"Maman, I do a gâteau pour you" - my four year old daughter screams to me. I smile. When we consciously decided to make French the language of our household, I did not expect to be outnumbered by my francophone children.
When my husband and I started dating, I was enchanted by his French accent. I made him say random things to me just to hear him speak. He wooed me with poems in French that he developed on the spot. I was star struck. Fast forward almost a decade later and our hands are full with 3 little babies - whose first language is: FRENCH!
How did this happen?
Well after brushing up on my French with this French monsieur who had enchanted me, and after agreeing that French was indeed the more complicated language to learn, we decided that we would focus on French with our first born and that English would follow. It was quite fascinating for me to mother in a language other than my "mother tongue". My own relationship with English is complicated. We spoke my true mother tongue at home with my parents BUT learned English so early on I can't separate the two. I dream in English. So me trying to speak French to bébé was nothing short of comical. What I realized is that kids pick up on the language that is spoken more fluidly at home. We generally spoke French to each other so it is no surprise that bébé easily spoke French back to us.
I did draw my line at television. If we were going to speak French all the time, bébé would watch TV in English. We followed the APA recommendations - little or no screen time before 2. The things you do for your first born...lol...When our then 2 year old started watching TV, I leaned towards Sesame Street, Thomas the engine and Yo Gabba Gabba. We only let him watch the English versions of these shows as he was getting more than enough exposure to French at his bilingual daycare and at home from us.
Then came the twins. As a mom of 3 under 3, life mostly consisted of exhaustion and a big blur. Out went APA recommendations - in came screen time. With fatigue, I was less willing/able to be fluid in switching languages. There was little brain capacity for conjugation let alone keeping all my kids alive so I spoke in English to the twins.
I did NOT expect that speaking mostly French to my husband and older boy would then dictate the language of the household. My twin son's first word was "regarde!" because that's ALL he heard big brother say. And soon the unexpected happened:
I was outnumbered!
Four francophones against one anglophone. How did I become colonized in my own household by my own offspring?! My husband was still blasé about English and was still convinced that the kids would learn English "on the streets" because it was "that much easier than French". But then I became resentful because I was being "forced" to speak only in French. Suddenly I am surrounded by the French grammar nazi's correcting my every "le" and "la". It has taken quite a bit of effort to get my beloved Franco family to appreciate that the English language has its own particularities.
I was about to lose hope when by eldest son started to speak more English. I thought it was years of my bickering that we were not putting enough emphasis on English that produced the turn around. Turns out it was the playground at school. Living in Chelsea, an anglophone part of Quebec has meant that a lot of the kids at his school playground do speak English.
Another unexpected and pleasant surprise for me was COVID19. The twins daycare is francophone and this has really influenced their language - a lot more than I realized. Since the COVID19 lockdown and after spending every waking moment with their anglophone mama, I am proud to say that my francophone babies are now much more adept in English. My husband even declared that I was falsely accusing him. We are now in an almost 50/50 balance.
Along the way we have built some strategies that help us maintain both languages for the kids.
1. Watching TV: French or English
I make the kids watch their favourite cartoons and movies in English. It is a little more work for them but I have found that having them watch the shows in French makes them more passive when it comes to English. Because they are already interested in their shows, they are able to follow along.
I do let the kids watch certain specific shows in French. They've watched Wreck it Ralph and Cloudy with a chance of meatballs in both French and English and for some reason they prefer the French version. I let them do this so they don't resent English and that they can be comfortable being fluid in both languages.
2. Learning to read: English or French
Just before grade 1, I was stressed about teaching my first born son to read. This was particularly challenging for me because I did not learn to read in French. I had no clue where to start. I tried teaching him to read in English but there was too much to overcome conceptually which was really killing his confidence. So I got him some simple level French books and with some persistence he just figured it out and it clicked. BUT then I wanted him to read in English and this proved to be challenging still. Finally we chose to focus on French and his confidence picked up so fast. The lesson learned was to let them read in the language they are most comfortable in. The passive language will follow. Halfway through grade 1 and just before the shutdown, big boy figured out how to read and intonate in English. Again it just clicked when he was ready and I realized I was stressing for nothing.
3. Making mistakes: English AND French
As the kids have been learning, we sometimes over correct them which we realized is making them conscious especially because their brains as already processing two languages at the same time. They now have the English filter and the French filter. They know to say I'll ask mommy about English stuff and I'll ask Daddy about French stuff. Rather than constantly point out their mistakes we are learning to give them extra grace as they navigate two languages.
4. Homework: French
For the most part our grade 1 did not have homework so we were mostly out of the woods. He did need to read 20 minutes per day in French and I was all game for that because the level was one I was comfortable with. Once COVID19 hit and we were having to actually teach in French, I kinda shimmy'd to the side and let my husband handle most of that. I still help him out with reading BUT I am realizing that I need to step up my French game in order to keep up with his academics. Also Thank God for Daddy.
5. Ici we parle Franglais
There are so many cool phrases that have emerged from these bilingual kids learning French and English:
"Mommy I do a gâteau pour you"
Mommy I made a cake for you/Maman j'ai fait un gâteau pour toi
"I don't can't"
Je ne peux pas - I can't (ALL THREE KIDS SAID THIS)
"Why is the car klaxonning"
Why is the car honking/pourquoi la voiture klaxonne?
"This is the aspirator"
This is the vacuum cleaner/C'est l'aspirateur
I am constantly amazed at how my kids fluidly switch from French to English and back again. I also feel more at home the more they speak English because it allows me to express myself in the language I am most comfortable in. They are also now getting to the age where they correct my French. My eldest is constantly cleaning up my phrases and I am the better person for it both personally and professionally as a public servant in Canada. I'll share more of how my kids help me keep up with French at work.
Voila, notre experience raising les enfants bilingues au Quebec in Canada.
Happy Canada Day! Bonne Fête de Canada!