Question

Both my husband and I are bilingual in French and English. We have exposed our daughter to both languages and I now realise that we may be confusing her as we both speak both to her… We currently live in an English-speaking country and plan to move back to France by the end of the year close to family who speak English at home. My question is whether I should speak only French to her and my husband only English or would it be better to stick to English for both of us, as this is the language we speak most to each other unless French-speakers are around. We also currently have a French au pair so she would still be exposed to French until we move there.

Thank you again for your time and your answer. I am worried that I am confusing and her and frankly I feel confused myself…

Gabrielle

Answer

Dear Gabrielle,

I am glad that you asked this question. It’s not easy for bilingual parents to stick to one language and follow the strict OPOL (one person, one language) method. You say that you are afraid to confuse your daughter. May I ask what makes you think that? You don’t mention how old your daughter is and if she already talks. Do you notice that she is confused while listening to or even talking one (or the other/both) languages?

I would like to get a clearer picture about what happens during the interactions with your daughter: do you switch between English and French in almost every sentence or “every now and then”? Would you say that your daughter is able to understand if someone talks only English or only French to her?

You mention that you’ll be moving to France soon and that your family language will be English: does this mean that you will live with your extended family who speaks only English, in France? – If this is the case, your daughter would have one language at home and one outside of home if you and your husband agree with English-only at home. You mention that English is the language you speak most to each other already, so I imagine this would be easy for you and your husband?

The fact that one person talks two or more languages to a child is per se not a problem. It can only become one, if there is constant mixing – in one sentence, in one conversation, because this could lead to misunderstandings on the receiver’s end.

One option could also be to alternate languages every day or every other day. You could even opt for talking one week English, one week French.

Your au pair speaks only French to her, right? And which language do you speak to the au pair or when you are all together? And will the au pair stay with you in France?

I’m sorry to ask all these questions, but I would really like to assess your situation in order to give you valuable advice. Meanwhile I would propose that you decide together with your husband which language you like to speak regularly to your daughter. If you both prefer talking English to her and this even feels more natural to you both, why not? Or would you rather each talk a different language with her? You could also choose to talk French to her in the weekends for example or when French-speakers are around.

It’s maybe too early to make long term plans, but let’s suppose that you’ll send her to a French school one day, then you could still support her learning by talking French to her when needed.
Please let me know your thoughts and I’ll help you further.

With very kind regards,
Ute

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