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My parents successfully raised me (and my 3 siblings) to be completely bilingual in French and English, and I thought sharing my experience here might be helpful to others who seek to do the same. My mother is French and my father American; I grew up in the US. I had the fortune of living in an area where there is a big French community, so my parents have many French-speaking friends.
For many years, they adhered to the ML@H system, as my father speaks fluent French. They sent me to a bilingual school, too, so I was able to learn both languages formally. Eventually, my parents decided my English was not good enough (I was around 10) and my conversations with my father became more complicated: we switched to English. As a family, we tend to go back and forth and mix extensively. As a bilingual adult (I am now 21), I think it's a misconception that children "outgrow" mixing their languages. Still today, "franglais" is my most comfortable mode of expression, and I rely on a French-English dictionary to write my college papers (in English or French). It can be very frustrating to have the exact expression I want to use in the wrong language, because often there is no perfect translation. But my experience has made me more sensitive to words and language and deepened my appreciation for the unique linguistic possibilities both French and English. So the frustration is worth it. I must add that both French and American people assume I am one of their own when I speak. I don't sound deficient in either language, but I prefer to mix them when I can.
Bilingual schooling has been an invaluable experience, and I cannot stress enough the importance of doing this. I realize most parents do not have this option, but there are often distance-learning programs (e.g. CNED with French. I'm sure there are similar programs for other languages), and I encourage parents to look into this. There are Saturday morning classes for every language imaginable. Parents can homeschool on the side, after school or one weekends. But I urge you not only to teach your children to speak your native language, but to teach them to read and write it as native speakers too. I stayed in my bilingual school through 8th grade (age 13) then went to an American high school. With some tutoring, I was able to pass my baccalauréat as a candidat libre (i.e. independent candidate). The baccalauréat is the French high school exit exam that all students must pass to enter university. It was difficult without the support one gets from being enrolled in a school, but I succeeded with honors.
It's important to me to continue to live a balanced life: after 4 years of college in the US, I'm going to Paris to start my masters next fall (so the bac came in handy after all!). To be perfectly honest, it will take me a little longer to write my papers in French in the beginning (since this is formal writing at a high level, which I can do well, but not as efficiently), but I'll get used to it quickly.
Being bilingual has also definitely helped me learn other languages. Everything clicks in your mind more quickly, and I've learned to speak Spanish and Italian very well.
I suppose that to you, my readers on this board, I am an exemplary success story. But my parents succeeded perhaps too well, and I now have several internal conflicts my poor parents never imagined they'd inflict on me. Where shall I live? I've spent every summer of my life in France, and I'm very attached to both countries. They are both home to me. Now, I have to find a way to divide my life in the most fulfilling way possible. It will be difficult, but I would be unhappy and would betray myself if I did not. Whom should I marry? It's not just about whomever I happen to fall in love with (although that IS connected to where I happen to live). It's also about passing on cultural heritage. I don't want to "choose sides." Since I grew up in the US, I will especially feel I am betraying my roots if I marry an American. (Conversely, if I marry a Frenchman and settle there, that's also a problem because I don't know that I could bring myself to speak English to my children. It's not about ease of expression, as has been discussed on this website. It's that for me, French is strongly associated with motherhood. The effort my parents made to maintain the language means I feel strongly about this, even if I were to find myself living in a country where it is dominant). If I marry a foreigner (i.e. not French or American), can I raise my children trilingually? No matter whom I marry or where I live (although these factors play a role...) how will I pass on my bilingualism to the next generation? My parents succeeded in raising a (happily) culturally confused child. But this will make cultural loss all the more bitter if I fail.
I'm a bit sorry for ending on such a negative note (and for writing such a long post!) I want to encourage you in your efforts. And I do realize that my questions arise from a certain luxury (but that doesn't mean they don't torture me!) Still, I also don't want you to think that questions and problems end when the child has reached fluency in two languages. It's not a case of success! The end.
Especially if you work hard at maintaining two languages and cultures, your child will likely spend his or her life in a kind of halfway station, understanding both and yet feeling slightly alienated from them too. This is a happy place to be - when I try to imagine the world otherwise, everything seems so much greyer - but that doesn't mean you won't have to continue to help your children through frustrations. To expats raising kids abroad - I also recommend you look at websites about TCKs (Third culture children) although these tend to be a bit American-centric - to help your children navigate a multifaceted world.
Good luck to you all!
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MERCI BEAUCOUP !!!
Thanks a lot for your message full of tips and hope. My husband is American and I am French. We live in the USA. Our daughter is 16 months old and the language keeps me "worried". I only speak French to her, even when we are with my in-laws, with daycare or in a store. My husband speaks French also and is willing to speak more with her. Unfortunately, we won't be able to send our daughter to a bilingual school but I plan to teach her through CNED and L'Alliance Francaise. Once again, thank you!!!!
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Thank you soooo much for your perspective! Pat
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Thank you so much for sharing your story. I too was raised bilingual, and you are exactly right about not growing out of "mixing" as Spanglish has always been a part of my families "lingo". I understand some of your cultural concerns and/or frustration - but trust me, no matter where you live, who you marry, feel proud of the fact that you are culturaly diversed and that you will be passing on this wonderful gift to your children and your partner. Everything else will fall in it's place, even if it takes some efforts, compromising, sacrifices and of course prioritizing. I find that in any culture, music/dance is a powerful way of keeping language and culture alive and relevant. I can't imagine my life without Salsa, merengue, bachata and others. It's a wonderful way to teach culture to children. I probably won't be able to send my boys to a bilingual school, so I will home school them to learn to read and write in Spanish. We also attend our Congregation services in Spanish. Thanks again for your experience! Suerte- Maribel Suardy http://www.wearelittleamigos.com