Killing the Myths

This post is part of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival. For other entries in this month’s carnival, check out Annabelle’s blog at the Piri Piri Lexicon.

I’m lucky to be raising my bilingual kids at a time when it’s “cool” to do so. Resources and research are easily found; information and advice on the subject are growing exponentially. Even seven, eight years ago, when I first started looking into raising children with two languages, I had a hard time finding resources.

The flip side of this is, of course, too much advice can leave one feeling overwhelmed and incompetent. Parenting today – we’re bombarded with all the things we “should” be doing, a never-ending list of all the things our kids can’t live without if we want them to succeed in life. It’s enough to leave us feeling completely inadequate and deciding that throwing in the towel is the only reasonable approach.

I often find myself embarrassed when people ask me how my children’s French is coming along. The truth is, their English has far outrun their French. But then, that’s to be expected, as we live in an English-speaking country and their primary caregiver, me, speaks mostly in English with them. Still, given all this, their French is pretty decent. Good, I’d venture to say. Their comprehension is excellent, and while they are at times reluctant to use it with us at home, when put in a situation where they need to use French, they break out in full sentences, sometimes surprising me with how much they can say.

Here are a few of the myths on raising bilingual children that we’re disproving:

Children must be exposed to the minority language at least 30% of the time.

My husband speaks to our kids exclusively in French. So that means weekdays we are at maybe 10-15%. Add to that my occasional use of the language with them, plus increased exposure on weekends, I’d generously say we’re at 20%. So we recently added private lessons: 45 minutes weekly. With this small bump in exposure time, their spontaneous use of French has increased dramatically. I catch them speaking French to each other, they are more at ease speaking French with their father, and they even use it with me. I conclude, from this anecdotal experiment, that it is the quality of the exposure and not the quantity that’s crucial. Forty-five minutes of a lesson focused on participating and using the language can produce better results than a few extra hours of exposure during day-to-day activities.

Non-native, non-fluent speakers should not try to speak the minority language.

So, I’m neither native nor perfectly fluent. I make mistakes in both pronunciation and grammar. But there is such a thing as “good enough” and I’m definitely there. There’s no doubt that the kids learn from me. And they have not picked up my American accent; in fact, they are helping me to perfect my accent and pronunciation!

One parent speaking in two different languages will confuse the child.

Early on, both of my kids showed signs they understood the two languages were separate. I’ll never forget looking at a picture of a little boy, and my 18-month old daughter pointing to the car in his hand and saying, “voiture.” I said, “Good! Do you know what that is in English?” not really expecting her to understand my question. “Car,” she answered without hesitation. I pointed to a ball. “What is that?” “Ball.” “What is it called in French? “Balle,” she responded, with perfect French pronunciation. We went through several more words, and it was clear that she was already differentiating, in her mind, two languages. They have their funny Franglais words and phrases: “Mommy, I’m betiseing.” The other day, my son asked for the, “caterpillar song”, meaning the French song about the chenille. I’d never referred to it as the caterpillar song. Research shows that code-switching, rather than being a sign of confusion, can be a sign that children are mastering both languages, especially as we see grammar rules applied appropriately (as in the “betiseing“). So yes, I hop back and forth between the languages, and my kids hop right along with me. No confusion here.

Learning two languages at once will delay the development of the majority language.

Not in our house – I’m blessed with a couple of chatterboxes! They’ve been well ahead of the averages in their English language development all along. And when we added in the French words they knew – they’ve been progressing just fine there, too.

The only way to learn a foreign language is to live in a country where the language is spoken.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t help, simply because the exposure to the language increases exponentially, and a person is forced to use the language. Yet – we’ve all encountered immigrants who’ve lived in a country for decades and still have great difficulty with the language. Living in country can often emphasize errors and poor grammar, as immigrants are forced to speak through their mistakes, and locals are often reluctant to correct them. Quality exposure to a language can happen in classroom situations, where a qualified teacher (or parent!) can help refine language skills. Again, when learning a language quality exposure can far outweigh quantity.

So, given all this, I’m less embarrassed and more proud of how far we’ve come as a bilingual family. I know the language is embedding itself into my children’s heads. I see it when they break out in full sentences or memorized songs. I hear it in their perfect accents. I see it in their faces as they understand the stories we read. It’s working. Despite it all, we are becoming bilingual.


I came across this great article on Facts and Myths while writing my article. Check it out!

And now go check out the other blog posts for the carnival!

And have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

A little bilingual trivia:

Turkeys in English say: Gobble gobble gobble

Turkeys in French say: Glou glou glou


10 thoughts on “Killing the Myths

  1. indeed good useful article for many. I started much further back 20 yrs ::) and my boys were very slow as we lived in USA even with a French mother. However, once,we started visiting France every year, their French much improved and now they are perfectly trilingual English, French,and Spanish. Practice in the cultural environment of the language is tops. But , that does not mean they will not pickup. At home we mix all languages now for fun spanglish, franglish you name it. cheers

  2. I can confirm that all these myths are just that, myths. My parents aren’t perfectly bilingual, yet my sisters and I picked up both languages correctly and effortlessly. We rarely, if ever, mixed up the two. We do have a habit of speaking Frenglish, but we only do that with fellow bilinguals. As for a “majority” language, that really depended on where we were living. I did lose a little fluency in French after not getting to speak it much for a couple of years (we were living in Italy and had kind of defaulted to English at home), but it came back quickly when we moved back to France. Now, after 7+ years in France, I mostly speak French but my English is still good as I still read mainly in English, and most of the movies and TV I watch are also in English.

    • I’ll echo what I’ve said before: I’m always happy to hear success stories! I love Franglais/Frenglish. I feel like it’s a special language we share in our family and with a few other French-American friends.

      My husband, born and raised in France, moved here when he was in his mid-twenties. Even he finds himself struggling to get back into French mode (language-wise and culture-wise) whenever we go back. But it’s always there, just beneath the surface, albeit a bit rusty!

  3. Bravo, Carol!

    I am intensely interested in that 30% “rule.” (I have also seen 33% and 35% exposure to the minority language as the minimum guideline for fluency.) But, yes, your kiddos’ French is great at your “generous” 20%! I wonder if the research on this issue has addressed “quantity” vs. “quality” in the input. For example, it’s been proved that children don’t learn nearly as much from videos as they do from a human being giving them the same information. So can we then extrapolate that, say, an hour of interactive reading and talking and singing in French counterbalances a day of more passive daycare in English? (Or at least a morning?)

    And does the recommended percentage vary according to the child’s age? Or his fluency (acquiring vs. maintaining)? And how does literacy factor into it? How much reading in the target language do you need to do to be a fluent reader and writer?

    Or is it that since your kids see their papa fewer hours most days, they pay more intense attention to his speech? (I know mine outright ignore me the first half hour after my husband comes from work!)

    Inquiring minds want to know! (But this mind is too busy and tired to do the research.)

    • All great questions, Sarah! I would say quality definitely outweighs quantity – so, yes, if we look at passively hearing a language vs. targeted lessons, I’d say the latter would be more effective, even if less time is spent on it. That’s my observation, anecdotally. I used to find myself often fixated on the 30% rule, but I’ve been able to let it go as I see my kids progressing (albeit not at the rate I had hoped!) in their French.

  4. Hello!

    So good to hear these myths being disproved as I am also a native English speaker who is fairly fluent in French and teaching my daughter English and French simultaneously. This allayed many of my concerns. My husband and I are quite excited to hear her first words which we expect will be quite a while away as she just turned one. When did your kids speak their first words? Was it at a similar age as when you did?


    • Hi Jennifer! My kids first said “mama” around 9 or 10 months, and started adding slowly after that – it hasn’t been that long yet already I can’t remember! I do remember it taking off exponentially between 18 and 24 months, though, with both English and French words. Interestingly, both of them had the same first French word: Papillon. My daughter’s room is decorated in butterflies, so I’m sure that’s why. My son called them “pee-pah-po”, which I adored. So fun! I’m not sure when I first started speaking. Enjoy the adventure, kids are so fun, and raising them bilingually is a challenge, but so worth it when you see them start to use the language!

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