Question

My husband and I are both native English, but we’re trying to bring up our daughter bilingual (French). I speak French (BA Honours degree), although my French is by no means perfect. She’s now 16 months old, and I’ve spoken French to her since she was born. My husband speaks English to her and obviously we speak English at home – we live in the UK. I’ve now returned to work 3 days a week, so my daughter is in an English-speaking nursery for 3 days and the rest of the week with me (us at the weekend). I really don’t think she’s going to get enough content-rich exposure to be bilingual, and to be honest, I don’t need her to be completely brilliant at French, but I just thought it’d be good for her to have a modicum of French, and since I’m a linguist (French, Spanish, German) from studying, I thought it would be fab for her to learn another language from birth. I have moments of self-doubt though, as my French isn’t native, and specifically I’m worried that she’s going to be delayed in speaking and I’m worried that as her mother I’m teaching her a ‘mother tongue’ that is less than perfect. She’s still not saying any words in either language and doesn’t seem to understand an awful lot yet, but she is babbling, which I’m hoping is normal…but I’m still fretting. I’m trying to stay committed as I realise that hearing 2 languages can often cause delays.

How much French do you think she can really learn just from me? I’m trying to give her other exposure to French (books, songs, videos, baby French classes etc), and we go to France when we can (twice so far to visit French friends in France) but even so, I still think that the things I’m saying to her are just limited to day to day vocab, and that can’t possibly be enough to properly teach her, can it? Will it stunt her speech development to learn French from a non-native? Will her English suffer as a consequence too? Although I do read French books to her, I admit that we have so many English books at home that sometimes I just read her stories in English too (as I’m a former English teacher and so her mastery of English is also important to me) – is that the worst crime in OPOL?

I think I just need to be reassured that I’m doing the right thing in trying to bring her up in a language that isn’t my native one.

Thanks for your help and advice.
Jane

Answer

Dear Jane,

Thank you for getting in touch with us!

Let me start by reassuring you that you are a fantastic mother and I admire your determination to give your daughter the gift of an additional language. Secondly some reassuring facts:

Bilingualism does not cause language delay. This is an incorrect assumption based on older research during which bilingual children were assessed using the same criteria as monolingual kids (check this post to read more). Bilingual children learn to speak in a different order, and their vocabulary (adding all languages together) is on average as big as that of monolinguals and by the age five they have caught up with monolinguals in their languages. Note that there are big differences between children as to when they start to speak, independent of whether they are bilingual or monolingual. This is the case even with siblings – with my daughters the difference was about two years! Your daughter hearing and learning French will not negatively affect her English. You say that she babbles, but “doesn’t seem to understand an awful lot”, which I take to mean that she does express herself and understands some words and phrases. Without knowing all the details this still seems to fall within what would be classed as “normal progress”. If you are concerned about her language development, check this website with a lot of useful information and an on-line assessment tool.

You don’t have to be a native speaker to pass on a language to your child. You certainly seem to be well qualified to pass on French to your daughter and you are also using a lot of other resources to complement the language exposure. The variety of the exposure your daughter gets might well be greater than that of many monolingual children! I also suggest that you watch the interview with Professors Ellen Bialystok and Laura-Ann Pettito about this and other related topics. For now, cast aside your worry about limited day-to-day vocabulary – that’s what most children get to hear anyway! You mention that you do not need her to become “completely brilliant” in French and it is good to stay realistic in your expectations. To become fully fluent she would need a fair amount of interaction with native speakers. She will however learn a lot from you and if you stick with it when her English starts to develop at a faster pace she will have an excellent foundation for becoming a fluent French speaker later on. You say that she is in an English-speaking nursery – have you checked whether there are any French-speaking day care alternatives where you live? I know there are quite a few in the UK. This would be an excellent addition to her French exposure.

One parent, one language (OPOL) is not the only way to raise a bilingual child – so forget the “worst crime against OPOL” thought. You could apply a strategy called Time and place instead. This means that you would choose for example to speak French to your daughter during the week and English during the weekends, or any other pattern that suits you. You didn’t mention whether your husband speaks or understands French – if he does know French, you could opt to speak French during the weekends and English during the week.

Another thing you need to consider is whether you will feel comfortable speaking French with your daughter in a few years when you will have deeper discussions with her. It is important that the bond between you and your daughter is not affected by the language choice. No matter how many benefits there are to bilingualism, a good solid relationship with your daughter is the most important thing. Choosing the Time and place strategy will allow you to switch to English for these special discussions and also lets you read to her in English without having to think that you are doing something “wrong”.

I hope my answer has gone at least some way to put your mind at ease – you are a wonderful, dedicated mum! If you have any further questions, please do let us know – and it would be lovely to hear how you are getting on!

All the best,
Rita

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