Falling Off the OPOL Wagon -how multilingual parenting is akin to giving up smoking

I didn’t realize I had fallen off the OPOL (One Parent One Language) wagon until I found myself face down on the ground with a chipped tooth and a mouthful of dirt.

FALLING OFF THE WAGON: For me It was a slippery slope. I don’t know offhand if I am correct in thinking that strict OPOL means that even to each other, parents speak their native language. This would require that my husband speak fluent French. Given our non Francophone location and his long working hours, this is a distant dream.  I would need to speak fluent Spanish, which I should by now but don’t and mostly have myself to blame. So even if I only spoke French to my daughter, she KNOWS that I both understand and speak English and not just outside our household but to communicate with her dear Papa. Here is my hand dangling off the wagon.

Then there are the group play dates where other little English-speaking friends come over. Here I can speak individually to her in French but sometimes I need to address the kids together and this now means I am technically speaking to her in English – even if I do repeat it in French for her benefit just after. My arm creeps out over the side of the wagon.

There was the swimming class to help her get over her fear of water on her face – a key endeavor when you live in the land of unguarded swimming pools. This was a stressful time with both her teacher and I trying to cajole, console and “push” her simultaneously as she is learning new things. It felt like I was adding confusion and extra layer of cacophony to an already noisy and difficult experience so more english was spoken to “unify” the message as well as let the teacher hear that I was reinforcing what she was saying. Et hop, that’s one leg over the side of the wagon.

Moving to Singapore was a blessing in so many ways and the fact that the country is set up to accept multilingualism as the norm is definitely one of them. Knowing that Papa in his field ends up working long hours, we had always thought that someday we would have an au-pair or help at home once we had a second child and it became more cost-effective. We would choose someone Latin who would speak Spanish and help support this minority (as in least spoken/exposed to) language. Instead we have the MOST WONDERFUL helper from the Philippines who speaks very good English. This has resulted in Pacifique’s English improving in leaps and bounds but also means she has developed an extremely strong preference for English which was reinforced by her recent enrollment in a local nursery, which splits the days in English and Chinese.

And here is where my other leg goes over the wagon’s side and I am now barely hanging on, white knuckled with sweat trickling down to my finger tips. Toddlers can be quite a handful and you want to make sure the caregivers are on the same page especially with impending tantrums and other naughty behaviors. In order to do this I would say something to Pacifique in French and then say it again in English for Cherry’s benefit. With Pacifique speaking more and more English, this soon mutated into me saying it in English and then translating it into French and somehow I soon realized I wasn’t even always translating it into French. I knew I’d hit rock bottom when my sentences turned into a language mish-mash similar to a salade macedoine .  And to make matters worse, as more English crept into my exchanges and my husband and I were also trying to be on the same page, more English crept into his despite the fact that my spoken Spanish is awful but I actually understand 95% of what he says. Ay yay yay. We were heading downhill at breakneck speed and hadn’t even noticed.

The hard thud on the ground is when I suddenly realized that when completely alone with my daughter P, English started creeping into our conversations and she no longer ever uttered a word in French to me.

HOW DID I GET HERE? No seriously HOW did I get here? If you had told me I would end up so far down this path, I would never have believed it. Then the self berating starts. Well of course I ended up here. I have commitment issues. I have finishing issues. My French sucks. What was I thinking. My situation probably wasn’t helped by the fact that I was diagnosed at the time with Post Partum Depression. The nightly insomnia and almost inability to stay awake during the days coupled with much sobbing should have been a dead give away. When I am being kind to myself, I figure that all the complexities of our lingual situation coupled with feeling so awful and vulnerable would of course make me more prone to this happening. When I am not being kind, I think that I am a poor excuse of a mother, who now has the luxury of full-time live-in help and still can’t pull it together. Yes I am learning to focus on the former not the latter.

Whatever takes you down this road, kids are resilient. Kids can adjust to incredible amounts of change. Don’t let the purists scare you away. Your kid won’t be lost to inevitable language confusion just because you fall off the wagon. Yes it may be tougher to climb back on when you are tired, bruised and covered in dirt but you will get there and you will all make it to your destination.

IT’S LIKE GIVING UP SMOKING: I credit some posts on the bilingual blogging carnival highlighting their children’s progress in a given language with flipping the switch for me.  I knew I had to try to get back on track. It is really a lot like giving up smoking and I should know as I’ve done that numerous times, twice with great success. I realize this sounds like a contradiction but the first time I gave up for four years and the second (and hopefully last) started in 2003 so I am now nearly eight years smoke free. Two key elements set me up for success.

  1. Just because I caved here and there and had a ciggie didn’t mean I was a smoker again. And this included a night out on the lash smoking a pack, waking up with that deep husky voice I miss so. I just started again from the morning as a non smoker forgiving my lapse and telling myself I would do better next time.
  2. I tried to create situations where I wasn’t tempted or more likely to smoke.

Translating that to language use, I’ve stopped berating myself every time I realize I’ve switched to English and just revert back to French. For my situational successes, I also made a point to pick actual French books at night instead of translating on the fly which is tiring and frustrating if you end up with unknown words. I also arranged more outings with other French people. I even just called up some old French friends to get back into the flow of adult French conversation.

HOPE ON THE HORIZON:  One of the really frustrating things with language learning and kids is that you can never be entirely sure why something is working. Even if you take two different approaches with two different kids, every kid is different and every parent is different. A few weeks can also be a time of key developmental changes in your child that would have happened irrespective of any other language changes you made. You may suspect something is working but you can’t ever categorically say for sure whether it is. Sometimes you just need to do your best and trust in the Universe or better yet trust your kid.

So I changed my ways as best I could and this is where we are at after a few weeks:

P was in her bath and started asking for her little seahorse. Much to my surprise, I actually knew where this one tiny piece of yellow plastic was located. I know some greater power laughs as I can’t locate my wallet or keys or transit pass but can locate a one inch toy in a stack of 1000 others. I retrieved the toy and brought it to her in the bath and she turned to me with a big smile and say “Yay hippocampe”, which is also one of the first words I looked up when I started reading or more accurately real-time translating books for her in French. I am pretty sure I NEVER actually knew that word before having her.

Another tiny gift of French came when I told her, as I do most nights, that she should choose a book while I get her a glass of milk and that I would read her a story and then it would be bed time. Normally I would be met with either complete silence indicating an imminent bedtime battle or more often “yes Mama” or “OK Mama”. Tonight I got an emphatic  “D’accord Maman!” Literally I am in agreement with you. I would have fallen off the chair but it is a tiny blue toddler chair so my bum was fortunately well wedged in there.

After reading a short story, I turned off the lights and asked her which song she wanted to hear. Nine out of ten times she will request “the moon song”, which is to her “Au Claire de la Lune”.  I happen to know three out of four of the stanzas to this song which helps managing the repetition. This is one of two songs that would sooth her as a baby so I’ve sung this THOUSANDS of times. No really I am not exaggerating. I counted once 45 times on a lengthy walk back from the park. I once had to sing the song for almost an hour during a four-hour car trip. I will someday die and likely have that playing in my mental background. If my husband has a sense of humor and should outlive me, my epitaph will read “She sang Au Claire de La Lune ad nauseam” (J- I’ll come back from the dead and kill you myself if you actually do that)

When she eventually started talking and even singing the odd song, I was sure this would be one of the first. I mean given how many times she’s heard it, makes sense right? NO. apparently not. New rhymes and songs she has just learned at school like Mary Mary quite Contrary and Humpty Dumpty that she may have heard probably 30 times, a 100 at most if I am being generous, these get recited but not my french lullaby. Until tonight when I discovered she knew 90% of the song.

Here are the lyrics -minus the third stanza- we sing in our house.

Au clair de la lune  
Mon ami Pierrot
Prête-moi ta plume
Pour écrire un mot
Ma chandelle est morte
Je n’ai plus de feu
Ouvre-moi ta porte
Pour l’amour de Dieu

Au clair de la lune
Pierrot répondit
Je n’ai pas de plume
Je suis dans mon lit
Va chez la voisine
Je crois qu’elle y est
Car dans sa cuisine
On bat le briquet

Au clair de la lune
On n’y voit qu’un peu
On chercha la plume
On chercha du feu
En cherchant d’ la sorte
Je n’ sais c’ qu’on trouva
Mais je sais qu’ la porte
Sur eux se ferma.

me: bonsoir ma cherie, dort bien. Maman t’adore. A demain.

P: bonsoir maman

********* Thank you for reading this post which will feature in this month’s bilingual blogging carnival.

86 thoughts on “Falling Off the OPOL Wagon -how multilingual parenting is akin to giving up smoking

  1. Yes! Swimming class! I quickly realized that I would have to make an OPOL exception and speak English in swim class with Griffin–the pool was so noisy and the teacher used such specific kid-friendly terms and we were supposed to sing songs together and ultimately it’s a safety issue, right?

    Toddler tantrums? How about maman tantrums! I heard myself hollering at Griffin last week, “The world does not revolve around you!” In English!

    I love your hippocampe and lune stories.

    Thanks for sharing that you have battled PPD during this time, too. Coping with day-to-day life is agonizing when you’re suffering from that illness–how amazing that you stuck with the challenges of raising your daughter multilingually when you probably didn’t even want to get out of bed! Bravo.

  2. Sarah, Thank you so much for your comment. I was starting to worry that I am the only one out there. Just had another weekend of 2 steps forward, THREE steps back. And no doubt the PPD and her time with my helper hasn’t helped with her French. Here’s to hoping our first vacation in France will be a tipping point! Should at least give me some blogging material ;-)

    • Ha I have and have so much to write about. Sadly I’ve been drowning in kids illness, my illness, a total tax return nightmare among other things… but I am crawling out from under the heap and posts to come!

  3. I really liked this post, and as someone who grew up with parents speaking 2-3 languages between them and to us, we retain much more of all the languages than you or we might think. We were constantly in an English-speaking environment, but my mother (who grew up speaking french at home and in french schools) insisted that we keep up our french at home. I can never be grateful enough for that; speaking several languages is wonderful, and also we moved to France when I was 15, and I lived there for 11 years. Without my mother’s patience and diligence, I would not speak this language I love so much. Good luck with all the languages, but I do believe your daughter will grow up at least perfectly bilingual, if not trilingual, which is a wonderful thing. Congratulations on being freshly pressed!

    • Thanks for the lovely comments. I was trying to figure out what on earth was going on this morning with my inbox (initial thought spam) when I started to realize what had happened and then I saw your comment and understood! What I am finding through my experience is how amazing our parents were – to have persevered though sometimes I wonder how much thought they gave to it. I can’t really imagine my mom spending much time on it… hmm I’ll have to ask her. Your kind words are much appreciated!

  4. The good news is … they will begin to blabber on in both languages, perfect sentences to Language A to mama and Language B to papa. As for the far future – my 27 year old still speaks to her father in Vietnamese and to me in English, besides having picked up Spanish and Mandarin. My 22 year old son, who has gone to live in monolingual Oz now speaks only Strine!

    • Wow Vietnamese, Spanish & Mandarin! That’s amazing. My eldest is now starting to speak some mandarin though I am mixed on what I should do with that since I have a hard enough time with French and Spanish. Funnily enough I think the added languages are forcing me to relax a bit about the whole thing which I definitely need since I am a worrier by nature. Thanks for commenting!

  5. This is so interesting! But I have a question. How does it work to speak a language to your child when it is not your own native language? I know that children self-correct occasional grammatical mistakes etc, as they make the language more regular. But how does the accent work?

    • Hi Miranda – That’s a really good question that I am not sure how to answer. I think there may be a link in my blogroll to a blog called non-native bilingual. She may have a better answer to this than me. In our case, unless I am really nervous, my accent is excellent in French. Though over my time my English ended up dominating, I did speak French first with my mother and spent enough time in France that I can sound pretty much like a native French speaker. That said, I definitely DO MAKE GRAMMATICAL errors way more than I should. This summer on our trip to France I bought a Becherel and have been trying to improve my conjugations or I’ll catch myself and correct it when I can. It will be interesting to see what happens with the girls. My guess is that if we do manage to send them to the French school, they will end up correcting me . If not they will inherit my little mistakes and hopefully someday people will say it is charming or they will chose to perfect their language if they feel the need later on. I love questions and thoughts on the topic so thanks for commenting!

      • Sounds like we have a lot in common – I spoke French first too but English is my dominant language and I sometimes think it would feel unnatural to speak French to my (as yet hypothetical) children given that, and wonder if I could pull it off long term. On the other hand, I guess it would be good for my own French to force myself to speak it… But am doubly impressed!

      • Having kids did wonders for my French though I did appear like a total geek with my little pocket dictionary looking up words all the time til hubby got me smartphone after birth of #2 so I can speedily check with my dico app. What surprised me most was about 15-20 months in, suddenly my memory bank seem to clear its own cobwebs and previously seemingly forgotten vocabulary started making itself available to me again. It was an incredible feeling. Still the road is long. I look forward to checking out your blog. Thanks for your kind words!

  6. “Translating that to language use, I’ve stopped berating myself every time I realize I’ve switched to English and just revert back to French. For my situational successes, I also made a point to pick actual French books at night instead of translating on the fly which is tiring and frustrating if you end up with unknown words. I also arranged more outings with other French people. I even just called up some old French friends to get back into the flow of adult French conversation.”

    What is interesting is that unilingual people cannot quite appreciate that language retention of 2nd language or any language is kept alive best, by using it often with real/live people. They do not understand just by merely walking into a store or restaurant and speaking the language with total strangers (which I have no interest in knowing further beyond what I need for service), does not often mean rea use of language for purposes of language retention or growth in a person’s vocabulary.

    Since my partner’s mother died, he barely uses his Germany anymore.

    • The whole cliche hindsight is 20/20 vision. If I knew then how important language for me is now… I took it for granted as a child. I wish I had done more to keep up my French writing. There were definitely jobs I would have loved to apply for but didn’t dare because I was embarrassed by my written French which is so much more formal than in English. On the up side, working to improve my French has actually caused me to not take English for granted and take the time to improve that as well – like taking the time to look up words I don’t know when I am reading.

      For you and your partner, the one advantage we have these days with all the multimedia is access to resources like films / books.. perhaps you can have dedicated movie/dinner nights – bratwurst and a good german film?

      Thanks again for your kind comments. Right now I am just getting over the shock of being Freshly Pressed!

  7. Just to finish… So most likely his German fluency will nose-dive super fast. (and he immigrated to Canada when he was 7, so it truly is his first language). Same for myself, when my parents pass away one day.

    You care much about bilingual fluency for your child and have thought much about the issues from different angles in a degree of complexity that perhaps….maybe that’s why not alot of people have not yet commented on this Freshly Pressed WP blog post. It takes time if one hasn’t thought about these issues earlier before reading this post.

    Thanks for your blog post, on behalf for all those care to retain even abit of their lst /mother tongue or for those who are interested/trying to see the world differently by expressing it better in a 2nd or 3rd language (and not just a few curse words, food words, numbers, etc.)!

    Merci beaucoup!

  8. I have no idea how much my own experience will interest you, but I hope I can show why I find your post interesting.

    My mother’s family moved to New York from Puerto Rico in the 50’s as part of that exodus that came with Puerto Rico becoming a part of the US.

    My sisters are a bit older than my brother and I, my mother says that in school they would sometimes speak Spanish to each other to hide what they are saying from the children that could only speak English. My mother decided to avoid teaching my brother and I Spanish in order to avoid that behavior, and if that was the sole aim, it worked.

    The side effect is that I only learned to understand very basic Spanish and I need to talk to a good quarter of my family through a translator. Even after some classes and book study, puedo escribir y leer español pero no hablarle. If I try to speak it, something in my brain freezes up and my tongue feels numb, like some mental block keeps me from trying. Despite that, I can read Portuguese and Italian at the same elementary level, probably because of similarity. I have trouble with French, however.

    The regrets that come with this is that I cannot call myself “bilingual” at work (or take the raise that comes with this) and… that the last thing my grandmother coherently said to me in her life is, “When you can speak in Spanish, we can talk.”

    So with those thoughts, I hope your little girl learns lots of languages, and I hope “Le Petit Prince” is in your list of books. It’s a favorite of mine.

    Best wishes and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. I really appreciate when people take the time to share their story as I always find them incredibly interesting, inspiring and learn much from them. In fact I realize that I really need to start working on my spanish as I would love to really be able to communicate with my mother in law and also set a good example for my girls. I am sorry for your regrets – particularly re your abuela. And I can’t wait for my girls to be old enough for “Le Petit Prince” (mental note to self – purchase on next trip to France). Best, Coco

  9. Thanks for the blog post – It’s good to know we aren’t the only one having trouble with this. We are trying, not too successfully, to practice the OPOL rule at home. Unfortunately, my little one still prefers speaking in English and is now more monolingual than bilingual. However, when she occasionally throws in Chinese words in her sentences, it helps us continue to persevere.

    We too have moved to Singapore not too long ago and hopefully, the environment here will help with her learning Chinese :)

    Good luck on the multilingual parenting quest!

    • Well you’ve definitely moved to the right place! My problem now is my eldest is speaking more Mandarin than Spanish! There is a great website called http://www.incultureparent.com that has lots of lovely resources for multicultural parenting. Full disclosure – I’ve actually recently started blogging for them but there is a ton of wonderful stuff on there. And likewise good luck with your multilingual lives as well and thanks for commenting!

    • Another thing I forgot to mention is just the fact that your wee one understands Chinese even if he/she responds in English is tremendous and the spoken piece can come at very different ages for different kids. Keep up the great work!

      • Appreciate the words of encouragement, thanks! We’ll definitely keep going with this and who knows, maybe throw in a third language one fine day. I had a quick glance at the website and it has some pretty interesting topics. Going to have to find some time to seriously peruse through it. Thanks for the link!

  10. My two daughters grew up with OPOL from day 1. They both had no trouble switching back and forth from english to french within the same sentence depending on whom they were addressing. When they both reached the 3 years old mark they asked me what “english” and “french” meant. They didn’t even realize they were speaking 2 languages. For a few months they sorted out by language the words they had learned. They have been fluent in both all along. It is worth the efforts. We had the chance to send them to a french school in an english environment so that made it easier, but once the pattern of OPOL was established it became a routine. Just keep it up :) It is also a great way to get “infused” by another culture and broaden horizons BTW.
    Bonne chance et ne découragez-vous pas!

    • Merci! I nearly fell off the bus stop bench when my daughter pointed to a crane and said that’s “xxxx” in Spanish. Sadly more often than not she tries to tell me not to read to her in French but in English so I had to put new rule – that we get two bedtime stories but one has to be in either Spanish or French. (The other is Olivia… always Olivia… wow I could use another bedtime story). Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  11. Pingback: Famille multi-langues | Helios – Let the light in

  12. I did OPOL with my first daughter as long as I could. It was finding a blogosphere full of other parents doing this that really got me back on the wagon, in my own special way. I don’t really know when I fell off the wagon. I think it was when she started spending more time with people who weren’t me and I realized she had forgotten a lot of the Spanish she used to know. Either way I’m so glad to see your blog on freshly pressed! You’ve got yourself a new follower.

    • Thanks! I know I definitely trawl the parenting/language blogs out there when I need a little pick me up – well that and a glass of wine.. Will admit to freaking out on the Freshly Pressed bit. Am quite the procrastinator so this may just be the serious kick in the behind that I needed! Thanks for commenting and following!

  13. This is definitely really interesting! I’m a college student and I don’t have any kids or anything but I hope to in the (not near) future and I speak Spanish (second language) and English and it’s definitely crossed my mind on how to approach teaching my future kids two languages. Especially because I’m also learning French and about to embark on Portuguese so it’s hard to know how many languages I’ll be fluent in and how many I’ll be able to teach!

    • It is great to hear about people’s intentions to raise multilingual children. I think sharing stories about our experiences helps create a snowballing effect and more people are encouraged to do it as well. (and more resources become available etc). Good luck with all the new language acquisition. I am stalled debating on whether I should work on improving my Spanish or try some Mandarin while we are living Singapore. decisions decisions. Thanks so much for posting!

  14. Thanks for an interesting post! I grew up monolingual because of my father’s bad experience as a predominately spanish speaker, in an english speaking culture. Consequently, I did not experience any of the stigma, of being a spanish speaker, but I did not experience any of the benefits either. My husband is bilingual and bi-literate in Spanish and English. I have tried to learn spanish, all through high school, college, community college and even studied a summer in Mexico. Still, I cannot speak with confidence or without inhibition. So, when we had the opportunity to enroll our son in dual language spanish/english immersion program at our local public school, we did not hesitate. I am happy to say that after two years in the program, his spanish is better than mine! Good luck in your efforts. I know it will be worth it!

    • Ha thanks! I totally empathize on the spanish-speaking inhibition. I’ll never forget having to tell my then-potential future Mexican Mother in Law that I had been previously married all in my pidgin spanish. Not sure to this day how much of what I said she understood. The shot of Tequila did help my linguistic fluidity though… Good luck with your son and great to hear that there are increasing numbers of immersion programs these days. Makes me happy!

  15. We suffered the same dilemma raising up our kid. There should have been no problem if we were in our home town where we speak the same dialect but we are here in Singapore and staying with people who speak a different dialect. So our son picked up different words from different languages and dialects. Though earlier was quite tough to communicate with him in the end he became more versatile than us understanding much of Ilocano, Visaya, English, and Tagalog. Whenever we go back in the Philippines he can communicate with any of those dialects/Languages. It’s actually cool!

    • That is seriously cool. I think I regret not having our super helper speak to the girls in Ilonggo. My younger cousins learned Portuguese and never forgot it thanks to their nanny/helper and acquired Spanish easily on the back of that. I have to say I fantasize someday learning Turkish. I love the sound of the language. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Actually it is Pacifique. If you are going to try and be hurtful to someone you don’t know, may as well get the spelling right . I wasn’t going to approve this comment since it doesn’t add to the conversation but I didn’t want to seem selective either so thanks for helping me think through what it would take for me not to actually approve a comment. Lemons to lemonade I guess?

  16. A lot of couples here try to have the father speak only English and the mother in Japanese, but that almost ends with the child not talking to the father because everyone in the outside world speaks Japanese. However, my Brazilian/Canadian friends have no trouble with Papa speaking Portuguese, mama speaking English, and using Japanese to communicate with other people. Keep up the good work.

  17. Hey Everyone I am working through all these lovely comments. I just want to say a really big thank you to everyone for all the kind words, congratulations (I still can’t believe I got Freshly Pressed!) and for taking the time to share your stories. I love hearing them. Really inspiring and much to learn from them. Muchas Gracias! Merci Beaucoup! & Thank you!!

  18. Hi, wow, I’m glad WordPress featured your site on their Freshly Pressed section and that I’ve found you!

    What a challenge! As an ex-smoker I can relate to what you are explaining even though I haven’t experienced it myself yet. I’m British raising a baby in France with a French husband. She’s only 6 months so we haven’t got the whole talking thing going yet, but boy is it hard to speak to her in English!

    Good luck and keep trying

    • Thank you so much, that really means a lot to me. I am still basking in the afterglow of the experience. Trying not to think that it all goes downhill from here. LOL

      I also love that you relate to the smoking piece. I wondered if that might resonate with anyone else. As far as speaking to your baby, I definitely found it was really difficult for me to speak French to P at first but then when she was a year+ I spoke to her in English and it felt really weird. And with #2 (should you decide to go down that route!), it was a total no-brainer. Good luck with everything!

  19. As most of the commenters have said, I’m glad WordPress featured your site on their Freshly Pressed section! My parents raised my two brothers and me with the OPOL method: I spoke Japanese to my mom, Chinese to my dad, and English with my friends. We all vary in terms of level of fluency with each of the languages and of course the multilingual parenting method affected us all differently, but we have definitely all benefited from it a great deal. My mother would not speak to us if we spoke to her in English. We went to language schools, had Chinese babysitters, and even went to Japan and Taiwan every summer and went to public schools there.

    As I grew up, I definitely started speaking more English with my parents (my mother was an English major and my father is pretty good at English as well), which definitely frustrated my parents. At some point, however, each of us decided to take some type of intensive language course or private tutoring because we ourselves felt language learning was important. It has opened up so many doors (working, volunteering, learning abroad) and was a major factor in my getting into the prestigious international studies program I am in now. I am currently studying abroad at Peking University taking classes alongside regular Chinese students, which never could have happened without the strict OPOL parenting.

    I am truly grateful to my parents. It is indeed hard to maintain the OPOL parenting, as all of the cases you explained happened in my family as well. But it is worth it! You are amazing and are doing amazing things for your children. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! For liking, for posting, for encouraging!
      And mostly for sharing your story. I am particularly interested in the fact that you all at some point took other classes or intensive tutoring. I definitely think there is this myth, that it all comes so naturally or so easily and people don’t always share the hard work that goes into something. I once spoke decent conversational Italian (or at least I like to think I did) and didn’t continue working on it and well, whatever is left in my mind is deeply buried indeed.
      As a total aside, I am slowly becoming obsessed with Asian languages – am very jealous of your Chinese and Japanese!

  20. Love it! Had an extra laugh (and lots of empathy) about translating books on the fly. In our family, it was fine when it was picture books with few words, but now I’ve had to stop. My daughter gets bored and frustrated with me as a struggle to find the semi-correct translation. Much easier said than done!

    • LOL, glad I am not the only one. I sometimes wonder what my daughter thinks when she sees me stop and think.. and say hmmm I don’t know the word for this in French… Now my life is spent trying to find French books. Suffered from serious luggage weight surplus on our last trip to France – and of course after stocking up on all these French books, she only wants me to read her Olivia. sigh.
      Thanks for visiting site and commenting!

      • Ha ha! It was so much easier to bring books back the airlines gave let you have 2 luggages and the weight limit was much heavier. Now, it’s really easy to go over, even without books packed!
        ps come and visit our blog if you get the chance, we have games and activities for esl/efl etc, since we promote speaking over reading and writing (ie usually there aren’t words), you could just do them in French. This site is in Italian, but you can always click over for to the English version.
        Lovin the blog. Thank you for the information, it’s like a virtual support group!

      • Yes so true! I keep hoping the Book Depository in the UK will expand their foreign language section especially now that they accept Sing dollars and do free world shipping – woohoo! I can’t wait to recommend your blog to a few Italian mama friends of mine. I didn’t see where to click over whole blog to English – just certain posts which is fine. I can also make out a decent amount of Italian since I studied it for a couple of years at school. Glad you like the blog – come back and see us some time

  21. I was born and brought up in a bilingual house. I am Italian-American, and grew up with my mother speaking to me in Italian, and my dad telling me something in English, so you can bet most of the time I was confused which one to listen to. But my mother’s always had an affinity for Italian and she’s really, really proud of BEING Italian…so she made it a strict standard and began teaching me Italian from a young age when she found I wasn’t speaking it. Eventually, I’d address her in Italian and do the same to my father. I’m now extremely fluent in it. My sister is currently undergoing training with my mother.
    Naturally, we speak in English to each other, though I can assure you that when I visit them…around 85 percent of our conversation takes place in Italian.

    • I definitely think that strong cultural links to the language really help with keeping it alive. I am glad your mom persisted and that it is still your home language. I do hope my kids will also read/write etc.. but ultimately for me, if they can speak to us and their extended family – then I’ll feel I’ve done my bit.
      Thanks Ashley for sharing your story!

  22. As a viewpoint from the child, looking back I wish my mum had tried harder to speak to me in her native tongue. She speaks fluent Welsh but because my dad is English and I grew up in England I don’t think she saw the point in teaching me but now I would love to be able to speak two languages fluently. I speak more German than Welsh. My cousin is Welsh but lives in London with her English husband and 2 sons (aged under 5) and she speaks Welsh to them. The nursery they attend has quite a lot of different nationalities and they make a point of catering for all of them including Welsh and my cousins sons get Welsh books. Meanwhile I can only say “good morning” and “do you want a cup of tea?”

    • One of the up sides of my experience writing this blog is that I’ve had friends and acquaintances say that they used to be quite cross with their parents for not continuing to speak in a native tongue; that they really regretted not being bilingual but that now that they had a greater understanding of how much work it can actually be – and factoring in that the culture at the time really didn’t encourage parents to speak other languages – especially in Anglophile countries- they understand why their parents opted out and feel less resentment as a result.
      I am just really glad that people now are recognizing the importance and advantage of multilingualism and that more resources – like your nieces school are providing parents with support. Perhaps your niece will be able to help teach you some Welsh .
      Thank you for sharing your story. And now I am curious how do you say “do you want a cup of tea” in Welsh!

  23. My dad speaks Cantonese at home, but because he worked in national defence he spoke to me in English and told me to speak English whenever he took me to work. But we maintained the illusion that my family spoke no English, because my parents insisted on being spoken to in stylistically pure Chinese at home, even though it was obvious they spoke (and wrote) fluent English with outsiders.

  24. I read this post because I have a niece, her parents are trying to raise her to speak French, English and Spanish. Spanish is our native tongue and she decidedly prefers to speak Spanish. They have not tried to bring in more of the other languages (they may move to Canada soon) because they are afraid they’ll confuse her. Reading your blog post I can see that this is definitely a fear I can mitigate. Does your child speak Spanish at all?

    I hope you all manage to teach her to speak fluently all three languages and even Chinese -the world will be hers (or theirs) knowing the most important languages of today and the future :)

    If I ever have a child myself, I hope I can teach them to be multilingual as well.

    Lovely post,


    • Muchas Gracias Masha!
      I hope your niece’s parents keep going with it. Moving to Canada will help with the French/English – I think they have a lot of bilingual programs there. I’ve often fantasized about living there for that reason and then they can focus on Spanish at home. There are increasing number of articles on the subject – I just posted one under title Quick Post which is really interesting about the benefits of multilingual parenting. It was a recent NYT article – perhaps you want to share it with them?
      And I am sure if/when the day comes that you have a child – you will do a great job raising them multilingual.
      Thanks for commenting!

  25. I really wish my parents would have introduced me to another language in childhood. I really dislike that one language is the norm in America. I would love, love, love, to be fluent in French or Spanish. I have tried to take classes, but I kind of suck at it.

    I admire you so much for introducing her to other languages! And I think it will have a positive effect even though you’re not doing it as strictly as you originally intended. She’s a lucky girl.

    • Thank you for your kind words.
      I definitely struggle as an adult getting my Spanish up and running. Not to say it is impossible but the most effective way once we are no longer kids are via immersion programs. (If only I could escape for a few months to hang out in Mexico….) I did meet a woman who had a Spanish speaking boyfriend and between him, TV and religiously working through novels with a dictionary taught her self to be completely fluent. I am still impressed to this day. I just don’t have the discipline. Thanks for visiting my blog!

  26. First of all, I did not realize that there were so many blogs dedicated to this idea. In fact, I didn’t realize there were so many people out there who so clearly understand what it means to raise multilingual children. I am so happy!

    My father speaks a not-very-well-known African language as his first language. Unfortunately for me, he decided that I only needed to know English. I made a promise to myself that I would not do that to my children.

    Best of luck with your efforts!

  27. It IS a lot of hard work to keep more than one language going in the household… but if you persevere- what a gift your child will have in the future!!! The world is open to them in a way that most people can only imagine!

  28. I grew up learning Spanish from my parents and English in school/ with friends. As a kid, it seemed like it was just how things were. As I grew up, I realized this isn’t the case for everybody. I’m so thankful to my parents for raising my family in a multicultural house. However, as one gets older, we have to make sure we make it a point to not forget the languages we know other than the main one we use. It would be such a shame to grow up with different languages but forget any of them.

    • You are fortunate Isaac as a lot of our peers didn’t benefit from their parents languages since there really used to be this notion that it wasn’t worthwhile to bother with second languages especially if English was the language of the country one was living in.
      And you are so right on the work it takes. I had to do a bunch of catch-up in French and continue to work on it and totally lost my italian which I regret to this day.
      Thanks for posting!

  29. I’m working on being multi-lingual (I speak English, Spanish, Mandarin, and am learning Arabic) and have always had the same dream for my future children. I’ve always wondered how that would work. I guess a big part of it is having a multi-lingual spouse as well and where we end up living. Thanks for this post–lots of good food for thought! :)

  30. We were raising our eldest in a bilingual home, Spanish during the day and English at night. When he was lagging in his speech development we cut out Spanish to get him ready for kindergarten. He probably would have done fine in school, doctors can really worry parents.

  31. It’s a tough thing and I’ve done lots of research myself on how we would do this (hubbie is German, I’m American) and so far all the parents I know so far have said that the parents only speak their native tongue to the child. Or another tip they gave me was to speak one language at a time rather than to repeat in both languages. It encourages the child to listen to the words and comprehend them much quicker. I think you’re a goddess for what you do and none of this is easy, I’m sure! Keep up the good work, you will see success again and again! Small steps are big leaps!


  32. Loved your post. Jumped right out at me in the “freshly pressed” section. Very funny and very insightful. I am trilingual, mother is French, lived in Guatemala for a lengthy period, but have most of my life in the States. I want my kids to know French, but I find it hard to speak it always to my kids since, though I am fluent, it is not my heart language. I feel like they would miss out on a deeper connection with me. We do a lot of books, videos and music. The sounds are definitely in their ears and mouths. We spend a month in France in the summers and this summer will go to a family camp in an attempt to have a serious immersion experience. We’ll see. Thanks for your writing.

  33. Great post. I have a student who knows Mandarin Chinese, English, and German. She is only three. She, understandably, takes a little longer to answer out of context questions (like, what color is this?), but she gets the questions right and is quite talkative and adorable.

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