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I’m American, living in France with my French husband, and we are expecting our first kids, twins, in May. We’re trying to figure out the best language system for us. I would love to hear the input of experienced parents to help us get off to a good start. 

My husband has a slight accent in English but otherwise we are both basically bilingual. We spoke only French during our first years together but switched to English several years ago when we decided to stay in France. We both love having our own “private” language. It also helps me feel less homesick. I would miss it terribly if he stopped speaking to me in English and it is extremely important to me that the children speak it. 

Since we’re teachers, we manage to spend a couple of summer months with my family in the US almost every year and we plan to continue (finances permitting). But we will live in France and the kids will go to French schools. We have few English-speaking connections here. 

We’re considering three possibilities: 

1. We can try using the minority language at home, i.e. keep speaking English to each other and to the kids–I’m sure they’ll learn French from the community and school as they grow. This seems like the best way to make sure they really master English. Downside: I don’t want school to be stressful at first because of language problems, and their French-speaking paternal grandparents might take it VERY badly if they couldn’t communicate (they live several hours away and we only visit them every couple of months so they won’t be able to teach the kids much French). 

2. We can have my husband speak French to the kids but continue speaking English to me so they hear more English than French, at least until they start school. We can switch to ML@H if we see they need more English later–or I guess to OPOL if they really struggle with French in school. 

3. We can try OPOL.

(4. My in-laws want us to speak only French so the children can integrate properly here! They don’t understand why I would want to speak another language if I’m able to speak the language of this country. We’re obviously not considering this.)

Putting my thoughts down in writing has already helped me organize them. #2 sounds ideal because of its flexibility and its compromise between the two languages and systems, but perhaps being strict is essential to raising truly bilingual kids…

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

Sarah, nervous future parent


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Our situation is pretty similar to yours: Slovak husband, American wife, based in Czech Republic (Czech language is very similar to Slovak).  We basically do your #2 – I speak Czech outside the home and sometimes to my husband, but mostly we speak English together, and to the child we each speak our native language. 

I don’t actually see the difference between this and OPOL (you list them separately), unless you mean that every conversation between the parents should be bilingual, i.e. Daddy asks a question in French and Mommy answers in English.  Because I don’t really agree with that.  I think it’s enough to be consistent in parent-child conversations and do whatever is appropriate in adult (including parent) conversations the child overhears.  After all, our daughter hears both her parents speak both languages with other people, and I think that’s how it should be – in our family we speak different languages in different contexts, and the kids are part of that.  Plus, as you note, overhearing you two speaking English will increase their exposure to the minority language without sacrificing the native-majority-language interactions with their father.

I have also considered switching to mL@H if in future years our daughter’s English starts to lag behind (also planning on sending her to neighborhood school, not English), or the other direction (Slovak at home) if we should at some point move (semi-)permanently to an English-speaking country.  Communication with grandparents is also a big concern for us as nobody else in our family on either side speaks our other language.  I agree with your dismissal of option 4 as a non-option.    Neither of our families really gets the whole bilingual child thing, but they keep the commentary to a minimum and we encourage them to be as active as possible in helping the grandbaby to learn their language.

We LOVE the secret language too.  Of course this doesn’t work very well with English in Europe, as it is so widely spoken (other than at my in-laws’ house, where it is an unbreakable code…), but speaking Slovak to each other in America gets tons of funny looks and people leeeeeeaning their ears towards us wondering what alien language we’re speaking.

Also, congratulations on your upcoming parenthood!


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One more comment on parents speaking in different languages to each other in one conversation: I think that an important general principle to teach our children (language etiquette, you might say) is that you answer a question in the language it is asked.  Talk to someone in the language they address you in.  This is an important part of learning when it is appropriate to speak what language, I think.  I don’t want my children slipping back and forth between languages with the neighbors or our friends, so I think it’s important to teach them to have a conversation in one language only.  OCOL maybe

I say “in general” and “principle” in the above paragraph because, frankly, my husband and I sometimes mix languages terribly when speaking just to each other.  I’ve kind of decided that this is just part of our family identity, though.  That’s context again, though – within our family we can speak crazy pidgin language sometimes, but with others we speak nicely in their preferred language.  It’s just polite.


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Thanks! It’s kind of you to answer me and your messages are really helpful. 

I only differentiated between strict OPOL and what I propose to do myself because I know a couple of families where the parents do carry on all conversations in two languages, at least in front of their kids. It’s quite doable and you get used to it within a few minutes but I agree that it might send the wrong message. You wouldn’t want your kids replying in one language when you spoke to them in another (although for many parents I’ve met, this is the daily routine–the kid constantly slips into the dominant language or even speaks it exclusively while the parent continues to carry on his side of the conversation in his own language in a vain attempt to get things back on track…). Also, in these families the parents can understand each other’s language but are not really bilingual themselves so don’t have much of a choice, or else they are trying to teach two minority languages at once it is especially important that the two get equal time to compete with the outside language. I think we’ll try my second idea after all. 

We, too, used to switch back and forth depending on the country we were in but now English has become so dominant in our relationship that I feel strange and uncomfortable if my husband happens to speak to me in French when we’re alone. So now we’re just another American couple when traveling in the US, but I think he enjoys blending in there and tricking everyone. 

It is lots of fun having your own language and, surprisingly, English does work as a secret code here in Paris (and especially at my in-laws’ house, too!). It oughtn’t because in theory all French children study it for many years in school but it is usually badly taught, I’m afraid, and if we speak quietly and at a normal rhythm we can be confident that we’re incomprehensible to most people around us. We are still careful but conversations between husband and wife are already so full of familiar abbreviations and allusions, whatever the actual language, that we’re pretty safe. We have heard some funny or rude comments about ourselves, our clothes or appearance, or about Americans, Australians or British people in general, whatever they take us for, from people sitting right next to us in the train or restaurant who think we must not understand French if we are speaking anything else. Quite horrible, sometimes. Laughing at them seems the best response. I would be really upset if my kids were affected by that kind of attitude, though.

For a huge and diverse metropolis, this is a strongly monolingual environment. National identity here is tied to the French language (and to food!). Families who succeed in raising bilingual kids seem to have to fight against the public education system and all sorts of hostile attitudes. In the university English dept. where I teach, I’ve had a surprising number of students from bilingual families, one French and one Anglophone parent, who claim to be bilingual themselves but whose language skills are catastrophic. No one makes them take the standard language entrance test because they have such family credentials. French is their only real language, and when they speak or write English (just like any other foreign language they half-learned in school) it is a dreadful word-for-word translation of the French in their heads. Several of them have very strong French accents in English, full of typical pronunciation mistakes but with an occasional perfect English sound thrown in–one of the few words they actually learned as children? Others pronounce well but only speak baby talk, familiar and limited vocabulary and diction that are not appropriate to academic or professional situations. Others understand but cannot speak at all–they answer my English questions in French. None of them can write decently in English and they tend to skim for a general meaning when they read it. Many of my students who only learned English in school have a far better level than the ones who are bilingual from childhood. 

I have had a very few exceptions–truly bilingual students who could have passed for a native of either country, who could think directly in the other language, had vocabulary and writing skills on a level with their French, etc. I am intensely curious about all these different cases, of course, so I always question them all about their linguistic upbringing. The truly bilingual ones all seem to have either gone to bilingual or English private schools here, spent some years living and going to school in an English-speaking country or had two English-speaking parents who never spoke French to them at home and made huge efforts to teach them to read and write in their non-school language and to give them all the breadth of vocabulary of a native speaker. 

Of course, there are different levels of bilingualism, all worth something in their own way, and it’s good to teach your children whatever you can of your own language. I don’t mean to say that the efforts of all these parents were wasted, but they did not result in a usable language or in an enriched cultural identity for their kids. After all this, I feel much less confident that one parent alone can truly transmit a language and the culture that has to back it up to make it mean anything. 

Sorry to be so long, for anyone who has had the patience to read all this. It’s turned into an entire article. My own kids are just kicks in my stomach and fuzzy ultrasound pictures for the moment, so I really ought to relax for now and not worry about what language will dominate for them in 20 years. 


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Another option you perhaps hadn’t considered: having you speak only the minority language at home and your husband speak either French or English as the mood strikes him–that way your child will have at least some knowledge of French and the transition to French schools won’t quite be so hard.

That’s essentially what my wife and I do (however we live in New York, the minority language in our case is Portuguese, majority language English).  Many people seem to think that having one parent speak both languages will cause a child to confuse the languages, but that is a myth–it certainly hasn’t happened in our case, and all the linguists I know who specialize in language acquisition say it is not a real issue.  I do try to keep from switching back and forth from Portuguese to English in mid-sentence, but other than that I don’t censor myself, and just speak whatever I feel like.  It allows me to keep speaking Portuguese to her, which I enjoy, and she also gets to learn all of the English songs and stories that I enjoyed and grew up with as a child.

Good luck!


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 I just read your posts and thought they were super interesting.  I grew up as an American kid in France with American parents… both my parents spoke pretty good French but we mostly spoke English at home, as I went to the local French schools.  I didn’t have any problems with either language after an initial period of adjustment. 

However, my parents decided to send me for extra English classes so that I would learn to write in English, so I would leave school on Tuesday afternoons and spend them having English class, until I started middle school and then had 6 hours of extra English on top of the standard French curriculum.

I’ve been pretty much completely bilingual my whole life; I can read, write, and speak both languages equally well (though having been away from a French speaking environment for the past year, its gotten somewhat rusty but will get back to normal as soon as I have someone to talk to!).

I think you should definitely speak English to your kids at home.  I grew up with 2 kids whose parents were French but had their children in New York and so wanted them to be bilingual, and we always had the same babysitters, etc who always were English speaking. But I also think that you will find that they may need some extra English classes to learn to write, etc. as you can’t learn that just from speaking it at home. My two friends also attended the same English classes as me and are now working and studying in the UK.


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I haven’t had time to visit this forum for a while but I wanted to thank both of you for sharing your experiences.  

Claire, I loved hearing from someone who grew up in circumstances similar to what my kids will probably go through. I will plan on extra classes for reading and writing because I want them to be as successful in English as you seem to be. Though 6 extra hours of classes per week, you poor thing! French middle and high school students already have a heavy curriculum. 

I also like the flexibility you describe, Andrew. I would like the languages we speak to be adapted to our daily lives, not the other way around. There is a lot of French culture that my husband has no special connection with–literature and poetry, traditional songs and so forth–but that is a major part of my identity. I already yearn to be able to share them with my kids. There is also a lot of American culture that is more his than mine and it would be a shame to deprive them of it in the name of keeping their French or English pure or sticking to the OPOL method. I don’t want to believe that a little bit of flexibility on our part will inevitably “confuse” our kids. Besides, we are asking them to speak two languages and to learn to recognize which one to use according to the situation, which is exactly what we do ourselves as bilingual adults, and I hope they’ll emulate us. 

Anyway, learning is a life-long process and they will have a lifetime to master French and English and many other things, and to make up for whatever my husband and I don’t manage to give them before the age of 5 (the fatal cut-off age according to all the books I’ve read on the subject–pretty scary to contemplate! At 5, I was playing in the mud and watching cartoons and had never even heard of the several ancient languages I can now read, for example). My 20-year-old students whose catastrophic English I described in an earlier post could probably catch up beautifully if they really wanted to, and if they went to study for a year or two in an English-speaking country. With no family members speaking my second language and no exposure to it as a child, I become truly bilingual and bicultural as a teenager and adult through study and later immersion, and so did my husband and many other people I know. Perhaps I can’t expect my kids to be as motivated–or freakishly obsessed with grammar and etymology!–as I was but I will do my best to help them love language in general and remain flexible and open-minded in regards to both their native languages. 

Part of becoming a parent for me will be learning to relax and take things as they come, including language skills and preferences.


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Hi, I was just wondering what you guys would suggest as a language system since I don’t really want to use OPOL. We’re expecting twin boys. I’m Mexican and my husband’s Colombian, we both went to bilingual schools and speak English on a native level (we met in Grad School in the US). We now live in Colombia and plan to send our kids to a bilingual school. I’m going to be the primary care giver for at least one year, and I’m really not sure what to do; although we don’t mix mid-sentence, we do use both languages with each other, should we do that with the kids too, speak to them naturally in both languages? I’ll appreciate your advice. Thanks!

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