The mistakes I made trying to raise bilingual kids

When I was pregnant with my first child, I had visions of us giggling at our inside jokes in my native French. Today, none of my daughters of speak it. Here’s where I went wrong…

bilingual kids

I’m one of those lucky few who speak two languages fluently. I grew up in Montreal, Canada with a French mom and an English dad, and I learned to speak both languages as a toddler. I did all my schooling in French before attending an English university. I’ve always felt equally comfortable in both languages.

Even after living in Australia for 12 years, I can still banter in French with my childhood friends as if I’d never left home. So, when I became pregnant with my first child nearly six years ago, I believed without a shadow of a doubt that she’d speak French fluently.

Spoiler alert: she doesn’t. She understands a lot of what I say, but she crinkles her nose in confusion at some (OK, many) words. And while her three-year-old twin sisters used to say plenty of French words and understand me when I spoke, they’ve already lost most of their second language. As I write this, I feel like crying with disappointment.

The different approaches to bilingualism

When I was pregnant with Arabella, I googled “how to raise a bilingual child” and discovered that there are several “methods”. The most popular is known as “one person, one language” and it involves each parent speaking to the child exclusively in their native language. The child is expected to respond to each parent in “their” language – no exceptions.

I quickly dismissed this idea as impractical for our family because my husband didn’t speak any French. I couldn’t imagine excluding him from all my conversations with my daughter.

Other methods include “minority language spoken at home” (where both parents speak the second language at home and kids learn English outside the home), “mixing languages” (where parents and children switch between languages when they want without a precise plan), and “context” (using English in everyday situations and the second language in specific contexts such as with certain family members or on specific days of the week).

The first two were out because they required both parents to speak the second language, so I decided that a loose interpretation of the “context” method was the way to go. I’d speak French to Arabella when I was alone with her or when I felt like it and she’d learn it easily, I reasoned.

An exciting start

From the day my baby girl was born, I inundated her with all things French. I constantly spoke, wrote and sang to her in my native tongue. “This is easy,” I thought. And lo and behold, her first word was “bateau” (boat)! As her vocabulary developed, most of her words were French and I was over the moon.

But as she transformed into a sociable and chatty toddler, she started to use more and more English words because that was the language everyone was speaking around her. One day, I realized with a heavy heart that many of the words she used to say in French had been replaced with the English versions. “Eau” had become “water” and “chien” had become “doggy”.

I found it increasingly difficult to speak to her in French as time wore on. When she said something adorable to me in English, I naturally responded in the same language.

Getting a second chance

When Arabella was two, I fell pregnant with twins. I reasoned that this was a second chance to teach all my girls French at the same time. Woohoo! We would chat and laugh and have inside jokes en français.

But the twins are three now and the same thing has happened. They said plenty of French words at first, but now that they’re speaking in full sentences, English dominates. It was even harder this time around because I was so sleep-deprived for such a long time that forcing my exhausted brain to respond in French to my babbling English babes felt as hard as climbing Everest.

Now that I’m getting more sleep, speaking in French is starting to feel easier. But the girls often stare at me in confusion when I do – or tell me that I’m using the wrong word! – so I revert to English. Le sigh.

I feel like a huge failure, especially when friends and family ask me why I find it so hard to speak my native language to my children. I know it’s hard to understand and I berate myself constantly for it.

But when I did some researchfor this story, I realized that I’m not alone and experts agree that raising a bilingual child in a monolingual environment such as Australia or the U.S. is extremely challenging. But it’s never too late and I plan to keep trying!

5 tips for raising a bilingual child

Here are some expert tips to help you support your child’s bilingual development:

  • Pick a strategy and stick to it: The “one person, one language” approach may feel restrictive, but it seems to have the best results. Whatever method you choose, try to be consistent with it.
  • Expose them to your language in many ways: Read and tell stories, play games, sing songs and play music in your native language. Look for play groups or other activities in your community that support your child’s use of their second language.
  • Remind yourself of the benefits: When you’re finding it difficult and are tempted to give up, remind yourself that children who speak more than one language have better academic results, a better sense of self-worth and belonging, and more career opportunities in the future.
  • Praise them: Give your child plenty of praise and encouragement to continue speaking your language.
  • Get support: Join online or local groups for parents who are raising bilingual kids. Talk to your child’s carers and teachers about how they can support your efforts.

If I’d known that the process wouldn’t be as easy as simply chatting to my kids in French, I would’ve approached it differently. Being well-informed will increase your chances of success. Don’t give up!