Saturday, 1 March 2008

Why won't my child speak to me in English?

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet many "transplanted" moms. Unlike "expat" moms who are just in a foreign country for a defined term, transplanted moms have effectively immigrated to the country and adopted it as their new home. Often, a transplanted mom's husband is a "local".

Of all the challenges that transplanted moms face, getting their kids to speak English often is the most difficult one to surmount.Take Andrea. She is from the United Kingdom, married to a French guy and lives in France. They have two school-aged daughters.

"I thought raising my kids in English would be automatic," Andrea says. "It never occurred to me when they were born that they might not be bilingual."But at age 12 and 10, Andrea's girls are nowhere near bilingual. While Andrea has consistently spoken to her daughters in English from the day they were born, her daughters, from their first word, have always spoken to their mom in French. Attempting to read an English book is too much of a chore to even bother and watching movies in anything but the dubbed "version française" is a challenge for them.

"Friends said that I should refuse to answer my girls when they asked me a question in French," Andrea says. "I called that 'language blackmail' and I refused to engage in it. Now I regret not having taken that approach."

Andrea is one of many transplanted moms who just can't get her kids to bother with English. They understand when their mom talks to them and that's about the extent of their fluency.

Here are some tips for avoiding this situation.

1. Recognize that your child needs a minimum amount of time per week exposed to English if she is going to learn to understand and speak the language fluently. Your child is not going absorb the English language by osmosis just because one of her parents happens to be an English speaker. Most experts in multilingualism say that a child needs about 20 to 24 hours per week of exposure to English to gain true fluency. Exposure, for this purpose, includes listening to a person talk to the child in that language, listening to people talk to each other in English, hearing it on television or radio, and the child herself speaking English.

Lots of moms complain that their child does not speak English but when you get the details of the exposure the child gets, it looks something like this: the minority language parent works full time and the child is in the local school or daycare where he hears the local language all day. He only sees the minority parent a couple of hours per weekday. Part of the time at home, the minority parent is talking to his or her spouse, in the local language of course. Then on the weekend, the family is with friends and relatives and of course the local parent has to speak the local language with the friends and relatives. Then there is the TV, which broadcasts in the local language... You get the picture.

If you want your child to learn your language, you are going to have to make an effort to make it happen. This may mean ensuring that you talk to your child as much as possible when you are home (more than you normally talk), getting a English-mother-tongue babysitter to pick your child up from daycare early and spend a couple of hours with her, and/or avoiding the relatives on weekends and getting together with other English-speaking families. Bilingualism is not going to happen if you are not ensuring adequate exposure in some way.

2. Always speak to your child in English. This piece of advice sounds self-evident, yet how often I heard my Anglo-saxon mommy friends in France tell their little one to "get into the poussette" (the stroller) or that it was "time for their afternoon gouter" (snack).It is easy to fall into the trap of using local language words for certain items but whenever you do that, you 1) send the message that using the local language with you is acceptable and 2) deny your child an important piece of vocabulary in English. Imagine your child showing up in your home country when he is older and not knowing the English word for "snack"!

3. Original version only! In our home, we have a rule that when we watch a film or television show, it has to be in original version. We watch French films in French, English films in English and Italian films in Italian. Dubbing is something you have to get used to as a child to like. Adults who watch dubbed movies do so because they grew up with dubbed movies. If your child does not grow up watching dubbed versions, there is a good chance that he or she will always prefer watching the original English version of movies and shows when he is older, even if another language is his dominant language.

4. Books, radio, English! Spend at least half an hour reading to your small child in English. And make it a rule that all animated DVDs are to be watched in the English version (all non-animated stuff in the original version, of course!). You don't need to iterate this rule to your child. Just make it so. He wants a DVD? It gets put on in English. If you have access to an English radio station, tune into it! And don't forget to watch the news on CNN or BBC in addition to the local news that your partner insists on watching at 20h00 every evening!

5. If your spouse understands English, consider speaking to him in English if you do not already (at least when your child is with you). It might feel artificial at first but switching to English when talking to your spouse can ramp up the English exposure for your child significantly. Remember, your spouse can still talk to you in his language. This tactic also reinforces that association your child draws between you and your mother tongue.


Delina said...

Good tips. I can imagine that it is not easy to get a child to be bilingual. I know of people here who have bilingual children, but I also know one couple, Irish - Italian, who's children had to go for extra English lessons as they were so in need. It's a hard one.

MamaCass said...

Wonderful post, thanks!

I'm in a very similar situation - American in Rome (was in Paris before coming here) with a French partner - and have two young daughters (almost 2 yrs and 3.5 months). Italian nido and French between him and me (until recently, as I've switched to english in front of the children), only fracophone grandparents, and only a few anglophone friends.

I'm at the starting point of all these questions and concerns so greatly appreciate here hearing your thought processes! Ironic that I'm concerned about my daughters not speaking english while living in a world dominated by the english-language empire.

I'm the worker in the family and travel a good deal for my work. The almost 2 yr. old is starting to speak, to my slight chargrin, primarily in french. But, I won't throw in the towel just yet. I, too, had the idea of in-english-only cartoons. Feel quite manipulative about this but, such is life.

On a lighter note, there's a great Czech cartoon, Krtek (the mole, la taupe) on youtube that is almost language independent and wonderful.

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