Monday, 5 May 2008

INTRODUCTION: Bonjour Bonjour!

Hi there, and welcome to my blog! I am bringing up my children, Schmoo and Pan-Pan, to speak 2 languages: English and non-native French. I studied French to MA level, which included living in France for about a year, so I felt it would be a wonderful gift to pass on to my children.

We use the OPOL method (One Person One Language), so I speak to them in French and their dad speaks to them in English. Schmoo is now 3 and a balanced bilingual. Pan-Pan, now 1, is just starting to speak and has a few words in both languages.

Some background:
My mother tongue is English and I live in the UK, but have always been fascinated by languages and studied French and German at university. However, when we had Schmoo, I hadn't spoken either language since finishing my studies (about five years previously), so I was getting quite rusty! My partner speaks a couple of African languages as well as mother-tongue English, but we decided it would be best if he spoke English with our children, as there would be little support for these lesser-spoken languages later on.

I decided pretty much straight away to speak French with her (I've always been slightly more fluent in French than German, because I learnt it from an earlier age). A second language is a wonderful gateway to another culture and way of thinking, and therefore aids in broadening the mind, giving a child more information to think about the world in manifest ways. Looking further down the line, it is a great addition to a CV. And, peculiar to our situation as Londoners raising a French-speaking child, the French schools are among the best in London, but at a fraction of the price of the British fee-paying schools!

Getting started:
I began by just reading French books to her, because I was afraid of her picking up my errors, but as my vocabulary refreshed itself and grew, so did my confidence and, realising that a few stories wouldn't do the trick, I began speaking to her in French for about half the day. The reason for only talking French half the time was that I noticed that sometimes I couldn't express myself adequately in French or make quick little jokes as I would in English, and I felt that it was blocking my communication with her. However, I then read that it is better for one parent to speak the minority language all the time, so I started to do this and hoped that my French would continue to improve alongside my daughter's.

One thing that really helped is that I also taught her baby sign language (for hearing babies) from four months old. The signs, which she started making at eleven months, acted as a lovely bridge between the two oral languages, because she understood the signs better than the spoken words at that point. So for 'shoe' and 'chaussure' I made the same sign, and she seemed to make the link between the different words and the sign.

We make progress:
It was a very quickly very rewarding. By the age of one and a half, Schmoo could understand simple instructions in French, English and sign language. Her most used word was 'encore', which means 'more' (!) and she also had a few 'corrupted' words, such as 'appa' ('chapeau' - 'hat') and 'ba' ('boisson' - 'drink'). At 2, her mother tongue was clearly French, although she understood English to a good level. She had a wide vocabulary in both languages and also still made frequent use of signs. She soon began to put words together to make simple sentences and understood that Daddy spoke English, while Mummy spoke French. Her clarity on this amazed me, as did her ability to rapidly translate. For example, aged 2 in a café one day, my husband said (in English) that he was going to cut up her food for her and went off to the counter. She turned to me and said, in French, ‘Daddy’s gone to get a knife’. Interpretation and translation, which showed a true grasp of both languages! At two and a half, French was still her clear dominant language, unsurprising given that I am her primary carer and speak only French with her.

She was very resourceful in getting what she wanted - she generally tried to speak French to people first, then if they didn't appear to understand, would try out English. She always spoke French when playing by herself. She didn't seem to object when I spoke English with her father, although she was starting to notice that I understand the language and tried out a few words with me (I always responded in French). Now she only speaks to me in French; in fact, she insists on it!

Language acquisition:
Early on, I read as much as I could about language acquisition and discovered that children need interactive language exposure in order to learn a language. This means that sitting your child in front of the television to watch minority language (ml) programs alone will not teach them that language. Your child needs to be highly motivated to actually use the language in order to learn it, which is only possible if they are brought into contact with people who speak it and who they want or need to communicate with. Therefore, while ml television, music, toys etc are all helpful aids to raising a bilingual child, they are not very useful in isolation.

Active ml options are:
Visits to ml country

Passive ml options are:
Interactive toys

As a non-native speaker, I tried to include lots of interactive resources, supplemented by plenty of passive ones. My particular challengers were poor accent, grammatical errors and vocabulary gaps & errors. To help Schmoo's pronounciation, I showed her French DVDs, which I get second-hand from French eBay or French Amazon, and I played her lots of French music, such as the fabulous 'Baby's First Steps in...French', which she loved and 'French Playground', which is very jazzy and gets played a lot en route to school. I've recently been informed by her French Club teacher that her accent is excellent, so it must all be helping!

I found many bilingual French/English books at my local library, which surprised and delighted me! The best interactive toy we found was a French LeapPad, as Schmoo loved this and the French is clear and in context. I also paid a French student to play in French with her for one 2-hour session each week, which I think was the icing on the cake, because Schmoo could see that I am not the only person to speak this language! To improve my own French, I actively study with textbooks, and also read in French, watch French movies etc.

When Schmoo was about 2, I helped set up a French playgroup via an ad at the French Institute, where I could meet up and speak French with other mums, while my daughter benefited from being surrounded by French conversation. We kept up with the playgroup and our French tutor for about 6 months, until we moved from Edinburgh back to London so she could attend a French school. Ah yes, the joys of applying to a French school when you are not French and/or didn't put your child's name down from birth!

After applying to every French primary school in London, and receiving one heartbreaking rejection after another, in spring 2007 we finally got that precious acceptance letter from a wonderful bilingual school in Fulham, which feeds directly into the Lycee. This was the only school that actually met Schmoo, which I’m sure was instrumental in her acceptance. I was over the moon, as we were trying so hard to get her into a French school (including an extremely long-shot application for French nationality!), which felt like the only realistic way for us to continue with her ml as non-native speakers. We were particularly excited about it being a lycee feeder too, as this is renowned as an excellent school, despite it’s overwhelming size (about 3,000 pupils currently, although there are plans to open another lycee that could ease the numbers).

In September 2007, Schmoo started in the English section of the nursery class with a wonderful bilingual teacher who speaks to the children in English, alongside her French assistant who speaks to them in French. From January 2008, she went full-time, in order to benefit from the immersion French in the afternoons.

When she’s five, after 2 years in the English section, she’ll enter the French section for her final year at the school, before progressing to the Lycee. At the moment, I am still undecided as to whether or not to continue speaking French to her until she enters the French section. I don’t want her to be behind with her French compared with the other children (who will most likely all be from Francophone families), but on the other hand, I wonder if my French is up to communicating intensively with a 5 year old! At the moment, I’m playing it by ear, trying to keep up with her expanding vocabulary and thirst for linguistic knowledge. If it feels too difficult, I may have to switch to English, at least for complex concepts, but I definitely plan to continue to read and sing to her in French, and will keep all DVDs, CDs, storytapes, etc in the ml as well.

Out and about:
In the beginning I often felt quite self-conscious speaking French in public, with my English accent and errors. But I was pleasantly surprised by people's reactions - English people often try and say a few ml words to the children, such as 'Bonjour' and 'Au revoir', while French people are always interested in and supportive of my decision to speak non-native French. I was often asked ‘Is your husband French?’, but I simply explained that while neither of us was French, we wished to give our child the gift of speaking the language. And an unforeseen benefit is that I feel less exposed when it comes to disciplining Schmoo in public!

Where we are now:
My French improves on an almost daily basis and Schmoo even teaches me new words now - a few days ago she kept referring to her pot of bubble mixture as a 'flacon', a word I don't know and hadn't taught her. In fact, I wondered why she kept referring to it as a 'flocon', or 'flake (of snow)'! Then I came across the word in a book and realised what she meant. She also uses phrases she picks up at school, especially from immersion French club, such as 'mon coeur' and 'ma belle'.

At 3 years’ old, I can proudly say that my daughter is a balanced bilingual, and that it now feels very natural to speak to her in French (and a little strange to speak to her in English!). Pan-Pan is showing all the signs of going the same way (one of his favourite words is 'coin-coin' for duck!). He is also signing a lot, which was so helpful with Schmoo's language acquisition. Of course, there are many challenges ahead, but we are on the right path and having a lot of fun along the way. Even if the children choose not to continue with their French into adulthood, I believe they will have learnt and gained so much from having spoken two languages through their childhood. Pin It now!

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