The Challenges of Raising Bilingual Children

Sep 3, 2013

I'm from Newfoundland, and my husband is a Quebecer. We live in Montreal. We have spoken, soothed and sang to our kids in our mother and father tongues - Mama in English. Papa in French. Now, our children are fluent in French and English. Sometimes they don't even know which language they have spoken. At the park last summer, my daughter asked about a new friend, "Mama, did I meet her in French or English?" I think this is a gift. Still, there are a few things I've learned (and am still discovering) as a parent of bilingual children.

Immersion is tough. For kids and parents, immersion school is not easy. Some people go as far as to say it doesn't work. Even in Montreal, my kids say that French is spoken only in the classroom. Then, at recess with their friends, it's back to English. It's tough to be a language cop with 300 children in the schoolyard, I know. But how immersed can the students really be? Also, for unilingual parents like me, there's also only so much Sesame Street French you can fall back on at the homework table. I needed to find a workaround. My pronunciation was so spotty that my son now recites his vocabulary words into my phone and plays them back.

Mixing things up. In the early days, words and syntax got mixed up. My daughter would say, "Mama, juste une minute. I'm going upstairs to lave mes mains." Or "Me, I am cherching for my dress rouge." We chose not to point out the errors every time. We knew what she was saying, and in the end, she corrected things herself. Of course, words can be universal. In our house, a Lego mini-figure is forever a Bonhomme. No translation required. En francais, s'il vous plait. We don't want to force one language over another, but right now, the kids' preference is English. They don't want to watch the dubbed versions of movies. Taylor Swift and Beiber are cooler than the Star Academie kids. My husband thinks this is a problem. He may be right. So should we overexpose them to French to compensate? If I do that, am I turning my back on my own traditions? I still don't know the answer to that one. 

The French have a different word for everything. Animals sound different. French cows say meuh not moo; a cat says miao not meow; and (a family favourite) a rooster says cocorico not cock-a-doodle-doo. This is very important to know if you wake up one morning on a farm in Quebec.

Vive la différence! Is there a difference? The good news is, our children find the idea of French and English feuding fascinating, even silly. To them, it is ancient history. "This is Canada," my son says. "There's nothing to fight about." Inspirational. 

Third Culture Kids. What I am slowly learning is that my kids are more than bilingual. They are third-culture kids - neither French nor English. This is true of many multicultural families. Our children are individuals whose passions are distinct, strong and rich. Their feet are firmly planted in both worlds. They are connected to a part of my roots, as well as their father's. They will pick, not us. In the end, something new will grow, uniquely their own.

Debbie Hynes is a full-time working mom. When she can steal time, Debbie likes to run, row and write in the margins. Born in Newfoundland, she now lives in Montreal with her husband and three wunderkins. You can follow her on Twitter @debbiehynes01 

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