October guest: David from Graham Language Services on raising bilingual children
Becoming 'papa' - raising bilingual children
“Comment est-ce qu’on dit ça en anglais, papa ?” “How do I say that in English, daddy?”
As a father raising French-speaking children in Ireland, the ordinariness of everyday life is occasionally peppered by little moments of magic. Moments when I realise that my daughters’ childhood is anything but ordinary, and I see how lucky I am to join them on a bilingual journey.
My wife is French and I am Irish. We primarily speak French as a couple and decided, when we had children, to keep it that way and speak French to them. This is known as the ‘Minority Language At Home’ method. It is an approach that may raise eyebrows with some, as French is not my native language. Proponents of the alternative ‘One Parent, One Language’ method would advocate that parents should only speak to their child in their native language.
In my experience, the decision as to how to raise children with two languages is a little more complex than that, however. There are many variables at play, not least the child’s level of exposure to the minority language outside the home, and the ‘majority-language’ parent’s competence in the minority language. In our children’s case, their exposure to French outside the family is largely limited to spending their school holidays in France. The main benefit of the approach we have taken is therefore that it maximises our daughters’ French-language input, while also keeping things relatively simple. In addition, our children are incentivised to speak French more.
Experience has taught us a few lessons along the way:
· ‘Perfect’ bilingualism is vanishingly rare, so don’t expect it of your children.
· It’s perfectly normal if your child mixes up the two languages!
· Contrary to popular perception, children do not effortlessly soak up two languages simultaneously. Language acquisition is cognitively demanding, so be aware that it takes hard work on all sides.
· Be consistent in your approach, but not rigid. For example, I will always speak to my children in English when they are in front of other (English-speaking) children or adults.
· Don’t over-correct your child. Making mistakes is part of language learning, at any age!
· Find an approach that works for you and stick to it. If kids are motivated to learn a second language, and have the opportunity, they will learn it. Don’t over-think it.
· Don’t try to force your child to speak to you (or even worse, to a sibling!) in a particular language. It’s normal for them to be more comfortable in one language than another. We do try to encourage our daughters to speak French when they’re in France, but otherwise we don’t make an issue when they speak to us in English.
· And finally – whatever becomes ‘normal’ to you as a family will ultimately feel normal, even if it might seem odd to others.
There is ample evidence that learning two languages from birth is good for you. It takes effort, consistency, commitment and patience. But one day, you’ll see your child reading a minority-language book, or hear them chatting to a grandparent, like it’s the most natural thing in the world!