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Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Bilingual Parenting: Five Strategies to Start Now

Bilingual parenting/

When I found out I was pregnant, one of my first thoughts was “I can’t wait to raise this child to speak French.” I am a native English speaker, and I’ve been a Francophile since I was a young girl. My love of the French language and Francophone cultures has largely shaped my career, my travel and my interests.

Although I was committed to raising a bilingual child, I never actually thought about how to go about it, especially in the very young, preverbal stages. Sure, I had read all of the theory about the importance of exposing babies to other languages from a very young age, but I hadn’t actually determined how this would play out on a day-to-day basis. Part of the challenge was simply a matter of background—I’ve taught high school and college French for the past 12 years, and I couldn’t conceive of engaging with a toddler, much less a preverbal infant, in French.

My daughter will be turning one soon, and I’m happy to say that, since she was born, we’ve spent the majority of our days in French. Through 12 months of trial-and-error, I’ve developed ways of meaningfully engaging with her in French. Of course, each bilingual parenting relationship is different, but I hope these five general categories will be helpful to other parents as they approach raising a bilingual child from infancy. I hope they will be especially useful for those of us who are parenting in our second or third languages.

When my daughter was a few weeks old, I started inventing playful rhymes and sayings in French. I would look her in the eyes and say/sing to her as I was feeding or changing her. She was fascinated, and would coo or wiggle along to the sound of the language. As she got older, these games entered into the realm of mimicry. She would watch my mouth shape as I pronounced each word and imitate it with her own mouth. She would touch my mouth and face, completely immersed in the interaction. Now, we play with her stuffed animals in French, play coucou (peekaboo) or play games where I ask her to trouver (find) certain things.

No doubt about it, bilingual parenting can be exhausting (but incredibly rewarding, of course!), and I am the first to admit that I quickly run out of ideas for enjoyable, meaningful things to do in the target language. Supplementing our daily interactions with French music, books, clubs, bilingual playdates and classes is a great way to acquire new ideas and rekindle the excitement of interacting with each other in another language. My daughter has her favorite French books that we read quite a bit; it warms my Francophile heart when she reaches for them on the bookshelf.

Our most powerful interactions in French have happened around our daily rituals. For example, each time my daughter prepares for a bath, I talk through all the “steps” of taking a bath in French. Of course, I repeat the word for bath, un bain, many times during this process. She now knows exactly what we are going to do if I say, “Un bain”—no matter where we are in the house, she immediately turns toward the bathroom and points. The greatest reward came a month ago when I was filling the bath with water and she turned to me with wide eyes and said, “Bahhhn?”

Babies and young children are creatures of habit. They enjoy exploring and discovering new things, of course, but they depend on the comfort of routine. Take advantage of this desire for consistency to create language rituals that follow your daily routine. This could take the form of a poem or prayer in the target language before meals and/or bedtime, discussing what you are cooking for dinner, talking through each piece of clothing as you dress the child, or loving words in the target language each time you say goodbye or hello (upon leaving for and returning from work, or when saying goodnight, for example).

Many mothers instinctively nurture in their native language. In fact, I find myself repeating many of the same phrases my mother said to me during my childhood to my daughter. In our first weeks together, I had to make a conscious effort to “nurture” my daughter in French. That is to say, I had to decide which French terms of endearment and soothing phrases I wanted to use with her. Soon, these became second nature—and very special.

I want my daughter to like French—to love it, actually. My hope is that the more she associates French with comfort, love and positive interactions, the more appealing it will be to her as she grows up.

In recent months, I have been making more of an effort to involve my daughter’s other caregivers (her father and her grandparents) in cultivating her French skills. Despite his wonderful French-Canadian name, my husband does not speak French fluently. He speaks conversational French, and he can read well in French. I encourage him to speak as much French as possible with her, and they enjoy reading and talking about books in French. My parents do not speak French, but I have taught them several important words that my daughter understands (la toilette, manger, merci, bonjour). They are excited to be included in the process, and my daughter lights up when she hears her grandparents saying French words she recognizes.

The key is allowing the target language to become a part of your everyday life. Eventually, it starts to feel very natural, even when you are parenting a preverbal child. Enjoy the journey and know that you are giving your child an incredible gift.

© 2012 – 2013, Jen Westmoreland Bouchard. All rights reserved.

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Jen Westmoreland Bouchard is the owner of Lucidité Writing, LLC, a boutique writing, editing and translation agency. She holds a M.A. in French and Francophone Studies from UCLA and has taught high school and university courses on French language and Francophone cultures. She is grateful to have the opportunity to experience the daily joys and challenges of raising a bilingual global citizen.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsJennifer   |  Thursday, 26 July 2012 at 7:57 pm

    A wonderful post; I agree 100%! I am engaged on a similar journey with my daughter, who will be turning five soon. My quandry is that I am at the point where I want to start having more subtle and meaningful conversations with her than I can have in a non-native language. I could convey so much more in English, but if I switch she will no longer be using French everyday. I keep thinking about the studies that have been done here where immigrant children don’t benefit from their parents trying to speak English to them at home rather than their native languages. If only we had a French language school nearby!

  2. CommentsThe Editors   |  Thursday, 26 July 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Hi Jennifer,
    Your post reminder me of a similar issue one of our earliest bloggers Omma blogged about- she is raising her 2 children in non-native french in the UK: (Not sure if you have already read her posts or not but just in case not). She was fortunate to have French schools near her though. Here is a link to her blog if you want to read more from her: Your quandry would be a great one for our Language Expert in our Ask a Linguist column, if you wanted to pose this question to her!

  3. CommentsCeleste   |  Thursday, 21 March 2013 at 7:40 pm

    I think it is awesome that you are raising your child bilingual. I am francophone and my husband is anglophone. We decided that, even though my husband would not understand the language I spoke with our children, I would speak to them in french and he in English. We were not sure how this would turn out as many of our friends and family started with one main household language. Well, my oldest is 4 and my youngest is 2. They speak to me ( and each other ) in French and to my husband in English. I was surprised how young they were when the differentiated the languages. I love it that one my older son is “teaching” papa how to speak French and is fully bilingual.

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