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Helping Your French Immersion Student When You Don’t Speak French

Aug 11, 2017

Grade 2. That was the point in my daughter’s educational career that I was officially outclassed. The moment where I could no longer reliably understand her worksheets. The tipping point at which, as a begrudging monolingual Anglophone, I no longer had the vocabulary help my kid with her French homework. It was like a sad, sorry version of Are Your Smarter Than a Second Grader? (Hint: no.)

I have to admit, it stung. I’d always envisioned a parenthood where I sat around the table with my child, gently shepherding her as her work — and understanding of the world — grew more complex. Instead, I was iced out by verb conjugation and passé compose, the horrors of my own miserable Grade 9 French performance flooding back to me. And as someone who’s made a career of language, writing and communication, it was an extra-prickly pill to swallow.


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Of course this was a fate of my own doing. We had chosen to enroll our daughter in French immersion, after all. For my husband, the choice was based on his own positive experiences with French immersion. For me, it was a reaction to the lingering shame of speaking only one language. An early professional encounter where, as the only Anglophone, an entire table full of French speakers reverted to English just to accommodate me cemented my resolve that my child will not suffer this particular handicap.

As a family unit we are fortunate to have one French-capable parent, leaving me the opportunity to deflect with a simple, “Go ask your Dad.” But for many families in French immersion, a program with ballooning enrollment all across the country, the skills to do the drills are lacking. And for parents, not being able to help can be uncomfortable and alienating.

Let them gleefully and incisively correct your terrible, awful, dreadful accent. Because even if you can bust out a passable accent, to them, it’s literally the worst.

Intrigued by my own predicament (“If I can’t help now what will happen come Grade 6? Grade 8??”) I became a bit fixated on the question: how can you help your kids succeed in school if you can’t understand their work?

I posed this question to my daughter’s Grade 4 teacher while on a field trip one day. Aside from the usual tips of having them listen to French TV and all that, she offered one bit of advice that completely transformed my thinking: “Help them feel ownership of their language because it’s a decision that’s imposed on them.”

Reframing French from something they do, like school, to something they own, like their identity, has helped me find different tools for helping my daughter. It’s no longer about helping her do her homework (and as our teacher offered, if homework is too difficult for kids to do at home by themselves then it’s something to address with the teacher), it’s now about helping equip her with the skills to do her homework.


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Give them the upper hand

Ego is really everything, isn’t it? Ego is what triggered my existential crisis about being inadequately equipped to help my daughter (What? I can’t be her all-knowing, ever-helpful mother?!?), and it’s what can help kids gain confidence as they’re thrust into a whole new world of communication, particularly when they’re just starting out.

How do you boost their ego? Let them gleefully and incisively correct your terrible, awful, dreadful accent. Because even if you can bust out a passable accent (like I can – most of the time), to them, it’s literally the worst. Revel in their rolling R’s. Marvel at the mouth sounds they’ve learned to make so quickly!

By allowing them to (kindly) mock you and correct you, you’re reinforcing what they’ve learned in the classroom at home. It provides a bridge between their two, isolated language realms.


Give them the opportunity

Another gem from our teacher: “Give kids an opportunity to speak French with someone other than their teacher.”

French camps over the summer help retain proficiency from one year to the next, and family trips where there are chances to flex their French are great.

But don’t force it; allow it to come naturally. My daughter, for instance, freezes and giggles whenever we’re with other French-speaking friends and we ask her to switch tongues. And that time we went to the depanneur in Gatineau and said “Look honey, you can speak French!”, she took one look at the pimply, teenage clerk and gave me that glowering, soul-piercing look of “Not on your life, woman.” But fair enough. It has to be on their terms.


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Give them some slack

As parents we’re prone to looking for teaching opportunities in everyday life. A mistake is made? A lesson! Feelings are hurt? Teach resilience! Bedtime reading? Make them read in French!

Teachers will always tell you that any reading supports progress in both languages, and that any lags in English language tend to fade by Grade 4.

While the compulsion might be to build a mini French library at home, it’s important to cut kids a bit of slack. Sure, having options available is wise, as is trolling the French collection at the library, but sometimes just allowing kids a comfortable place to be, well, kids, is the best way we parents can support their learning.

If a French agenda is forced on them, there might be revolt. If the opportunity for them to follow their language whims exists, you might be surprised what they choose. But don’t fret if it’s all English at home. Teachers will always tell you that any reading supports progress in both languages, and that any lags in English language tend to fade by Grade 4. From my experience, this is true. As is the fact that some kids are born readers and some aren’t — and there’s not much to do about that.


Give yourself some slack

In reality, we parents shouldn’t be doing our kids’ homework! Instead we should teach them the skills needed to figure it out. For me, a writer, I now help my daughter by talking things through (in English) and helping her formulate and prioritize her thoughts that she then writes in French. Dad helps with spelling and grammar and analytical thinking. We play to our strengths.

Other times, it’s about coaching her on time management, or encouraging her to think critically, or guiding her to where she can find the answer for herself.

Because, really, at the end of the day, many of the details and specifics that are learned at school are forgotten. It’s the ability to manage workloads, be clear in communication, break down a problem, and be resilient in the face of stress or failure that kids need to learn — whether in English, French… or Emoji.

Article Author Rae Ann Fera
Rae Ann Fera

Read more from Rae Ann here.

Rae Ann Fera is an experienced freelance writer, editor, content curator and content producer. She is curious about how things work and what motivates people to do what they do. Rae Ann has frequently written on media, creative technology and travel. The parent of a 10-year-old girl, she gardens when she's supposed to write, writes when she's supposed to cook dinner, and will drop everything to listen to a good story or indulge in a snuggle (while they last!). She's currently working on a book about her experiences with adoption, which really means her garden looks fantastic.

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