No, it’s not my first language and YES, I’m speaking it to my kid.  So what?
February 13, 2012

About three months ago I finally worked up the courage to begin speaking French to Charlotte more consistently (at least a little bit every day) and outside of the home.  Since we spend SO.MUCH.TIME. outside of our house, this has made an enormous difference in both Charlotte’s language acquisition and my own vocabulary.

Toddlers, after all, do not limit conversations simply because you cannot pronounce or remember a word.  They don’t stop throwing sand while you fumble around looking for the words to say KNOCK IT OFF, BONEHEAD.  (Only, you know, NICER.)  And damn it, they want their answers now.  Not in five minutes after you’ve had a chance to Google the hell out of beavers in French.  RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND, MOTHER.

Of course, it has also made apparent the glaringly obvious places where my French is lacking.  One of the strange truths about learning a foreign language as an adult is that your vocabulary is COMPLETELY different from that of a small child.  I can exchange frivolous pleasantries until the cows come home – how the weather is and weekend bar-hopping and dude that guy is hot and do you happen to have a recipe for whatever you made for dinner last night? because it smelled delicious.

But when Charlotte was toilet-training, I had to consult a dictionary to translate ‘poop.’

It turns out that ‘poop’ is a super vital word in the parenting of a toddler.  WHO KNEW?

Donald was on a business trip recently and from the minute he stepped aboard the airplane to the minute he stepped off, I spoke exclusively French to Charlotte.  It was hard.  I haven’t spoken that much French in years.  My accent is stronger now than it was before and I hear myself make stupid mistakes because my mouth no longer takes orders from my brain.  My jaw ached from making sounds I’m no longer accustomed to saying and my brain ached from trying to remember phrases I’m no longer accustomed to thinking about.

But the worst of it was that THAT was the week we ran into a native French speaker who ridiculed me for trying.

Over the past two years, I’ve run into a handful of Francophones and they have always said the same thing.  Keep speaking French to your daughter, they say, because it’s better for her to become bilingual with a non-native speaker than not at all.

But this person just laughed.  He mocked my accent and he insulted me on the grounds that my kid would speak French ‘comme un ogre’ (like an ogre) because I’m not a native-speaker.  Furthermore, he claimed that I am causing her emotional harm by not talking to Charlotte exclusively in English.  She will never feel safe communicating with me again, he said.

I am generally a very confident woman.  Maybe TOO confident.  Complete strangers comment on my self-assurance with some frequency, the same way that they might comment on a nice shirt or beautiful eyes.  But when that man laughed at me, I felt VERY self-conscious.  For the first time in years, I really questioned my beliefs and my goals.  I wondered if I’ve been deluding myself thinking that a non-native speaker could pass on a language.  I worried about every French word that came out of my mouth.  Am I saying it properly?  How awful IS my accent?  Am I screwing her up?  Is this a mistake?  I expose her to native-speakers, but is that not enough?

Having enough conviction in my beliefs about the value of a second language to persist despite difficulties, despite self-doubt, and despite rude strangers is absolutely the hardest part about passing along a non-native language.  But in the end I doubled up and buckled down.  The only thing I can do to prove that man wrong is to ensure that Charlotte speaks beautiful French in spite of me.

If there’s one thing you can say about me, it’s that I’m even more stubborn than I am cocky.


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  1. By Gracia on February 13, 2012

    As a bilingual raised linguist (no, not in English) I know that it’s important to raise your kids in a language you feel as yours because then you can convey a lot better what you want to say.
    However, I agree with those people who said a bilingual child raised by a non-native is much better off than a non-bilingual child. Honestly, you’re doing great. I wish more people made the effort you’re making, not only at teaching your girl a second language, but at defending your parenting choices despite the nay-sayers.

    From what I’ve learnt (I’ve done a ton of research on the subject, because the kid currently swimming in my uterus will be raised trilingual) I must say something you probably already know, but still: every study I’ve found says you should keep clear boundaries between one language and the other. For example, English at home/ French out, or French during meals, or at story time, etc.

    Again, I think you must do what works for you, and I’m sure she’ll benefit a lot more from your system even if it doesn’t follow what those studies say, than from no exposure at all to a second language.

  2. By on February 13, 2012

    Good lord, I’m French (French-Canadian) and I make mistakes ALL THE TIME!! I make English mistakes too, and that’s the language I’ve become more comfortable with over time. Even my Mom and I have debates sometimes about how to conjugate something in French (her French is better than mine, and sometimes I’m right!). It’s a complicated language and I bet most people make a tonne of mistakes every day.

    I was told that teaching an infant two languages at once versus introducing a new language later once the primary language is firm doesn’t make a difference. This guy is clearly not in the educational community and I think his opinion is garbage.

    Your instincts are right. Speak French as much as you can. Make mistakes, that’s ok. You’ll learn about them together. In order to improve your vocabulary (and I’m sure you’re already doing this) read French books with Charlotte. And if you enjoy novels too, you should read in French too. It’ll strengthen your vocabulary. Pronunciation is not as important as getting most of the words right. We all speak with different accents and still understand each other, as long as we all use the same words.

    And not that I’m advocating television, but whatever tv Charlotte does watch should also be a bit in French. She’ll get some of the pronunciation there.

    You’re doing great!! Keep it up!! And if someone ever tells you what that guy did, tell him “Mêle-toi de tes affaires”. I was going to use more colourful language but I resisted…

  3. By on February 13, 2012

    It’s funny that Gracia talks about boundaries, because I was told the opposite. James goes to a bilingual Montessori and they have a French teacher full time in every class. They said studies show that kids will absorb a new language whether or not is carefully segregated (as long as it’s properly explained to them). Either way, Charlotte speaks English perfectly so it’s not like introducing 2 languages at once. If she can distinguish what’s French and what’s English from what you say and how you say it, then it’s not confusing her….

  4. By on February 13, 2012

    we speak english and french at home. with no boundaries either, we just hop from one to the other, just because that’s the way we communicate with my husband, and didn’t even think about changing it when our daughter was born.

    she can tell what’s french and what’s english… but i can understand it would be confusing at first.. that’s why you have to keep it up, until she gets used to it. It is quite easy to know the difference between french and english even without know what the words mean. the “music” is different, isn’t it ?

    and as for that french person.. pfff..
    most people who are rude enough to make fun of someone learning a language have never been there—or they wouldn’t.

  5. By Catherine on February 13, 2012

    Dude, that guys sounds like a total jerk.  I’m going to guess that he also speaks English, and that when HE learned it, it was at school from a non-native English speaker - so he should shut his crepe-hole.  You’re doing the right thing by showing Charlotte that there are other languages out there and even if she’s not completely fluent by age four in both English and French, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important for her to learn other languages - as rudimentary as it sounds.  I speak “ogre” French, and when I was in France last year, I had PLENTY of native Parisians engage me in conversation without knowing I wasn’t French.  “Yes, there is only one stall in this bathroom, that’s why I’m waiting”.  “No, just two Coke’s please” Seriously, Mon Dieu!  I do not get why people get so freaking snobby about language, they should be happy that other people around the world appreciate “their” language enough to want bother learning it - not to mention passing it on to their children!  Anyway, I’m glad your stubbornness didn’t cow your desire to keep on teaching your sweetie French.

  6. By on February 13, 2012

    You’re doing something great, really. Keep at it! Posted February’s book this morning by the way, a real treat, the one I was waiting for to come in to the store. It’s my favourite EVER story in French and I can’t wait for you and Charlotte to enjoy it because I’m sure you’re going to love it on so many levels. It’s also one that you’ll just keep on loving. It was one of the first Noé and I read together and it’s still a regular in our story time. I’m so excited for you to have it!

  7. By tracey on February 13, 2012

    Ah, is he TRYING to perpetuate the stereotype of a snobby Frenchman? Good Lord. WHO CARES if she sounds American? She IS American!

    My son wanted to learn American Sign Language, which I didn’t know how to use. So, we bought a boxed kit and are now able to speak what we consider baby ASL. Very rudimentary, but you’d be surprised at how useful it can be. AND, if need be, he could communicate with a hearing impaired person on a very basic level. Which is more than most people can claim. If all Charlotte learns is to communicate on a basic level, than that is more than many people can speak!

    I would think that devoting a day to French would be really beneficial. Like, MWF are French days and S, T, Th are English and Saturday is up for grabs. You know? That way, she is exposed to French in the home. Kitchen, house, bed, etc. All the house words would be used more often.

  8. By on February 13, 2012

    What a jerk.  My dad talked to me in Spanish when I was little and I have no problems speaking English and the Spanish, though limited, helped me out in my language classes later in life.  I speak to my 3 year old in (likely very poor) French and he learns some Spanish at his pre-school.  He has no problems telling me exactly what he thinks in English (the problem is getting him to take a breath when he’s talking!) and if he one day busts out and tells me what he thinks in French - that’s even better.

  9. By on February 13, 2012

    This makes no sense to me.  So what if your accent is horrible?  There are all kinds of “horrible” accents in the US. . . the point is she’s learning a language.  That guy is dumb.

  10. By Clare on February 13, 2012

    We jump between English and Spanish hap hazardly.  My husband is native Spanish and I am native English… but our daughter hears my mistakes in Spanish and his in English and once we leave Kazakhstan and she is no longer surrounded by Russian, she will hear my mistakes in Russian and I am fine with that. You are doing great.

  11. By Sarah Christensen on February 13, 2012

    Gracia - That’s why we waited until we felt Charlotte had a strong command of English before introducing her to other languages.  I spoke French here and there when she was younger, but nothing super consistent until Donald and I both felt that she was rooted enough in English to not have her English acquisition threatened by a foreign language.

    I have no idea what we’ll do with subsequent children, because they’ll hear other languages around our house (mostly French, but also Spanish and German) while they’re hearing English.  Oh well!

    We also don’t really keep clear boundaries between languages, although we have thought about having days devoted to one language or another like Tracey suggested.  I’ve thought about it, but the truth is that I’m not that disciplined.  Charlotte starts a French immersion preschool one day a week in the fall and a year after that she starts a German immersion school one day a week as well.  Since these are things we’ll continue for the duration of home-schooling, chances are good that our best language division is going to be day-based as a result lol.

    MC - I explained to Charlotte last week that when I talk like this, it’s English, and like this is French.  Now she tells me which language she wants to hear!  LOL.

    Also, we really aren’t doing television much still, but when we do we’ve been doing it in French.  For a few months, we had set aside 15 minutes every other week when we would watch sing-a-long French nursery rhymes on YouTube together.  But now that I’ve finally committed the nursery rhymes to memory, now that time is given to French cartoons like TroTro or T’choupi.  At first I felt pretty guilty about it, even though it’s a restricted amount of time, but Charlotte understands that it’s a special treat and not at all regular - and recently she’s been absorbing the words and phrases in those cartoons like nobody’s business.  The other day she grabbed a stick, stuck it in the birdbath, and told me “je peche en ligne” - which I guarantee isn’t something she learned from me or any of our books lol.

    Kate - Wow, cool!  I’m looking forward to it!  I haven’t gone out for February’s books yet; we’ve been really busy with family lately.  But I’ll let you know when we do and I’ll keep an eye peeled for your package =)

  12. By shauna on February 13, 2012

    Hi Sarah!
    I didn’t have time to read all of the other comments, so maybe I’m terribly redundant here…but I just wanted to say GOOD FOR YOU for doing something that is difficult, doesn’t come naturally to you, and even though others might think you’re crazy.  I wish with all my heart that my parents had taught (or even exposed me to) a second language as a child.  It would have made learning Russian as an adult WAAAY less difficult.  I fully intend to pass on my (very faulty) Russian to my children someday, because anything helps!
    And please, keep on telling us your funny little stories, my hubby & I still laugh about the peacocks (in French). 
    Thanks for sharing your family’s life with a world of perfect strangers.  You make a difference to at least this one perfect stranger.

  13. By on February 13, 2012

    Does this guy also think people shouldn’t learn second languages as adults or teens? My french is horrible. I’ve never been able to get pronunciation down (forget conjugating verbs, seriously, so complicated), and yet, it’s come in handy more times than I ever would have thought. So even if Charlotte’s french does turn out to be horrible, it’ll still be useful. AND she’ll have a foundation most teens and adults don’t have if she chooses to, say, take a class to perfect her accent. If pronunciation is the biggest issue, so what? I can say from personal experience that native speakers can figure out what you’re saying no matter how badly you butcher it, and most are happy to give you an impromptu lesson if you incorrectly conjugate a verb. ;)

    I’m not sure why speaking to her in french would make her not feel safe communicating with you… that’s just weird. He sounds like one of those people that think they’re important enough that the things they say are fact despite evidence to the contrary.

  14. By on February 13, 2012

    CONTINUE A LUI PARLER FRANCAIS!!!! As a French mother living, as you know, in Glasgow with a very Scottish man, I absolutely agree with you. PLEASE do speak to her in French. I’m French, and guess what? I make mistakes in French because it’s a language that’s as beautiful as it’s bloody hard. Charlotte WILL benefit from it. Languages are wonderful and beautiful, all of them, they are a treasure of the human race (this is me, being OTT ;-) So keep on the good work. And don’t listen to stupid, obnoxious people. He obviously didn’t know what he was talking about.
    (PS: I have a book for Charlotte that I bought in France almost TWO, yes, two months ago, waiting to be sent. Your article has motivated me to go to the post office this week ;-)

  15. By Jillian on February 13, 2012

    You are doing a great job!  It sounds like you are truly committed.  You will both be proficient if you keep it up. :)

    I also plan to speak French with my children (when I have them).  It sounds like such a fun adventure and would be good for me as well.

    And, clearly, every culture has its few uppity ignoramuses.

  16. By on February 13, 2012

    Screw that guy.  There’s tons of non-native English speakers who speak English to their kids and their kids learn English just fine.  Whatever.  Exposing your kid to more stuff is better than less.

  17. By Kim on February 14, 2012

    I totally concur with all the comments. Pfffft on him, and keep up the amazing language adventure. I’m an anglophone (lived in quebec) and spoke french to both my sons. Their dad was french.

    They both absorbed it differently, my eldest became more french than english, and my youngest the reverse. The conversations around the table then and now are a mix.

    I personally hardly spoke french when i began that journey, but it was great as i feel like i learnt it at a child’s level myself, and that allowed me to grow with the language as my son’s vocabulary grew.

    I am as usual in awe of your commitment to your daughter/family

  18. By Amber on February 14, 2012

    My friend—who was born in France to a French mother but moved to Florida at a young age—is a fluent speaker but, as he admitted to me a few days ago, has a little bit of an American accent when he speaks. That apparently means that in Paris, shop owners attempt to screw him over like any other American tourist! Amazing. So, you know, it is FRENCH. The snobbery element is alive and well.

    If it were Italian no one would make a fuss—Italians LOVE to see you try to speak, even if you’re totally wrong!

  19. By Taryn on February 15, 2012

    I agree with the others, keep it up!
    I too struggle with the self consciousness when I speak with my Charlotte in Chinese (which is not as often as I want, out of sheer laziness), but you know what? She thinks I sound just fine, she understands me, and that’s really all that matters.

  20. By Camille on February 15, 2012

    I could go off on a tangent but I’ll just put this simply. That man is rude and WRONG. So Charlotte may need to perfect her French. You can both do it together when she is older. I think it’s absolutely wonderful you are passing it onto her. I am learning Spanish at the same time as my 3 year old right now. I can’t see how it could be a bad thing, that is just crazy!

  21. By on February 15, 2012

    Amber: all French people are not Parisians, and all French people are not snobs. There are even nice Parisians.

  22. By on February 15, 2012

    That french dude sounds like he could really use a butt kicking.  Anyone who can utter the sentence “Comme un ogre” in a civilized conversation is obviously projecting.  I hope that if you encounter him ever again, you put on a stylized American accent and tell him to go, you know what. 

    As for the language - you are doing a wonderful thing for Charlotte - keep it up.  So what if she doesn’t sound completely native?  She’ll still speak French!  And speaking like a native is a really really difficult feat even for natives, if they live speaking a different language the majority of the time.  Think of all the immigrants learning their mother tongues, yet infusing it, albeit unwillingly, with English in accent or vocabulary. 

    I think that what you are doing is wonderful, especially as Charlotte is a native English speaker from America, where people tend not to learn another language as easily. 

    I’m raising my son bilingual - I’m Turkish, my husband American so he hears both, without boundaries - and there are definite drawbacks (he’s probably confused about both languages right now and at 15 months is not yet speaking) but I wouldn’t do it any other way.  You give me courage to introduce him to French even though mine is super rusty, and I could only locate merde in my vocab, which is probably not an appropriate word for poop.

  23. By on February 15, 2012

    Oh by the way, poop, or poo as we say in the UK, is “caca” in French :-)

  24. By Phase Three of Life on February 15, 2012

    That man needs a little more joy in his life.

    What you are doing is amazing and your daughter will thank you for it one day.

  25. By on February 17, 2012

    Ugh. That reminds me of the time my coworker made fun of my terrible Spanish pronunciation (I will NEVER be able to roll my “R"s!). I was so embarrassed and, to this day, I’m self-conscious about speaking Spanish in front of a native-speaker. It would have been so easy for me to turn the tables and mock her foreign accent, but, really, who the hell does that?

    (Well, sometimes, I wish I had.)

  26. By Nilu-Marie on February 19, 2012

    I was raised by my mom alone, who spoke Persian to me, even though it’s not her mother language, just my dads. I remember begging her to stop when I was about six years old, because I felt it was excluding me from my friends, whose parents all spoke German to them. I just wanted to fit in. Now I am so thankful for what she did, because I could pick up the language again really really quick. I have to make similar decisions with my son whom we are raising bilingually. It’s hard for me to only speak my mother language to him instead of English. My English has mistakes, but to me it’s the language of love (french is quiet nice too though :). I believe you are making the right decision. Better she knows some french than no french at all. And there is no chance in the world she’ll forget her English because of it.

  27. By Lindsey on February 20, 2012

    I LOVE THIS POST because I relate so much. My husband is French (me, American), and we speak English in the home. I try to incorporate French, but I am so lacking when it comes to things like…poop, for example. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels inadequate when it comes to speaking a foreign language with their toddler!

  28. By Nilu-Marie on February 21, 2012

    Sarah- We are raising Noam in German-English. His Grandma is talking Persian to him, as well as some other persian relatives and friends. People criticize us quiet a bit for all the different languages we use with him. But I am very convinced that it’s good for him. I wish I would have been raised with even more languages than just two. The best way to learn languages is trough love, may sound cheesy but it’s true. If your loved ones talk to you in a language you are going to understand and learn it with no pressure at all. That’s how I learned English. I was 18 and fell in love with someone who didn’t speak anything else :)

  29. By Nilu-Marie on February 21, 2012

    Don’t misunderstand please: Not saying people should find their kids some spanish or french lovers…duh :)


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