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We are a family living in an English speaking country with a 3-year-old. My wife and I speak both French and English and we are committed to raise our kid bilingual in both languages. So far our approach has been to expose him only to French since he will eventually pick up English from the outside world. So his daycare is in French, we (and our family) only speak to him in French and the cartoons he watches are in French… as a result he only understands and speaks French right now. We are happy about this, but are starting to be concerned that he does not understand/speak English, especially when we have playdates with other kids who only speak English, we don't want him to feel that he is different from them.

Our long term plan for us is to follow a strict one-parent, one-language (OPOL) approach (my wife will only speak English and I will speak French to him). Should we start the OPOL approach now? Or Should we continue with only French for a few more years? Also we are planning on sending him to a bilingual school English/French, so I am not concerned about him feeling different at school. My concern is mostly with our friends' kids and other family members who don't speak French. I also have the irrational fear that he will not learn English well… which I know is very irrational, since English is the main and only language where we live.

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    "...we don't want him to feel that he is different from them." If he is anything like I was, he will/does feel different, and not necessarily in a good way. It depends on how English-only speaking kids (and maybe others) react to his lack of skill in speaking English. – anongoodnurse Apr 22 at 16:33
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    As an observation, you're not actually raising a biligual child - yet. – Tanaya Apr 22 at 19:09
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    @jean Why not? The younger, the more fluent and less accented they will be in both languages. The science is pretty clear. Being an English native speaker does not exclude being a speaker of any other languages. – Azor Ahai Apr 22 at 19:19
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    @jean 1) Well, yeah, that's why you should start both languages as soon as possible. 2) what he does as an adult is his decision, not the parents. – Azor Ahai Apr 22 at 19:37
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    My American partner and I raised our child bilingually. Both of us would talk to him (exclusively) in our native language (I'm German) from day 1. That approach was recommended somewhere (can't recall where, you'll have to google it). It addresses the most common problems bilingual kids may have: Picking up errors from a parent struggling in a foreign language, and (2) confusing the languages. The latter is avoided because the child attaches each language to a specific person which makes it easier to "compartmentalize" them. It worked really well but it may be difficult for you to switch now. – Peter A. Schneider Apr 23 at 10:49

11 Answers 11

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You probably need to get started on English exposure soon. At some point he wants to play with other kids and unless you live in a French speaking enclave, that will happen in English. I suggest moving either daycare, or cartoons, or some TV/audio-books to English. I wouldn't worry too much about overloading your child: young kids have a remarkable ability to learn and absorb languages.

Provided he integrates normally into the local society, English will become the dominant language over time. I don't think the OTOL approach is particularly useful: we always spoke strictly non-English at home with the kids: It's best to maximize native speaker immersion in the non-local language and leverage any opportunity you can find.

Bi-lingual schools are a double edged sword. You really need to assess the school, their capabilities and their approach to bi-lingual education. We have seen example where it worked well (a good one was: alternate instruction language every month) and others were counterproductive (taught by non-native speakers).

We found that the trickiest part to get right are the formal parts of reading and writing: spelling, genders, grammar, etc. So any formal schooling in these area would be helpful provided they can be done well and approbriatley.

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    I cannot agree more. In my own and my very extended family, we spoke only French. My first day of kindergarten (English only), the only two English words I learned/understood the meaning of were "bathroom" and "Mrs. Hart" (my teacher.) It was so traumatic that I remember much of it to this day. For years I had to endure the (innocent) laughter of my classmates when confused over a new English word. – anongoodnurse Apr 22 at 16:28
  • @anongoodnurse This is likely to depend on many different things though (though age and surroundings is probably big). I was dropped in an English only school and surroundings at 10 years of age with only my parents speaking my native language for the next year and a half and I knew roughly 20 English words (worse yet my parents were certainly not fluent) yet I thoroughly enjoyed the next year and half. An important thing was that while noone else spoke my language there were other kids around that also couldn't speak English too well. – DRF Apr 22 at 20:37
  • @DRF - I liked school; it wasn't an unpleasant experience, but it was difficult the first two years (and even into the fifth grade, I remember schoolkids' [innocent and understandable] laughter over some words.) I was the only non-English speaking person, and something of a curiosity. – anongoodnurse Apr 23 at 1:13
  • @anongoodnurse Yeah I'm guessing the fact that you were "unique" made it more complex. I was one of 5 or 6 others in my class and 50+ in the whole school. There was nothing very special about it. Lots of the kids didn't speak perfectly and so there was no novelty. – DRF Apr 23 at 7:56
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If you want a child to be truly bilingual, you have to start with both languages at the very beginning.

The important thing is the separation of languages. This can be accomplished in multiple ways. The two most common are:

  • OPOL - "one parent one language" - instead of the parent, any person with significant presence in the child's life works as well, such as a babysitter.

  • mL@H - "minority language at home" - when at home, speak to the child in the minority language, when outside, use majority language

Some people use odd and even days, etc.

Even with a very strict adherence to whatever language separation technique you use, most bilingual (and multilingual) children go through a phase where they mix languages.

This is usually just a phase, and insisting on your language separation technique helps getting over it.


UPDATE - "What evidence or research do you have that separation is important"

I don't have time to research right now, but I remember carefully researching the topic in the past. I don't remember specific references.

However, it seems very intuitive for me. If you mix two (or more) languages, how will the child learn which one is which? How will the child even know that you are talking multiple languages and not just one big and complex language?

In fact, there are children speaking a mix of English and Spanish who can't properly speak English nor Spanish -- people used to give that fact as example that you shouldn't raise bilingual children.

Yes, my intuition is not a proof by itself. However, I did extensive research a many years ago, and if the facts were counter-intuitive for me, I would remember it.

"And if it were true, then how would people learn to code switch?"

In linguistics, code-switching or language alternation occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation.

The whole idea (as I see it) of being bilingual is to be able to talk to monolingual people of each language, not just to talk to other bilingual people.

I don't see code switching as being a necessity that has to be learned. It's something that seems to happen quite naturally between multi-lingual people. I never learned to code-switch. But I do it, when I talk to people who understand the languages used.

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    I like the shorthand here. My single-ethnicity parents used a mostly mL@H approach (along with reading and writing practice), and I am fluent enough to be able to use OPOL with my multi-ethnic son! – Tanaya Apr 22 at 19:08
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    What evidence or research do you have that separation is important? I've never heard of such a thing. And if it were true, then how would people learn to code switch? – curiousdannii Apr 22 at 23:11
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    @curiousdannii The child may try to communicate in both languages at once to individuals who only know one. – opa Apr 23 at 17:29
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    @curiousdannii I don't understand your last question – Granny Aching Apr 23 at 19:51
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    I'd recommend reading this FAQ about raising bilingual children. Separation of languages is not a concern at all – according to the FAQ, children learn to identify and speak with monolingual adults by the age of two. The most important thing is to make sure that they are exposed to monolingual situations in both languages, creating a need for them to use each language. – Numeri Apr 24 at 21:14
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This answer is only from my personal experience raised in an only-French-speaking home/family/extended family living in the US. My father and mother both had a lot of siblings, and I had lots of French speaking aunts, uncles and cousins.

As I stated in comments above, I spoke only French until my first day of kindergarten (English only). The only two English words I learned/understood the meaning of were "bathroom" and "Mrs. Hart" (my teacher.) It was so traumatic that I remember much of it to this day. For years I had to endure the (innocent and understandable but still isolating) laughter of my classmates when confused over a new English word.

Of my three siblings, once we started school, we all stopped speaking French at home (except for at the dinner table, where we were required to speak French or not at all.) Only one sibling retained their fluency in French, while the others and I abandoned the language completely. I don't know why, but it might have had something to do with the laughter we endured at school.

It's only in the last decade (I'm in my 60s) that I decided to start speaking French again. I had absolutely no interest in the language whatsoever, but it did help me to pick up Spanish and Italian fairly easily (after English, I am most fluent in Spanish), and I can read Portuguese. The Romance languages are easy for me, and I loved Latin (and even taught it to kids from grades 3-12). I just had an aversion to French.

I think you should have started introducing English already. You say you don't want your child to feel different. I don't believe any child truly wants to feel different from his peers; fitting in is important. If your child is anything like I was, he will feel different, and not in a good way.

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    That sounds awful, sorry you went through that and that you felt compelled to abandon your native tongue. Even a couple of weeks of preparation prior to starting school may have led to a much better outcome in your case. I definitely agree that the stronger the child is in the majority language at the time of immersion the lower the risk of social isolation. – Myles Apr 23 at 20:29
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I think you are in danger of already having left this too late. Children learn language by making sense of what they hear before they start to speak at all. To be truly bilingual, and "accent-free", they need to hear both languages from a very early age. If your child has been isolated from native English, he may well become a very fluent English speaker, but with an obvious French accent.

As an anecdote, one of my work colleagues in the UK was French and very fluent in English but with a strong French accent, and so was his wife. They had both worked in many different countries world wide, and their plan for starting a bilingual family was to work in the UK until the children were around school age.

The parents spoke French at home but they allowed the children "full access" to spoken English from birth. By the time the children were four or five they had completely natural English accents, could communicate in both languages, and clearly understood that there were two separate languages. Amusingly, it was obvious from what they said themselves that they didn't understand why their parents wouldn't speak English to them when they were perfectly well able to do so!

Having "programmed" their ears and brain in both native English and native French, the second stage of the plan was to move back to France, and start their formal education in a "naturally monolingual" French environment. Formal study of English could come later, but the important foundation of hearing and speaking native English was already in place.

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    While I agree with underlying idea, suggesting that "accent-free" language acquisition requires such a young exposure is incorrect. I know numerous people that have naturally acquired native proficiency (particularly accent-wise) far beyond the age of 3. My wife wasn't immersed in native English till 19 and not exposed to English at all till school age. She is completely accent-free to the extent that people wrongly assume she is American. – aidan.plenert.macdonald Apr 22 at 21:57
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    I also have to disagree with suggesting accent-free language acquisition needs to be done at a young age. It can even be done in adulthood. I started learning a language at 24 and now I am mistaken for a native over the phone all the time (I am living in that country and only speak that language on a daily basis). – さりげない告白 Apr 23 at 1:25
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    @aidan.plenert.macdonald 19 at initial immersion is old to be accent-free; many foreign undergraduates at Cambridge have distinctly foriegn accents. On the other hand, I would expect almost all people who were full-time education from 11 to 16 in an English language environment to be accent free.. – Martin Bonner Apr 23 at 14:57
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    @MartinBonner there's a lot going on with accents to simply suggest that age is the only factor. I do not personally know anyone with this case, but certainly Italian-Spanish would be much simpler than Chinese-English. My wife had a strong accent in high school (I've seen videos) and poor comprehension (her statement). She's native proficiency at this point, while her siblings are not at proficient. After training my tongue and mouth movements, I had a couple people think I was native in Spanish. I am since out of practice, but it certainly can be done. Especially with the aid of a spectrogram – aidan.plenert.macdonald Apr 23 at 16:34
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Very respectfully have to disagree 100%. Your child will pick up English faster than you can imagine. He/she will then immediately begin to lose French on a daily basis. He/she will soon be annoyed when you speak french to him/her. 20 years later, he/she will meet french people and be hesitant about speaking french to them.

TLDR; Use it or lose it.

I immigrated to an english speaking country when I was 7.

I will happily challenge any native english speaker in their command of the english language. I often correct my native english speaking wife's english.

However, I struggle to speak my native non-english language.

I now have two kids who went to a day care that is in the my native non-english language.
They only speak english with my wife.
I try my best to speak my native language to them as much as I can.

My son, who is now in 1st grade, completely resents my foreign language. My daughter, who is finishing up day care this year, already defaults to English. Her friends at school practice their English with her.

Maybe this will be down-voted, and maybe you'll take the majority's advice, but I will promise you this. If you don't put in extra effort now to have your child get as much of your native language as possible, they will lose it.

I think about it like this. For them to be perfectly bilingual, they need to have each language 50% of the time. In school, with friends, on the radio, on tv, etc, they will be exclusively using English. When will they be using French?

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Your question is whether to start with OPOL now, or wait. From your writing it is not clear to me whether your wife is actually an English native speaker. If she is a native English speaker, I would recommend to immediately start OPOL. There is no reason to postpone this since you have decided on your approach. Delaying the switch in language does not seem to have any advantages (especially since you indicate he is well exposed to French, and in more ways than just speaking to the parents) and might be more confusing for your son as he gets older.

If she is not a native English speaker (and is a native French speaker instead), I would recommend not to follow OPOL at all and follow MLAH instead (minority language at home, where both of you would speak French at home). In this case I would also recommend to immediately expose your child to English, through playdates, playgroups, and from 2 year old onward even TV.

My recommendations are basis my own experience: I was raised in a bilingual home, where my mother spoke a language with us children that was not her native language (Dutch instead of her native French). It affected my development of Dutch in some ways, and heavily underdeveloped my French. She also regrets it with hindsight. Currently due to our circumstances of managing three languages, my wife and I are raising our children in a mixture of OPOL and MLAH. Our experience is that the children understand us best in our respective native languages.

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We did OPOL from birth and both of my kids are bilingual. We have a no tv policy and it's hard to find play dates in the second language so we forced our self to talk a lot with them. I think the sooner the better because I know families that the child refuse to speak an other language because they know the parent can understand them.

My wife and I speak a 3rd language between us and the kids are picking up our "secret" language very quickly!

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Lots of good answers. I just want to share my experience

  1. Even if your kid speaks only minority language at home until kindergarten, retaining the minority language will be difficult (sometimes impossible). This is based on my own experience and of those families with the main minority language I know of - that's a common picture. This certainly came as a surprise to me, because I was thinning that "first language" is something you will never have problem with. But the reality is that the "first language" will be the majority language not the minority language (I'm assuming regular social integration). From this point of view the later you start introducing the majority language the better chances your kid has retaining the minority one.
  2. Even if you wait till school age before introducing the majority language, your kid will pick it up very soon (in a few months), and it will not hamper his fluency in the majority language in the long run, so no learning disadvantage here.
  3. However those few month are going to be terrible for your kid. One of mine had to go through this, at the age of 6 and this was not pretty. He is much more fluent at the minority language than the one who went to kindy at the age of 2, but he was profoundly unhappy during those first few months at school where he could understand nothing.

In my opinion the time to introduce the majority language is a personal choice. If you goal is retention of the minority language in your kid, you might be better off to delay this time as much as possible, but this won't be easy on your kid and there is no guaranty that they will retain the minority language even after that. Yet you will subject the kid to severe several months stress. If your goal is to make it as easy for you kid as possible, the sooner you introduce the majority language the better. If you do it soon, be prepared that quite probably they won't be able to speak the minority language when they grow up.

Finally, everyone is different. History know examples of bilingual people who retained and perfected two languages. Your kid could be one of them! (Mine were not).

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I have three bilingual kids and my experiences are that they naturally stick to "mothers" language (in your case French), and they require some "encouragement" to pick up the second language (in my case it was also English).

With my own kids, I found from 3 and a half years was the ideal moment to push the second language heavily (full immersion at home), but they already had a "basis" in english.

I suggest in your case: begin with small English right away. Mix English words into social situations. Please, Thank you, Good night, Good morning, Im hungry. Make it fun!

OPOL might work for you, but then again you might both parents like to speak English in certain situations. Maybe you always speak English at the dinner table? (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and then again before bed (bath time and going to bed).

Often small kids will resist picking up the second language, so the ideal time to teach it is when they want something. Let's say they want a glass of milk. My french isnt good, but lets imagine they say "Mamman, du lait sil vous plait".

Very nicely, respond and say "English". Then say "May I have" (get them to repeat) "some milk" (they repeat) and "please" (they repeat"). Then put it all together until they can say "May I have some milk please". Keep doing this every time they ask for something - they will do it because they are motivated.

Next, immediately switch the kids movies 50/50 french and english. First time they watch a film, play it in french. Next time, play it in English.

Then, add in some english tv. "The Night Garden", "Peppa Pig", "Sesame St" and so on (look whats available on netflix or BBC web sites).

Arrange play dates with english speaking kids. Go to the park often and let them communicate "hello", "can i play" and so on.

Please dont isolate them in french-speaking only friends!! You're not helping them develop and socialise in their host country this way. Mix it up.

After say 6 months with English at meals, bedtime and 50% of tv time, they should have a good basis. From there, you can try full immersion (both parents) for a couple of hours each day and gradually scale up.

To be honest its a hard road, just be patient and kind but persistent.

Good luck!

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My advice is to focus on the language that is not native to the location where you live. There will be plenty of opportunities for your child to learn the local language, but far fewer to maintain proficiency in yours, especially as he/she gets older. Keep in mind the long-term aim for your child to grow up to be a bilingual adult, and make sure that you keep speaking your native language with him/her not only now, but when he/she is older.

I am basing this advice on personal experience.

I was born and raised in the UK, and am consequently a native English speaker, now in my 20s. My mother is an immigrant, having moved to the UK from a non-English-speaking country a few months before I was born. In my early years, I was raised bilingually, speaking both English and my mother's original native language (my mother learned English very quickly, and soon spoke far better English than most native speakers). When I started primary school, my mother became lazy about making me use her native language, the result being that my proficiency therein is stuck at that of a 5-year-old. Consequently, whenever I visit family in my mother's country of origin, my attempts at speaking their language are absurd (because I am using 'pet' words that people use only with 5-year-old children), and I find it difficult to engage with my relatives meaningfully.

In general, my mother did a fantastic job of raising me, ensuring that I had an excellent education, and I have done very well in life (I am now an academic). However, my failure to cultivate proficiency in her original native language is one of my biggest regrets, and it haunts me to this day.

And one more thing: there is absolutely nothing wrong with mixing languages -- if you read Mozart's letters, you will see that he sometimes used up to four languages interchangeably in the same sentence, and he was undoubtedly one of the great musical intellects of his time (arguably, of all time).

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I think it's very easy. I am an Indian guy who knows 3 languages. Bengali, English and Hindi. It's common for Indians to know atleast two languages.

Now how do we learn two languages. You should know the process. Firstly we learn the language which we need to play with other kids, interact with the outside world, etc. So I lived in a state where Bengali is the prevalent language.

After some years we started learning Engligh. Specifically after class 5.

So what I am suggesting is that first teach your child the language which is prevalent in the area. After that teach the other language.

protected by Rory Alsop Apr 25 at 17:03

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