The lonely world of bilingual(ish) parenting


One thing I struggle with a lot in my mission to improve my French and raise a bilingual child through speaking with my baby is that so much in the world of multilingual parenting– basically everything– is geared towards native speakers of the target language.  So much is the same that I often feel a large sense of community with these parents, but I am often left feeling the sting of comments that don’t take in to account that situations like mine even exist– and why should they?  I know of one other example of non-native speakers using OPOL, and that family has spent years living in the target language countries.

There are many things that native speakers protect against that I don’t remotely have the luxury to worry about.   A relative speaking the majority language and thus giving their child poor language exposure is a common topic for concern.  Native speakers often worry about the spouse who is fluent in the target language but not natively messing up the little one’s accent if they read bedtime stories to the little one.  I am sure the the corrupting speech in question is often much better than my French, and I have dreams about the day when Daddy will be confident enough in French to read a bedtime story (if a grandparent ever did I would do cartwheels for joy).   Language classes are often critiqued by native speakers– the teacher might be a non native speaker who often makes grammatical errors, and–heaven forbid!– doesn’t speak with a perfect accent.  Native speakers worry about forming playgroups that are exclusively in their dialect.  On my end, I could care less if Nelson sounds Senegalese or Quebecois– I’ll be delighted if anyone can understand him!  I sometimes feel like I am listening to someone complain that the price of first class airfare has gone up.

There is a lot of advice that is doled out that also can make me feel a little lost and alone– or in my better moments bemused at the audacity of what I am attempting to do.  Advice like “Each parent should just speak the language you are most comfortable with.”  I hear that a lot, and it is said without any thought to the fact that for that to be at all relevant to raising a bilingual child the couple has to speak not only one, but two or more languages that are not the majority language.  In my mind I imagine a family with a Daddy who was born in France to an Algerian mother and Italian father, but went to live in Austria for most of their schooling before moving to Japan where he met Mommy who studied in Argentina for a year in college to perfect her Spanish but is originally from Brazil, and they of course speak perfect English as well, because who doesn’t speak English?  So they sit down and say well, we speak French, Arabic, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese and English between us, how can we possibly choose which languages to speak with our little global citizen?  I am not making fun– I aspire to have grandchildren with these problems.  But it is so, so far from my experience.  People ask me “Why French?” and I think “That is the only language I can speak a full sentence of that isn’t English!” (I usually manage to respond with something about French great grandmother and possibly working in Francophone Africa or possibly Geneva and French International Schools, which makes me sound more thoughtful.)  This kind of advice is rampant– “Here is how we are taking advantage of our visit back home to Sweeden!” or “You can really benefit from engaging with other people who are originally from China.”

The thing that stings most is the occasional look of horror I get.  It happens like this: I meet another parent, they say something in perfect native Korean to their child.  I say “Oh, that is so great that you are raising little Johnny to be bilingual.  I always speak French to Nelson.”  They are at first very supportive “That’s great!  Are you from France?”  “Oh, no, I am learning by speaking and reading with Nelson, and by studying on my own while he naps.”  Then I get the look.  The “what is going to happen to that poor child” look.  It is usually followed by a slightly more politely worded “Where on Earth did you get a crazy idea like that?!”  It is rare, but it definitely happens.  And I take a deep breath, and let it roll off, and remind myself that if Nelson makes it out of this adventure with any French at all I will be overjoyed.  And I remind myself that a native bilingual just can’t understand the frustration that I have felt being trapped in one linguistic world while living abroad, having international friends, and traveling.  They can’t understand the overwhelming sense of relief I felt the first time I successfully made a dinner reservation, read a newspaper article, and had a conversation in French.  Maybe from that perspective it is hard to appreciate why I am willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help little Nelson speak any French, no matter how imperfect, without having to struggle through years of classroom instruction.

I am slowly realizing that my mission is just entirely different from that of a natively multilingual parent.  I share the goal of raising a multilingual child, but when I dream about the future my best case scenario doesn’t involve having a little one who is equally French and American with a perfect Parisian accent.  I dream about a seven year old with an unidentifiable accent pieced together from interactions with friends from all over the Francophone world, with a slightly strange sound to his rolled R’s that never quite makes sense until you meet his maman.  He has one little American passport, but sees the world as a bigger place than that.

I want to make sure to end this post, to preclude any danger of sounding ungrateful, by saying that I am so happy to have my network of multilingual parent friends.  I have found so much invaluable support, advice, inspiration and community among other multilingual parents, and I don’t think I would have lasted this long without that.  So to all of you– thank you!


One thought on “The lonely world of bilingual(ish) parenting

  1. Hello! My husband and I are french. But we do speak english and a bit german. I have thought to make my children bilinguals but as you said, when you’re not native speaker yourself, it’s quite difficult to start. We’re looking for another job opportunity for my husband, which could be in a foreign country. I would be delighted to learn a new language or perfect the ones I have yet. The best thing would be that my children would learn at school a new language. They would become bilingual (or even multilingual?)!
    I like your blog and I think your idea to raise Nelson in a bilingual environnement will be an amazing gift for him when he will be older.
    Keep going! Regards, Eolia

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