When our children were small and we would talk about their bilingualism with people in France, many of them would say that it was too bad that English wasn't their second language. This would upset me greatly a) because I knew they meant instead of Finnish and NOT instead of French and b) because I couldn't understand how anything could be as useful to my children as having access to the native languages, and this way to the cultural heritage, of their parents.
Rationally I knew of course that I could have also introduced English (or another language) to my children when they were small, after all countless children around the world are raised trilingually! Still, I must admit that I was scared that it would somehow detract from them learning the two languages that mattered the most to our family. English was definitely going to be important one day in the future, but French and Finnish were necessary for communication right now. And quite frankly – it wasn't like achieving just bilingualism was a walk in the park either!
Most Finnish children start learning their first foreign language at the age of nine and while depending on the school there can be many choices, most choose English. At the French-Finnish school that our children attend, however, they consider French to be the first foreign language (even if it’s the language used for teaching other subjects, too) and English doesn't come along until two years after their peers in monolingual schools have started studying it. I felt this was too late and figured that since I was teaching 3rd grade English anyway, I could maybe do it with Emma at home, too.
I ran into something called resistance. Not sure if you've ever heard of it, but it’s very frustrating. I tried to go around it, bought music CDs for the car, fun DVDs (Magic English with Donald Duck) and looked for websites (www.englishbyyourself.fr) to try to make it fun. Emma was 8 when we started and with our priority being to reinforce her French, the progress with English was very slow if not unnoticeable. When she was 9 I bought very cheap Easy jet tickets to Manchester for the two of us so that she could hear the language. It was a fun trip and even if she probably didn't utter a single word in English herself she could now associate the language with fun things like Halloween candy, soccer and Fish & Chips! The year after she was slightly more motived as she knew we were traveling to the US for my high-school reunion. She could form basic sentences and could ask her new American friends simple questions, but still needed a lot of help to understand the answers. She discovered peanut butter and Dr. Seuss and asked us if we could, please please mom, travel to the US again.
This year we did, but with a crazy work schedule and husband out of the country for five months I was back to being the French language police with no time for English. The language classes at school finally started for Emma last fall and I vaguely noticed that she seemed to take an interest in the Girls magazines that I subscribed her to, but which had been too difficult for her until now. The first week in the US we were invited to dinner at friends’ house. Sara went to play with their children, but Emma, twelve years of age, preferred to stay with the adults. Her expressions and a few comments (in Finnish to me) showed me that she understood most of what we were talking about. The next night another dinner at another friend’s house who also had a preteen daughter. We did not see Emma all evening. “They’re talking!” exclaimed Sara when we asked her what the older girls were doing.
The iron was hot, it was time to strike – in other words look for language learning opportunities. Knowing that reading is Emma’s favorite way to learn we looked for anything that might be interesting. Here’s a great example from Denny’s which helped make our dinner both entertaining and educational as we looked for more questions online and made some up ourselves.
As we were driving from California to Texas, the Kids ultimate U.S. road trip atlas was a great find and each time we crossed over to a new state we asked Emma to read us the fun facts, boredom busters and crazy traffic laws.
I could tell that she was starting to feel very good about her improving language skills and the proof came at a Walmart in New Mexico. “Mom, can you buy this book for me?” I had to control myself not to buy the whole series then and there, this was a definite déjà vu from when she had finally started to read in French.
The little sister is now the one resisting to learn English. It’s still happening, know. Slowly, but surely.
About the author
Annika Bourgogne holds a Master of Arts degree in French and English from the University of Helsinki. She has written her master’s degree on bilingualism, and is mother to two bilingual daughters. Annika is also the author of the Be Bilingual: Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families book.
This article was published originally in the Journal of a bilingual family
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