bilingual babies

As we’ve mentioned before, we’re hoping to teach the baby both English and French from the start. We know plenty about the many benefits (and several drawbacks) of bilingualism, and we’re definitely sold on it. What we don’t yet know is how — practically speaking — to go about raising a bilingual baby.

With five weeks left before my due date, we decided it’s probably time to begin figuring this out. Several books are en route from BN.com (which is also helping us make progress on another goal: cashing in all our gift cards). In the meantime I posed this question on one of the Foreign Service discussion boards. Here’s some of the advice I’ve gotten so far:

  • Only speak to the baby in your native language. No matter how good you get at your second language, you’re still not a native; you don’t want him to pick up your mistakes.
  • Be consistent about who speaks to him in what language. So, for instance, even if the nanny speaks both English and French, she should only speak to him in French.
  • Make sure the people spending a lot of time around your baby speaking the local language have the level of functionality you’re after. If they speak with grammatical errors or in a local dialect, that’s what your baby will learn.
  • Put him in playgroups and other activities that force him to be immersed in the second language. Even if it seems like this is doing no good, stick with it. After six months of not uttering a word in the second language, he may suddenly open his mouth one day and speak fluently (well, as fluently as a toddler can speak).
  • Don’t be discouraged if it seems like your baby’s speech is developing more slowly than his English-speaking peers. If you add up the words he’s learning in both languages, his vocabulary is just as big. And he’ll eventually catch up with the English.
  • Have a plan for keeping up the language skills when you’re no longer living somewhere the second language is spoken.

Anything else you would add?

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10 Responses to bilingual babies

  1. Develop a plan to keep it up after you leave post! I was a bilingual baby (FS Brat in South America) but when my parents moved us back to the U.S., I lost all of my Spanish. And those tips seem pretty important – I’m told that while my first words were in English, the first sentances I formed were in Spanish! Wish I still remembered it.

  2. Natalia says:

    We are hoping to do the same with our little one who is 6 weeks now. Though my mum is a native spanish speaker, she has always spoken to me in English so it’s hard to get her to stick to spanish with the baby. We have lots of spanish story books for him. My hubby’s dad is native French but I think we may be asking too much to try for a trilingual bebe!

    I would add though that every kid is different. I moved to Spain when I was 3 and thats why I ended up bilingual. My sister was born in Spain and was pretty much speaking only Spanish when we left. She was 18 months and the poor thing got so confused, she starting mixing the 2 languages, got frustrated and stopped talking altogether for a while before coming out with only English. However, she found it easy to learn and pronounce Spanish in school and has been living in Chile for a year where she seems to have tapped into something in the back of her brain because her Spanish is almost fluent.

    I think that even if the baby doesn’t immeadiately respond by conversing in 2 languages….the exposure to more than one makes it that much easier for them to learn as they get older.

    I think you’ve set a laudable goal!!! best of luck!

  3. Daniela says:

    All good points. I just want to chime in and say it is not easy to bring up a bilingual child. Before we had children, I thought our kids will for sure be fluent in Bulgarian and English. Well, it’s easier said than done. My mother was home with our daughter until she turned two, while I went back to work. At two our daughter didn’t have many words but whatever she had was in Bulgarian and she understood Bulgarian more than English. Then my mother had to go back to Bulgaria for six months and our daughter started day care, which was hard for her at first. She picked up English quickly but was very frustrated initially because no one spoke Bulgarian at her day care.

    I tried to keep up with Bulgarian by singing to her in Bulgarian, doing the numbers, colors, etc. but in her frustration she would completely tune me out and ignore me. I ended up giving in and started speaking to her in English, which in hindsight was probably a bad idea. By the time my mother came back six months later, our daughter had completely dropped Bulgarian. She still knew it and understood but just refused to use it.

    The end result: my daughter’s English is terrific but she’s nowhere near fluent in Bulgarian and I feel like an utter failure. She knows some and gets better when we visit and she is forced to use it with friends there, so immersion definitely helps.

    I am now trying to modify my strategy with our baby boy but am still not quite sure how I can make sure he learns both Bulgarian and English.

  4. Persia says:

    Hi Alex,

    Only advice I can add is: chill.

    Both of my children are fully bilingual. My daughter is actually trilingual. Both kids speak German and English as native speakers and my daughter also speaks French.

    Only speak English to your child. That’s the only language you need worry about. Unless you live in absolute isolation from whatever country you’re in, your child will probably hear more of the resident language than he or she will hear English. The native language will thereby naturally dominate. I repeat: The local language will naturally dominate because it’s everywhere. Every radio program, every TV show, nearly every conversation heard on the street will be in that language. How can the kid not learn it?

    The least available language will actually be excellent and accent-free English. So yes, you and Andy take primary responsibility for that.

    My daughter and I used to have dual language conversations. I would ask her something in English and she would answer in German. It became so normal that I didn’t even notice it. It went on that way for six years. Then we spent a summer in New York. She met other kids who could speak English, realized it wasn’t just Mommy who spoke in English, and that was that. To mix things up a bit, I sent her to a lycee, where she heard only French and German all day. Yes, it took her several months to pick up the language, but only a few months.

    I wonder if here in the States, we’re so used to being in an overwhelmingly mono-linguistic society that we feel anxiety about children and bilingualism. We feel we have to “do” something. We forget that in most parts of the world, it’s a given. Everyone speaks multiple languages.

    The fact is, when living abroad, we don’t “teach” our kids a foreign language at all. The environment does. If you keep being posted in French-speaking countries, then your children will speak French. It’s a given.

    And I wouldn’t worry about them speaking “perfect” French, either. Perfect French is the French of the foreigner. Slurred French, French full of colorful expressions and gestures — that’s the French that marks the native speaker.

    You’ve got a great opportunity ahead of you and lots of real issues to concern you. But “raising” your child to be bilingual really isn’t one of them.

    Much love,

    P.

  5. Cris says:

    I agree with what everybody else has written here.
    In my case, my wife is Japanese and doesn’t speak much English (we live in Tokyo.) at home, she and I speak in Japanese. I speak to my daughter, 4, only in English, she responds in Japanese because she knows I understand it. What’s funny is she corrects my wife’s English pronunciation, but has picked up my bad habits in Japanese. But, she is a fluent in Japanese and a fluent listener of English. When she is faced with a non-Japanese speaker, she immediately attempts to speak in English. When I get into A-100, and we are in DC, we will maintain the same home dynamics to provide familiarity and keep up her Japanese, while the environment will reinforce her English.
    One thing we have been doing that works has to do with TV and DVDs. Everything she watches is in its original language, no dubbing. (all shows here are available dubbed in Japanese or the original language.) So, while she gets my accent, she gets lots of other native English accents and vocabulary, too. We have done something similar with bedtime stories. If the story she wants is in Japanese, mom reads, in English, dad reads.
    In your case, though, you should focus on English, but finds lots of ways to expose the tyke to native French. Until you get to Benin, DVDs, CDs, French-speaking play groups or whatever. The main concern right now should be being exposed to native sounds and rhythms.
    Two cents from a stranger…

  6. Donna Gorman says:

    Good advice all. One problem is that FS folks move around so much that the languages we hear often switch. Our eldest spoke Russian without an accent until he was four. He’s forgotten it all. All four of the children acquired Chinese to varying degrees, but they are already forgetting it as they pick up Arabic. I figure, just the fact that they learned it once is enough. When they are older, I’d bet they’ll be able to pick it up again more easily than others can. I’m bummed that their Chinese is disappearing, but pleased to see Arabic emerging – and I don’t want them to try to study both simultaneously: too much work!

  7. Bridget says:

    Lots of great points here. I’ve done a lot of research on this and it’s true that the FS kid has a disadvantage since there is so much moving around. But it sounds like you’re committed to keeping up the French and probably plan to be posted to another Fr-speaking country in the future.

    My children were in Spanish speaking daycare until ages 4 and 2. The most important issue I noticed and one that I see so many parents forgetting, is that it’s not enough for them to understand. They have to respond in the target language. Many parents and nannies allow the child to respond in their dominant language, and I think it’s really a shame, bec years later you end up with a person who can understand a lot but can’t really speak it. It takes dedication and consistency. Once your baby is speaking, tell your nanny not to respond until he asks for something in french. He will learn very quickly how to say ‘juice, please’! and it will blossom until more sophisticated language if he is required to use it.

    And know that it’s not easy, as others have said, it takes time, commitment, and $$, in my opinion, to buy books and music, etc (in whatever language). It’s a journey, not an end point. But it is so worth it! I truly think it’s the biggest gift you can give your children, after life! Good luck!
    (I am going to try to revive my kids’ Spanish skills in the DR and then maintain them when we leave…we can compare notes!)

  8. Stephanie says:

    It’s been too hard for me to keep up French with our Muffin in a non-French speaking country; my French just isn’t good enough. I go to an immersion class and they let me bring her sometimes but it’s not enough exposure to the language. Our next-best hope is we’re looking to go back to francophone Africa next and she’ll be young enough to go to a French-speaking preschool there without having too much trouble.

  9. Phil says:

    Alex,

    I could not find a contact us form, so I’m posting a comment on your most recent post. Could I send you a few questions about Oakwook? We are trying to figure out what will work best for us come May. Thanks!

  10. Tom says:

    Hi Alex-I don’t think you have to worry much about the bilingual training. I’ll agree with the earlier poster who mentioned speaking only english to your kid. I grew up in a bilingual home and we spoke mostly English at home. However, on the street and with friends, it was always Arabic, Farsi, Hindi or some combination. We got very very comfortable switching back and forth between various languages while always having a good base in English.

    A friend of mine in the FS had four kids who spent most of their early years in Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh. Parents both spoke english at home to the kids but the kids are fully conversant in Lao, Bangla and Thai just from the exposure to those languages in daily life. They’re all back in the US now and it’s amazing to see how comfortable they are with the other languages.

    Don’t worry -it’ll work out great.

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