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Daisy Paradis

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We are Americans who speak non-native french, adequate but hardly fluent. We started teaching our child–later children– by putting our daughter in a full immersion bilingual school at the age of five. It was a little tough, especially as she had previously been in one of San Francisco’s most laid-back nursery schools. Culture shock in spades! Then we moved to New York.

I won’t go into a bilingual blow-by-blow.  In New York we didn’t find a full immersion school that we liked. So it was partial immersion, which…with American kids, give them an inch and they’ll take it in English. We tried nearly everything to teach the kids. You name it, we did it.

Classes at the age of six and up, in our experience, were soon forgotten. For play groups at that age, if you put two children together, they will speak the majority culture language–even if they both speak the other language. For us,  speaking french with our children was a struggle. They did not like it when we spoke french. Our lack of fluency hampered us. Au Pairs were a mixed and not altogether positive experience. We did not work with an agency. As a result our au pairs had visas  for only 6 months. Out of five young women, we loved two and three were more or less a problem. Dealing with an older child plus a toddler was more difficult than speaking french to a toddler, and none of them was prepared to combine child discipline with enforcing sticking to french. Plus the girls had all come to the US to improve their english. They wanted to speak english and so did the kids. So they spoke english! One girl spoke french to us and english to the kids. Being an au pair can be lonely for them from a social point of view as well. Also with the later ones there was  much more politics in the house–one would prefer our son, another our daughter. It was a relief to return to being just our own family.

What did work? We got the Muzzy program from BBC and watched it with me and the kids. We all loved it–it was very funny and we enjoyed imitating the characters. That was a good beginning. After that we –or they–started watching french children’s cartoon videos.

Two factors made this work. First, the investment in Pal-Secam. Nowadays you need to get your DVD player to play foreign discs. Ask a computer person about this. The other most important was the fact that we had no cable. Our only television use was watching videos. We could then enforce the rule–only french cartoons during the week, english on the weekend. Little hands could not change the dial at will. I recommend this highly for families anyway. It means that the world of advertising has to wait six years or more before beginning the mercantile manipulation of children that they are so good at. However, sooner or later there will be a rebellion in the ranks–or the adults will want to watch the evening news.

Going to France was very important. We discovered the Maison Familiale network there–a string of over 600 vacation centers –like Club Meds, only much simpler, much cheaper, lots with hiking and other activities, many in converted nunneries or monasteries or–literally- manses built in 1000 AD–and totally french! We have been to about twelve of them, for a week each. We never met another American in any of them. One network is Cap France. We still go, long after our children are grown.

At the end of a year, french children refused to believe that our 8-year-old was not french. I do have to admit that now our children’s french,  in their twenties, is no longer as good as it was then. But it is a different world that is still open to them. Their minds and their world would be smaller without it.

kathy hines

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Hi – that’s a great story to hear because I am currently struggling with my language choice.  I have 3 boys and my youngest and I have been speaking french together since he was 2.5 and he is now 4.5 and he speaks it quite well – I am nearly fluent it is just the vocabulary that I need and I always have a dictionary on hand.  My other two understand and speak a little but hopefully that will improve if they can go to our local bilingual french school.  My problem is my pre-school hassle hassle hassle.  Apparently my youngest is not speaking that well there (english) and they keep telling me to go to a therapist and that he is developmentally delayed and requires lots of “extra” attention.  Yes I admit that he doesn’t speak as clearly as he should at times but we are working on that.  They also tell me he doesn’t understand basic commands.  I find this difficult to believe when the majority language is english in our house and he watches both french and english cartoons and laughs at both.  I am beginning to doubt myself and I hate that especially when you make choices you know are right in yourself and also as a mother you know your own child.  Anyway we have been called in for another meeting yet again to discuss the language issue.  Problem is also that here in Australia english is predominant even though they like to call us a multicultural society and it would appear that a lot of preschools (generally) don’t want to deal with “things” that are outside the “square” and they can’t tick a box for. 

I would like to know if you have come across this problem before or perhaps know someone who has had problems.

Thanks Kathy


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I’m brazilian, live in Argentina with my argetine husband and two daughters, 3,5 an 1. My 3,5 goes to a bilingual kindergaten (english- spanish), I speak portuguese to them and my husband spanish. I have been called for a meeting at schol because my daughter is delayed in her speach and after 3 speach therapists I am now taking her to a fourth I am not a 100% convinced about.

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Daisy, thank you for sharing that encouraging story! It is good to know that there are some strategies that work with school-aged children and non-native parents, since most of the resources I can find are for OPOL.

Kathy– In “Growing Up with Three Languages” the author delayed her kids’ entrance to preschool until age 4 so that they would have extra time being exposed to the minority languages spoken at home. I think our society really pushes preschool as essential for all kids, starting at age 2 or 3. Especially for boys, they may just not be ready that young.

By the way, if your school is suggesting assessment by a speech therapist, it’s not a bad idea. There may or may not be a problem, and if there is, it is probably nothing to do with being bilingual. Most speech pathologists are very supportive of bilingualism and depending on what is available in your area, you might even be able to find one that is bilingual in French and English.


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