This summer Nelson and I have been spending a lot of time with Daddy, and it is wonderful. I love that Alex’s doctoral student schedule allows him a flexible summer where he can really enjoy and bond with our baby. The New England summer weather is perfection, and we have gotten to tromp around and revel in our role as new parents. In English.
I had originally set for myself the goal of speaking French to Nelson when him and I were alone together. That worked great when I was a bewildered new mother wandering aimlessly around town or alone in the apartment chattering away to my baby while he tried to tolerate tummy time. Now I have lots of parent friends to meet up with (in English), and a rich schedule of sing alongs, story times and play groups that gives Nelson wide and varied socialization (in English). I am feeling happy and fulfilled and Nelson is thriving– but in English.
So now I am starting to discover one of the real challenges of multilingual parenting. I have carved out some specific times that are French only. We always read French books when we nurse at home, though sometimes it has to be the news because children’s books are too distracting for him. Now that he has started solids I generally give him his breakfast and dinner while explaining things about the food to him in French. I keep up my own French by listening to podcasts and reading the news in French, giving myself an extra hour or so of exposure. But at the end of the day we just don’t spend that much time alone, and often those times coincide with his still frequent naps. The socialization is wonderful for me and for him, but it seriously erodes my simulated immersion project for myself and the project of exposing him to as much French as possible.
So what to do? I have started playing with speaking French to Nelson when Alex is around. At this point, I speak French when Alex is in the room but not actively engaging with us. One thing I didn’t really count on is how often speech to a child has two levels of communication– one to the child and one to the other adults around you. When I move in to French that second level gets lost. Alex is supportive and says he doesn’t mind it at all, but I often feel like we lose some of the mutual connection.
I worry if I start to move towards a more strict OPOL policy that a lot will be lost for both of us socially, and am realizing very quickly that I need to build some of our life in French before it completely gets squeezed out! Maybe we should shift from having special zones carved out for French to having special zones carved out for English–perhaps English if we sit down to a meal with someone who only speaks English, otherwise Mommy and baby speak French?
I am constantly shocked by where the challenges pop up in this journey. I thought I would struggle so much more with the language, but it is progressing faster than I expected and has been really fluid and natural feeling. Given the huge amount of support I have from everyone around me, I never imagined that I would be having these kinds of problems about building French into our social life– though I think if i had really thought about it I would have realized this would be a huge challenge. I also really want to avoid being in a situation where Nelson is losing out on other things that benefit his development– socialization, exposure to music and varied environments, love of reading and learning– because I pull him into a less rich but French heavy environment. I know he is already getting lower quality language exposure than I could provide in English, which is a trade off I have deemed to be worthwhile, but I don’t want that to snowball.
I would love to hear from other parents raising bilingual or multilingual children in families where one parent only speaks the majority language how you have tackled these problems.