An American Teaching French – One Child at a Time

This post is written for this month’s Multilingual Blogging Carnival, hosted by Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes. Check out the link for more great posts!

I got lazy last year. Having our daughter in a French immersion preschool made it so easy. French surrounded her. Everything she learned was in French. French was cool, because everyone else was doing it.

Now, I have to step up my game. I’m trying to find ways to keep French active in our lives. But my fears are coming to fruition: my daughter is starting to resist French.

No one around us speaks it, here in Colorado. Her schoolmates all speak English, and now that’s all she wants to speak. We haven’t connected with the French community here, though we remain hopeful about finding it.

Bringing Up Baby Bilingual has been my reference bible for French activities in this area. I know there are a surprising number of opportunities here, we just have to look a little harder than we did in San Diego. Here’s what we’re doing so far:

We have attended story times. I feel like a desperate twenty-something dude in a club on a Saturday night, frequenting these story times, eavesdropping on conversations, trying to find another mom, hopefully speaking French to her kids, who might be willing to fork over her digits and set up a play date.

Meanwhile, since we don’t have any French-speaking friends here yet, and since my husband is putting in a lot of hours at work, it’s on me to make sure French is a part of our kids’ daily lives. Here’s the real kicker: I’m resisting it. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. Because I’m not truly me in French (see this post). My affection for my kids comes in the form of “honey” and “sweetheart”, not “mon petit chou” (my little cabbage. Ewww.). A French teacher once pointed out to me that “honey” is gross to her, because it’s sticky and messy. I suppose I can see her point. I do find myself, for whatever reason, resorting to French when I need to be stern with my kids. “Assieds-toi !” When my son stands in the bathtub and starts jumping around.  “On y va ! Vite !” When we’re late. French sounds scarier to me, and they jump to attention when I speak in French where they ignore me in English. I can already see their conversations as adults: “And when Mom started in on us in French, that’s when we knew we were in trouble!” Come to think of it, perhaps this is not the association I want to build….

Our bilingual bookshelf

Our bilingual bookshelf

We have plenty of French books, and I struggle here too because I focus too much on making sure I’m pronouncing everything correctly rather than immersing us in the story with an animated reading, the way I do so easily in English. Still, I’m trying. The more familiar each text becomes, the more fun I am when I read it, and the more attention my kids give me when I pull one of these books out.

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Music. We listen to French music all the time. My daughter asks me to play, “Dansons la Capucine” every time we get into the car. French music is her music, anything in English is “Mommy music.” Sometimes she’ll tolerate a Mumford and Sons song or two before saying, “Mommy, I want French music! Dansons la Capucine!”

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I’ve ambitiously (Naively? Stupidly?) offered to do French activities and story times at my daughter’s preschool for any kids who are interested. I’m scaring myself with this one. The mere thought of trying to put together a French lesson for a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds is giving me performance anxiety. If you know me, you know I don’t do anything half-way. I’m all in. Type A perfectionism overachiever at its most intense. I don’t cut myself any slack. I’ll nitpick at myself for mispronouncing one of those ridiculous vowel sounds until I’ve convinced myself that I’m unworthy of even attempting French. Stuart Smalley, care for a session in front of the mirror with me?

I know they say a language can’t be taught through TV, however, my daughter adores La Maison de Mickey and asks to watch it daily. So, a few times a week, I turn on an episode (Thank you, Roku). She does, in fact, pick up a few new words each time. We talk about the show in French, then we all do the Mickey dance together.

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The other day, she pulled out a stack of French flashcards and handed them to me. “Mommy, can you do these with me so I can learn French so I can talk to my cousins?” Again, flashcards get a bad rap, but I wasn’t about to deny her a learning opportunity. I was pleased to see that she remembered a ton of vocabulary words in French. I often ask her to tell me what different things are in French. My husband and I try to both speak French when we are all together, and when the kids say something in English, we translate it into French, then ask them to repeat it. Incidentally, my son’s first French word is, “Coucou !” Translation – a form of “hello” mainly used with families and children.

As for my own learning, I’m planning to crash a French class or two at the University of Colorado in Boulder next semester. When I’m excited about the language, I can pass that on to my kids. Taking classes always makes me happy – if someone would pay me to be a student for the rest of my life, I’d take that job in a heartbeat. I remain determined that my kids learn French, and that it is not a secret language they share with their Papa only.

I believe that plugging into the French-speaking community here is our best hope for ensuring that our daughter and son, and me too, speak French fluently. Like many things, this will take time. And I still dream of a summer in France, maybe in a few years, when the kids are older, where the kids and I all take French lessons. Actually, I’d be fine with a yearly French immersion. Complete with lots of bike rides, croissants, and crepes. That would work for me.

Trader Joe's croissants for now... whenever TJ's opens in Colorado!

Trader Joe’s croissants for now… whenever TJ’s opens in Colorado!

As always, we remain determined, if a bit daunted, to raise our children bilingually and biculturally.

14 thoughts on “An American Teaching French – One Child at a Time

  1. ‘Bonne chance’ for your language journey! It sounds like a fun and creative adventure, both for you and the kids. As I teach French myself and would love to teach our son some when he’s a bit older, I might well end up using some of the same sorts of books that you mention.

    My wife and I are in a kind of similar situation with bringing up our six month old son bilingually (Welsh and English). Even though I’m not Welsh and did start learning the language until about six years ago, I speak to our son uniquely in Welsh. My wife is currently going to Welsh classes and can use quite a few basic phrases with him and also sing a few Welsh nursery rhymes. At the moment, what we’re doing is fairly close to the ‘one person one language’ approach but we may move towards a situation where we both use Welsh with our son.

    • Good for you guys for taking on the bilingual journey. And big kudos to you both for learning a language as adults, and passing that on to your kids. I didn’t start learning French until my late 20s, so I know how challenging it can be. How do you like teaching French? What age group do you teach?

      • I teach French at university, so it’s going to be a whole new ball game trying to teach the language to my son! That said, I did teach English to primary school kids in France for a year so maybe that’ll help! It’s always great to hear about how fellow bloggers deal with this sort of challenge.

  2. Have you thought about finding a French teacher who specialises in teaching kids? I teach English to kids in France, though many of the parents speak English themselves, they prefer their kids learn with a mother tongue speaker. It doesn’t have to be a teacher, maybe there are some French students at the University looking for work. An hour or two a week of games and conversation should do the trick!

  3. You are right, I think you should not give up!
    I think it’s a great idea to try to connect with the French speaking community. Is there an “Alliance française” in your city? They may be able to help you contact French-speaking families. You could also start a group of parents of French-English bilingual children on meetup.com? (or check if one already exists) I guess it’s difficult to introduce your children and yourself to families/mothers you don’t know at all. But most of them are also probably trying to meet other bilingual families and they will be glad (and grateful) you made the first step!
    Another suggestion: you could ask your children’s teachers if they know French-speaking parents at your children’s school?
    Try not to focus too much on your pronunciation. Maybe read the book alone first and if you spot a word that seems strange or difficult to pronunce, ask your husband? As you said, immersing your children in the story is the most important. Your children will have plenty of opportunities to correct their small pronunciation mistakes in the future, don’t worry about that. And don’t be so harsh on yourself, I’m sure your pronunciation is perfectly fine 🙂
    My last advice would be this one: don’t put too much pressure on yourself and try to enjoy reading/speaking and interacting in French with your children as much as you can.
    Bon courage, you are on the right track!

    • Thanks for all your great suggestions, Judith! There is an Alliance Francaise in Denver; it’s a bit of a trek but I’m sure we’ll try to connect with them at some point. We were a part of the AF in San Diego. There are no French speaking parents at the school that we’ve found, unfortunately. Merci for the encouragement 🙂

  4. When I was in NYC, I was teaching French to children (Pre-K to 6 grade) with bilingual parents, or expats, and even American parents who wanted their children to learn French. It was part of an after-school program, run by a private non-profit, managed mostly by volunteer parents. Maybe American parents could be interested for their children, too.
    Of course, the French community is huge in New York. But it was funny to see how French children (even with both parents speaking French at home) would speak English between them because that is what they speak at school. C’est la langue des copains, aussi !
    I wish you bon courage in your quest!

    As an aside, I smiled at the Trader Joe’s chocolate croissants. It always makes me smile how les pains au chocolat are sometimes called chocolate croissants here 🙂

    • Yes – the French community is much, much smaller here. But I remain hopeful that we will find our way to it! Yes, chocolate croissants en Anglais 🙂 Trader Joe’s does a pretty decent job with these ones, even my husband agrees!

  5. The one rule we followed bringing our kids up bilingual was the golden one: only speak your mother tongue to the children. So my husband spoke his native French (along with all the rest of the world in France…) and I spoke English. Even with a good level of French, I found it is not natural to speak to children in an adopted tongue. My daughter resisted English for years, consistently replying to me only in French. But we persisted, and when she got into an international school and discovered all the cool culture around the English-speaking world, she quickly became fluent. Now she studies at Glasgow University with other native English speakers. And TV was a HUGE source of inspiration and vocabulary. I highly recommend exposing your kids to good quality programming (if you can get it with the subtitles, it’s even better as it reinforces the learning experience.) Bon courage!

    • Merci! It’s always good to hear success stories from people with grown children – thank you! We mostly do what you did at this point, although in reverse. Since I speak the majority language, my kids get a ton of English and very little French, unfortunately. You Tube has been a great source of French programs, and as the kids get older, we will use it more I think. As of now, my daughter thinks Mickey Mouse only speaks French….

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