The first six months of Mission: Multilingualism.
May 31, 2012

Donald and I began making a focused effort to give a second language to Charlotte six months ago.  Although I had spoken French off and on to her since her infancy and I could sing a few nursery rhymes, overall her exposure to French for the first two years of her life was sporadic at best.

The decision that my husband and I made to have me, a non-native French speaker, give my second language to Charlotte is highly controversial in the parenting world, much more so than I could have ever anticipated.  Over the past six months, we have smiled and (mostly) bit our tongues and paddled forward.

It was stressful at first.  Charlotte would beg me to speak to her in English.  If I picked up a French book, she would cry.  I was determined to speak French to her – at least a little bit – every day.  And every morning, I woke up dreading it because I knew it would be the very worst part of the day.

It was difficult too.  I had trouble remembering the words and tunes to nursery rhymes I’d never heard before.  My reading was very slow and I did not have vocabulary that pertained to children’s stories – words like “hedgehog” and “sword” and “woodcutter.”  I had trouble finding books and music and I felt uncomfortable asking people to help.  I spent park dates studying French grammar and naptimes watching French cartoons and car-trips listening to French radio and still, STILL, I worried that it just.wasn’t.working.

But the second month was easier than the first.

And the third month was easier than the second.

And the fourth month was easier than the third.

And the fifth month was easier than the fourth.

And the sixth month was easier than the fifth.

This week, I picked up Charlie et la Chocolaterie (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) by Roald Dahl and we dug into our first chapter book in French.  I expected backlash.  I expected tears.  I expected anger.

Instead, Charlotte told me I sounded silly and she corrected my pronunciation of “chocolaterie.”

While she was sleeping that night, I went online and found clips of Francophones saying “chocolaterie” in a variety of different contexts on YouTube.  My daughter was right.  I was mispronouncing it.

It looks like it’s working after all.

** Charlotte is two years and ten months old.  I am seventeen weeks pregnant.

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  1. By Stefanie on May 31, 2012

    Up until now, I have always been very sceptical about the situation of a non-native parent talking in another language to a child. But this gave me to think.
    Our little one grows up with two languages in our family, German and French. In our Germano-French babygroup, there is an only-German couple, where the dad talks in French to his son occasionally. I will tell him your story to encourage him to keep on doing so!

  2. By on May 31, 2012

    Maybe I’m the odd one, but I seriously don’t get why anyone would feel its a bad idea to talk to their child in a second language…. What type of criticism do you get? I really am baffled.

  3. By Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas on May 31, 2012

    I’m with Alicia K…why would anyone criticize your desire to provide Charlotte with French language skills? French taught by a non-native speaker is still infinitely better than no French at all, right? And ALL of my college French professors were non-native speakers so…there’s that.

  4. By heather on May 31, 2012

    I cannot beleive that anyone would criticize you for trying to teach a second lanquage to your child. Isn’t the whole point, even as a non-native speaker, to teach her and expose her to the lanquage so that she will become better at it than you, since she’s a sponge and all? So, those people who criticize you, they should just suck it. And leave the corrections of your pronunciation to your student-they are much more adorable that way.

  5. By allie on May 31, 2012

    Good for you for teaching Charlotte a second language! I was a K-12 French Immersion student and learned to read and write in French before English (my mother tongue). I know, from personal experience, that leaning lanugages if far easier as a child (I am currently learning Spanish - so much harder now that I am an adult!). I am sure it will only get easier with time and she will be so grateful that you taught her another language; it is a wonderful skill to have!

  6. By Cinemarie on May 31, 2012

    I have been reading your wonderful blog since Charlotte was around 8-9 months old - at the time I was pregnant with my boy - I have to say that, as a french ‘native’ person (Canadian French…) I am so excited when I read stories of how you teach this second language to Charlotte! I think you are a genius and it’s so admirable that you are dedicated to it even if you are not a ‘native’ french speaker…
    In my family, I only speak french to Léon (my boy) and my husband only speaks english to him. He is 20 months old now and clearly understands both languages which fascinates me. It was really hard at first, because you don’t see the “results” right away, you don’t know that it works. But it does and I am so happy for sticking to it!
    There are countless studies out there that list the many many MANY benefits of raising a child with multiple languages. Good things for their brain connections, good things for their careers, good things for exploring other cultures, etc. And right now it’s easier for them to learn (I just saw a whole TEDtalk about the subject it said that our capacity to learn a new language dropped significantly after 7yo. And also it said that you almost only learn by being around a human who talks to you in that language - sorry Dora…:) Every time I tell people I am french and that english is my second language, they all tell me they wish they could speak a second language…
    So don’t stop! :)
    If you need any help, let me know. I am crazy obsessed about my french background - I live in an english city and other than with my son, I do not get to speak french much and that is very sad and tiring lol But seriously if you are looking for specific things feel free to ask me - I’d be more than happy to look them up for you and find info, give suggestions, translate something etc.
    hmm, now I’m craving chocolate though.

  7. By Sarah Christensen on May 31, 2012

    Haley, Alicia K, and Heather - The criticisms relate more to the language of choice and to parenting as a whole.  A sample of the most frequent:
    - We are inhibiting her ability to communicate with me in English (since Donald still speaks to her in English full-time, this concern does not seem to apply to him).  This concern also sometimes translates to “you’re just going to confuse her” with regards to learning multiple languages - something I disagree with.  I’ve studied liguistics too intensely to even dignify that concept, although I can understand the concern about direct native-language communication with parental figures.
    - Why French?  French is basically useless in southern California.  We should pick Spanish.  Everyone around here uses Spanish; it’s much more useful.  (Having lived here my whole life beside one of the largest Spanish-speaking communities outside of the large cities, I personally disagree - it’s rare for people who only speak Spanish to put themselves in situations where they would be forced to interact with someone like me - if I want to speak French, I have to find French speakers who want to speak it with me and I have to make an effort to speak it - and if I want to speak Spanish, it’s the same thing.  The big difference is really that Spanish resources are more readily available at lower prices, but even so, oddball thing of oddball things, Spanish immersion programs are less available than French immersion programs, so go figure.)
    - I cannot speak the language perfectly, therefore I am going to taint her ability to learn the language.  Before a child reaches (depending on the child) 3-8 years of age, they can learn “foreign” languages as native tongues.  With enough exposure to native accents, a young child learning a language that is not spoken in their community can learn that language as proficiently as they learn their native tongue.  It’s uncommon in America especially, but it’s biologically possible.  The argument here is that since I do not speak French natively and since I am her primary French influence at the moment, she is going to always have my own personal limitations with the language hindering her ability to learn it.  I worried about this alot at the beginning, but these days Charlotte has access to native speakers 2-3 hours a week and she IMMEDIATELY began prefering their French to mine and imitating their French.  She figured out pretty quickly that their French was easier to listen to and now when she’s speaking to me in French, she often says things in English like “Person X says it like this Momma.  Can you say it like this?“ to compare the different versions.  She knows I have an accent.  Furthermore, a Francophone we know makes recordings of our French storybooks so that we can listen to them together.  Charlotte can figure out where I mispronounce words or where my emphasis in a sentence is off after listening to the recordings only once or twice - and the books that I’m the worst at she prefers to listen to the recordings for instead of to me.  I think this criticism gives kids less credit than they deserve; kids have an ear for language, they know what to listen to and what to discard, and it doesn’t hurt them to expose them to a variety of ways of speaking it.
    - We live in America and speak English and we can travel just about anywhere in the world and find English speakers, so why bother?  Shouldn’t we focus on teaching her math skills or reading skills instead since she’s already going to be able to communicate no matter where she goes?  We’re overlooking key foundation skills that she needs to learn for no good reason.  (I think the fact that so few Americans speak foreign languages and are willing to learn a language before traveling to a new destination is a cultural problem, but whatever, clearly my opinion is not the norm.)
    - She can always learn a language later in her life and we’re just pushing her unnecessarily.  This doesn’t work for us because we not only believe it’s easier for her brain to learn languages while she’s young, we also want to give Charlotte fluency in several languages.  I imagine it’s much harder to teach her there or four languages if we start them all at the same time at age fourteen than it is if we phase them in every 12-18 months beginning when she’s two and a half.

    The other criticisms are generally just variations off those four.

  8. By Sarah Christensen on May 31, 2012

    Cinemarie - I’ll take you up on that offer, just you wait and see! =)

    I read a book about that, about how it’s really people speaking directly to you that teaches a language.  It talked about how hearing children of deaf parents used to be put in front of television and given access to alot of radio broadcasts, but because they didn’t have a chance to actually speak their language with other speakers, they couldn’t learn it.  So it turned out that exposing the children to normal human interactions like deaf parents had been doing with their hearing children from time immemorial was actually the best way to give them spoken language.  Anyway, that concept is the primary reason we enrolled Charlotte in the French immersion preschool near us; I could spend that money on books and magazines and music and what-not, or I could spend that money on making sure that native speakers are speaking French directly to her.  When we went in to enroll her, la directrice was amazed at how well she understood and responded in French.  She kept commenting on it.  I was so proud it’s a miracle I didn’t just explode on the spot lol.  When she’s a little older and homeschooling is in full-swing, I think we’ll put her in French summer camp (6 weeks, full-time) so that she still has access to native speakers.  We’ll see how it goes.  I’m sure we’ll be pushing the whole teenager-abroad issue one day too.  Like.  A million years from now.

  9. By on May 31, 2012

    When I hit high school I decided to take French. I didn’t want to take German or Spanish. I don’t remember much nowadays but I still love the language. I think it’s wonderful you are doing it and I’m sorry there is so much negativity toward what you are doing. I have decided on Spanish for my kids but part of that is because family members speak it so it seems natural for us. I am still very uncomfortable speaking it but I’m sure it will get easier just as it did for you.

  10. By on May 31, 2012

    So silly how a seemingly wise decision would draw criticism. We decided to teach our daughter sign language (although there are no hearing impairment issues within our family) and we were met with a great deal of backlash. As she could sign before she could speak we were always challenged with the idea that somehow this would keep her from learning to speak appropriately…of course her verbal language skills are just fine. Again, so silly :)

  11. By on May 31, 2012

    This post makes me even more resolute about my husband teaching my daughter Spanish. His native language is English but he learned Spanish as a teenager by moving into a neighboorhood that was 60% Mexican with a lot gangs, so it became a survival aspect. BUT I think he was able to become fluent in Spanish because he attended a French immersion classroom in 2nd grade. To this day, he can pronouce french better than me even though I took 3 years in high school. He has a natural mind for language and even has excellent pronounciation of Asian tone based languages; he knows a handful of words and senctences from when he did a pan-asian tour in the Navy.

    Good job in teaching her another language! You’re setting her up for a lifetime of being ahead of her class in language development. Research clearly points to this as a positive thing for a child.

  12. By on May 31, 2012

    Wow.  Sarah, I am so impressed by your bravery & persistence!  I have always wished that I had learned a 2nd language as a child, because when I went to Russia as an adult I had to believe it would have made life easier!  Since then, I’ve always wistfully wanted to teach our someday-children Russian (just because it’s the only language other than English that I know even a little of), but was mostly concerned about the idea of a child knowing a language that only on of her parents spoke.  You sharing your experiences with French in this post, and in others, has been so encouraging.  I can do this too!  So, thank you very very much.

  13. By Ashley Austrew on May 31, 2012

    I disagree with ALL of the criticisms that get lobbed your way. I think your decision to teach Charlotte French is awesome and extremely inspiring. You’ve helped me find the courage to start teaching my daughter Spanish despite the fact that I am not a native speaker and my skills are admittedly a bit limited (I studied it for 5 years), and I’d love to teach her other languages if I can find the help/resources. I’ve traveled through much of Europe and tried to learn some basic language skills before I went. I also lived in South Korea and picked up some broken Korean while I was there, and I studied Japanese in college. I think learning languages is such a valuable skill, and respecting the culture you’re entering is SO important. If we can give our kids a head start at doing that, why wouldn’t we?

  14. By Sarah Christensen on May 31, 2012

    Ashley - We’re planning on bringing in other languages too, but the next ones (German and Spanish) are going to be more difficult because neither of us is fluent.  I studied Spanish for eight years, so I was at one point conversational, but it’s been years since I’ve used it consistently.  These days, I use it predominantly with one particular grower at our farmer’s market - the Spanish speaking parent of the woman who runs the booth is much more knowledgeable about the farm than the woman herself is lol.  And I went to German school as a kid, but that ended pretty early and I never used it again afterward outside of a single semester in college.  What I found with French was that it was really difficult for me to start out in part because I lacked the confidence and in part because I lacked the resources - I didn’t know where to find French speakers, didn’t own any French books or music for kids, had no idea where to look for French nursery rhymes or their words, didn’t know any French radio websites, etc.  We’ve been trying to get ahead of the game with both German and Spanish by getting the resources in line now so that as we introduce them over the next couple years (the eventual plan is to have them all in play, including one night a week per language where we speak only that language at home at dinner, etc., by the time she hits age six).  Hopefully having the resources in line earlier will help even out the part where we’re weaker speakers of those languages?!?!?!

    The last point that we’ve been discussing is that when the kids reach 10ish years of age they get to pick a language of their choice to learn - but it has to use a different alphabet.  Russian, Arabic, Farsi, Vietnamese, Mandarin, etc.  We just want to make sure that they spend several years studying a language with a different alphabet so that they don’t hesitate to study other languages that English speakers typically find more difficult when they’re older.  We’ll see how it goes =P

    So if you can find the resources, I say go for it!  Barring disabilities that inhibit language acquisition and the like, I don’t personally believe that there are any drawbacks to a child learning a variety of languages - whether the people available to teach them are native or fluent or none of the above.  I figure the worst case scenario is that I actually have to learn German and re-learn Spanish alongside my kiddos and then they just see our family as endeavoring to acquire a new skillset together - nothing wrong with that!

  15. By on May 31, 2012

    I often wish I did more spanish with Jude, but don’t even know where to begin. Like you, I can hold my own in conversation and fin my way around Spanish speaking countries, but am not fluent. The tenants at one of our rental properties speak Spanish and I try very hard to incorporate Spanish in my dialogue with them, but they almost seem offended that I try to communicate with them in Spanish, maybe because they assume I think they don’t speak English?

    I don’t know. It’s something I hope to peruse more as we get serious about Jude’s home education (not just learning randomly through the day) this up coming fall.

  16. By Sarah Christensen on May 31, 2012

    Alicia K - One of my close friends is a native Spanish speaker and she refuses to speak it out of the home.  She very strongly feels that because she lives in an English-speaking country, it is inappropriate for her to speak Spanish in public, so she finds it very upsetting when people try to speak Spanish to her.  She says she feels like they’re belittling her efforts to fit in.

    Maybe if you explained to the tenant that you love the language and have a deep respect for their culture and that you wish you knew how to pass it on to Jude, they might be more open to the idea of speaking Spanish with you?

  17. By Camille on May 31, 2012

    Yay! I’m glad you stuck with it. I don’t see why her learning French now would be any worse than her learning it later? Kids are encouraged to learn second languages, why not babies and toddlers? It’s better earlier anyway, they pick it up much faster. I don’t see why anyone would disapprove!

  18. By Sarah Christensen on June 01, 2012

    Camille - I think people forget that the vast majority of foreign language teachers in America are not native speakers.  My impression is that people worry that I cannot teach her native French, which is true, I cannot, but neither can most high school teachers (in our district, foreign language instruction before high school is almost unheard of).  I think the concern at that point is that she’ll have so many years of hearing non-native French that she’ll be unable to adjust to a higher level of French.  I’m not really concerned with this.  When she’s older we can put her in French summer camp (we can now, actually, but we don’t think she’s ready to be separate from me so frequently for such long stretches).  And when she’s in the “tween” phase, we can find (or start, if I have to) a program like Lingua Links ( that works with American kids - or beg Francophones I know who live in French-speaking communities - to have her spend maybe a month or two immersed in the language.  And when she’s an older teen (17-18), whether we’re still home-schooling or she’s in public high school we can enroll her in a study abroad program like YFU ( where she lives with a host family for 6 or 12 months.  As a whole, we’re really not concerned about the quality of language being perfect at this stage because we feel confident that consistent exposure to French spoken by native speakers throughout her life will naturally result in her recognizing my French as inferior lol.

    The second big problem seems to be that people worry that by starting foreign language at a young age, we’ll inhibit her ability to learn English.  I’m personally not worried about this.  We have no indications that exposure to French is confusing her, either with regards to communication with me (she defaults to English if she needs to, no matter what language we were speaking two seconds prior) or with regards to English language development.

    It is what it is.  I sometimes think that people just look for things to pick apart when it comes to other peoples’ parenting lol.

  19. By on June 01, 2012

    I taught first grade for 5 years and had many ELL students. For me, the concern was when the child was not fluent in either language. When someone learns a second language they typically compare it to their first (native) language, let’s say English. If they do not become fluent in English first it can be a real problem and I have seen children struggle with this. As long as you know she has a firm understanding of English everything should be fine.

  20. By Camille on June 02, 2012

    I just think that’s a crazy way of thinking. You can’t teach it to her PERFECTLY, so don’t teach her at all? Does that apply to other things too then? It just makes no sense. Especially because now is the best time to learn a second language, children under 5 soak them up so much more quickly!

    It’s funny how Charlotte corrected you on your pronunciation. After I read this the other day, my daughter corrected me on a Spanish word! It was so funny, and amazing. We only practice Spanish a couple times a week, yet she is already much better at it than I am, and I studied it in school for 4 years.

  21. By on June 04, 2012

    I was just wondering- what are you going to do with the next kids? if there are multiple languages being spoken at home will you just let them pick up naturally as it goes or will you focus on a specific language at a time with them?

  22. By on June 06, 2012

    Thank you for this—now I know I’m not alone in encountering a lot of resistance to suddenly hearing different words from mommy. I’m also a non-native speaker trying to teach my son a language (Hebrew, in this case). I hadn’t made a concerted effort, but I started making more of an effort because we just found out we’ll be living there for a few years. So I started answering all his questions in Hebrew. And I found the same resistance you did:

    -“What’s this?“
    -“No, mommy, say it!“
    -“No, mommy, say it!“
    -“No, mommy, say TOMATO!“

  23. By on June 06, 2012

    hey abby!
    i live in israel and speak english and hebrew to my daughter. I’m happy to help in any way if you need…





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