we are sort of in a weird position where English is the “minority language” in that I am an anglophone raising my kid mostly in English in a majority francophone province, but where English cannot in any stretch of the imagination be considered a minority language, and certainly in no danger of disappearing if I don’t push it on my son at home. He is getting English at home, in many mainstream cultural things, and in our extended family who are in the rest of Canada. And French I do it sort of halfassedly, kind of like you do, perhaps a bit more, as we DO need to use it on a daily basis in neighborhoodly interactions, AND I trust that the francophone daycare he does 2-3 days a week will take care of the nursery rhymes, vocab, grammar etc.

    I put way more effort into the Mandarin, for reasons that you outline about your kids’ dad: “I want them to identify as French and to have more in common with their father than just the language. I want them to eat the same foods he ate as a child, watch the same shows, read the same books and know his people and their homes.” I want him to identify as Chinese as WELL as anglophone Canadian living bilingually in Quebec. I admit to putting more effort into language than food, and I doubt his first mother watched Dora or Bob the Builder in Chinese. But I do bet she sang “Liang zhi lao hu” and “Zhao yi ge hao pengyou” at home in China.

    I really enjoyed the food in China, but I admit I am with you on the French breakfasts… I openly state I moved to Quebec after touring Europe and falling for fresh baguettes with bowls of hot chocolate and café au lait, fresh croissants and brie cheese etc, when people ask why I moved here. I still haven’t bothered to get my act together to make jiaozi, so my son probably eats more croissants and brie than spring rolls.

    I look forward to more of your posts!

    • Christine
      February 19, 2010 at 9:37 am

      Wow! That’s a big project, keeping Mandarin, English and French in the air! But it’s nice, as you say, that the English and French sort of take care of themselves. It’s funny, but I’m going to start talking next week about the fact that we might possibly be making a move to Montreal this summer… so all of a sudden there’s a little bit more urgency for us as far as our kids learning to speak French! Even if that particular move doesn’t happen, contemplating what that would be like has put a new spin on things for us. Oh, and if we moved to France, I would be going primarily for baguette-and-hot-chocolate breakfasts, too. Mmmm!

  1. February 26, 2010 at 6:05 am
  2. March 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm
  3. March 23, 2010 at 11:08 pm

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