I’m assured it happens with all kids growing up bilingually, but it’s still hard to see my daughter pitching fits every time we try to coax her to speak in French. She understands most everything she hears but she typically responds in English. Lately, she tells me she doesn’t want to speak French, begs me not to speak French, and sometimes collapses into crying fits complaining that speaking French is too hard. With my husband, her protests are only slightly less intense. Aside from a few well-worn phrases, she responds to him in English only as well.
Here’s what we’ve done right so far:
My husband started off speaking to our kids exclusively in French from their births. Actually, he spoke to them in French when they were in the womb. Except the one time he cupped his hands around his mouth, placed them against my pregnant belly, and said in his best Darth Vader impression: “Baby. I. Am. Your. Father.”
For him, speaking to his kids in French, despite the fact that he’s French and French is his first language, wasn’t completely natural at first. He’s lived and worked in the US since his mid-twenties, and he married an English-speaking American, so his life has been in English for quite some time. Once he made the adjustment, though, he’s stuck with it. A lot of parents give up at the first sign of discomfort from their kids. I get it – no one wants to feel like an instrument of torture to their own offspring.
We’ve tried to make it fun. We’ve cheered our kids on when they use their French.
We’ve found French classes, French story times, and other children who speak French, so the kids can see people other than their own parents speaking French.
I’ve tried to speak more French with them. We do grocery shopping in French. French dinners twice a week – where the whole family speaks French. I play French music in the car and we all sing along.
Here’s where we went wrong:
I fear that allowing our daughter to respond in English when French was spoken to her was a bad idea. English is her stronger language; I speak it, everyone around her speaks it. She started out responding to my husband in French, but somehow, gradually over the last several months, her responses transitioned to English only.
So we tried to help her form phrases in French when she became frustrated and protested… and now she’ll only repeat what we say, or tell us that she’ll ask her question/tell us what she needs to tell us when we go back to speaking in English.
I’ve become the mom I didn’t want to be: calling out to my daughter: “Il faut parler en Francais!” And to my husband: “Lentement, tu parles trop vite!”
Can you tell who’s type A in our household?
My mantra has become: I’d rather them be mad at me now because I’m pushing them to speak French than mad at me when they’re grown because I didn’t.
But the truth is, no parent enjoys seeing their kids upset, especially when we, the parents, are the source of that discomfort. There’s a fine line between pushing hard enough that we get over this hurdle, and pushing so hard that our kids decide they’ll just kick all the hurdles aside, sprint away from us to the finish line, and give us the finger when they arrive there. (Luckily they don’t know that gesture yet).
A friend of mine, who is also raising her children bilingually (Hi, Sarah!), astutely pointed out that we push and expect our kids to say, “Please,” and “Thank you,” among other things, so is it really that different to push and expect a response in the same language we address them with?
I’m reassured that in the French class we take, my daughter is speaking to the teacher mostly in French. (My son, almost 2, responds in whatever language he’s addressed with, or with whatever word or phrase is on his mind, regardless of the language. My daughter did the same at that age.) I’ve caught my daughter pulling out French children’s books and “reading” to her brother – also in French. Sometimes her doudous (stuffed animals) speak French to each other.
Still – we’re thinking it’s time to go a little more hardcore. As in, “We’re speaking in French now, please respond in French!” and though I swore I’d try to avoid this, our daughter giggles when we playfully say, “Opf! Je ne comprends pas ! Je parle francais (pour le moment) !” It even elicits a French phrase from her, most of the time.
When all else fails, we just point out that Elsa speaks both French and English. That works. For now.