On Sophie & Serge

Sophie la girafe

I have wanted to write a blog post about multilingual parenting for a few weeks now. Thanks to an article I read yesterday, written by an exhausted multilingual mother, it felt about time to write down some of my own thoughts for posterity’s sake. Although I have very little experience and actual success to even write about (Ayo can just barely manage an “oooh” sound at this age), I am specifically blogging about this young stage. That is because when I was pregnant, I scoured countless books on bilingualism and multilingual blogs in vain for ideas and examples on what it looked like to teach a 0-6 month old two (or more!) languages.

I’m sure I will post plenty more blogs on multilingualism when I am older and wiser, but for posterity’s sake, here is where we’re at, four months into it!

Books were a great way to introduce the theoretical concept of bi- and multilingualism (just not specifically helpful at explaining what it looks like at birth). After studying each and every case study found in “The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents” by Harding & Riley, I realized the OPOL method (where One Parent is assigned to One Language) was probably the most suitable for our family’s linguistic make-up and our outside linguistic environment. That is when we decided I would speak to Ayo in French and Tall Mountain would communicate in English – from birth onwards. Then, being the linguistic nerd that I am, I was almost disappointed to read in “Raising Multilingual Children” by Tokuhama-Espinosa that it was probably better given our set-up to expose Ayo to “just French and English initially” instead of offering him a multilingual cocktail: Tu yinggai xuyao speak auf deutsch per favore? To add further languages, Tokuhama-Espinosa suggests focusing further exposure on your child’s “windows of opportunity”. In other words, the author speaks of a child’s increased propensity, capacity and openness to a second or third language at several given ages. Finally, I was encouraged in “7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child” by Steiner to decide what our linguistic goals are in multilingual parenting: is it just to achieve comprehension of the language or do we desire him to be able to speak. Or do we want him to be able to read and write on top of that? Depending on the level of our goals, the investment and input must be significantly greater.

Each one of the reference books I read equated consistency of linguistic exposure to the success of language acquisition. However, few of them talked about the importance being intentional, especially when there is clearly a minority language. Being a language learner myself, I know that intentionality is critical in achieving any of the linguistic goals mentioned above. In our case, there aren’t many people helping me teach Ayo French, so I feel I owe it to him to work extra hard to compensate for the lack of variety of his exposure. I go out of my way to introduce words, concepts, themes and situations that aren’t on my “normal horizon”. On the simplest level, being intentional means that even if I don’t have a deep passion for animals and therefore don’t talk much about animals in my day-to-day conversations, I’ll choose to read Ayo a book about animals. In a monolingual context, I’d perhaps rely on and uncle or an aunt or maybe a teacher or a friend to teach him about animals. Instead, being the main teacher, I have the responsibility to be open to new subjects, learn new vocabulary and stay on top of the changing language. Again, I am in fact the learner!

Serge the monkey
Serge le singe

In our home, being intentional at this stage looks like me declining tenses, phrases and registers all in one situation. When I hear a dog barking, you might here me say something like: Ayo, as-tu entendu le chien aboyer? Mais oui, c’est un chien qui aboie! T’as entendu ce chien aboyer? C’est un chien qui a aboyé ou deux chiens qui aboient? Est-ce que le chien va aboyer demain ou est-ce que les deux chiens vont aboyer demain? Aboieront-ils demain? (Ayo did you hear the dog bark? It sure was, it’s a dog barking! Did you hear that dog bark? Was that one dog barking or two dogs that were barking? Will the dog bark tomorrow or are the two dogs going to bark tomorrow? Will they bark tomorrow?)

Being intentional for me also means that innocent toys can become learning aids. This is how “Sophie la girafe” became a female and “Serge le singe”, Ayo’s red monkey friend dangling from his carseat, a male. Thanks to their genders, Sophie and Serge give me a way to constantly present male and female adjectives at this stage: Sophie est belle vs. Serge est beau.

Of course, being intentional shouldn’t get in the way of us enjoying life lest language acquisition becomes a chore that we dread. Wouldn’t that be the pits!? Sometimes, when Tall Mountain is in the car, we just want to listen to NPR’s “All things considered” or the BBC Wold Service instead of another French children’s CD. And I think that is okay too. Other times, when Ayo and mama are in the car, ‘we’ choose to work on our non-English sounds: [u] vs. [ou] or [wi] vs. [ui] with a Living Language track for example.

Today, being intentional meant that instead of say, frittering time away on social media next to a kicking, i.e. a neurologically receptive Ayo, mama brought him to the window and told him all about the rainbow last night that he missed when he was in a deep sleep, that was down that green valley, in that clearing, below those pokey mountains in the most beautiful region of the most beautiful country in the world. Being intentional today also meant taking advantage of being in France to get a few more age-appropriate French books for our bedtime reading AND to get a book for mama, to stay on top of my own fluency. Next week, being intentional will look like us listening to French radio and news when Ayo watches me cook. This month, being intentional will mean seeking out the French mamans and papas group in our city. Who knows, maybe down the line it might look like an au pair helping impart a new accent or set of expressions to Ayo. We’ll see!

What about you bilingual and multilingual mamas? What methods are you using and what are some of your creative ways of intentionally teaching your children about language? What are some of your go-to resources or websites that encourage you in multilingual parenting?

6 thoughts on “On Sophie & Serge

  1. I’ve got to say I have an easy part! Teaching and speaking english is much more easier than teaching french, rien que le féminin et masculin j’y est même pas pensé! lol!!
    Her daddy is the French language and I’m the English one. I think it’s great what you’re doing! Super important, il va trop gérer son français.
    What I mostly do is just talk to her about everything I’m doing (et encore pas tout le temps). And honestly it works. What’s really good and reassuring is that she really does understand both languages 🙂 . She doesn’t speak to much yet (a part from mommy papa, numnum, ball & bob^^). But you can really tell that she understands both languages 🙂 🙂 ! (j’avais peur que le français prenne le dessus vu qu’elle n’a que moi qui lui parle en anglais sauf quand on va voir ma famille).
    Mais franchement chapeau à tout ce que tu fais c’est vraiment cool! et si jamais t’as des idées je veux bien 😉

  2. Je pense que le simple fait de lui parler en français régulièrement (voire tout le temps) est la clé de l’affaire …
    J’ai grandi dans un environnement extérieur francophone mais dans une famille germanophone et je n’ai jamais eu aucun problème de compréhension – mais je peux aussi te dire que mes parents ne se sont JAMAIS posés la question de savoir quelle langue m’apprendre – ils ont parlé leur langue et le monde extérieur (et mes frères aussi) le français. Nos activités sociales étaient souvent en suisse-allemand (cercle social de mes parents), mais ma vie sociale à moi (copines et école) en français.
    Et l’apprentissage d’une 3ème langue a été effectivement assez facile pour moi, probablement en raison de cette éducation bilingue.
    Voilà un petit partage d’expérience 🙂

    1. Chris,
      A mon avis le grand avantage que tu avais, outre ton éducation bilingue, était aussi le fait que tu as grandi dans un pays multilingue où la pratique des langues peut se faire au quotidien et où leur apprentissage est donc valorisé (malgré les à prioris et préjugés qu’on a toujours de l’autre groupe linguistique). Même le fait d’avoir des activités sociales dans d’autres langues est considéré comme un luxe pour nous qui habitons aux US (ça serait différent si nous devions lui enseigner l’espagnol je pense). Je vais volontiers faire une heure de route ici pour que le petit Ayo puisse rencontrer un groupe d’enfants francophones. Je connais d’autres villes aux US où tu dois faire bien plus de route pour trouver des enfants bilingues français-anglais.

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