Q&A: I am not a native speaker, can I teach my daughter French and help her become bilingual?

by | Jul 10, 2014 | Coaches, Language development, Non-native language, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 10 comments


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.


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,

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  1. Jane MacPherson

    Hi Rita

    Thank you so much for your reassuring response. I think you hit the nail on the head at the end when you talked about future ‘deeper discussions’. That’s mainly what I’ve been worried about (I don’t know why I didn’t mention it). I just can’t imagine having those kinds of conversations in French with her. So perhaps I’ll go down the ‘time and place’ route, and speak English with her at the weekend. I certainly don’t want our bond to be affected by my decision to speak only French to her.

    Thanks again.

    • Sanem Baykan

      Hi! Firstly thanks sharing your stiation. And thanks to Rita for reply. I have a daughter 2 years old and i want to teach her English. I am a native Turkish. I just want to learn about your daughters progression. Has it been working?

      • Jane MacPherson

        Hi Sanem

        Yes, I’ve been continuing with 2 languages (English and French) although it is getting harder and harder in a way to continue with French as now she’s talking more (she’s 2 years and 8 months), she obviously mainly speaks English as we’re in an English-speaking country and English is her main language, so it’s hard to stick to French. So if I’m honest, I’m mixing the languages a fair bit. I resigned myself long ago to the fact that she won’t be bilingual. I’m heartened by the fact that she seems to understand everything in French though and sometimes copies what I say in French. At her English-speaking nursery, they do some French activities and songs, so she often voluntarily sings Frere Jacques or Sur le pont d’Avignon at home. So in a nutshell, I’d say yes it’s working, although I did start from pretty much birth so I got into the habit early on. I’ve got another friend who tends to speak French with her daughter just at bedtime when they’re going through the bedtime routine – that seems to work for her – perhaps you could try that and introduce English that way?

  2. Maria

    Jane, I couldn’t agree more with Rita! Set your mind at ease and know that you can do this and that it would be beneficial to your daughter. If you would like to find other stories of parents who have chosen this path and are at different levels of progression, I invite you to visit the June 2014 Multilingual Blogging Carnival at Trilingual Mama. http://www.trilingualmama.com/monolingualparentsandbilingualchildren/ Best of luck to you and we’d love to hear of your progress!
    Bon courage!

  3. Carol

    I wish I were doing as well as Jane. Brazilian Portuguess is my native tongue, but having moved to the US at 6, I am much more confident and fluent in English. My husband is American (took Spanish in high school, and has a knack for and interest in learning Portuguese and teaching it to our son). I bought him Rosetta Stone, but he doesn’t use it regularly.

    Anyways, what I was going to say was, I don’t have any family around, and though I found a small community of Brazilians here in Iowa, we are moving to Kansas next week and I haven’t found any groups of Brazilians there yet (searched on facebook). With my lack of confidence in the language and limited vocabulary, I find myself speaking English first, only to attempt translating into portuguese as an afterthought. And I often don’t know the names of animals in stories we read or the best way to translate his favorite books. Any advice on how to keep at it and improve my consistency without compromising depth?

  4. Maria

    Hi Carol!

    Thanks for your thoughtful question. I can relate to how you’re feeling because I learned Spanish first but like you am more confident and fluent in English. I struggled with similar feelings with my oldest son when he was just a few years old. As he grew older, I feared I would lack vocabulary and the ability to express myself in different situations. But like you, I really wanted to transmit my heritage language to my children and this is what gave me the motivation to follow through. In addition, here are a few things that helped me. First of all, I decided that if I would just slow down and take my time to say things, that even if it wasn’t perfect, it would be okay. I decided that circomlocution (a round about way of saying things and a technique used to express a word or an idea without using the exact words) might not be the most native way of saying things, but that it would do for now. (That said, it will be important to expose your child to other native speakers to ensure that he has sufficient accurate language input… i.e. play dates, trips to Brazil, etc.) I also invested in several picture and pocket dictionaries. The pocket dictionaries served to look up words ( a slow and tedious process when you are in the middle of saying something (!) and the picture dictionaries and books to read and build vocabulary together.) Picture books can be an excellent way to build vocabulary even for adults! As far as translating is concerned, after several frustrating attempts, I decided to not translate, but to just read in the language the book was written in. Not only did this feel more natural, but I felt it helped my children make a more immediate connection between written words, languages and literacy. This also meant making sure that our home library was filled with lots of books in the target language. Another investment, but well worth it. Finally, if you are having trouble being consistent in Portuguese, you might perhaps set up a time and place language strategy (as mentioned above in Rita’s response), so that you don’t feel like you always have to speak in Portuguese to your child, just during the moments or in the places you specifically designate. This might take a lot of pressure off of you and make the Portuguese exchanges more meaningful and enjoyable.

    For further resources, you can create a language corner in your home specifically dedicated to Portuguese: http://www.trilingualmama.com/a-language-corner-for-teaching-a-foreign-language-in-the-home/ and if you don’t have access to books in Portuguese, there are quite a few online books and stories in foreign languages: http://www.trilingualmama.com/online-stories-for-children/

    I opted to share with you some of the more practical strategies that have helped me and that I hope will help you as well! I sense it’s pretty important for you to pass on your heritage language to your son and I wish you all the best in this worthy goal! Please let us know of your progress!


  5. Laura

    My mother tongue is Spanish. I live in a Spanish speaking country. My English is not perfect (I have an accent) but I can read, write and understand English pretty well (not perfect, though!!). I´ve spoken English to my son since the day he was born. He is 2 1/2 years old now, and understands both, English and Spanish perfectly. But he doesn´t say a word (apart from papá and mamá).
    What´s my worry?
    I am not sure to be doing the right thing by speaking to him another language that is not my native tongue. Especially knowing that I am not perfectly fluent in this second language.

    I was so sure that I was doing the right thing, but now I am beginning to doubt. I want him to be bilingual so badly.
    At the time I am writing this, I speak 100% English to him and his father (and grandparents…) speak 100% Spanish to him.

    Please…help me.

    • Rita

      Dear Laura,
      the fact that you are not perfectly fluent is not crucial here. If your son will also interact with native English-speakers he will pick up a correct accent, and even if he were to acquire an accent from you, he would still have learnt English (and can improve his accent later on, if he wants).
      There are however other things to take into consideration – please check my series of posts on passing on a non-native language to your child for further thoughts.
      If you want a more detailed answer, please submit a separate question to our panel of Family Language Coaches.
      Kind regards,

  6. Zimbolaktus

    Sure, keep on, it’s always better to speak many languages, your own (native) plus your parent’s and many others…
    American people look so ridiculous beeing only able to speak only english (or should I say american ?…)

  7. Zimbolaktus

    Personnellement j’aurais pas dit mieux, bravo !!!



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