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We live in France, my husband is French and I am English.
My son is 2 years and four months old and is very articulate in both English and French.
I am a stay at home mum and have only ever spoken English to him since the day he was born.

He currently understands very well the concept of mummy having one word for thigns and daddy having another, and will tell us ‘what daddy/mummy calls that. In addition, he understands why we separate mummy and daddy books.

When he first started speaking, his English words outnumbered his French words by far and he did not speak any French to me. However, since his vocabulary in both languages has increased and crucially, since he started spending a lot more time (about one day a week) with his French paternal grandparents, two things have happened – firstly, his French has improved dramaticallysuch that it is as strong as his English  and secondly  he has started mixing French and English with me a great deal, which I am finding increasingly frustrating.

I calmly repeat every french utterance back to him in English but this is becoming cumbersome as some days he will speak 50 per cent French and 50 percent English to me. I  wouldn’t mind it being cumbersome if I felt confident that he would eventually be able to organise the two languages in his head such that he will be able to choose to speak to me in English, but I am very worried that this may not happen.

I see many examples of passive bilingualism here in France, of older children understanding their mother’s English perfectly but replying in French and never speaking English. These cases are often mothers who have not chosen to stay at home and who have hired French nannies etc and/or mothers who do not mind passive bilingualism at all – neither of these are true for me and I am worried that my efforts may come to nothing, which would upset me greatly as I feel a very emotional connection to my hopes for a mother son relationship in which we speak to each other in my mother tongue.

It is worth noting that my son seems to use as much English with his father and grandparents as he does French with me, the mixing is indiscriminate. However, as I am the person that spends the most time with him and invests the most in inculcating my minority language, I am discouraged at the almost complete 50/50 mixing habit.

I would be extremely grateful for any reassurance that children are capable of distinguishing one parent one language as they grow older, in addition to any tips that could help me, as I am feeling that the reformulating seems a rather feeble tool in the face of so much dogged and constant mixing.

I admit I have shown exasperation at times recently and said things such as ‘let’s use mummy’s words! that’s a daddy word ! how does mummy say that?’ I imagine this is not advisable but seem to be feeling rather panicky, as if I am failing somehow.

For info, we are part of an anglo saxon expat mums group of ten to fifteen mums and are extremely active every weekday seeing the same group of English speaking children and doing music, swimming, football etc all English so I am not his sole source of English. Despite this, since the mixing started with me, he does also tend to use French words with the English mummies too, as well as wen he is playing and talking to himself.

I do not reformulate for him when he is talking to himself !

Since his birth, his father and I have always spoken French together in front of him, even tho we ony speak our own languages when we address him. However, since the mixing started a few months ago I have switched to forcing myself to speak English to his dad (who replies to me in French) in front of him, in an effort o anglicise his enivronment.

I am kicking myself for not having adopted this approach from his birth as it now seems it’s ‘too late’ in that he knows I understand and sepak French which is perhaps at the root of all this mixing. That said, even if I had always spoken English to his dad in front of him, he still would have heard me speaking French when we are out and about in town, to his grandparents, to French friends etc.

I suspect the ‘answer’ might be, ‘it;s his age, mixing is normal, it will get better, continue to reformulate and/or speak English to his Dad in front of him if you like’ but I am deep down rather scared that it perhaps isn’t a good sign and could be a precursor of his  becoming passively bilingual, especially as e can’t afford a bilingual school so he will be in the French system as of the age of 3 years and 3 months.

Am very lost, please help!

Very gratefully,

Mum to 2 year old boy
Living in France, married to French husband
Speaking minority language English using OPOL.


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Hi Susannah,

You are not failing in giving your son the gift of being bilingual!!! What you are experiencing right now is so normal, and it will sort itself out in time.

I’m the mother of two tri-lingual children (10 & 12 y.o.) – I’m Danish, my husband is English and we live in Spain. We did exactly the same as you are doing – I spoke only Danish to my boys – switched to English when my husband needed to be included as he doesn’t speak my language, Daddy spoke only English, and of course we all spoke Spanish when needed.

For the first few years the boys spoke mainly Danish as they spent more time with me that with their Dad. At 2 they started Spanish nursery and started mixing Spanish words into their Danish sentences. At 4 they started English school and mixed more and more English words into Spanish and Danish sentences. Sometimes it created some really hilarious situations and we had a good laugh – still do when we talk about the funny things they used to say 🙂 My oldest didn’t seperate the three languages properly untill he was 5, the youngest managed earlier, but still made loads of mistakes. However they are fully tri-lingual today!

I can understand your frustration about “your” language being prefered less and less. But you have to keep in mind what your goal is – to make sure your child grows up fully bi-lingual able to communicate in both languages. You can not decide which will be his prefered language – most likely it will not be English, and that’s ok. Danish is definitely not the prefered language for my boys, but they speak it fluently and that’s what I set out to ensure.

You do all the right things here – use OPOL (which is not always easy!), and expose your son to situations where he has to speak English outside home! At nearly 2 and a half your son is doing very well already! He understands the concept of different languages and knows how to use it – with time he’ll learn to seperate the languages better, I’m sure. I wouldn’t worry at all if I were you! 

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There isn’t proper learning without mixing a little, I did that when I studied English and I was 18!!! I used to mix Spanish (my native language) with English because it’s a way to organize your thoughts and sometimes you don’t know the word in the 2nd language or you simply forgot it.

I taught English for very young learners for 6 years, mixing its part of the process; it’s like when they start talking they still use “baby words” mixed with “real words”.

I adopted a girl almost 2 years ago, she was 4, I only started speaking English to her about 2 months ago, she understands few words but doesn’t say a word in English, she just make up words btw that’s normal too! It will take time but I know she will learn this new language, your child will too.

Don’t give up!


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