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Bilingual Parenting: A Laissez Faire Approach to Raising Bilingual Children

A bilingual mother discusses raising bilingual children

I want to talk eventually about the decisions we’ve made regarding how we’ve raised our children to be (or not to be?) bilingual, but I should first start out by describing where they actually are on the mono- to bilingual spectrum.

Our daughter, who is eight and a half, was an early speaker and reader in English, and she currently works well beyond her grade level at school. She understands nearly everything of what people say directly to her in French, and she picks up a lot from conversations she overhears, but her speaking skills are fairly limited. She can carry on a conversation, but she has to articulate her end of it in very basic phrases. Consequently, she’s reluctant to speak with people she doesn’t know well; she’s a perfectionist by nature, and a big talker, and it drives her crazy that she can’t produce exactly the same dialogue in French that she would in English. Her accent is exactly right, however, and she has an intuitive grasp of French sentence structure. She reads simple things in French, but it’s a fairly laborious process for her.

Our son is almost six, and we sense that he is perhaps not quite where his sister was at this age. When she was almost six, our cumulative family exposure to full-day public school added up to only one year, and we were still singing our kids to sleep with French children’s songs at night and letting them watch DVDs in French during the day. When our French grandma came to visit, the kids were home all day, too. While I’m a big, big fan of having both of the kids out of the house at school all day, it does really cut back on their exposure to French. (As does our ban on television and video games on weekdays. No, they’re not watching PBS Kids or playing Mario Cart when they’re supposed to be doing their homework, but they’re also not watching French DVDs or doing French activities on the computer, either.) In any case, our son—who, if anything, began reading even earlier than our daughter, but spoke a bit later—understands about half of what people say to him directly in French, and replies exclusively with a handful of memorized phrases. He is a most excellent reader in English, though, and seems to also have an innate understanding of French phonetics. He can sound out simple words and phrases—which is a miracle to me, since I have to say that we’ve done almost no instructive reading with him in French at all. Our son is, if anything, even more of a talker than our daughter (in English), and consequently even more reluctant than she is to deploy his rudimentary French in conversation. He has SO MUCH to say; the sheer volume dictates that he use the most expedient means available to him!

What is a bilingual mother to think of all this?

I have to say that I basically feel unconcerned that they are not yet bilingual. If I had to establish a concrete goal, it would be this: let them be bilingual—or at least fully competent in conversational French—by the time they’re old enough to be out and about on their own. Say, thirteen or fourteen years old. Having taught French to adults who were acquiring it as a second language, I know that the hardest things to master are pronunciation and syntax. (Actually, one of the toughest hurdles for a lot of language learners is accepting that other languages have different syntax.) Our kids have those two things hardwired into their brains; when they decide that they want to really pursue learning French, they will be miles ahead of people with no exposure.

So I guess you could say that we’ve taken a laissez faire approach to raising bilingual children. They’ll get there eventually, and hopefully they will enjoy the process and be glad that we gave them some time and space to make it their own project—being literate and fluent in French will be something they can take pride it when it all finally comes together.

But here’s the thing, and the joke is definitely on us parents: we may very well be moving to Montreal this summer…

Coming soon: implementing the One Person One Language approach with elementary school-aged children! Can it be done??

About the Author: 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.

Other Posts by Christine Thuau:

Bilingual Parenting: It’s About More Than Just Bilingualism

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Categories: bilingual parenting
  1. February 27, 2010 at 1:13 am

    I love this post. This really is how I have been treating our Chinese language learning. We do have someone come in once a week, but it isn’t structured classes, nor immersion, and I have just been happy to instill an interest in Chinese and do a bit here and a bit there. We haven’t cut out screen time but I do pretty much insist that it is either educational (phonics programs online, sesame street on dvd, signingtime) or in French or Chinese.

    I do know that my very limited input of Swedish from my grandmother as a preschooler and young grade school age helped enormously when I paid for Swedish tutoring in my 30s, and that has been an inspiration for me in exposing my son to Chinese now (he is currently four years old). He can sing some songs, understands quite a bit of beginner chinese, knows some characters but by no stretch of the imagination can speak chinese or is fluent. It may come, or not.. if not, then he will have an excellent base for adult learning if he so desires.

    And hey, we are in Montreal so do look us up if you move! I am even more laissez faire in French (ie don’t invest the time and $ I do in Chinese books and dvds or tutor) since my son is in French daycare a couple days a week and is enrolled in French preschool for the fall, and we do live in a francophone neighborhood.

    • Christine
      February 27, 2010 at 8:51 pm

      I think if you’re paying for daycare and preschool in French, then you’re investing plenty in French! (Even if it’s cheaper than it would be here in the states, which, man, I really hope it is!) And we will definitely look you up if we end up in Montreal. We won’t know if we’re moving or not for a few months yet, I guess. I just found your blog (I’m new to this WordPress thing) and really enjoyed looking through it!

      • February 27, 2010 at 11:17 pm

        LOL! I guess that’s true. Though it is state subsidized daycare at 7$ a day (for a full work day), and we also get $100 child care cheque from the federal govt every month… Preschool is free public school (French school system is obligatory here unless you have exemption because your parents, ie me, were schooled in English in Canada for the majority of grades 1-6), and the afternoons will again be the $7 a day subsidized daycare within the school. So I guess the state invests a lot in his French! His dance class at the local community center is also in French (of course) so I guess I invest in that too! LOL! I never thought of it that way, only as a physical ed class expense! thanks!

        But yes, do let us know if you come up here! Thanks for your kind words re my blog!

  2. multilingualmania
    February 28, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Man! You can’t beat that! Free preschool and only $7 a day. Are we talking the equivalent of US dollars??!

    • February 28, 2010 at 3:25 pm

      Well, if the US keeps it’s dollar value so low, yup, the equivalent of US dollars (there are only a couple cents difference now)… but yeah, $7 Cdn. We also get a “Child Care Credit” of $100 a month per child under 6 (federal… the cheap daycare is provincial in Quebec)… it is taxable, but you get a receipt for the daycare for your taxes too… Note that the waiting list is 1-2 yrs for a spot, and people often sign their kids up for daycare as soon as they find out they are pregnant. In my case I adopted and only knew the age, sex etc of my child a couple months before he came home. So I waited about 1.5 yrs from the moment I knew I’d get him… he was signed up for daycare before we even met!

      He was home for a year 24/7 with me (that is a challenge, working selfemployed as a single parent to a 2-3 yr old with no childcare) for a year before he got a space. Of course many people pay for private childcare, which can cost $400 plus a month (again you get a receipt for your taxes, and you also get the $100 a month from the fed govt).

      A lot of people also pay for private preschool too, but I am fine with him going to the local public school. He could actually stay in his $7 daycare for 4yr old preschool this fall, and go directly into kindergarten fall 2011, but the local public school is closer and will save me 2 hrs commuting per day to take him, for the same price. 😀

      • February 28, 2010 at 3:26 pm

        You have to remember, we are a horrid socialized country… we have socialized daycare, socialized healthcare… so very backward and unamerican!

      • multilingualmania
        February 28, 2010 at 5:23 pm

        LOL! I am thinking of having a baby in the next year or so, maybe I should move now to Canada! I have friends that are paying 700-1000 a month for childcare!

  3. March 30, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    I think, as you say, that as parents, we give our kids what we can, and then, if they are interested, as an adult, or young adult, they will take it further (or not) as their personality drives them.

  1. March 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm
  2. March 23, 2010 at 11:08 pm

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