Becoming Bilingual

March marked one year since our kids started school in Paris. How time flies! When we arrived, they spoke barely a word of French. Maybe “bonjour” and a garbled “comment allez-vous?” but that was about it. After a year in French schools, our two little monsters are essentially fluent. What a journey it’s been.

Ready for take-off at Logan Airport in Boston, Jan 2011

First impression of France? “It’s stinky!!”

Since bilingualism for kids has been in the news lately, I thought I’d fill you in on how we got here — the highs, lows and a few recommendations.

In the Deep End

Since our kids are young (3 and 5 when they started school here) we decided to put them straight into the French schools. No bilingual education, no outside language lessons. Just learning by total immersion. Amazingly, it has worked and both now speak French incredibly well (French friends confirm this) with virtually no trace of an American accent. People told me this would happen but to be honest, I didn’t believe them. I could no more picture my very American 5-year-old speaking fluent French than, well, just about anything. But he does.

The lesson for me? Kids are often capable of far more than we imagine.

Don’t get me wrong; it hasn’t all been easy. We’ve had many teary mornings and excruciating preschool drop-offs, especially during Adele’s first few months. There were days that she had to be literally peeled off my body and forcibly kept in her classroom. Those were very tough days. I left that school building many mornings in tears myself, imagining my “baby” lost in a foreign environment unable to understand a word being said around her. I fought the urge everyday to grab her in my arms and run to the nearest English language preschool just to ease the pain of that early transition.

People kept telling me it would get better. “Give it three months,” they’d say. (Three months!? I couldn’t imagine.) “One day, she’ll run into that school with a smile on her face and even forget to give you a goodbye kiss. You’ll see!” You know what? They were right.

Adele, now almost 5, loves her French school and sings and dances her way to school each day (well most days, anyway). But boy was it tough. There were many times I felt like the most horrible mother on the planet. I had to remind myself constantly that this was a “gift” to the kids in the long run; that one day they’d *hopefully* be grateful for this experience.

Say what?

Since both Cole and Adele were (and still are) learning new words in English in addition to French, there’s some serious “Franglais” going on in our house. Sometimes they just forget the English word, like “I want the rouge one!” or the languages just get mixed up in their little heads, especially with school-related words, like “Mommy, I got a new cahier (notebook) today for my devoirs (homework).”

It’s truly amazing to watch them play and interact seamlessly with their French friends. They know the same songs, playground chants and games. Many are just like ours, of course, just with a Gallic twist. “Rock, paper, scissors,” for example, is “Un, deux, trois, puis fait….ciseax (scissors)!” (Same intonation and hand motion.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how Cole and Adele speak French with one another, even with no French pals around. Or how within a chosen game, they’ll float effortlessly back and forth between the two languages, using whichever seems more appropriate for the activity of the moment.

Sometimes I worry about their English skills and what this will mean for them when we return to the States someday. But this, I figure, is yet another bridge we’ll cross when the time comes.

Appetite for English

So while our kids are busily immersed in French, parents here are desperate for English. There’s a clear understanding — albeit bittersweet — that English is the language of the future and that to excel, speaking English well will be essential. I get asked almost weekly if I’m offering English lessons or would be willing to do language exchanges.

I finally decided to give it a shot and have formed a weekly English playgroup for kids ages 4 – 7. One afternoon a week, we meet in our local park and spend 90 minutes singing, playing and interacting in English. The experience has confirmed my personal (and totally unscientific) theories for learning a foreign language.

There are two short cuts: 1) If possible, start young. Before age 7 or 8, the brain will absorb the new words without translating from the mother tongue. This allows kids to assimilate the new language (and its proper pronunciation) without filtering it through their native framework (as adults do). 2) Immersion is best. An intensive, immersion experience is going to yield results much more quickly and effectively than months spent studying in a classroom. That said, it’s going to be much tougher initially than a bilingual environment. But if you can ride out the tough months, it will pay dividends over the long haul.

Having now spent years “studying” French myself, I know I’ll never speak it as well or with the same ease that my children do. (Alas, my kids seem to know this, too). Ah well, I keep trying…


5 thoughts on “Becoming Bilingual

  1. Many thanks to ParisBreakfasts for linking to this blog. I experienced immersion when I was 20 years old and spent six months going to school in Paris. While this was a good start and a great foundation, I always recommend that people who are planning to spend time in a foreign country in order to learn the language, to spend no less than a year immersed in that culture. At the end of six months, I feel that I was just on the cusp of really making progress in French….then it was time to go home. I think that additional 6 months would have made a world of difference.

    How lucky your children are to have this rich experience. I remember in those first few months feeling just like your little girl. If I had to hear another word of French I was going to melt into a pool of tears. It happens to everyone. One never really understands the true meaning of culture shock until you go through it yourself. But little ones are so resilient. They'll thank you in the end. Bonne Chance et merci pour ce blog!

  2. How I wish that I had been immersed as a child and still plan to do it as an adult. Do not worry about the English for your children as they are learning both. You have given them an immeasurable gift… They will thank you (and are not old enough to remember all that you do about the early days!)


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