Friday, January 31, 2014

Our Family's Bilingual Adventure

Where did I get the idea to raise bilingual kids? And why did I decide to do it? 

My mom was born and raised in Sweden.  For a couple summers when I was little, she gave me and my siblings Swedish lessons. She taught us some phrases, numbers, the alphabet, etc. But, being kids and not caring to spend much time memorizing things during summer vacation, we never got very far. As I got older, I always felt a little regret  that my mother never taught us kids her mother tongue.  It seemed to me that if only my mom had simply always talked to us in Swedish from birth, we would have naturally acquired the language. Asking her about it when I was older, she replied that she simply didn’t think about speaking to us in Swedish when we were infants.  Then as we got older, she thought it would be too hard to suddenly start talking to us in Swedish.

Hence, from a child I was determined to teach my own children two languages. I was excited to give my children a “free” language that they didn’t have to study for.

How much French experience did we each have?

Brad learned French on his 2-year mission in southern France when he was 19. Determined to learn the same language my husband already had under his belt, I took a 101/102 French class (yes, a monster 8 credit hour class!) my last semester before graduating from BYU.  From it, I got most of the rules of grammar and pronunciation and a good foundation to start out on. But day-to-day speaking was still quite tedious.
It wasn’t until our oldest, Aaron, was almost a year old that I realized that my dream of giving my children a second language would never happen unless I stepped up to the plate and actually started speaking French to them. But that meant I would have to continue my own learning.

At that point, I made two goals for myself: speak as much in French as possible and study as much French as possible. I must have had every teaching French library book, CD, cassette and video the  library owned for the most part of the following couple years. At home and in the yard, I listened to audio teach-me-French. In the car, more French audio was continually playing. Whenever I could pick up a book, I studied more French.  I always tried to speak French to little one-year-old Aaron. It was interesting that he and I were learning it together. Aaron had only heard English up until that point. It was quite tiresome, slow and even exasperating when trying to talk to my little boy in French, often having to pause mid-sentence to look up words or check conjugations. As a family, we started speaking French together during dinnertime. In the beginning, there were lots of quiet dinners. The next level was doing whole “French days” twice a week. Several months later, we started “French days” three times a week.

A big turning point came when we enrolled Aaron in a French preschool twice a week and I volunteered to stay and help the whole time. Of course it was a selfish motive to stay—my learning French. But the preschool loved the free help and was glad for the extra hands. It was from preschool that I really learned to talk with my kids (Spencer was one year old and came to preschool strapped to my back). Nursery rhymes, songs, chants, finger plays, games and just plain old kid talk were just what I needed to smooth out my speaking with my children. These are not things that are found in text books and most teach-me-French books and CDs.

What were some of the biggest obstacles?

The biggest obstacles to children learning a language that is not society’s language are the parent not speaking as much or as well as they should to their kids and not giving their kids outside opportunities to hear the language.  I’ve been told my kids speak “Larson French.” To be expected, I suppose. Putting on videos in French with subtitles (sometimes English, sometimes French—there are advantages to each) is great, especially when the kids watch them over and over again. I put on French music and kids stories for the kids to listen to in bed.

My own personal study is imperative. I must keep reading books and magazines (and take the time to look up unfamiliar words and phrases— is a great place where phrases, idioms and such are discussed, along with the normal dictionary).

With each stage of a child’s life, with each new situation or event, a whole new vocabulary and phrases are required. If I use an unfamiliar, less used French word with my kids, I usually follow with the English word. Teaching kids piano or geometry or discussing Shakespeare in French was tedious for both the kids and us parents. Often the kids were themselves just learning the English terms and were still unfamiliar with them. Throwing in new French words made for some frustrating situations. Hence, certain situations were simply always in English.

What level of French have my children achieved?

My children’s French ability varies directly with age;  the older the child the better their French. The older children have taken French at school. Both were told they could not take French 1 because of their speaking and comprehension skills. With the younger kids, I will insist that they be allowed to take French 1. Never having learned the whys of grammar and how to conjugate and spell, skipping directly to French 2 proved frustrating. Perhaps taking a basic French course over the summer would have allowed them to more easily skip to French 2.

How much French was spoken in our home when your kids were younger?

By the time our oldest was five, we were finally speaking full-time French except when we were interacting with others.

How much French is currently spoken in our home?

Our oldest is 18 now and we have eight kids down to one year old. We parents speak more than half the time in French. The kids speak mainly in English. With a large family, it seems there are often friends over (so we speak in English) or someone’s doing a school project or other activity that’s easier to discuss in English. We have to make a conscious effort to remember to keep up the French.