Monday, 24 May 2010

C.A.T spells chat

I'm strict and rigid. When I decide to do something, I do it (unless it requires food related will power). So when my husband and I decided on the OPOL approach to raising our children, I jumped in with both feet. From the moment I saw Suzanne (and then Max), I spoke to them in English. While they were in utero, I spoke to them in English. And the result is that Suzanne speaks better English than French. I attribute this to the fact that she has mainly had adult language for her English role model but has had baby French for her French role model. This imbalance has of course changed since she started school in September. She now speaks correctly in French and, to my secret delight, I've even caught her sprinkling her French with English words when speaking to her teacher and her school friends.

When Suzanne was first learning to speak, I ignored her when she spoke French. It pained me, but I did it in order to force her to speak English to me. The rule is that I never speak directly to my kids in French. It's a rule but it's also impossible for me to speak French to my kids (and my cats). I look at them and my French brain short circuits.

When I am with non-English speakers, like the nanny or the teacher, I say what I have to in English to Suzanne/Max and then repeat it in French for the other person. I also do this with Suzanne's French friends. I'm sure her friends will get annoyed at Suzanne's American mother later on, but for now they think it's funny to hear me speak English. And, so far, Suzanne isn't self-conscious speaking English around her friends although sometimes I have to remind her to speak French!

The same goes for reading. Suzanne is a bookworm and has always loved books (her second word after mom). Bedtime routine for both kids is 3 books and then dodo (one of only 3 French words I use with the kids). And since Suzanne is a book fiend, she knows which books are in French and which are in English and she knows that I will read any of them to her, in English.

Now that she can recognize letters and some words, it is becoming a problem. In fact, it already was a problem when she was recognizing a couple letters. For instance why was I saying A for apple when the first letter of the word was clearly a P (for pomme)? She can sight read some words in English (not sure if she can in French since I never read to her in French!) but it's always a little odd to see your daughter write C.A.T. and then tell her father it says chat or that M.O.M spells maman!

When we were at the park the other day, Suzanne asked me what the sign said. I asked her if she wanted me to tell her in French or English, which was a strange proposition for us both but I figured since she is interested in reading and can read some letters, I should make the effort. So, I read the sign to her in French. When I finished, there was a heavy silence, as if we both felt like we had betrayed ourselves and each other. It was a strange feeling to share with my 4 year old. Then, sensing the tension, I turned to Suzanne and said,"do you like it better when I speak English or French?" Without skipping a beat, Suzanne said, "English". So I answered, "Me too. I like speaking English better."

This has all got me thinking about how to teach Suzanne reading in English without interfering with her French. I've heard experiences from friends, read numerous books on bilingualism... But the bottom line is, I do not want to speak French to my children; I cannot speak French to my children. So how will I contribute to their education without confusing them?

10 comments:

Jan Exner said...

We have the exact same problem, and I also used to read all books in German. When BK1 started to be able to read, I stopped reading English and French books and only read her German books.

My wife is reading the French books and because England has this weird idea that school should start before kids are 5, BK1 reads English in school now.

It seems to work.

Even though noone ever taught BK1 French or German phonetics, she seems to be able to read a little bit. Not as good as English, of course.

My advice: don't worry, buy more English books.

Penny said...

As the mother of a bilingual australian child in CP (grade 1), I think you are in for a rough time with the school years unless you relax your stance a bit. Unless, of course, you plan that your husband will be doing all her homework with her. Your child is going to need help in the early years of school with learning to read in french and will be looking to someone to help her with her reading in french and to correct french pronunciation of syllables, doing spelling words, conjugation etc.

I was worried about my daughter learning to read in english but I taught her the year when she was 5 (grande section of maternelle) using a series of UK books. This meant that she could already read quite well in english and a bit in french when she started CP, which as you probably already know is when they teach them to read here in France. She now reads at home in both languages and we try and do some extra work on her english (spelling etc). I used to worry about whether her english would be as good as her french but I've found it changes all the time. At the moment she reads more confidently in french, but it will change back again soon enough. I understand that as the main (or only) english speaker in the house you want to make sure your kids become fluent in your language but if you want them to do well at school in french, they will need your or your husband's help (and let's face it, supervising homework often falls to the mums!)

Good luck :)

Amber said...

Please write a book about all this once you've got it figured out -- i'll be needing it in a few years!

and p.s. from everything i've seen, you are super mom. Your little girl is adorable and intelligent, and I think that even if you started speaking a little bit of French with her (i.e. doing hw together like the comment above me mentioned) it wouldn't have a damaging effect on the english foundation that you've already worked so hard (and successfully!) at creating. I hope that I will have half of your patience when my time comes!

Beth said...

My eldest is 17 and I have four children in all. We've never lived in an English-speaking country and my dh is French. All this to say, I do feel like I have some words of wisdom for you! lol!

First of all, don't worry about confusing your moppet. It's not an issue. I've known hundreds (if not thousands!) of bi and multi-lingual families from all over the world and I have never seen a child linguistically 'confused' forever. They may pass through periods of mixing, but all of them manage to sort things out by age six or seven at the latest.

As for reading the French books in English- don't worry! I did it all the time! Just explain to her what you're doing. ex: "You sure you want that one? It's in French, so you won't be able to read along." Then the child choses whether she wants to just listen or read over your shoulder.

ITA with Jan that you should heavily invest in tons of English books for kids. They were my best help!

Homework is indeed an issue. When my kids were younger, I did speak with them in French in order to help with homework. There seemed to be no way around it. But now that they're older, they really need their dad for the French stuff. I do the math, but in English!

If you want to discuss any of this in-depth, just contact me through my blog. I love talking about this stuff!

smashedpea said...

Similar issues here, though I'm a bit more relaxed about OPOL (I do sometimes speak to my kids in English).

First of all, I totally agree with what Jan said - use as many matertials in the minority language as you can and leave the French to the rest of her world :)

However, in situations where it'd be frustrating to her when you refuse to speak French, maybe consider relaxing your approach a bit.

What I mean is that rather than not giving her the French, maybe you could help her read it/read it to her, and then ask her whether she can translate it back to you in English. That way, she gets the French she needs, and then immediately switches back to English.

I do understand that if you're very strict with OPOL that this may not be an option. However, it is what we're doing and it doesn't bother me or our almost 5 year old who also often asks me to speak German to her when we're in situations when I do stray from OPOL. To the contrary, it leaves her not frustrated that I didn't help her figure out the English, and still gets her some practice with German (we do the same with spelling English words in that we spell them while using the German letters when doing so).

There's probably no solution that works for every family/kid equally well, but this is something we all have to figure out as our kids get older and do need to start reading and writing at least in their majority language.

Good luck - and you should now that I'm really jealous that Suzanne mixes English into her French conversations!

Rachael said...

It is interesting, isn't it? And lucky Suzanne for having a mommy who thinks so much about these things.

We're both English-speakers here so I have to do some French with them. I read French books in French and English books in English. When we have guests over, we speak French and I ask my kids not to speak English with me then. I'm getting a bit more strict about this with the five year old. He has beautiful English and I'm not concerned about him losing it. We're probably going to leave Lille in the next few years to move closer to a French school with an English section. We use a bit of starfall.com for a gentle introduction to reading.

Reb said...

Thanks for all of the advice everyone! And the support!

A couple points: 1) I know I will have to speak with my kids in French, but I hope I won't have to until English is fully installed in their brains 2) my mother is a children's librarian so we definitely are not lacking in reading material in English (in fact we have more English books for the kids than French and I make it a point to read books to both kids every day) 3) luckily Suzanne isn't frustrated yet...but I'm sure that she will insist at some point that I speak French when her friends are around.

What's most important for me now is that the rules inside the home are solid and are respected by all. Of course we stray at times, and I will learn to bend a little but...

And I'm hoping my husband will be on homework duty because I remember having intense arguments with my parents when I didn't understand my homework. I'd rather be the good parent. I'll let my husband do the dirty work.

Last question - how did you deal with teaching your kids to read in the 2nd language? do you do it simultaneously or wait until the 1st language is set?

Jan - very promising that your child self-taught!

Penny - thanks for the advice. I do wonder if it's better to teach reading simultaneously in both languages or wait until they know how to read in the majority language. It's good to know that waiting works.

Amber - I will share all my info with you when the time comes. that's what this blog is for! To keep everything on record for future use.

smashedpeas - I love your suggestion of getting her to translate stuff back to me. I will definitely use that when we read. I already do that with French movies and conversations.

Beth - I will definitely need your expertise!

Rachael - I've heard that the Lycée Montebello is pretty good. I know a couple of bilinguals who are happy there.

Nicole said...

My two cents worth: I'm still only ever speaking in English to the boys (who are 6 and 9, so in CP and in CM1), I'm a single mother now so I'm the only one who helps them with their homework. We talk about their homework in English but if there is something to read or whatever that is in French, they do so in French. It doesn't feel like we're crossing over that line (I'm super rigid about the OPOL thing too!) because the conversations are still in English, it's more like we're quoting. If I read a French book, they know I'm simultaneously translating it. The 9 year old is reading pretty well in English now but I waited until after CP and he had the whole French methodology down. And even then I didn't really teach him, we just talked about it sometimes while reading books in English. He just read James and the Giant Peach in English and only asked about vocab a few times.

Reb said...

Nicole, you're 2 cents is worth much more! I have admired you and your bilingual kids for a few years now so much appreciate the fact that you manage to do it all in English even with the French homework.

I feel much less lost now (better even?) and am fairly certain that I no one will have to make too many sacrifices when it comes to school (although I still don't like the French school system but that's a whole different story...)

Sarah said...

This is fascinating to me, as I have a two-year-old who can point out letters on signs, books, and clothing and tell us their names in English and French. But I've already started wondering what it will be like when I want him to learn to read in French, yet I will almost certainly be the one doing most of the work at home to try to enrich and enlarge upon what he'll learn at preschool and then school-school. We do OPOL too, and I'm also a fanatic about only speaking French to him.

The fact that Suzanne's English is better than her French despite living in France absolutely wows me, because I don't see that happening with Griffin. He understands English and French equally well, but he just doesn't say as much in French, even when it's just the two of us.

Thanks for sharing so much in this post!

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