When people talk about globalization, they’ll talk about trade and tariffs until our ears start to bleed, but they never talk about another, newly common kind of import/export: Love. Over the past decades, cheap airfares, video chat and study abroad programs have resulted in an increase in international couples. And if said couples can survive the cultural shockwaves they’ve invited into their home, the common result is multi-national children, introducing a whole new set of questions and conversations around education. Great, like we needed more of those…
My wife is an American from Colorado. I’m a Frenchman from Paris. Our son was born in Manhattan in 2016. That day, he was granted both countries’ passports. Easy enough. But the hard part was yet to come: he now had to learn both our languages. And if he had to learn, it meant we had to teach him.
I’m not an expert in linguistics and I’m not a pediatrician, I’m just a dad who once typed “how to raise a bilingual child” into a search engine. But today I want to share what I’ve learned, for the next helpless victim of international love who finds himself down that same Google rabbit hole.
At the beginning we only knew two things: that it was much easier for children to learn a language than adults and that it was important to shape a kid’s tongue and jaw muscles immediately so that they could pronounce a perfect “thorough” and a perfect “écureuil.”
Our boy is now 3. A month ago, he asked me: “Can we go play in my room?” The annoying Papa that I am replied: “Quoi ? Je ne comprends pas l’anglais…” (“What? I don’t understand English…”) He searched his brain for a few seconds and came back to me with: “Papa, on peut aller jouer dans ma chambre?” (= perfect translation!). Every time he does that, I want to give him a Nobel Prize. So, I shout: “YES! Very good buddy!” (I tend to instinctively resort to English to express enthusiasm, go figure…) He gets all serious and decisively says: “Non Papa ! Il faut dire OUI !” (“No Dad! You have to say OUI!)
Our work here was done. The cement had dried and the foundations were set. We had given him French. And apparently a little bit of sass too! That thought sent a wave of relief through me as intense as the underlying pressure I had been feeling for the past three years. Because despite a couple years spent in Paris and a lot of French learned, my wife still can’t pronounce a perfect “écureuil.” The transmission of this particular skill was all on me.
So how did we do it? We don’t know exactly, but here’s what we did.
1. Enroll your partner
Some experts recommend separating language by parent (one parent-one language) but that didn’t feel right to us. We didn’t want for that “secondary” language to be connected to only one side of the parenting team. Eventually a rebellion is going to come (and since he’s a boy, it’s most likely going to be against me!), and we didn’t want to give him the option of saying: “Well, Dad is a loser, so why should I speak his language?!”
No matter what their level is, your partner can try to use simple, common phrases in the secondary language. The “please,” “wait a minute,” and “hey! don’t pull on the cat’s tail!” At first, we were a little worried that he would pick up some of my wife’s mistakes, but three years in, we can confirm that he didn’t. He actually corrects her now, which is adorable… at least to me.
2. TV is your friend
All you need is a multi-zone DVD player and grandparents willing to mail your old Pixar DVDs (they’re usually happy to help: after all, they still don’t really understand why you left!). Every minute of television our kid has watched since we gave up on the no-screen policy the second he turned 18 months has been in French. Watching the same films over and over again dramatically improved his vocabulary. The other benefit, and not a small one, is that it will tremendously reduce your guilt in resorting to the television to keep your little one occupied: you’re doing it for his education! And guess what? You are.
3. Find Your Village
Finding a gang of local expats became high on my priority list once our boy was able to interact in society. It was not only good for him, it was also very good for me. I actually missed my fellow countrymen more than I thought.
I moved to the US eight years ago, and really intended to blend into my new country and start fresh. But raising a kid in a different country than the one you grew up in makes you sincerely re-evaluate your relationship with your roots. You often compare what you do as a parent to what you experienced as a child, to evaluate your performance and find reassurance you’re not making unforgivable mistakes. And even if France and the U.S. have a lot in common, there are also a lot of details that make these comparisons either impossible or inconclusive.
So, I suddenly needed to surround myself with more French natives who could share that unique experience, and help reframe these comparisons. Now, when I say: “On va voir les copains français!” (“Let’s go see our French buddies!”) I can tell that my son sees it’s something special to his dad and is happy to be a part of it. Speaking French has become a pleasure, not homework.
Also a two-hour, weekly French class made a world of difference. He was suddenly “forced” to speak French to “survive” in an environment with no family. And it has been scientifically proven (I think…) that survival in the wild is everything when it comes to imprinting something in a human’s brain.
4. Ignore the Looks
To complete our improvised French teaching strategy, I did one more thing, which turned out to be the hardest one of all. I committed myself to speaking to him exclusively in French. Exclusively. Which meant, all the time, everywhere, including where other children and adults were present: parks, grocery stores, birthday parties. And as much as we live in a part of America that is very accepting of immigrants, a playground is not a place where people are often thrilled about not understanding what other parents are saying.
To be fair, that’s reasonable. A common language helps society function. It negates the fantasy that your neighbor is a threat to your safety. You actually do want other parents to understand that you’re telling your kid “Let her go first!” or “No that’s his toy!”
But I stuck to my commitment, even if it meant being on the receiving end of sideways looks and negative vibrations. And this is when I understood why families sometimes give up on that secondary language. Because when you get these awkward looks, it’s hard to not just put an end to them. But at this stage in his discovery of the world, I need my son to feel that speaking French is a normal part of life, just as it would be if he was playing on Parisian playgrounds like his father did.
To try and limit my disruption to the fragile ecosystem of a suburban playground, I started adding a live English translation of everything I said: “Attends ton tour! Wait your turn!” Yes, this is a lot of work and yes, it’s exhausting because it requires me to be constantly going back and forth between what I’m pretty sure are two different parts of my brain.
So more than once, I ended up saying “Wait for your tour!” or “Buddy, ce n’est pas your toy!” And more than once, I find myself asking: “Wait! How would a French person actually say that?” Besides the fact that this question will send a man who lived in Paris for the first 27 years of his life into a spiraling identity crisis, this is all part of the exhausting cerebral workout, playing out of sight every day in any immigrant’s brain. I often compare it to the way your computer’s fan suddenly starts to roar and you lose 50 percent battery in 20 minutes, even though you’re only responding to emails. This is how it feels to take him to the playground. This is why it’s hard to raise a bilingual child. This is what you should prepare yourself for.
What parent needs an extra source of fatigue? None of us. Then why do it? Because nothing makes me happier these days than to hear him pronounce a perfect “thorough” and a perfect “écureuil.”
If you’re wondering, it’s pronounced: [e.ky.ʁœj]