I never through I would have children (I know, nice planning, I have 5 kids now!), let alone children who wouldn’t speak French, like me. Well, they do but their main language is English and it’s a constant struggle to maintain the use of French in our home, even if both Marichéri and I are French. Raising bilingual children is not always easy, especially as our kids were born here, their whole life is in English, only part of home life is in French. But it’s fun.
It can lead to some wonderful confusion, and a very specific language, a mix of baby talk, approximations in French, confused English and pure gibberish, especially while the children are still young (L’Ado doesn’t speak anymore, he communicates via asthmatic grunts, like a grumpy boar). Toddler 5 loves to talk, especially to complete strangers, in his own bilingual way, to the postman, the delivery guy from Ocado (Toddler 5 can recognise an Ocado van on the road from miles away, he knows it’s where his food comes from), or even to jehovah witnesses. It’s actually quite handy. Before Toddler 5 talked, I never knew how to get rid of them politely without slamming the door in their face while apologising profusely for doing so. Now, I just let Toddler 5 talk to them. I love it, and it scares them away, it’s great. Last time, he found the poor jehobah witnesses so nice, he even gave them a toilet roll (an empty one, we were making art. With paint). I am pretty sure they won’t come back anytime soon.
I started to look into the particularity of bilinguism when L’Ado said his first words, all these years ago (something like “gremphlyy ” or maybe “belllleuelk”. He has change much actually). I found the whole language learning thing so captivating, it’s even my job now. It seems that a bilingual child does not speak clearly as quickly as a monolingual child. I don’t mean that he is slow, but that he takes him a while to stop mixing his two languages and to consciously differentiate them well enough to be understood by adults with only one language. He tends to mix words but also sentence structures. He will systematically use a word in only one language for some objects, while he would change constantly for other, with no apparent logic. For the bilingual child, there is no difference at first between his two languages, he just speaks as he goes, that all, not picking one langage over the other. Before he is three years, more or less, he doesn’t completely realise he is bilingual. He speaks instinctively, like any other child, and doesnt think that’s French or English or a made up word. For him, it makes perfect sense. But even unconsciously, he already starts to chose different words depending of who is he is talking to. Toddler 5 wanted to ask one of my friend he didn’t know well for another cookie. He looked at her intensively, but could not decide what to say, so he went for “more, encore”. In doubt, he used both French an English!
Of all my children, he is the first one to react like that. He is very happy to see a “sien-dog” (for chien, dog in French), a cat-miaou (the noise for a cat in French). He used to say he was “baby-bébé” to talk about himself, but he has decided lately that “babies” were other children his age, while “bébé” is only for him. But he usually says “please-te plait” and “Merci-tank you”. If you insist on confusing me by speaking to languages, I will use both at the same time, pick the one you like! But at least, it shows he is starting to understand he can use two words for the same thing. PrincesseChipie was 3, and already loved to talk non stop all day long when she made that discovery. She was very busy explaining all she was doing to one of my English friends who did not understand a word and was smiling politely. My daughter stopped abruptly, looked at her, through about it, and switched to English just like that. It’s not always so quick, but children always realise at one point that they have to stop mixing between their two languages. It comes naturally. Of course, they still make the occasional mistake, especially in their weaker language (French so us), but so do we!
Toddler 5 was very worried the last time his granny come to visit us. First, what is she doing outside the computer? He knows that where she lives, he sees her every Saturday with Skype. Nobody told him people could get out of a screen, can we have fireman Sam over next? But granny was also speaking in French, and that’s not normal. People he doesn’t know well who come to his house always speak English, French is for mummy, daddy and his siblings. To differentiate between their two languages, children need to create their own rules, their own language scheme. It’s different for each of them. For GeekAdo it was purely geographical: at home, it was French with everybody, outside, it was English even with me. L’Ado as a toddler was absolutely terrified when English speakers, to be nice to him, tried to say “bonjour”. He also refused for years to say a single word in English in front of us. I was very worried when he started school until his teacher assured me she didn’t even realise he was French. He even had a local accent in English (in Dublin. That’s not necessary a good thing). PrincesseChipie still use this sort of separation, she speaks English in her room and French everywhere else in the house.
With each child, it had been more and more difficult to maintain French as a home language, they tend to talk together in their socialising language, in English. Toddler 5 learns from his sibling, L’Ado thinks it’s hilarious to teach him to say “I coooool” , it’s understandable by both French and English speakers, sure. Sometime I am also very relieved that my children mixed up French and English. Toddler 5 had just inform the Ocado delivery man, in French that he needed to go potty. And because the poor delivery guy did not understand, Toddler 5 went to explained, still in French what he wanted to do exactly in his potty. Great!