Teaching kids French… what’s the “right” way to do it?
I’m teaching my kids French, and here’s a fairly typical French conversation between me and my 3 year old:
My 3 year old: It’s Grandad’s birthday!
Me: ‘Oui, on va lancer une fete!’ (we’re going to throw a party)
My 3 year old: Lancer fete! (to throw party)
Me (feeling pleased): Oui, tres bien. (yes, well done)
Later that night:
My italki tutor (gently mocking tone): In French, parties aren’t violent. You can’t say that you throw (‘lancer’) a party in French.
As you can probably guess from the title (and the above conversation), this post is not about how you can create the ideal conditions to help your kids become bilingual. There are plenty of books, websites and blog posts that deal with that.
I’m an intermediate French speaker, and I’ve decided to teach my kids French even though I’m not perfect at the language myself.
I’d like to share why I’m teaching my kids to speak French “badly”.
Yes, I’m Teaching my Kids Messy, Imperfect, Far-From-Fluent French
This post is for those of us whose lives are not optimised for making our kids bilingual, but who want to share our passion for language learning with our children and open their eyes to new languages, cultures and experiences.
Instead of bilingual pre-schools and native nannies, we have only ourselves at various stages of messy, imperfect, far-from-fluent language learning. But too often we are put off from involving our children and speaking to them in our target language because we are terrified of making mistakes, teaching them something that’s wrong, or worse……… that our children become so confused by our mixture of languages, imperfect grammar, and non-native accent that they become social outcasts, unable to mutter anything apart from incomprehensible Frenglish.
Ok, let’s take a breath. This obviously sounds ridiculous and exaggerated, but actually isn’t too far away from some of the warnings issued on various language learning threads and forums. For some people, if you can’t have each parent speaking their (preferably native) language to your children (a method known as OPOL – one parent, one language), your only other options are to hire a nanny, move to another country or find a bilingual pre-school.
Is “Bilingual or Nothing” Really the Best Way?
Speaking for my family: a nanny is not part of our lifestyle choice (or budget), we have no plans to move to another country and our children don’t go to pre-school (Even if they did, after a quick internet search, I discovered that there are no bilingual French preschools where we live).
Now, I’m not saying that these aren’t good ways to make your child bilingual: in fact, it’s true that they really are your best options if you want your child to have an immersive language experience.
But since when did we decide that it was immersive learning or nothing?
I want to convince you that you are not going to cause irreparable damage to your child if you start to introduce them to your target language, even if you are only a beginner. And you don’t have to make major alterations to your lifestyle choices to do it. I’m a huge advocate of making your language fit into your everyday life, whatever that’s like for your family.
5 Language Mess-Ups It Feels Terrifying to Make With Your Kids (And Why You Should Make Them Anyway)
Before I share more about my messy approach to teaching my kids another language, let’s take a look at some the reasons why people are afraid to speak their non-native language to their children (the truth is, I’ve felt many of these myself).
1. You Will Make (Many, Many) Mistakes
There’s no getting around it, you will make lots of them. You will mess up the word order, use the polite form instead of the informal, choose the wrong vocabulary to describe something and make tons of little grammatical errors
Here are a few I’ve made this week: I’ve mixed up c’est (“it is”) and il est (“he is”), jouer à (“to play a team sport”) and jouer de (“to play an individual sport or musical instrument”), and I’ve used the word normal (“not out of the ordinary”) instead of d’habitude (“usually”). Some of these I knew were mistakes, but made the mistake anyway when I spoke because speaking a language is frustrating like that. Some of them I recognised and corrected immediately, and some of them I realised much later. Of course, there will also be mistakes that I haven’t noticed at all.
BUT here’s the important thing; I don’t think you should worry about mistakes AT ALL.
Try to spot them? Yes.
Try to correct them next time you speak? Definitely.
Be afraid of them? No!
In fact, mistakes are actually on my list of benefits which you’ll see in a minute.
2. You Will Model A “Bad” Accent.
This is a genuine quote from someone on Quora:
“if the person (adult) who is teaching the language is not fluent, they (children) will pronounce it in the non-fluent way, and will continue to do so if not corrected. This, to me, is quite dangerous in a way.”
Yup, they actually said that speaking in a non native accent was dangerous for your children!
Now, I’ll go so far as to say that teaching my children to speak French with an English accent might end up being mildly irritating or even possibly really annoying for them. But then, if they continue to speak French as adults and use it enough to be irritated that they don’t have perfect accents, then, to be honest, I’m going to congratulate myself on a job well done.
I also hope that they’ll grow up understanding that there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ accent, just different accents. Someone might speak English with an American, British, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or French accent to name just a few. None of them are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as long as they can be easily understood.
3. You’ll Use Simpler Sentences than in Your Native Language
There is a depth, richness and complexity to language that you bring when you speak in your native language to your children. So, if you only speak to your children in the shorter, simpler sentences you can manage in your target language, your children are missing out on a wealth of grammar and vocabulary that is important for their language development.
I have absolutely no argument with this. I think it is vital that children have access to the richness and depth of your native language, particularly the affective language that you use. In encouraging language learners to speak to their children in their target language I am in no way saying that you should completely replace your native interactions with your children.
Again, this particular concern seems to assume that it is all or nothing again – your native language or your target language. I want people to feel comfortable and confident using their target language with their children. This does not have to be at the expense of the wonderful shared experiences that you have in your native language.
4. Your Children Will Mix Up the Languages They’re Learning
Children who are learning two languages might switch between languages when they are speaking (called “code switching”) but this is not a sign a confusion. In fact, many researchers see code switching as a sign of bilingual proficiency.
5. Your Children Won’t Really Be Bilingual.
Well, if ‘bilingual’ means ‘able to speak like a native’ then, ok, my method is much less likely to produce bilingual children than immersion techniques. If ‘bilingual’ means ‘fluent’ or even ‘able to speak two languages’ then who knows? One of the brilliant things about children is that they are unpredictable and grow up to have their own ideas about what they want to do with their time, energy and brain power. What I can do is give them experiences now which broaden their horizons, pique their curiosity and share my passion for languages with them.
I can’t promise that my strategies are going to produce bilingual children because children aren’t cakes – I can put in all the ingredients to get a chocolate fudge cake but I might end up with a lemon drizzle (or, more likely, a cake that I don’t even know exists yet).
So, I’m going to ignore the naysayers and carry on teaching my children to speak French badly.
5 Reasons I Choose to Speak Another Language “Badly” With My Kids
Here are 5 reasons why I think you should speak to your kids in your target language (mistakes, bad grammar, shoddy accent and all!):
1. It’s Good To Make Mistakes In Front Of Your Children.
Actually it’s great.
As a former primary school teacher, I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about this because I have seen so many young people get worried and upset when they make mistakes. Often their biggest concern is ‘have I done it right?’ which is such a shame.
Language learners know better than most people that it’s not just ok to make mistakes, it’s actually vital to learning and progression.
Let your children see you making mistakes, let them see how you react positively to them, let them see you learn from them.
I’m convinced that it does my kids good to hear a gleeful shout of:
“aha! Mummy got it wrong! I should have said ‘tu veux que je le fasse!’ ‘fasse! not fait!’ It’s the subjunctive!”
As well as:
“I don’t know how to say ‘let’s all ride on the ninky nonk’ in French but I will find out”
(For anyone who isn’t in the UK and doesn’t have a child under the age of 6, I haven’t just made that up. It’s a reference to a train-like contraption from a children’s TV show. I have used this as my example because I have literally just said that sentence to my 3 year old. When I have finished writing this paragraph, we are indeed going to think about the best way to say ‘let’s all ride on the ninky nonk’ in French and then probably spend the next hour using variations of that phrase in our play.)
2. The Benefits Of Bilingualism
Ok, so the jury’s out on this one.
Although there is a general assumption that there are many cognitive benefits from being bilingual (and many, many articles supporting this) perhaps it’s fair to say that actually, we don’t really understand the human brain or the process of language acquisition well enough to be definite about anything at the moment.
This article in The New Yorker
suggests that, although there seems to be pretty good evidence that being bilingual delays the onset of Alzheimer's, the other common beliefs about bilinguals being quicker at various mental tasks aren’t always borne out by research.
However, some research indicates that bilinguals are smarter, better at problem solving, have better memories and are more skilled at multi-tasking. Of course, it all probably depends on the level at which they speak a second language.
So read the research and come to your own conclusions about what benefits your kids are going to get from learning another language. It would be great if learning a language gave my kids all these advantages in the future, but personally I like to focus on the benefits they are getting right now, every day. like….
3. You Are Showing Your Kids How to Learn
You are not just passing on your knowledge of the language (however big or small that might be at the moment), you are showing them that learning is something that happens everywhere, at any time, at any age – not just in school.
You are a role model in how to follow your passions, how to be curious, how to develop the motivation to learn something independently dictated by your own interests and, of course, how learning is satisfying and fun! In my opinion, that is a great gift to give to your children.
4 You’ll Help Your Kids Understand Different Cultures and Points of View
You can’t learn a language independently from culture. Language is fundamentally about people and about communicating. In the modern world, I think we all need to raise our children with a greater understanding of how to communicate with others across racial, religious, linguistic and geographical boundaries. And with the understanding of other languages and other cultures comes an understanding of other points of view. I hope that by being able to show my children the world through the lenses of different languages, they will be more tolerant, more understanding, more inclusive and not just view things from an anglocentric perspective.
5. Bonding — You’ll Share Your Passion with the People You Love
What’s better than sharing your passions with the people you love?
This is a completely natural part of parenting. My partner plays hockey; so does his dad and his brother and his cousin is a GB Olympic hockey player. We sometimes go to watch them play. Sometimes we help the kids knock the ball about with a hockey stick on the pitch after a match. I’m pretty much taking it for granted that hockey is going to be the first sport my kids are going to play.
Whether they carry on playing as older children / teenagers / adults will be up to them but it’s likely that they are going to enjoy it because it’s so much fun having a shared interest to bond over.
I’m sure my partner won’t mind me saying, but he is less proficient at hockey than his Olympian cousin. That’s not going to stop him from teaching the kids how to play.
He’s not afraid of teaching them an imperfect technique for taking a plenty flick or worried that he’s scuppering their chances of becoming professional players because he’s teaching them bad habits they won’t be able to undo.
They’re all just having a great time together.
In the moment.
Because it’s fun.
There are Benefits for Me, Too
They were just the benefits for the kids! I have discovered there are also heaps of benefits for my own language learning. Here are just a few:
- Time is precious – I don’t have much time for ‘studying’. But by learning alongside my children, I am reading, watching and speaking French as part of our daily lives.
- I am constantly practising thinking and speaking in my target language
- I am increasing my vocabulary with loads of useful, everyday words that I didn’t know. Before I started speaking to my kids, I was pretty proficient at talking about topics like the news and politics but, as demonstrated above, my knowledge of vocabulary pertaining to imaginary train rides was lacking.
- I’m discovering new ways of speaking. It’s not just the vocabulary – I could get around a train station in France without any problems but the whole way we talk to children is different. If I was talking to adults I might talk about taking a train but probably wouldn’t say ‘let’s all ride on the train!’.
Speak From Day 1! — That Means With Your Kids, Too
Often language learners spend a lot of time doubting their abilities and lacking in confidence, particularly when it comes to speaking. Because of this, I think we tend to feel that speaking a new language to our children is something that we can only do if when we are more fluent than we are now.
That’s certainly what I believed when I started learning French.
But then I realised the problem was that I was never going to achieve a level of fluency that I was happy with. Even people who have been speaking their target language confidently (and fluently) for many years still make mistakes and still have a non-native accent.
I was always going to feel like I should improve before I started speaking to my children.
At first, this thought was kind of depressing until I realised that actually it was really liberating. I had been falling into the trap that Benny built this blog around: There was never going to be the perfect time to start speaking.
I just needed to start and to realise that making mistakes doesn’t matter (and can even be beneficial). And although I know my French won’t ever be perfect, it’s going to keep improving.
And the best way to improve? To keep speaking.
How Should You Start? Give Yourself Permission to Be Imperfect
My 3 year old knows that I am learning, that I make mistakes, that the mistakes I make are sometimes big and sometimes small and sometimes really funny. He sees me get excited when I recognise a mistake, he sees me try and try and try again and he sees me enjoying the process.
So if you see us out and about, that mixture of English and (sometimes ungrammatical) French you can hear, spoken in an English accent by an excited 3 year old and his mum, is the sound of learning and living – if you’ve been too scared to try it yourself because you’re not fluent enough, this is your call to action.
Give yourself permission to not be perfect and give it a go – it really is the best.