Multilingualism in my family (Sarah's story)

12 Jul 2012

This week, we meet Sarah and her family. Sarah may be familiar to you as she is a regular blogger and a great source of inspiration for many! Sarah and her family live in the USA and she speaks non-native French to her children. 

1. Name


2. Blog

3. In what country do you currently live?


4. How many children have you got and how old are they?

Griffin, age 4 and Gwyneth, age 11 months

5. Who speaks what to whom (in the home)?

My husband and I are both Americans, raised in monolingual households.  I studied French as a teen and young adult and eventually became a French teacher, so I speak exclusively French with our children.

6. What language do your children hear outside home?

My children are surrounded by English speakers at school/daycare, with close friends and extended family, and in most activities (swimming lessons, music classes, playgroup, library programs).  The exceptions include the following: French playgroup once a week, French storytime twice a month, occasional playdates with francophone children, and infrequent conversations (in person or via Skype) with my mother or my former teaching colleagues in French.

7. If you had to put a percentage on the languages your child(ren) hear what would they be?

Basically, if it’s a weekday when I’m not working and their dad is, they get about 75% French, 25% English.  When I’m at work (part-time work, so half days only, fortunately), I’d say it’s more like 50/50, and probably the same on weekends.

8. Did you set out to follow a particular method to raise your child(ren) multilingually?

Choosing OPOL as our approach was an easy decision: my husband ruefully refers to himself as “hopelessly monolingual,” so it was clear that I would be the children’s primary source of French.  While I knew that the kids would quickly figure out that their maman spoke English too, we wanted them to grow up expecting that I would speak only French to them--that this would be an unassailable fact along the lines of Daddy speaks English, Mommy speaks French, and we have ten fingers and ten toes.
What really convinced us to use OPOL was my experience with our nephew two years before Griffin was born: at my sister-in-law’s request, I had been speaking exclusively French to him when I babysat one afternoon a week.  And this amazing little boy was making three- and even four-word sentences at 18 months, in a language he only heard four or five hours a week! If it worked this well for our nephew, we thought, we’ve got to try it with our own kids one day!

9. What works with your current family language set up?

OPOL suits us perfectly, and to my delight--so far, with fingers crossed--Griffin has never resisted my speaking French to him.  He doesn’t ask me to use English instead, doesn’t feel embarrassed when it draws strangers’ attention in public, and doesn’t ask me to read or sing to him in English.  An added bonus is that after almost 4.5 years of this, my husband is developing a decent passive knowledge of French, especially as in regards to everyday activities and objects.
As for me, I have grown much more comfortable with being a non-native speaker of the language I use daily with my children.  (An imperfect speaker, at that!)  In fact, when I see a baby--anyone’s baby!--my first instinct is to speak French to him.  While initially I was apprehensive about talking to Griffin in French in front of native speakers, I can now get up in front of them at storytime and present songs and books for half an hour in French.  It’s not necessarily that my facility with the language has improved but rather that I don’t obsess over getting everything perfect.  (I would rather communicate quickly, comfortably, and imperfectly, rather than slowly draft and re-draft sentences in my head until they are lexically precise and grammatically flawless!)

10. What doesn’t work?

First of all, my own French doesn’t work as well as I’d like.  At age four, Griffin is a lively conversationalist and voracious reader (er, make that a voracious “flipper-through-pages” and “looker-at-pictures” and “please-read-this-to-me-er”).  Every day he asks me about something that I don’t know how to explain concisely and effectively in French--why do dead people get buried in cemeteries?  How does blood come out of owies?  What is the plumber doing?  Why is Mommy crying?
And Griffin’s also getting old enough that he can articulate better in both languages his feelings, his reactions, the things he doesn’t understand about relationships, such as the situation with a boy at preschool who hits him but whom he still admires and wants to be friends with.  Given how hard it is for me to explain how to respond to five-year-old playground slide hogs--even in English!--and what to do when your peers encourage you to make unwise choices, I really fear having to do this in French when Griffin and Gwyneth are tweens and teens.
I also fear that Griffin and Gwyneth will not have a strong connection to or understanding of elements of French and francophone culture.  Other than with books and videos, plus playdates with children from families who come from France and Belgium, we have found few ways to expose the children to French culture (everything from holiday traditions and schoolday routines up to the big intangibles like values and rules and religion and politics and why a load of laundry in a washing machine the size of an American microwave oven costs about ten dollars in a French laundromat).
Teaching them about the countries where French is spoken seems of paramount importance, given that we haven’t taken the kids abroad and don’t anticipate doing so until they’re older--and when we do, it’s likely to be for short trips as tourists.
While I did spend four semesters in France, I was living in apartments--one shared with an extremely unconventional French student, and one with an English friend and a sullen French student who went home every weekend.  And try as I might, I never ended up with a French boyfriend (which is how several of my friends and students ended up very fluent)!  As a result, I feel like I don’t know much about what it’s like to be party of a family growing up and living in France.
But most of all, I am worried that French will suddenly seem much less relevant and intriguing to the kids when they enter elementary school, especially since Griffin will be attending a dual language immersion preschool and elementary school beginning this fall and thus adding Spanish to his linguistic mix.

11. What would you do differently if you could or would have to do it again?

Many parents insist that their children speak to them only in the target language, to the point of refusing to reply if the children don’t.  We never did this with Griffin--I think I was so excited that he was learning to talk that I didn’t care which language he was using, as long as he spoke some French some of the time.  And of course, through his actions he showed that he understand my French just as well as his daddy’s English, so I wasn’t worried that he wasn’t learning French.
However, I now wonder if he would always (or at least most of the time) address me in French if I had more strongly encouraged that all along.  After all, is that any different from refusing to pass him the cookies until he says “please”? Now almost 12 months old, Gwyneth is on the cusp of talking, so I need to decide if I’m going to continue with her in the same vein or if I should be more strict, only accepting responses in French.  Will I do it differently?  I don’t know.  What do you think?
I do know one thing I wish we had done: hire a francophone nanny instead of sending the children to daycare when I am at work.  They get lots of socialization with other kids through their various activities and playdates, so being at home with a nanny three afternoons a week wouldn’t adversely affect their ability to learn to get along with other kids.  If they had regular contact with a native speaker for five hours at a time, they would be learning so much more!  (Me too.)
I would also make it a priority to figure out how to travel (or, even better, arrange extended stays) in France, Quebec, or another francophone country.  (Some of our friends from playgroup return to Europe every summer and enroll their kids in daycare or summer school there.  It’s very inexpensive!) 
And I’m not sure if a foreign exchange student would be interested in staying with a family with young children, but we’re going to investigate options like this when Griffin and Gwyneth are older.  I would also love for them do homestays or study abroad, of course!

12. Any other comments

Advice welcome!  And which cultural elements would be most important for American kids to learn about, in your opinion?

Thank you very much to Sarah for answering my questions and taking the time to reflect on those answers. If you are a multilingual family and would like to be featured on my blog contact me.


  1. De rien! Thank you for inviting me to participate. I look forward to hearing your readers' suggestions.

  2. What a great interview- I always learn so much from Sarah.

    It's so hard to explain things like playground politics in any language we all need a bit of luck I think.


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