Raising Bilingual Children: Confessions of a Struggling Mum

Raising bilingual children header 20160518

I have been having a few wobbles lately about what is, at this time, my utter failure at raising bilingual children. It’s not something that bilingual parents talk about online very openly that I’ve seen. There are a lot of blog posts about the theory and practices that work at raising bilingual children, and a lot of ‘this is how we do it’ posts from active bilingual parents, which are, to my eyes, all very much success stories. They have their ups and downs for sure, but their children are able to express themselves in the minority language very successfully. This is, to my shame, not one of these posts. The truth is, my children are not bilingual at the moment.

Good intentions don’t make children bilingual

When I first thought about having children and being a mother, I had no doubt that I would raise bilingual children. I was born in France and lived there for 18 years so of course my children would speak French and have a bi-cultural upbringing. I assumed that I would speak French to them all the time and that whilst it would not be straightforward, it would still happen quite naturally. Little did I know that the opposite would be true.

The reality is that I have struggled to speak French to them almost from day one. It was never going to be easy but I managed somewhat in the early months because I was spending a lot of time at home alone with Little Girl. But then I made friends; I spent more time out of the house with a lot of people. Little Girl discovered CBeebies, TinyPop and endless YouTube videos of people playing with toys, opening Kinder Eggs and playing video games (watching other people play video games, that’s the kid equivalent of Gogglebox I guess). By the time Luciole turned up, her sister’s social life was entirely in English and I was unable to sustain the level of interactions required in the minority language for the girls to learn it.

I know the theory about raising bilingual children. I did my research and knew that the only way it could be done for us was with the One Parent One Language method, and that I should endeavour to speak French to them all the time, and certainly at home. We have bilingual toys, DVDs in French and a lot of French books, which I read with them regularly. But that is no good if I can’t ever remember to speak French to them. It’s been nearly 5 years and I still have to remind myself every morning to do it, and I have forgotten by the time I get down for breakfast.

The reasons why I am failing at raising bilingual children

I attend a French toddler group and I have tried to explain to the other parents how difficult I find it to speak French to my children, but it seems no one understands my struggle at all. People look at me as if I was from another planet, because not a single one of them struggles with speaking French at home. I have left there feeling self-conscious, embarrassed and ashamed that I am failing at something that should come naturally to me. This is a sore point right now, and I have stopped going because it makes me feel wretchedly inadequate.

How do I even begin to explain this? I am a year away from having lived in England for as long as I have lived in France. And the truth is that I have worked damn hard to integrate. I am still French in many many ways, but before the kids, I didn’t speak French in my day-to-day for 13 years. Now, aside from with the girls, I don’t speak French to anyone, and I don’t listen to French radio or watch French TV, and why would I when I find British radio and TV vastly superior? I haven’t thought or dreamed in French since my first year in England. Initially when I first came over, I had no desire to live in a little French ghetto and had little contact with French people where I lived, which was very helpful in terms of learning the language and getting to grips with life in the UK. And my life has pretty much carried on like this. I get a bit homesick from time to time and listen to French music, watch French films and cook food that reminds me of home more than usual, until the homesickness passes. I can’t afford to go back to France for a visit more than once a year; I speak to my parents on Skype every week, and that’s pretty much it. So it would be an understatement to say that there is little of my life that is directly French aside from a few food and routine-related things.

So the reality of my life right now is that to speak French to my girls on a daily basis, I have to do myself violence and go against every natural instinct in my body and mind. If I’d had them when I was still new to England, I suspect it would have been no trouble at all. But I have lived in England too long. I have embraced everything in my English life and I haven’t loved France enough to have retained any instinctual desire to speak French. I can speak it as well as ever but it’s never the first language in my mind or on my lips. It doesn’t help that I wasn’t sad not to return to France after my year out; for various reasons, I had no particular desire to go back. But now speaking English is my normal, and to try to revert to a way of being I haven’t been in so long, well, I have a massive internal dissonance going on that I cannot see ending any time soon.

I feel like a big fat failure about this. I am very much failing my girls and I don’t know how to reverse it. It’s easy to say that I should just start speaking French to them, but I’ve tried so hard. And the first thing that comes out of my mouth, ALWAYS, is in English. I catch myself sometimes and repeat things in French after, but three quarters of the time, I literally forget. I forget! And I am gutted and feel guilty but there’s only me and I am not enough. If it was a flaw I needed to work on, it would be different, but there is nothing inherently wrong with loving and speaking English and it being a part of my identity. However it is stopping me from being able to raise my children bilingually and I have no idea how to get past it.


photo by Amador Loureiro via unsplash


12 thoughts on “Raising Bilingual Children: Confessions of a Struggling Mum

  1. Don’t feel bad about it. At the end of the day you need to really want it, otherwise I am sure that your daughters would perceive the awkwardness that you feel and it probably won’t make a huge difference. Teaching a minority language is a big commitment. I’ve just had my twin boys and I would also speak English to them instinctively at first and almost felt like giving up on French too. What really helped was listening to French podcasts and various films/ youtube videos (and dare I say, this is the bit I don’t agree with you at all: French TV and radio are far superior to the UK cr*p in my humble opinion). I mean there’s barely any interesting investigative journalism, debates or good quality shows such as “les maternelles”, or anything close to what you can see on France 5, arte or listen to on france culture. And don’t get me started on the rubbish press! Sure you do have the odd documentary produced by the BBC but they are too rare. Anyways back to the subject, a language is more than just words and from your personal story it seems that you are not emotionally attached to France or the French culture anymore and enough to pass it on. There’s no reason to feel guilty over it, it’s your personal story and I’m sure someone elsr eho went through what you did would have perhaps felt the same. Personally I spent a few years in Scotland as a teenager and had a very difficult time, so to this day I find it difficult to warm to anything Scottish. I must admit I had a great childhood in France and it’s a country that gave me more than just a language but also a curiosity that was encouraged thanks to numerous books, outtings and interactions with interesting people. Of course France has its fair amount of “beaufs” but no way near as many as what you see in the UK. I want to pass on this to my children, I don’t want them to be limited in their interests to sports and what was on TV last night like it’s too often the case here. And most interesting resources I can think of happen to be in French. Sorry for the big rant but my point is you can’t pass on something if, for whatever reason, you don’t feel the emotional need that goes with it. I am sure that you give a lot of other extremely valuable and unique things to your children. At the end of the day you are trying your best and that’s already amazing in itself. By the way your English is very impressive and you have a real talent for writing!

    1. Thank you so much for your message, I really appreciate it and you make many good points! I think part of the issue is that whilst as you say my own personal emotional attachment to France is complicated, the main reason for it has now less to do with the past, and a lot more to do with distance, both physical and in terms of how long it’s been since I have lived in France (basically half my life). Most of the values I pass to my girls are from my French upbringing and I don’t want my lack of personal attachment hinder them getting a hold of their heritage. The problem I have is that I have no idea what is current in France at all, in terms of reading/tv/online for kids. The internet can be a black hole if you don’t know how to narrow down to find the right resources. Anyway, thanks for spending the time to respond so thoroughly!

  2. OK, first of all, stop telling yourself you have failed 🙂 There are no perfect parents, and we all have the best intentions until they go out the window!!!
    My kids are 8 and 5 and they are nowhere near being bilingual. I started speaking French to my eldest, my husband spoke English, but my son had a speech delay, so we decided to stop with the French. When my second son came along, I spoke French to him, hoping he wouldn’t have the same issues, and he didn’t! But I know I’ve done everything wrong according to the “rule book” of raising bilingual children. Now I speak French and English, so does my husband. Sometimes I speak French to one, English to another, Frenglish most of the time… The only thing that truly helped them was spending summer with my parents (although that’s not going to last forever).
    My youngest doesn’t want to speak French, but he understands everything, and when he doesn’t, he asks what it means in English. My eldest speaks mostly English, but when he knows someone only speaks French, he tries his best to speak French with them. I don’t want to force them, so what we do is we do watch French cartoons, read French books, and they hear us speak French. They are starting to be really interested now that they are older.
    There is no secret recipe, every circumstances are different. Sometimes I think it’s easier to speak English because there are less words to explain something than in French. You have to do what you think is best for them. Even if they only go to France once a year, make the most of it. Try to let them be in a complete French environment for a while. I don’t know if your parents could take them even for a few days, or other members of your family if you have anyone you can count on. It’s not easy I know. My own parents are getting old, I suspect next year will be the last…
    All I’m saying is, try to expose them to French stuff as much as you can, and don’t beat yourself up because you speak more English to them. They know they have a French mum, you never know, they might be asking for it soon 🙂
    By the way, I’m relieved my kids are not the only ones who watch youtube videos of kids playing with toys or Kinder surprise…

    1. Thank you! I’m feeling particularly sensitive about it at the moment, and I really appreciate your perspective. I also think my parents could have the girls later on, I’ve definitely already thought about that!! :-p

  3. What an honest post. I can tell you are wearing your heart on your sleeve by writing this. I speak English only and have some basic conversational Spanish. My parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents all speak fluently. When people ask why I didn’t learn it, I don’t really have a good answer. Yes, my parents spoke to us in Spanish when we were young, but it’s really hard. I can understand better than most, but I am far from native.

    What my parents did pass on to me, which you can also pass to your daughters, is still very valuable. They passed on a LOVE for the language and my dad reminds me often that learning is a never-ending process. I’m on a spectrum, and I can always keep rising.

    Your daughters will be lucky to have a mom that tried as much as you did. Pass on the love for language learning and there is still hope!

    1. Thank you so much for your post. You made me feel much les alone. My minority language is Cantonese which my husband doesn’t speak or understand, and we’re living in France lol. My eldest son is 7.5 now and has lost a great deal of conversational Cantonese over the past year and my younger son, who had a rough start learning it in the beginning, benwfitted from a lot of my presence due to covid lock down and school closure. I am so ashamed to say that once my job returned to normal full time they have started not speaking Cantonese at all at one another and even i started speaking to them now and more in french, right now even for telling them off my go to language is French… its so sad whent they don’t understand me when i try to speak to them in Cantonese… and at the dinner table it feels awfully lonely to talk to them in Cantonese knowing that my other half doesn’t share what we’re taking about. I guess i miss the lockdown to be able to get that close to them again…

      1. Yes it is so hard. It makes me feel less alone too to know there are others who struggle like me, but you’re the first. If it happens in other families, it is not talked about. It’s been a few years and the girls don’t speak French outside of school. I’m still embarrassed and ashamed but I couldn’t make it happen and it is what it is. I don’t know how other people do it! But for me it was agony to try to keep up in French and I have to come to terms with it. They’ll have to take French in secondary school and I will help them with it but I just can’t speak it at home.

  4. Your post made me get off the shelf the leaving gift I received when I left France after 10 years. Yes it was Asterix chez les Bretons. Always taken avec un nuage de lait.
    Thank you for your amazing honesty.

  5. Hi, This is exactly what I am going through. I could have written your article word for word except I am not French. I find it so hard to speak to my kids in my native language it makes me crazy.I like my British “personality “ much better and find it so much easier to speak English and even come up with ideas what to speak about in English way easier. I feel such guilt and internal anguish mainly because of my family and letting them down. It really helps to hear about others having same experiences and I am not alone in this struggle….. Thank you for sharing…I wonder how got on years later

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