Raising Bilingual Children: Confessions of a Struggling Mum

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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


Language Development and Bilingualism

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One of the many questions a parent may ask themselves when trying to raise a bilingual child is: ‘will my child be at a disadvantage?’ ‘Will his understanding be delayed?’ ‘Will she be able to advance at the same pace because of having to learn two languages or more?’ The answer to all of these is a categorical no according to current research. Being bilingual is beneficial in many areas of life, especially in the early years. But there is also the reality that a small percentage of children the world over have language development issues for a variety of reasons.

Little Girl has a lisp, in that she can’t pronounce the ‘ch’ sound at all. ‘Elle zozote’, as we say in French. It’s cute but I have been aware of it for a while as a potential ‘thing’ to look out for. She is only three years old so it hasn’t been on my urgent to-do list but I have noticed it, especially around her peers who don’t seem to have the same problem. Until recently, I didn’t know if it was an issue or not, and I had no real way to figure it out on the sly. When can you start talking about language delays anyway? Is there really no correlation between language development delays and bilingualism? These are real questions and it’s not that easy to see the wood for the trees when you are in the thick of it. Information isn’t exactly readily available unless you notice a problem yourself and take it to a specialist. As a parent with a basic understanding of biology and an even better knowledge of how to use Google, I didn’t want to blow it out of proportion but I didn’t know where to turn either to get some basic information without committing a crime against my brain by going on Wikipedia.

Then about a month ago I got an email from our local family centre advertising a Speech and Language Therapy drop-in clinic and I jumped at the chance to get it checked-out.

The observation was very laid back; Little Girl was presented with pictures of objects and animals and asked to describe them before putting the cards in a big red post box. The therapist went through a lot of words, most of which Little Girl knew (phew) and I was even more gratified when she saw a picture of a frog and said ‘grenouille’ (‘she can’t put a French sentence together but she does know some words!’). At the same time I was gradually getting twitchy watching the therapist write something down next to 90% of the words. I had never noticed before but Little Girl pronounced almost all of them a little bit wrong. It was mostly bog standard stuff like poon for spoon, tair for stair, wabbit for rabbit, bruss for brush and soo for shoe. And all the ‘th’ sounds, which are typically English and even I don’t know if I say them right all the time, so I wasn’t surprised to hear her mangle them a bit. Still, seeing this on the page was concerning.

It turns out that her development is completely normal and appropriate for her age, including all the ‘sh’ and ‘th’ stuff. And the therapist was very positive about the fact that we were trying to raise her with both French and English; she had no concerns at all. She did say that considering the pool of words and sounds she has to learn, a little delay was possible but nothing to worry about.

What I didn’t know, and I suspect most parents don’t either, is that a lot of pronunciation doesn’t settle until a child is five or even six years old! Not only was all of this information completely new to me, but it also felt like something I should be aware of without needing to go to a special clinic because I am worried. This sheet below is the most helpful thing I’ve seen all year.

Normal language development 0 - 6 yrs old
Normal language development 0 – 6 yrs old

In which a French person replied to me in English

International Market
Not bad, but not quite French

The French Market was back in town this weekend. It was advertised as such but it would be more accurate to call it the International Market, as there were Italian and Spanish stalls too. There was no bakery either, which is near sacrilegious and not very French at all!

As per usual I lurked around the dry sausage stall and settled on a Rosette de Lyon: 100% pork, dry and oh so tasty. I then made my way to the cheese van, and this is where I embarrassed myself in the worst possible way for a French person. I made a grammatical mistake.

It will make you happy to know that French people do not possess any magical skills when it comes to knowing whether a word is masculine or feminine. We are not able to sniff them out. I occasionally get a feel for a word but I am wrong 50% of the time, as I will now illustrate.

I asked for a particular cheese with the words: ‘Je voudrais un Vignotte, s’il vous plait.’ At the back of my mind, I thought I might be wrong because Vignotte looks and sounds like a feminine word. It rhymes with Charlotte, une cagnotte (money = a kitty/pool), une peutiotte (a little girl) and is also very similar to une vignette (a sticker), which are all feminine words. I literally had this conversation in my head at the time and despite this I concluded it was most likely masculine because cheese is masculine (Un fromage). The seller responded much louder than the situation warranted if you ask me, ‘UNE Vignotte! It will be £2 pounds please.’ To which I responded in my best French voice ‘merci!’ and scuttled away in embarrassment.

I was thinking about it this morning and remembered another time when I made such a mistake and really stood out among French people. In the late nineties/early noughties, dvds became standard and as I was living in the UK by then, I realised that I’d never used the word in France and didn’t know whether they said une dvd or un dvd. Aside from the fact that I did a quick search and can confirm that omg dvds came out in Europe in late 1998 (doesn’t that make you feel old?!), it took me a long time to get used to saying ‘un dvd’; for some unknown reason it doesn’t feel quite right and so I fumbled for ages between the two.


I suspect I am not alone in making such mistakes. Do any of you expats have particular words that cause you trouble time and time again and make you to look stupid in conversations with your compatriots?

Dodgy French in books

Warning: Contains Language

Novel writers occasionally like to use foreign language to convey the fact that their character is in or from another country. Unfortunately these writers often don’t research said foreign language in any depth before sending their work to the printers – or so it seems to me. Some you can tell have tried hard to get it right and only fail occasionally, usually getting the gender wrong but others clearly have never seen, heard or studied French in their life and it is very painful to read. I came across one of those yesterday and it put me off the book straight away.

The book I read yesterday had some weird and sometimes plain bonkers sentences such as these:

“Très bien! Je vais être droit il y a,” a woman yelled.

“Quel est votre pressé?”

Whatever that woman yelled in the author’s head, we shall never know. I was more than a little pained when I read the second one which, as far as I can tell, translates as ‘What is your pressed?’. And I might have forgiven Paris’ Sacré Coeur Basilica being spelt ‘Sacré Couer’ once, but it was spelt wrong throughout the entire book. OK so it was a freebie Kindle book, not War and Peace but even so it is hard to take a book seriously when sentences make no sense whatsoever. Despite 5 years of studies and an A-Level, my German is non-existent and I wouldn’t dream of putting German in a book without checking with a native speaker. Not being a writer, I don’t know how these things are done but it shouts lazy writer and pretty much discredit the author (and editor) to me.

I am genuinely curious to know how writers deal with foreign language in books. And if anyone has funny experiences of dodgy foreign language in books, please do share!

Noises animals make

I have started reading to my daughter and her favourite book tells the story of a butterfly who wants to play but none of the other animals want to (it does end well by the way, the ducks are quite keen). We don’t yet have many French books so I have been translating it as we go along. It’s easy enough; there aren’t that many words, however it requires me to make the animal noises based on what is written down, some of which are totally baffling to me.

For one thing, in my adult life I’ve had little need for this kind of skill, and now I don’t actually remember what some animals are supposed to sound like. I also definitely don’t know what they’re supposed to sound like in English so the book has thrown up some challenges.

The Good:

Cow goes Moo Moo or Meuh Meuh; I think I produce a mean heifer noise.

Sheep goes Baa Baa, or Beh Beh; it’s a real easy one.

Duck says Quack Quack, or Coin Coin, and although it doesn’t look it, it sounds pretty similar (apart from the ‘ck’ sound at the end).

Dog says Woof Woof or Ouaf Ouaf; Cat goes Meow or Miaou, no problem there, it’s pretty much the same

The Bad:

Pig goes Oink Oink apparently… I have no idea what Pig says in French, but anyway, it grunts right? I definitely sound pig-like, but Oink is a bit of a stretch.

The Ugly:

The Cockerel goes Cock-a-doodle-do. Does it? Really? Hubby says it in his best posh voice and it sounds hilarious, but nothing like the real thing. In French, well, let’s just say that ‘Le Coq’ doesn’t translate particularly well but it’s easier to go Cocorico! and feel like the morning has indeed come.

The Weird:

The butterfly goes Flutter! Flutter! I don’t know what to do with that. I ended up translating it as ‘Flap, flap!’, which works as some sort of onomatopoeia, maybe?

Frogs go Ribbit Ribbit; shamefully, given the name of this blog, I have no idea what they say in French!


I can’t think of any others, but suggestions are welcome.