The gift of bilingualism: Raising my kids with English and French

Posted on June 10, 2024

I thought my kids would have no problem becoming perfectly bilingual.

First, we live in Gatineau, Quebec, where almost 65% of the population is able to converse in both English and French.

Second, we’re a bilingual household. My husband is Francophone and I’m Anglophone. As a couple, we’ve always functioned bilingually, with him mostly speaking French and me mostly speaking English. We even did our wedding vows bilingually (but this time he spoke English and I spoke French!).

I’ve seen many bilingual households where the children seem to switch seamlessly between English and French; however, that is so far not the case for my children, who are 7, 5 and 2 years old. It’s proving to require more conscious effort to teach my kids English than I anticipated.

Speaking a minority language

As it turns out, it’s often harder to get kids speaking a minority language. Because English is a minority language in our household, the cards seem stacked against English for my kids right now: they go to school and daycare in French, all their extracurriculars are in French, and my husband’s family all speak French when we see them. To complicate things, my side of the family doesn’t live nearby (I have relatives in Barrie, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Mexico, England, Germany and Switzerland); so most of the time, my kids have to chat on video or phone calls to practise their English.

As a result of being exposed to English from birth, my kids all have an excellent passive understanding of English. They’ll listen to English music, watch movies in English and enjoy listening to English books read aloud to them. They understand when people ask them questions in English, but they’ll respond in French (most of the time). That’s where it gets tricky.

The challenge facing my kids now is to develop their active knowledge, by using their passive vocabulary to speak or write in English. And the challenge facing me is how to support them in that process!

Finding positive approaches

The following are some of the ways I’m working to add more English into our days:

  • I try to speak English most of the time around my kids. Of course, I find it necessary to speak French in certain contexts: around my extended family (since I’m the only Anglophone); with the kids’ school and daycare; and on errands, when out and about in Gatineau. But apart from those situations, I make it a point to use English.
  • I want my kids to have a positive relationship with English. This is why I don’t force my kids to answer me in English. I want English to be fun for them.
  • I expose my kids to things I loved as a child in English: favourite books, music and movies, nursery rhymes, songs and expressions.
  • I plan to hire Anglophone babysitters for the summer school breaks. Last summer, I hired an Anglophone friend’s teenage son to “hang out” with my oldest son for a couple of mornings a week.
  • I hope to send my kids to “English immersion” in Alberta. Once they’re a bit older, my kids might enjoy a week or two out west with Grandma and Grandpa!

Looking forward to a bright future

I know there are no instant solutions, and I’ll need to wait for the strategies above to bear fruit. I’m trying not to stress in the meantime! My three young children all have an excellent passive understanding of English. They also have vocabulary in both English and French. They’ll occasionally surprise me with their ability to string together English sentences, often when I least expect it! And because English is everywhere, I have no doubt that my children will eventually come around.

Meanwhile, I’m happy they’ll have a strong base in French, since it’s much harder to learn a language as an adult. And I’m glad they’ll have a connection both to Quebec and to other parts of the world through language. As I’ve always said, “the more languages you speak, the more people you can connect with.”

What about you? Are you raising your children with more than one language? Please share your wisdom below!

Disclaimer

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Get to know Lindsay Bach

Lindsay Bach

Lindsay Bach

Despite growing up in an Anglophone family in Ontario and Alberta, Lindsay latched onto the French language from an early age. She completed a degree in translation and is now a member of the Language Portal of Canada team. She’s delighted to be spending her days “geeking out” over all things grammar and translation.
 

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