|(This was written almost 20 years ago. Another few posts are following with updates on our bilingual parenting adventure)|
My name is Renee Johnson, my husband is Paul Johnson and we have one son (born 10/23/94) named Jeremie. Both Paul and I were born and grew up in California. Our family currently lives in Mountain View, California. Even as a young child I can remember being interested in learning about foreign languages, especially French. When I started junior high school (12-yrs-old), I had my first opportunity to take a French class. I studied French diligently every year all through junior high and high school. I imagined that I would eventually teach this second language I was working so hard to learn to my own children. Seemed a very logical goal at the time. At Brigham Young University I took over 30 credit hours of French classes during my undergraduate studies, including a summer internship in Brussels. After so many years of study, and after spending a summer in a French speaking country (which I thought would make me completely fluent), I realized I was still a long way from being a native speaker. By this point I was feeling very pessimistic about ever trying to teach French to anyone, let alone my children. The very thought of it seemed impossible and even unnatural. Before getting married I had an opportunity to learn a third language, Italian. I learned Italian while living in Italy for a year and a half. Even though I had studied Italian a fraction of the time that I had studied French, I felt more confident in my ability to communicate in Italian.
My husband, Paul, also had a great interest in foreign languages. He completed a minor in French (completing more advanced university classes than I was able to take) during his undergraduate studies, and had the opportunity to live in France for 2 years before we got married. He spoke French quite well. But since he was also not a native speaker, I didn't think our chances of teaching our children French were very promising. When we found out we were expecting a child, my parents anxiously asked "You will of course speak French to this child, won't you?" I explained that of course I would like to, but that we really didn't speak French well enough to speak it to our children continually. We had come to feel that as non-native French speakers living in the United States that family was not suited to be bilingual. But we assured my parents that although we wouldn't be able to truly communicate in French to our children that we would teach them a few songs, poems, phrases, etc. in French.
But we did want to raise our child bilingually. We tried to think of ways that we could move to a French speaking country for a few years (a dream I still would like to realize). At this same time we had some native English speaking friends also living in the United States, Kristina and Karl Shurts, who had a child they were raising bilingually in German and English. We started to ask them questions about why they felt comfortable speaking German to their young son. Kristina and Karl had answers for all our questions and concerns. After listening to their ideas, sensing their confidence, seeing the progress their son was making, and doing some of our own research, we decided we would try to speak just French while we were alone with our child once he was born.
As soon as Jeremie was born, we put our plan into practice. My parents were thrilled, even though neither of them speak French. Paul's parents were supportive, though occasionally expressed concern that Jeremie's English language development might suffer. We felt completely confident that our son would learn to speak English with no problems. We communicated exclusively in English to each other, and planned to speak in English to him when around other English speakers. Further, all of Jeremie's family and almost all of his friends would speak only English to him. We had no such confidence that he would learn French. We would both speak exclusively in French to him (making exception while including English speakers in our communication with him), memorize and sing French songs to him, play French audio tapes (mostly music) for him, play French videos for him, read only French books to him, provide him with educational French software, travel to France with him whenever possible, provide him with French speaking playmates if possible, etc.
Although we had thought out a careful plan, at first Paul and I did feel very awkward speaking French to Jeremie. We decided to keep trying to see what would happen. After about a year of speaking French to Jeremie, it started to feel strange to speak to him in English. It even seemed strange to speak to other people's infant children in English. (If I'm not careful, I still blurt out French sentences when communicating with other people's toddlers.) We felt more comfortable speaking French to him, even though we often found ourselves hunting through a dictionary for vocabulary. (We still have a dictionary constantly handy.)
Even though we were very excited about sharing our languages with him, we had no idea what the result would be. We certainly had no assurance that he would be bilingual. Our minimum expectation was that although he may never learn to speak French from us, that he would benefit in someway from the extra language stimulation in his infancy and would possibly have an increased aptitude for language learning as an adolescent or adult. We realized that even if he did learn to speak to some degree the French we were teaching him that he would also learn the grammatical errors we might use, the non-native pronunciation, etc. We both agreed that whatever we could teach him would be better than nothing. We also felt confident that if he could understand the concept behind multiple languages as a young child, that he might be motivated and more prepared linguistically to study and learn several foreign languages later on.
When Jeremie first starting talking using one word sentences, he used a few in English and a few in French. I was a little discouraged because it seemed a bad sign to me that although he did use the French word for "ball" he also used the English words "hi" and "bye." And he started using those two English words with such frequency and vigor (repeating them up to 20 times with each greeting) that he sure sounded like a monolingual English speaking baby to me. I called my friend Kristina to report and tell her that it looked like things weren't working out too well for Jeremie. She told me that her son, by that time 3-years-old and speaking both English and German quite well, had also begun speaking using a few words from both languages, including "hi" and "bye."
Eventually Jeremie's language started to develop beyond just a few words. It soon became clear that he not only used more French words than English in his own speech, but also understood much more in French than he did in English. We had no concern that the English would eventually make a comeback, so we encouraged the French as much as we could. There were a few French words that Jeremie would refuse to use, and this caused us some concern. We thought that maybe his resistance to use the French word "livre" instead of his preferred English word "book" might be an omen that eventually he would refuse to use many or all of his French words. I called Kristina and told her my concern. She said her son also refused to use a few select German words at Jeremie's age, but eventually just started using the German. We just hoped the same would happen for Jeremie. It did. After several long months of waiting and coaxing, Jeremie eventually starting saying "livre." Of course, he still uses "book" but only when speaking to English speakers.
Paul and I were both very surprised when just before Jeremie's second birthday he started speaking so clearly in English to his English speaking friends and family. He had been speaking quite well to us in French, but we had no idea how much English he had learned. And we had no idea that he knew when it was appropriate to use each language. We had tried to make it clear that we preferred him to speak to us in French, but had made no special effort to encourage him to speak in English to other people. I was very surprised one day when after Jeremie's grandmother presented him with a gift and I, speaking in French, asked him to thank her for the gift, and he addressed his grandmother in a clear and loud voice saying, "Thank you." I had expected him to respond to my command by saying "Merci." I just intended to translate his expression of gratitude to his grandmother. I knew he knew the French word for "thank you," but didn't even know he knew the English word.
Jeremie is now 2 1/2-years-old. He speaks exclusively in French to both of his parents and addresses all of his English speaking friends and family in English. He is French dominant at this point, but we anticipate a reversal in his language dominance some time in the next two years. The books, tapes, videos, songs, and a two month trip to France just before his second birthday seem to have all made an impact on his language development. We still don't know if he will continue to speak French once he is in school. But right now he loves French and English. He talks about both languages and sometimes asks to hear books in English and sometimes in French--though mostly in French if it's his parents reading. Our English speaking friends with children of the same age comment that Jeremie seems to speak as much English as their children do--I think they hear more of his English speech than I do. They also comment that he is especially easy to understand for his age since he seems to pronounce his English words very carefully, deliberately and clearly--something I hadn't noticed.
Jeremie will certainly continue to learn to read, write and speak English as well as his California playmates. We will continue to try to educate him in French, trying to take him again to France in a few years. But we aren't sure we will be able to continue to speak to him in French around the clock. Since we would have a hard time having sophisticated conversations in French with Jeremie (toddler talk has been no particular challenge), we may have to switch to English part-time in a few years. We will still continue to try and have French speech part-time in our home, especially with any young children that might arrive. Although I'm not exactly sure how much Jeremie will eventually learn, so far all the effort, including the discomfort of the first year of speaking to him in French, has all been well worth it. We are also planning on teaching Jeremie a little vocabulary in Italian--maybe by playing age appropriate games together once a week in the morning. We look forward to a future where we can explore even more languages and cultures as a family.