Bilingual Life

Raising our Bilingual Bébé

I knew well before our daughter was even a twinkle in my eye that I would teach my children French and English. Growing up bilingual was such a precious gift my parents gave us. It allowed me to know two cultures, have two histories, travel, and be generally kind of cool 😉 (Really, we had a third language too: music!) All those things combined absolutely helped me in a lot of ways — I made my way through school thanks to jobs and housing earned due to the fact I speak native French. I get languages — I studied Spanish since the age of ten, and then dabbled some in Italian, Russian, ancient Greek, and Finnish. (I love Finnish!)

It helps in subtler ways too: there are tons of studies out there about how bilingualism makes you a better learner, keeps your brain stronger in old age, and so on. I’ve always been good at understanding unfamiliar words because usually they sound like a word in at least one other language I’ve studied. And being familiar with several languages means I’m familiar with similarities that can then help explain new words or structures or points of grammar in other languages.

And to be totally honest, my sisters and I loved having a “secret” language growing up. We loved that when we were out in public we could switch to the non-native language and have our own private conversations with each other or a parent. Of course you have to be careful with that… there are other bilinguals out there!

Charlemagne is believed to have said, “to have another language is to possess a second soul.” Naturally, I wanted those experiences and benefits for my own progeny! But there are some logistics to consider. Who speaks which language to the kids, and when? How do you create a love of reading while maintaining the language of another country? And the trickiest one for me: how do I keep up my own French when I live in just about the least diverse state of America!?

One thing was certain: we needed to start from the very beginning. A study I learned about a few years ago found babies may pick up on language cues from the womb! In this NPR report, you can hear the difference between the cries of a German newborn and those of a French newborn — they appear to be imitating their respective language’s intonation. Cool right? I remember the first time I realized Adelina’s crying sounded like the French babies in the study, and I was SO excited.


We’re still figuring it all out. It helps me stay sharp to I speak on the phone or via FaceTime with my family in France at least weekly. Some things we’ve put in place from the start: for example, we decided early on that I would speak French exclusively to Adelina. She gets plenty of English from the rest of the world, so with me it’s all French, all the time. It makes some things a little tricky: reading books, for example — I only have a handful of books in French, so we’ll have to see what happens when we run out! Andrew of course can read and speak with her in English so they have that together, although he often ends up speaking French to her too.

I love reading a French book at bedtime with her. The stories and words remind me of my own homeland, and it’s also a cultural benefit — reading Astérix et Obélix chez les Corses gives us a little flavor of the island our ancestors came from, for example — in a comical kind of way, of course 🙂

We hope to put our kids in some form of dual language immersion if we’re lucky enough to have that resource when the time comes. (Yes, I know, I need to get involved with the local parents’ group so we can make it happen! I’ll get there…)

Our nursery theme was inspired by a storybook my paternal grandfather gave me as a little girl. I distinctly remember reading lessons with him: we studied from the “Méthode Boscher” a primer with red binding, and then he’d reach up to the top of a dresser and give me a piece of gum (that was a huge treat!) at the end of a lesson.

Andrew often wonders at how he never thought he would have children with another nationality in addition to his own, but I love that it’s important to him that we do all this for her. He’s been a huge motor in getting all our paperwork sorted out too, and we just recently got our marriage and Adelina’s birth formalized with the French government!

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So there you have it. I realize we’ll run into new challenges as she learns to speak and read, but I look forward to doing it all in two languages!

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