More French, Please!

Our daughter comes home from preschool singing adorable French songs like these:

It’s clear that she understands everything said to her in French. She’s also a great translator:

“Mommy, where’s my shirt?”

“Here’s your shirt, sweetie. How do you say ‘shirt’ in French?”

“It’s ‘chemise,’ sweetie.”

(Yes, she calls me sweetie.)

In her mind, there is a clear distinction between the two languages. She’ll pull a book from the shelf and tell me, “This book is French.” She’ll tell me her teacher speaks French but so and so in class speaks English.

It amazes me that at such a young age, 29 months, such a clear line can be drawn. Even my 9 month old son will pause and stare at me when I speak French. He knows something different is coming out of my mouth. Recent research shows that babies as young as 7 months can differentiate between languages. Fascinating.

Right now, though, our daughter tends to speak mainly in English or occasionally Franglais. She knows she’s doing it; she seems to pick and choose the words she likes or the words she finds easier to say. Like the other day when trying to give my husband a bite of her cereal: “Papa, open your bouche!” Or this morning, when I was failing miserably at corralling her to get her dressed for school: “Mommy, I want to play cache-cache!” (hide and seek).

Parents in other bilingual households have advised us that when she responds to my husband with English to tell her, in French, “I don’t understand. Tell me in French.” We’ve been hesitant to go this route; the last thing we want to do is shut her down when she’s trying to express herself and we certainly don’t want her to hate French. So right now, when she says something to my husband in English, he translates the phrase into French and has her repeat it back. She seems to think this is great fun.

We’ve also started speaking French more at home. My husband has been in the U.S. long enough that speaking French feels unnatural to him. We both have to put forth a lot of effort to have a conversation in French. But I need the practice, and it’s great for the kids. Lately, our daughter will even tell me, “Mommy, I want to speak French with you.” (Despite THIS)

Going to a French school helps, I have no doubt. We are in that window of opportunity, where her mind and her palate can take in our two languages and form the sounds without the flaws and struggles that I must deal with as a later in life language learner. It’s fun to see her French taking off, and fun for me to work on it with her. Our mission: more French speaking in our house, and trying to keep it fun so the kiddos (and I) don’t rebel against it.

12 thoughts on “More French, Please!

  1. It *is* really strange how it’s unnatural to me. A bit spooky, really. Talking to A about “her” stuff, it’s fine, but it’s harder with C for some reason. I’d really like to break that!

  2. Love this post! We are working on the same thing with my two-year old nephew. He prefers to speak French but when you ask him how you say it in English, he will tell you. It’s a bit frustrating, but it makes sense because, well, he is French and lives in France! My sister and I only speak to him in English and Spanish (our parents are Mexican and we speak to them only in Spanish), yet the little bigger, aka Rafael, is alllllll about French! “C’est cassé!” “Voilà!” “Fini!” We are just praying that one day he will speak English fluently, not just understand it, and sans accent!

    It’s incredible just how much they know, understand, and differentiate, though! When you write about visibly seeing your son notice a difference when you speak French to him, I was like, “Yes! I know what she means!” Kudos to you and your husband for having your daughter in a French school and for speaking French more at home. It’s tough to suddenly change the language you speak to your partner or anybody for that matter, but that is awesome that you are doing this for your kids. Bravo!

    • Thank you for reading! Kids and their language capacity are incredible; I wasn’t sure how this was all going to work out when we started speaking two languages with ours, but I’ve been amazed at how easily our daughter has absorbed and differentiated between French and English. It’s true that for me, speaking French with the two of them does not come naturally AT ALL, but it’s so important to us that they both be bilingual, so we’re trying!

      On another note – how crazy that you are from San Diego, too! Small world, isn’t it?

      • Your kids are so lucky to have such good (and bilingual!) parents. It’s truly a gift that you’re giving them. I know my siblings and I are incredibly grateful to our parents for teaching us and making us speak Spanish without mixing in any English.

        I know!!! Small world!!!! I miss it. SO looking forward to going back in the summer!!! The things I miss the most: The Cottage restaurant and their French toast, Mexican food (!!!!!!), and the Shores! I just found out that I’m majorly Vitamin D deficient today, due to the lack of sun; I never thought I’d have that problem! Haha. When do you think you’ll be back in Paris? I’m sure the French side misses you guys!

        • Thank you for your kind words! I so often hear that kids fight the attempts of their parents to use a language other than English at home, then I often meet adults who are grateful that their parents didn’t give in and kept pushing that second language. So, we’ll keep trying!

          I hear you – I go through Mexican food withdrawal every time I’m out of the country. Our next trip to France is probably 2014- with 2 kids so little (and all the gear: diapers, strollers, car seats, cribs, etc) we’re sticking closer to home this year. Can’t wait to get back.

  3. I am American and my husband is French. We moved to France when my 2nd child was 18 months old. (1980) The children picked up french right away. When baby #3 was born (1982 – she just got married) she wasn’t sure what she should be speaking since I tried to talk to them only in english. (I speak french fluently.)
    We finally moved back to California when she was 4. Once she realized that she needed to speak english to be understood she dropped the french. Children pick up languages quickly and use the one that gets them the “ice cream” the fastest. My son, child #2, lives at our home in Provence. He just had a baby. it will be interesting to see how quickly Olivier is fluent in both languages.

    • Hi Judy, thank you for reading! So did both of your kids end up bilingual? I’m not above bribery using ice cream, chocolate, toys, whatever to help my kids speak French. What a great place to have a house – Provence. We dream of having a place in either Bretagne or Provence someday. Hey, maybe both!

  4. For what its worth…. (I raised two bilingual kids)
    Telling your kid you don’t understand, please say it again in xx language is nuts! In addition to shutting the kid down, s/he knows you’re feeding them a line of utter garbage. Kids are smart like that.
    Our home in CA was strictly English speaking, but the girls went to a bilingual school. When we moved to Paris the eldest was 9. I put them in public school and guess what? She was completely fluent, getting he best grades in the class.
    AND my American friend raised two bilingual boys in Paris.
    The Dad is French, speaks only French to the boys who are in public French school. This means the only English they got was at home with Mom and on school holidays visiting family.
    Raising bilingual children is much easier than all the blogs, books and studies make it sound. Most kids just pick it up!

    • Yeah – the whole “I don’t understand” thing never felt right to me, either. I’m always happy to hear stories from families, like yours, where the kids end up fluent in two languages. It’s also reassuring to hear that it isn’t as hard or complicated as some say it is! We figure that if we can arrange things so we spend every summer in France, we’ll have it made!

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