We're Americans Who Speak French to Our Kids: Our Interview with High Five Family (in France)

it's fairly unusual to find other parents who are raising their children in their non-native language, so I've recently been delighted to get to know Laure, the blogger at High Five Family. Laure is a French maman raising her children in English (her non-native language) while living in France. Laure just posted an interview with me about how my husband and I are raising our children bilingual--what the challenges have been, where my children's current language levels are, and what advice I'd give to parents hoping to expose their children to another language.

You can test your French comprehension and read the French version of our interview on the blog High Five Family: Ils sont américains et parlent français à la maison

For an English version of my responses, read on:

A bit about our family:

Our family consists of my husband (born in Thailand and raised in the U.S.), myself, our daughter who will be 9 this week, and our two sons (6 years old) and (3 years old). We are eagerly awaiting the birth of our fourth child, who was due to be born earlier this week!

Why did I choose to speak French with our children?

I made the decision to speak French with our firstborn child several months before she was born, because ever since I was young I have loved the French language, and now as a mother, the gift of a second language seemed so precious and valuable. I wished that I could have been raised bilingual, and since I now had bilingual knowledge that I could pass on to my daughter, I wanted to try to do so.

What’s my language technique?

I tried to always speak French with my daughter (choosing the OPOL method: One Parent, One Language). At the time of her birth, smartphones were just taking off in usage, and I was able to add a French/English bilingual dictionary (the Collins Robert app) to my phone, which made it easy to fill in the word gaps that I needed to know. In addition, reading children’s books in French was very helpful for me to improve my vocabulary and grammar knowledge. (We have a small business here in the U.S. called Les Petits Livres that sends us French children’s books by mail each month.)

At the same time, I limit our exposure to English media (except for books!): we don’t watch television, except for my husband who watches sports, and when our children occasional play on an iPad, their games are in French (like Jacques et le haricot magique).

I want my children to associate French with joy and good times! They watch a movie in English one movie per week with my husband when I am working, but in general I try to keep their media in French. I play lots of French music and I do my best to try to balance the English influence with an overabundance of French.

We visited France as a family in 2015; it was my children’s first trip there. We spent a few weeks vacationing, but when my husband had to return to the U.S. as scheduled for work, I stayed two more months with the children so they could attend school in France and make some friends there. We have decided to try to return to France every three years at the end of the summer and the beginning of the school year to continue this same tradition of language and school immersion.

Difficulties we have traversed:

After the first few months of speaking French with my daughter, French became easier for me to use and more habitual. Happily, I never reached a point where I needed to switch back to English, but I do notice that when I am tired, angry, or stressed, I speak English without stopping to think about what I am doing. For me, English is like a red flag, warning that I am tired and may not be parenting very well! In these situations, I stop myself and say out loud, “And why am I speaking in English?!” I say this because I want my children to be reminded that English is not our normal language together.

How is my children's level of French today?

The cultural influence of English (and the largely monolingual aspect of life in the U.S.) is very strong, and I underestimated its’ influence on my children. It is as if the culture counts for 50% influence, my husband’s language (also English) counts for another 25% influence, and my French only counts for 25% of the language influencing my children. So as a result, my children are still bilingual, but English is their strongest language. Nonetheless, I persist in using French and my children have always enjoyed French. The more my children grow, the more they notice that others find it cool that they know how to speak French.

 Photo by  Halle Judea Photography

Photo by Halle Judea Photography

My daughter is very adept with both languages, and native French speakers often tell me that she does not have an accent. In contrast, my six-year-old son is a passive bilingual, because he generally prefers to reply to me in English. I think he identifies more with his dad, who doesn’t speak French. But my son can understand and translate well if asked. I hope that our stay in France this fall will help him gain more comfort in speaking French all the time.

Finally, my three-year-old son has had more exposure to French because we had a French friend living with us when he was learning to talk, and this year we have a French au pair helping us. He seems fairly fluent in both languages, though I can see the English environment outside our home beginning to tip him towards English as a dominant language.

Any advice for families wanting to add a second language?

 Choose a method or approach that will work well for your family and stick with it! Make the minority language fun and seek to make it a positive association for your children through games, travel, friends, and experiences that they love. Find good resources for supporting your bilingual journey. For example, I find a lot of encouragement and insight through the English podcast Bilingual Avenue.

It’s good to remember that the point of a language is to communicate, and we have to continue to develop relationships with others who speak the minority language. This point is honestly the hardest one for me to accomplish, since we don’t have close Francophone friends who live near us.

Merci to Laure for initiating and posting this interview in French on High Five Family.