Tips for raising bilingual children for non-natives


My son has just turned two and last night he surprised me by pointing out a vache, a chat and a gateau in a picture book without any hints on their whereabouts from me. I've been reading and speaking to him in French since he was born, ramping it up slowly as his consciousness has come 'on stream'. He's been able to copy counting in French for a few months now, which is a neat trick but of course I know he doesn't have a great grasp on the concept of quantity. If I recall correctly he ought to be able to distinguish between 1 and many, but that's it for now.

But when he pointed out the cow, cat and cake in the image, among a few other items, I realised that this passive, one-way chatter from a non-native is familiarising him with the sounds and vocabulary of French. I think at this point, to him, he's learning alternative words for the same things without realising there's an entire country that uses only those words. He knows 'bumbum' and 'botbot' so why not add 'fesses' and 'derrière' on top?

I'm not entirely sure where this is headed, as my initial goals were just to familiarise him with French speech patterns and basic vocab. But I can see him being able to speak French in a year or two if we keep this up, and that prospect was entirely unexpected. So, without pressuring him and keeping it playful, I ought to perhaps revise those goals and aim for basic conversation as the next stage. I'll share below a short list of what I've been doing and would love to hear other ideas from others in the same boat.

What we do

Bearing in mind that a) I'm a non-native, so remembering to speak French is an effort, not a reflex b) I've not been trying very hard to date, but am pleasantly surprised at the results c) I'm the only one confident enough to speak French in the house, but maman enjoys her bisous all the same.

  • I read to him in French, mostly at night while he's winding down. Before it was with his bottle (thanks to Véronique Duran, editor and translator at Usborne for that tip) and now he's happy to sit and listen if I keep my voice varied enough!
  • We have bought the paperback versions of Julia Donaldson and classic story books from Amazon which he's happy to sit through. I highlight anything that might be useful in terms of vocab or phrases by repeating them a few times and maybe sometimes saying it quickly in English before repeating it.
  • We count things the same as everyone else does in their native language, just sometimes switching to French.
  • I go over English books in French, a most likely terrible on-the-fly translation but I try to stick to set, common phrases that I might end up repeating.
  • I ask him things in French, to pass me things and point to things for me.

Third language?

I also speak Swedish, and while it'd be a nice 'freebie' for him to add Swedish (and consequently access to most of Scandinavia and inklings of German), I don't want to rock the boat on the French front. Do you have a similar problem and how have you dealt with it?

PS - I'll update the post periodically with any tips or links to discussions surrounding it.

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