Thinking about helping your child learn French as a second language? Here’s a quick guide to getting started, from thinking about the extent to which you would like them to speak the language to how you are going to go about helping them learn it.
1. How much French? Decide the degree to which you would like your child to speak French
- Totally bilingual in French and English
- French as a second language
- A good understanding of French, but with English remaining the main language
2. Work out a system that suits you. Once you have your goal, you can look at how you are going to achieve it, by deciding on a system. One Person One Language (OPOL) and Minority Language at Home (MLaH) are two common and successful systems.
The advantages of using a system rather than free-styling is that it can minimise the tendency for a child to mix languages and can also help avoid a refusal to speak the second language down the line.
Take a look at the main systems used and see if one of them feels right for you and your child.
MLaH – Minority Language at Home
Also known as the Foreign Home Pattern. Everyone speaks the second language at home and the majority language with everyone else.
The second language doesn’t have to be the native tongue of both parents or even of either parent if you are super committed. Of all the methods this is the one most likely to result in you raising a truly native speaking child, because the child is hearing, interacting and absorbing the language from both parents consistently from birth until they fly the nest. You can read more about MLaH here.
OPOL – One Person One Language
One parent speaks the majority language to the child and the other speaks only the second language.
This is the most widely used system for raising bilingual and multilingual children, but it does require some supplementary language exposure. The most popular ways to further expose a child to a second language are through playgroups and singing groups or in some cases through hiring a native speaking nanny or au-pair.
Regardless, it is always good for the child to hear the language from more than one person.
T&P – Time and Place
This is the method used most often at schools with bilingual programmes, of which there are few and far between in the UK. The idea is to pinpoint times and places where the second language is used. So, within the confines of a school this would perhaps be decided upon by subjects or by splitting the day into two halves.
If you were to use this method, you would perhaps decide to use the second language when you attend French groups or for a set time each day. This does offer ultimate flexibility, but outside of school, it is the method least likely to create a totally bilingual child. Perhaps it should be called bilingual-lite!
3. Get started! Babies are already absorbing language before they are born, so there is no need to wait for the ‘right time’ to start.
There are many myths about the pros and cons of bilingualism. The Multicultural Children’s Association website has produced a useful article which highlights the many benefits of bilingualism and explodes some of the myths about the perceived negatives.
The benefits of being bilingual reach far beyond being able to communicate in more than one language. Yet, there’s a lot of discussion around the pros and cons of raising a child to speak more than one language from birth.
The Multicultural Children’s Association website has produced a useful list of the pros and cons, which highlights the benefits and explodes some of the myths about perceived negatives. Here’s a brief summary of the advantages.
The Pros Of Raising A Bilingual Child
It’s easier to learn another language from birth than at any other time in life. Learning language comes naturally to babies and young children, so learning one is as natural to them as learning two.
Your child will be ahead of the languages game by the time they start school.
Speaking more than one language from a young age will also make it easier for them to learn subsequent languages, as they already understand that there are differences in sounds, word order, stress, rhythm, intonation and grammatical structure between languages.
Bilingualism and multilingualism is proven to help children develop superior reading and writing skills.
Bilingual and multilingual children tend to have better analytical, social and academic skills than monolingual children.
Speaking more than one language helps your child to be more flexible and adaptable to different environments and have a greater appreciation of other cultures and cultural differences.
There are many more career opportunities for people who speak more than one language.
The Cons Of Raising A Bilingual Child
The Multicultural Children’s Association points out that extensive medical studies on language development over the last 20 years have proven most of the myths about the cons of raising a bilingual child to be incorrect. But here’s a few points to bear in mind.
Whilst there is no specific scientific data on bilingual children speaking later than their monolingual counterparts, parents of bilingual children have given feedback that there can be a delay of around three to six months for children starting to speak. But given that a bilingual child will be taking in many more words than a monolingual child, is it any wonder? And in the long run, surely that child will come out ahead!
Getting mixed up between two languages is very common in children learning more than one language at the same time. But by the age of around five this has been proven to pretty much disappear. Any child learning a language for the first time will get muddled, sentences come out backwards, tenses get confused, so adding a second language just gives a variation on what most monolingual children go through. Again, just as with monolingual children, getting mixed up diminishes over time.
Teaching your child a second language does mean there is a lot of extra effort needed by you! You need to be committed, whether you are aiming for complete bilingualism or simply giving your child a great start with a second language. Of course, parents of bilingual children will tell you hands down the effort is worth it.
4. Learning materials. Gather useful learning aides and start using them – books, CDs, DVDs, toys. Arrange to swap and share your booty of learning aides with other like-minded parents (see point 5!). Find a French language radio station via digital radio and have it playing in the house. Live and breathe your mission to teach your child French and it will start to happen!
5. Local community. Like everything in life, it’s easier when you have a support network. It is far more motivating to learn a language if you know that you will need to use it to communicate with others. So, creating opportunities where you and your child can speak French are key.
Look for local groups you can join. If you can’t find one, then consider setting one up for yourself.
6. Connect with the online bilingual community. Of course the beauty of the digital age is that you can also connect with like-minded souls online. Look out for the Ma Puce Community Forum in the months to come, but in the meantime hop over and meet some of the wonderful bilingual and multilingual folks via the Ma Puce online bilingual community page
7. Take a class. If your French is rusty, consider taking some classes. Your local college is likely to have language courses or you can hire a tutor. You could even get together with another parent and share a tutor.
8. Be flexible. There will be times when everything flows and times when you will come unstuck. Either you or your child might lose enthusiasm for any number of reasons. You can find you don’t have the time to focus on helping your child with French or they might develop an aversion to speaking or listening to French.
Ultimately, whatever level of French you are able to help your child achieve will stand them in good stead for reconnecting with the language at some point in their future or for learning other languages.