Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mummy, do they say hello or bonjour?


This week I'm linking up again with Windmill Fields Expat Blog Hop
This weeks subject is Parenting: bringing up a multilingual- mulitcultural family.   

We are an English family living in France.  Our children are being brought up bi-lingual.  They speak French exclusively at school and speak English exclusively at home.  Is it difficult – not really.  It’s amazing how adaptable children are and how quickly they learn to cope with switching from one language to the other.  We’ve never made a big deal about it and neither have they. James found his own way of asking whether he should be speaking French or English when he used to ask "Mummy, do they say hello or bonjour?".

When we first moved here 7 years ago we did consider whether it might be better to try to speak French at home to help the children adapt at school, but to be honest, our French really wasn’t good enough and I think it would have been more of a hindrance than a help.


We’re often asked how long it took for our children to be fluent.  It’s been slightly different for each of them.  Ryan was 10 when we moved here and had hardly any French.  He says the first 3 months he hadn’t got a clue what was being said to him at school, but then over the next 9 months his French got stronger and stronger.  By the end of the first year he had enough French to move onto the College and within 18 months he was largely fluent.

James was 2 ½ when we arrived in France and started at the Maternelle at 3 years old with no French at all.  He said nothing in class for about the first 12 months and we weren’t sure if he was really learning or not, although the teachers said he understood what was being said to him.  Between 12 – 18 months after starting school he started speaking French and he started speaking full sentences.  It was as though he didn’t want to speak until he could be sure he would get it right. 

Luc was born here and started school at 2 ½.  He didn’t have much French, but had at least been exposed to it during the first few years of his life.  He was much more confident at school and was more ready to speak in French, but it was still at least 18 months before he was speaking fluently. 

Frankie our youngest was born here too, however, at 18 months she started going to a French nounou (child minder), two days a week. I was working and although she could have gone to my parents, I decided it might be more helpful to her to learn some French before starting school. The nounou didn’t speak any English and it was probably about 3 months again before she started to understand what was being said to her.  Within 6 months the nounou told me she was starting to speak French (although she wouldn’t at home) and by the end of the year she had a good understanding of French and could speak simple sentences.  She started school at 3 and had no problems at all.  She understands everything and although she’s quite shy at speaking in class, she speaks well with the other children in the playground.  She’s now 4 and speaks French when she’s playing with her dolls, but always speaks English to us.  I noticed over the summer holidays that she had started to speak English with her dolls, but within a week of returning to school, she reverted to French with them again.

None of the little ones like us speaking to them in French, I think although they can speak French fluently now, English is still their first language, so when at home they prefer to speak English as it’s no effort for them.  We have French TV in the kitchen and English Satellite TV in the sitting room – no guessing where everyone watches the TV then.  Yes, the TV in the kitchen remains largely untouched.  I bought lots of French children’s books to read to them to help, but they won’t let me read them in French.  I have to translate them into English!  However, I find that Frankie is more receptive to being read to in French.  Maybe because she was introduced to it earlier??  That’s what I think anyway. 

Helping them with homework is difficult.  For instance, they have to learn to recite a new poem every week (a useless exercise if you ask me, but that’s another story).  I try reading out the poem first and more often than not my children get cross with me because I’m not pronouncing it correctly!  We now find James the 9 year old has to help Luc (6) and James can manage on his own largely.  Sometimes the grammar exercises for James are really hard and I have to trawl through the internet trying to find help with the answers.  Ryan (now 17) has just had to get on with his homework himself as we could never really help him much.  He seems to have managed well, it’s made him more independent.

One aspect that concerned me was reading and writing in English.  Ryan’s OK because he’d already learnt to read and write before leaving England.  He continued reading books in English at home and writing to people via facebook etc.  He says that he finds it much easier to write in English than in French, even though he’s been here 7 years now. 

However for the 3 younger ones it’s different.  I decided not to interfere to begin with.  We let them learn to read and write in French first, then James started to get interested in reading English at about 7 years old.  I bought him some basic English books and he started reading them with French pronunciation to start with, then gradually started correcting himself.  Within a few weeks he was reading English probably as well as any other 7 year old English boy.  He’s 9 now and we’re just about to start encouraging him to write in English.  But, we haven’t forced anything and have let him take the lead as to when he’s ready to do it.  Luc is only 6 and is only just starting to read and write in French, so we’ll leave him for now.  Both of the boys love playing strategy games on the computer with their Dad, this involves quite a lot of reading in English and that helps.

Our children all speak English with an English accent, however I know of an English family where the children speak with a French accent, but they have French TV only and speak a lot of French at home, so maybe that’s why.  We are told that our three youngest children speak French with a local accent and it’s not possible to tell they are English.  Ryan apparently has a slight accent, but people often think he’s from Marseilles or another part of France.  When he was helping another student with his English homework recently, some of the other students asked why he was helping him.  They didn’t know he was English. 

It’s so lovely to hear the children talking away in French to each other so naturally.  What a wonderful gift to be able to speak two languages effortlessly and fluently - one of the many benefits of growing up in a foreign country.


17 comments:

  1. Its great to see how your kids have adapted. It always amazes me how easily and quickly they can pick up another and new language. If I was put into a situation like going to a new and foreign school, I would be terrified. But they just do it. How such a small and developing brain can cope with so much is fantastic.

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  2. I'm so pleased I read this (found through the Expat Blog Hop) as my DD has been in a Hebrew speaking nursery for just over a year and niether her Hebrew nor her English (which we speak at home) is great compared to other soon to be 3yos - in every other way she is bright and deveopmentally on target. In fact, her language is very much as you describe James' experience when he arrived in France. So thanks for this as it has made me feel much better. I'm following you now :)

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  3. Hi Christine, yes it is amazing how they cope, Like you I'm not sure I would have, but they I suppose we're all capable of much more than we think.

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  4. @Midlife Singlemum. I think learning 2 languages at the same time often slows them down. Not surprising really as they have double the amount of language to digest. I'm glad you found the posting useful. I'm sure your little one will be fine - just give her time :) p.s. Thanks for following

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  5. Hi Nikki, I am really pleased that I read your post. We arrived in France 4 years ago with our 4 year old daughter and we had a very similar experience to you as she has French exclusively at school and we speak English at home. We have French TV and English TV at home but predominately we watch English TV. She had been to nursery in the UK but not official school. She had a very good English vocabulary for her age and still does 4 years later but only knew the most basic of French to begin with. She spent the first 12 months speaking very little French to the teachers at ecole maternelle and her teacher said to us that she knows that she understands French and she spoke to her friends in the playground but would not speak to the teacher. Once she started the the second year in French school she seemed to be then fluent. She now switches between English and French at the drop of a hat. She has an English accent when speaking English and a midi accent when speaking French which is absolutely great. I love listening to her speak to her school friends in French. She also struggles a but when writing in English as we held off with the English reading and writing to being with. She reads pretty well in English but we do have work to do with her spelling as I think she thinks in French when writing and this makes her spell some things in some funny ways. She has a range of both English and French books and she likes to switch between the two, whatever she fancies reading at the time. I am so glad that we've been able to help her become bilingual. It's also helped my French no end, trying to help with her homework!

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  6. Some of what you write is very familiar. I tried to read a story in French earlier this year and my daughter stopped me, telling me it is better that she reads it to her little brother.

    They now laugh at us when we speak French in shops, although they do sometimes translate whene we get stuck.

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  7. Hi Zoe, it's natural that they start spelling English as they would French, that's is afterall how they are being taught at school. I think the best thing we can do is encourage them read a lot in English and the spelling will come later. Don't forget, they've got a brilliant head start on everyone else because they can speak English fluently already :)

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  8. Hi MmeLindor, yes I know it's hard sometimes. I know no matter how good my french gets, I'll never be able to speak with the total fluency that they do. I'm very glad that they do though and they're getting very proficient in simultaneous translating too, when they help us out from time to time. A very useful skill!

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  9. Nikki - you were very brave taking your 10 year old son out there. When the girlies dad told me he wanted to come to Spain, I told him it had to be now (ages 1 & 3) or in 20 years time!!!

    Fortunately for me we came when they were young.

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  10. I know aged 10 I would say is the maximum age I would move countries and expect a child to cope with it, and not all of them do. Our eldest was 14 and so he stayed in England and boarded. I seen many people move out with teenagers and that very rarely works. Ryan was lucky, he had a really good teacher at the primaire and by the end of the year he had enough French to move onto the College. He's never had to go back a year (which is quite common in France) and he's now in his final year of the Bac and doing well. But I do agree with you, the younger the better really.

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  11. That's so exciting to be able to give that gift to your children! You can learn another language so much more easily as a child and they will get so much out of being bilingual.

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  12. Hi Thanks for linking up :) Super post. I moved to Spain when I was 10 like your son, so can relate to what you wrote about him. I really didnt want to go but it was the best thing ever!!

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  13. My son is currently speaking French exclusively at home and English at home, however he is still mixing them up from time to time. We are hoping that once he is older he will be able to distinguish between the two and it will be easier for him!

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  14. @Barbara my youngest (4) does sometimes muddle up her words, especially if she's learnt the word for something at school, but doesn't know the English for it yet. But gradually I've found that this tends to become less and less frequent as their vocabulary grows with both languages. Even I forget the English for some words I use on a regular basis in French!

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  15. I love seeing a little peek into your family and wonder if that would be the case if/when we move to a non-English speaking country. Thank you for sharing :)

    Thank you for joining Post Of The Month Club :) XOLaura

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  16. I was wondering if when they are tired your children tend to use the sentence that is grammatically the easiest whether in French or in English. I believe it's something the mind does to bilingual people...

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  17. @ Happy Homemaker - thanks for stopping by and thanks for creating the Post of the Month club :)

    @Magali - that's interesting. I haven't noticed this, but I'll look out for it now you've mentioned it.

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