Me Thinks Thou Doth Protest Too Much

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.

8 thoughts on “Me Thinks Thou Doth Protest Too Much

  1. It seems like a lot of the time, language use follows the path of least resistance — for example, from what I’ve observed, if two people who speak different languages hold a conversation, and each speaks the other’s language to some extent, it seems like the conversation usually shifts over to the one language that both are more proficient in (i.e., say I’m an English speaker who knows a little French, you’re a French speaker who knows a lot of English — we’re probably going to end up speaking mostly in English). So it could be that from a utilitarian we-just-need-to-communicate point of view, you’re daughter is doing what’s easiest when she answers you in English. (Question: if you put her with people who really do speak only French, what happens?)

    But another thing that I wondered about while reading your post is if maybe she’s just not yet ready to speak in French — or maybe there are certain things in French that she doesn’t yet feel ready to say. It’s very possible to understand something in another language — sometimes this is a matter of getting the gist of what’s being said but not being able to catch a lot of the individual words — but not be able to say it yourself. Is it possible that your daughter is resisting speaking French, and sometimes getting frustrated, because there are certain things that she really is not yet able to say? If that’s the case, frustration and resistance may be lessened by making sure that she keeps getting input in French — hopefully input that she finds to be enjoyable and interesting — but not pressuring her to speak.

    Anyway, I think it’s great that you’re providing her with the situations necessary to become bilingual as a child; it’s a whole set of opportunities that she would otherwise not have. Bonne chance!

    • Too true – language follows the path of least resistance. Our kids have so much more exposure to English than they do to French, so English comes naturally. I believe it’s a problem of exposure, mainly. But she’s also stopped saying the things she knows how to say. When around French speakers, she tends to use French more, but still tries to use English. We continue to walk the fine line of pushing hard enough but not too hard on the French – not an easy task for any aspect of parenting, for sure!

      Thanks for your comments and for reading!

  2. Yes, I can so relate to this post!! We started out the same as you…French father – American Mother – living in the US (like your husband – mine had come to the US in his mid-twenties also). He and I always spoke English to each other – as we met in the US (except when we would visit the in-laws in France – then en famille we would shift- but privately it was always English!). He so tried to speak to our kids in French – but it is difficult…My oldest did the same thing when she was 3 – she would answer him back in English. This lovely phase – frustrated him so much that eventually he just gave up…by child 2 & 3…French was not happenning. I look back now and wish we had all the support multi-cultural support that I have found now on the internet – but back then…I truthfully didn’t even think about it.
    For us the pivotal point was knowing we were moving to France – We started classes and yes, like you – lots of protest by the girls. They really didn’t see the need – so took it in..but refused to speak outside of class. For my girls – when we moved and reality set in…and they were immersed – then they paid attention – then they realized why…we took all of those classes and looked at all of those books!!

    I think it’s great that you have inserted not just classes, but dinners & grocery shopping!! It will all pay off eventually. As they get older, I’m sure your kids will also realize when they visit France – that socially they will speak to friends…and it gets easier. That was the biggest motivation for my oldest – Friends !

    Love your posts – Hang in there!!

    • Thanks for your encouraging words! Immersion is the best method, by far. I miss our French school in San Diego for that! More time in France might be the answer… I’m not opposed to that.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. I’ll echo what the others have said and say that part of the problem is likely lack of exposure. Which isn’t all your fault, I might add: I’ve found myself getting rusty in French twice after spending extended periods of time without much of anyone to speak French with. I could still understand French just fine, but when I had to speak it, the words didn’t come as easily as in English. I’ve been back in France for 6 1/2 years now and it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve truly regained my fluency, to the point where I’m even talking to myself in French again (my default for years was English). Though I apparently still have the tiniest hint of an American accent, to my great annoyance.
    But I digress… I think the most important thing is to not give up, and give them as much French exposure as you can. I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was growing up in the States, my parents made a point of speaking French almost all the time at home, which helped my sisters and me tremendously. Reading books and watching movies in French is great too (though with the movies, try and get the French French dubs, not Canadian – or better yet, actual French movies).

    • Oh our American accents – they are so hard to get rid of! I feel your pain. Thanks for the encouragement. We are speaking French more and more at home, and reading lots of French books, and when I make dinner – they watch La Maison de Mickey. They only know Goofy as “Dingo”, which confuses our American friends and family!

  4. Another timely post! I’m unsure what to do with my 2 and half year old. He understands pretty much everything I say to him in French, but generally replies in English. He throws out French words often, but his ‘sentences’ are almost all English. He gets a lot more English than your children so I’m not expecting that much, but I am trying to get a feel for if I should try to ‘push’ him into speaking French or if he’s too young (or is there a such things as too young?). I don’t expect you to have answers, it just feels good to share what I’m thinking! Thanks!

    • Glad I’m not alone in this boat! I wish I had the answers. I’m studying the literature, and I’m “pushing” the French – trying to always make it as fun as possible! I don’t believe there is such a thing as too young in terms of learning languages; most of the literature says the younger the better, and that children have the capacity to learn several languages at once – albeit at different levels of fluency. I’m finding that games and songs work best at this point, as well as an outpouring of compliments any time she uses her French! Bon courage, Mike !

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