North American Contrarian

Telling it like it is… in North America


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6 Steps to raise a child in a second language

I grew up unilingual.  I took the obligatory French classes throughout school, but like the great majority of Anglophone Canadians, ended up far from bilingual.  This is incredibly unfortunate.  Studies show not only that it is hugely beneficial to have a bilingual child, it’s also relatively easy to teach children a second language.

Anyway, instead of wallowing in my unilinguality (word?) I decided that my son should not suffer the same fate.  At almost three years old, I have spoken almost no English to Nico and our communication is exclusively in French.  If you were to ask Nico, he would assume that I was Francophone (how long this will last, je ne sais pas).  While it hasn’t been easy, here are a few tips for parents similarly interested:

  1. Commit: 

    I mean this.  There is no such thing as raising a child in “sort of” another language.  Nico associates me with French.  He doesn’t perceive an option to speak in English and when he does, he does it jokingly- “why would I talk to Papa in a language that is not his own?”.  I’ll admit, especially at the beginning this was hard.  I fumbled a lot (I still do).  At 3am, when he refused to sleep, it seemed enough trouble to speak my own language, let alone a second.  But, incredibly, as Nico with me, I too started to associate Nico with French, to the point that speaking to him in English just feels kinda wrong.

  2. Make time to work on your target language every day!: 

    Sort of similar to the above, but it’s another step that I think is totally necessary.  As an adult, I personally don’t believe it’s possible to speak a second language like your own.   You can certainly become fluent, but a chat or a gato will never be a cat, it will always be the word for cat.  It’s subtle, but true.  This means that you need to work hard.  Since Nico was born, I have taken weekly Skype lessons in French and listen to French podcasts everyday for a minimum of one hour.

  3. Have your Translate app handy: 

    Nico is at an age now where he is curious.  He wants to know the name of everything, even the most obscure things.  The other day, he hopped into the bike carrier and asked for his helmet.  He looked at the strap to attach the helmet and asked “ca s’appelle?”.  I got this, I thought.  “Ca cette un sangle”- that is a strap.  “No… ca...” he said pointing to the clip that attaches the helmet together.  Even here I was ok: “Je suppose que ca cette l’attache“- that is the clip I said.  “NOOOOO” he said getting annoyed.  “CA!” he said pointing at the part of the clip, I guess called the female, where one piece of the clip goes into the other.   Anyway, you can see why having a digital translator is necessary at all times (apparently, the French word for this is la femelle for anyone interested).

  4. Let the media help you: 

    We’re so lucky that we can now program our lives in any language at the click of a button.  If you want Transformers in Hindi, or Tommy the Train in Persian it is available, easily, online.  I had never heard a french nursery rhyme before Nico, but now I could practically sing the entire French soundtrack to Mother Goose en francais.  The sneaky trick is that I am actually learning vocabulary along with Nico.  And, let it be known that the vocab in children’s stories is surprisingly difficult and obscure (just pick up a Dr. Seuss book if you don’t believe me).

  5. It can be awkward: 

    I mean this in a couple of ways.  First, is the fact that Nico can’t communicate that well with English speakers.  When a friendly neighbour talks to him, he often stares at them blankly.  I feel obligated to intervene and translate the sentence for him.  It’s a bit weird.  Second- and this may be personal- when a native French speaker is around I get self conscious.   When they hear that I’m not Francophone, I wonder if they think… what’s this guy doing trying to speak my language- and only subpar at that- to that poor kid????   Then I think of how many times a non-Anglophone speaks English to their kids and then, I start to get angry- who are you to tell me in what language I can speak to kid?  This is probably paranoia and in all likelihood the parent is probably way too busy making sure their kid doesn’t fall off the monkey bars than worrying about my French.  In any case, I am extra careful with my accent and conjugations when I hear other Francophones at the local park.

  6. You will not damage your child:

    Lastly, and perhaps this is the one that I feared most.  When I started three years ago I’m not even sure I would have considered myself fluent in French(conversational maybe?).  Would I forever ruin the possibility of my child speaking any language well?  Would my child be forever behind the other kids who happily speak English, which, let’s not forget is currently the world’s most powerful language?  Well… maybe, the results aren’t totally in.  But more likely, with the help of teachers and his mom (whose native language is French), and the media, he will be a native French speaker.  And, with grandma and the rest of the world around him speaking English, I’m pretty confident we will end up with a kid whose entire life is benefitted by the fact he is natively bilingual.

Here’s a short clip of Nico and I speaking to each other…

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