Monday, September 24, 2012

Guest Post: Bilingual Babes

Since I've stumbled backwards into raising what appear to be bilingual children I've had to give a thought or two to the English side of things for the kids, especially but not limited to, grammar rules for Ma Fille, reading for the Middlest and now with the Littlest well and truly in love with his French teacher, E-leez-a-bet!, teaching him how read Dick and Jane and not just Lapinou Caramel.

Tallulah over in England has a wonderful blog called Bilingual Babes in which she shares some polyglot tips and love in the raising of her two beautiful children. As school  has gotten back into full swing and the class meetings with all the serious French talk of forming letters properly, how to hold a crayon and everyone working together towards la vie collectif I thought it was the perfect time to share some of her insights. 

Now, without further ado, Tallulah from Bilingual Babes....

Since the children were born, we've always lived in the UK, surrounded by English. As I had studied French and German, I was really keen to pass some language on to my own kids and wondered how to do it in an English-speaking community. I speak fairly good French, but am in no way fluent and once I started talking in French with Schmoo, I realised it was going to be pretty tough to keep it up until she was 18 without any other input! Then I remembered that there was a French lycee in London, because one of my university friends had been a student there. I wondered if there were other immersion schools, perhaps one closer to us (we were living in Scotland at the time!) and how easy it was to get in... and how much it would all cost! 

I started making enquiries, and eventually ended up with a list of all the French schools in the UK, thanks to the French Institute website. I rang around, getting advice and application forms in about equal measure. Pretty soon I had ascertained that unless you were French, or coming from a French school it was almost impossible to get into the French lycee. We are both British, despite my French roots. But then I discovered that there were some lycee feeder schools. If you got your child a place in one of these schools, then after a certain age they were guaranteed a place at the French lycee! This was brilliant news, so I set about applying to all of the feeder schools. 

The rejections started pouring in. Even though I applied when Schmoo was one, many of the schools already had long waiting lists from children who'd been on the list since birth! But eventually we got her a place at a wonderful feeder and we knew her future at the lycee was secure. There was just one teensy weensy little problem... the school was in London, and we lived in Scotland, about 300 miles away! 

We took the decision to move back for the school. We had family in London and wanted to move back at some point, but suddenly everything speeded up. My husband applied for a transfer and got it. We organised a place to live. I remember sitting in our living-room, looking around at all of our stuff (mainly an explosion of toys and games) and just thinking how, how, how are we ever going to cart all of this to London? But it happened somehow in a blur of cardboard boxes and parcel tape! 

Once Schmoo started at the feeder school, I continued to speak with her and Pan-Pan in French at home. For a start, Schmoo was in the English section of the school for the first 2 years and wasn't actually getting all that much French input yet. And I wanted Pan-Pan to have the same booster of French that Schmoo had while still at home. Once Pan-Pan started at the school, he went straight into the French section and I was able to finally and blissfully switch to speaking English with my kids. The non-mother tongue French had been a hard act to keep up, especially as Schmoo demanded ever more complex conversation! 

So nowadays most of their French input comes from the school, although I do a bit of extra work at home to help maintain it. Our main rules are:

- TV & movies are only allowed in French (I am absolutely rigid about this rule!)

- Bedtime stories are only allowed in French for Pan-Pan (Schmoo's French is so fluent, I let her pick now)

- At dinnertime, which they have together as Papa gets home late, I almost always use as French quiz time, which they adore. We have a lot of books that ask questions about the story, or I read from general knowledge quiz cards. Sometimes we'll play a game, like 'describe the word' in French.

- French talking time, eg I'll ask them to only talk French while they're in the bath. If I'm lucky, they'll do this spontaneously, and always when they're playing schools!

So far, it's working out well, and way better than I could've imagined when the idea of bringing them up with 'a bit of French' first popped into my head! Schmoo is a balanced bilingual, with accent-free French. Pan-Pan has dominant English and hasn't yet mastered all the French sounds, like the French 'r', but has 100% passive knowledge and is very comfortable talking and playing in French. And I am one delighted non-native mama!


  1. It must be harder for the kids to be bilingual when both parents speak the same language. But for my friends in this situation, going to school in another language definitely does the trick.

  2. The kids look so cute! My, they do grow fast...

  3. I really admire your dedication Tallulah - the only reason my kids are bilingual is because I live in France. Like Aidan, I am trying to keep the English up to scratch as the French is starting to get the edge!

  4. THanks for this post! It was very interesting and à propos to my current situation. I recently decided to speak only in Mandarin (my heritage language) with my 5 month year old (we live in the U.S.) in the hopes that she will be able to get into an immersion school. I want to also eventually teach her French (which I acquired in school) and am hoping she will learn Spanish as well since there is such a big Latino population here in Los Angeles. I am looking forward to reading more posts from Bilingual Babes and to check out some of the resources.

  5. This is a great post Tallulah. I had no idea it could be so hard to get into the lycées and I am grateful for the warning. We are at the stage where we are starting to give serious thought to the children's future education and to make sure that if we are not in France by the time Poppette starts school that we have our ducks in a row to make sure we start her on the right path here. I am really keen to make sure that all the non-native parenting I have done to date does not go to waste...I may well need to pick your brains a little over the coming months :D

  6. Really insightful post and something I'd like to consider for my future children. Raising a bilingual child in Australia will be difficult but not impossible - look forward to learning more from you both on your own journeys :)


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