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.