Maybe you’re brooding for a baby, or you already have a family with young kids. In either case, you opened this article for the likely reason that you would like to transmit to a child the gift of a second language, and it is good that you are reading this now, because I’m also interested in the topic and I would like to share with you my knowledge gathered from years of language learning and working with children.
For practical reasons, I’ll take French as the language that you would like to share with your child, although this advice works for every language. I am speak to a monolingual family wanting to offer their child the love of a second language. For more reading, I recommend Le Defi Des Enfants Bilingues by French linguist Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer, whose book added helpful academic context for this article.
The First Nine Months
It starts even before your child is born!
Wait, I’m not recommending that you use intravaginal music device to play the Michel Thomas French audiobook to your baby in utero.
I’d rather recommend that you enjoy this precious time of pregnancy, and that you take this time for yourself and to cultivate your own French (or Spanish, German, whatever your second language is). I’m sure that you’ve spent some time reading articles on parenting and education. Why not read some in French?
If you have French friends and relatives, take time to cultivate strong relationships with them. Who knows if, when you both have children, you can go on vacation together, or visit them in the country – and vice versa? Your French connections are the most precious thing you have, so take care of them 🙂 And if you don’t know anybody in France, why not start to make connections now? It takes times to make international friendships, but once you have them, they’re priceless.
👩👦 Pourquoi pas : Hiring an Au Pair
If you plan to hire an au pair to help at home, you might need to plan it ahead of time. For instance, Matthew and his wife live in Michigan, and they had a wonderful idea to hire a French au pair to help at home and speak French with the baby. Their challenge is to find the right person, and they started interviewing the candidates a couple of months in advance.
From 0 to 3 Years Old
A few ideas:
- Find a beautiful French lullaby for your baby. It could be just one 🙂 We don’t have to play the complete album of one hundred French folk songs at bedtime. It’s better to have one favorite French song that your child will cherish, get to know by heart, and associate with positive feelings in time.
- Let your baby play close to you when you have a conversation in French with someone. A baby learns most language by hearing relatives talk together.
An example is the one of Michael. Michael is a doctor and a francophile living in Pennsylvania. He is also the happy father of Benjamin! When Benjamin was a baby, his father would let him stay in his study room while doing his French lessons. Benjamin could be playing or sleeping, but he was always there, hearing his dad speaking another language. Will it help Benjamin with his French – providing that he will learn it – when he grows older? The future will tell! It certainly makes the sound of the language more familiar, and it helps the baby get used to the idea that his dad can speak more than one language, and that he can do it to later too.
A Baby has Equaled Capacity to Learn… and to Forget
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t consider 0 to 2 years of age to be the golden age for immersing your baby in a second language. The reason is because your baby’s main mental feature at that age is plasticity. The consequence of plasticity is that a child that age can learn as fast as he can… forget. In her study, Barbara Abdelila Bauer gives the example of a young child who could speak fluent Russian until she was six. Then, her parents moved to France and the little girl had to adapt to a new school and socialize with French children. In less than a month, the little girl seemed to go through a linguistic trauma. During her first weeks at school she wouldn’t socialize with French children and she seemed to be muted. But after a while when she started to get her hand on French, she stopped using Russian. She even refused to speak it with her parents at home.
This story resonated particularly, because I can give you a closer example with the one of my own sister. My mother in law is from Hainan (China) and she would speak to her daughter (my sister) only in chinese from age 0 to 3. Then, my sister went to school and found herself socializing with French children her age. Chinese was wiped out of her memory. Erased. Vanished in thin air. Now she is twelve, and I can speak more Chinese than her. My Chinese is very basic so I’m not saying this to brag but rather to show that when a child decides that she won’t use a language, she has the same extraordinary capacity to radically erase it from her memory, as to adopt a new language – generally the most socially useful one.
I’m not saying this to make you lose hope, but rather to reassure everyone’s possible fear-of-missing, that there is no hurry for introducing your baby to a second language. Take your time… The most important thing is enjoying it!
From Years 2 to 7. The Years of Exploration.
- Storytime in French. Note that sometimes children don’t like to hear their own parents speak to them in a foreign language. It sounds weird to them. Maybe you can find a structured storytime event in a local language association, or in an Alliance francaise if there is one in your city.
- Join a playgroup with other bilingual families
- Food! Why not cook a French style dinner at home, and bring some cheese and a baguette to the table every once in a while. It will be an occasion to talk about French culture and use the words of this particular food with the children at the table.
- Most children love music! You know how we used to listen to the same song over and over again (and we still do now, don’t we?). Songs for children tend to be catchy, and with their rhymes they’re easy to learn
- Games. If you have a child who likes puzzles, colouring books, drawing, you can easily find French language products that combine the two. It can be an Eiffel Tower puzzle, or giving your child ideas to draw scenes of French life. Feed your child’s imagination with some French!
From Years 7 to 12
- Games, games, more games!
- Take your family on vacation in a French speaking country.
- In general, create an immersive environment, without interfering too much. Your little one is a natural explorer. It might be more efficient to spend a week in France at a camping site, and to let your child play with other French children, rather than paying for expensive private lessons
- If you have an opportunity to work in the country, then why not!? It may require a bit of preparation and you will have to find a school for your child, but this can be an adventure for the whole family.
- A language class. If you heard of a good language school in your neighborhood, then it might be worth trying.
Teenage Years: Stepping Out of the Cocoon
These are the years of freedom, and emancipation can come through a second language. A few ideas:
- Travel with your family in the country.
- Send your teenager to travel alone on a language trip.
If you don’t know any friend or relative in France who could take your child for vacation, then there are private language trips, although they’re often pricey and the young people traveling together with friends often only speak English most of the time as they hang out together. Make sure to learn about the experience in detail and whether the participants take a ‘language pledge’ for the duration of the trip.
If you have friends in France who have children too, then the most wonderful exchange is that you take their children on vacation, and vice versa. For that reason, I recommend that you cultivate your French relationships and make build friendships.
- Let your child know about apps and website where to make international friends.
- Encourage your child to take a second language at school.
- Get an online tutor for your child.
Many Years Later… Who Knows What Languages Your Child Will Pick?
Language = identity. Do you remember when you learned your second language? There was a strong sense of self-exploration and discovering a new part in you. This is the same for your children. Language exploration might be a way to get some freedom from… their own family. It’s part of the experience of becoming independent.
Maybe you will introduce your child to French, and your little boy will become fond of Japanese. It will be his language of emancipation. Maybe many years later, your daughter will find her Prince Charming on a business trip to Sweden (many, many years in the future, when she works and goes on business trips) and you will end up having English-Swedish bilingual grandchildren. Or maybe your son will go work abroad in Geneva and fall in love with a French woman. French will become the dominant language at home and by a curious twist of fate your grandchildren will speak French as a first language… and their parents will struggle to help their child speak English as… a second language!
- Le défi des enfants bilingues, by Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer
- Picture: Martigny, Switzerland. I used to teach robotics to children in French-speaking Switzerland. Most of the children were bilingual German-French (or even Italian)