It was the best of times, it was the worst of times


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. 


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!

Histoires et Chansons avec Mme. Coco

Talking 18 weeks

The biggest bit of news in our bilingual journey is that I have decided to start up a sing along and story time in French.  I think I have found a home for us at a local school, and I am really excited for the idea!  It looks like it would start in September, which is a good amount of time to prepare myself.  Sometimes I stop and ask myself why I am taking this on.  What am I thinking?  I am struggling enough to teach my child French, why add another big group of little ones?  But I think, in the end, it will be a big help to me because it will force me to tackle so many of the things that are difficult for me in the process of leading a life with my child in this new language.

The monster problem is speaking French around other adults.  Usually children are accompanied by adults to the story time.  I will really, really have to bite the bullet and accept speaking– public speaking– in French for this to happen.  I think it will be easier for me because I find it so easy to engage with children, so I will just pretend the parents don’t exist for the first couple weeks.  Though I might be shaking with fear during my first story time.

Another issue I keep coming up against is that I don’t have a life history in French.  I don’t have favorite books and I don’t have an arsenal of nursery rhymes.  I don’t know the silly hand movements that go along with songs, and the songs I know come from CDs borrowed from the library rather than years of song with parents, friends, and teachers.  I stumble, trying to memorize lyrics quickly and making shoddy, on the fly translations of songs Nelson likes in English.  It somehow seems to make the little tyke really happy at this age, but I don’t think that will last.  Leading songs for little ones will demand a degree of polish that I haven’t yet achieved.  It will give me the imperative to research the best children’s books, songs, rhymes, dances.  I am really, really excited about it!

And finally, I hope we’ll meet some other francophone families.  I know there is a big Haitian community around here that I would love to tap in to, and being in Cambridge we are surrounded by universities with many international families.  I know that they are out there, but I have been too scared, too busy, too shy, and too overwhelmed to connect.  I feel like I would be a charity case.  Little lady who struggles with her French, and a baby who can’t speak, demanding French interaction from some family I barely know with perfect English, who could communicate with me much more easily in English.  I try to shy away from this mentality, try to tell myself that I can’t force anyone to do anything and there is no harm in asking, but these are my demons.  I am still working on my identity as a bilingual.

I hope I’m not biting off more than I can chew– though sometimes I find it is best to keep yourself busy enough that you don’t have time to complain.  That has been the French strategy so far!

I should go.  My husband is with my slightly grumpy baby on a walk, and I just couldn’t resist taking a few minutes for an update but he really ought to be working on being a doctoral student, and I ought to be marching around town practicing the verses to “Il était un petit navire” with my beautiful baby.

Catching up

It has been far, far too long since I posted, but I am promising myself to get back in to the swing of things.  Being away from the blog I realized I really need it.  There is so much to think through in raising a child in a language that is not native to you, and the reflection I do while writing is invaluable.  The feedback I get is maybe even more important, and the little words of encouragement from parents who are further along in this process make me feel like maybe, just maybe I haven’t lost my mind in taking this on.  

It has been more than a month!  Nelson is four months old now.  Happy, healthy, and more and more of a handsome little devil every day.  I have loosened up a bit with my speaking French (one day last week I spoke French with five different adults in one day, and was feeling VERY pleased with myself).  And my French continues to improve.  All is going well.

And now the nap is over!  But I have returned, and I promise more soon.  Image



A friend of mine posted an article, How to speak Franglais, which so reminded me of my life these days.  The article is about a man, Miles Kington, who wrote a magazine series that taught French through the use of “Franglais.”  The article is written in his delightful mix of French and English that butchers both languages in a way that is unpretentious and immensely unintimidating. It is like learning French from your crazy aunt who can’t doesn’t know English well enough to keep her French out of her English– or maybe like learning French from your crazy Mom who doesn’t know French well enough to seamlessly describe every situation?   Always speaking a language that you are yourself still learning means that you default to the occasional English placeholder, though this situation is improving day by day!  And French being the language of motherhood I often throw French phrases into my English.  (I am still a bit disappointed in myself that I am that person, but it feels less pretentious and more silly when it is just what bubbles up when I get so excited about my baby’s cooing and is usually a pet name for his gros bidon.)  I am glad that someone found this to be an effective way to teach French!

Reflux, rest, and reengaging.

It has been too long since I’ve written! Nelson has been battling with acid reflux which has been quite tragic for him, and his poor little parents haven’t been getting a lot of sleep or free time away from soothing our poor baby as a result. We were able to get him back to his happy self though, and aside from enjoying the flood of smiles he had been saving up, I should also have time to be back to regular updates.

While things were rough for poor Nelson and I was sleep deprived, my French speaking really dropped off. To some extent it is hard for me to tell if I was speaking less French, or just feeling like I was speaking less because it was so repetitive. I typically read him books and talk about all the different things we encounter, but in these past couple weeks I was instead always comforting him. I sang Au Clair de la Lune about two hundred times in two weeks, so there was French coming out of my mouth, but I got so delirious that I was smashing verses together and probably not even singing words at times.

These past few weeks were also the first time I noticed myself code switching unintentionally. I feel like that is a little triumph. Everything I read about raising bilingual children talks about code switching– the dangers, the joys, the utility. To me it seemed so impossible, I was so far from comfortable enough with French to slip in and out of it effortlessly. I would sometimes say things in English, but just because I really didn’t know the word or phrase at all. Now I flow between English and French without knowing it quite often– and surprisingly, more often than not, it is the French that encroaches on the English. When I am around other English speakers and trying to speak English to the baby (a policy that I am reevaluating, I will almost certainly post soon about that!) the French just marches right in. Aside from the feeling of really being a REAL bilingual parent, it also makes me scared. The English does sometimes encroach on the French, and as tired as I was last week I often wouldn’t notice. Before we had a diagnosis for Nelson’s reflux I was worried about the entire bilingualism project. I was so tired that sometimes I wasn’t capable of putting together sentences in French, and what I was saying was so repetitive that I was afraid everything I know would just disappear *poof* into a cloud of little baby tears.

I think I learned a lot from these past two weeks. There were times before where I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, but this round I didn’t even have time to pause and evaluate. Life just happened. I felt like I was being swept along in a very fast current, and I was grabbing on to anything to keep the language anchored. But things were also moving fast enough that there was no time for guilt. I felt good about what I could do and what I was trying to do and tried to remind myself that this too would pass. Once things got better, I got right back in to it, and it felt so good to be speaking and reading and challenging myself and progressing again. It doesn’t always have to be perfect. It is the baseline, the habits that will make or break Nelson’s bilingualism and mine.

One other fantastic thing came from all of this. I was so happy to be back to speaking French that on Monday I introduced myself, in French, to a woman who is also a regular at the baby singalong that Nelson and I go to at the library. She always volunteers “bon matin” into the good morning song, and I had been meaning to introduce myself to her forever (one of my many anxiety-provoking-I-should-be-speaking-French situations). We had a real conversation, in French. She’s from Haiti, she asked me if I was from France, we talked about raising bilingual children, and about how her grandson has four different languages between his parents and grandparents (lucky kiddo!) and they fight about what he should learn and how. Oh, and she asked me if I was from France. I’ve basically been smiles and sunshine since!

Going Native

Just read a post on aiaConnect, Going Native, that ties in really well with my last post.  They discuss some new research that indicates that native bilinguals actually hear the same sound differently in different contexts.  In this case sounds in different places along the ba-pa continuum were identified as a native Spanish speaker would in a Spanish context, and as a native English speaker would in an English context.

It reminds me of when I was learning French and had to listen to hours and hours of my own voice recorded, and then the native speaker, and then myself, and finally had these breakthrough moments where I could hear the difference between my attempts and the perfect Parisian accent.  In the beginning even Je and J’ai sounded the same to me.  Really, it is just another challenge I am happy to spare my baby if I can–and it reminds me that I had better make sure to give him some input with proper pronunciation!

Gougou Maman!


My sister asked me the other day “What does baby talk sound like when babies hear French?” and I realized that while I can kind of imagine it, really I have no idea.  When does a baby get the ability to roll an R or pronounce a nasal vowel?  Will that show up in his babel soon?  And what happens to the baby babble of a baby raised bilingual?  And will his first word be in French or English?  I think the fact that I am so fascinated by our journey is a large part of what keeps me going day to day.  I can’t wait to find out what Nelson will sound like!

I also don’t really know how French mothers speak to their babies when they are not speaking.  I repeat his coos back to him, and say “mamama” “bababa” and “gugugu” because he has vaguely approximated those sounds, but have I not been trained to listen for the right French sounds to encourage him to repeat?  And how early do I need to get him around native speakers?  I have a sense that he still has time, and for now my approximation of the proper sounds is good enough, but I have so many sources I can’t keep the science from the folklore in my head.  And there just isn’t that much science yet anyway!  I also have a related but different concern– I think my accent deteriorates when I speak sing-song Mommy French.  I have never seen anything that models it for me, and I try to keep it accurate but dancing with pitch and volume on top of trying to maintain a proper accent is proving to be difficult.

I might head to YouTube and do some research tonight.  If I find some good French Motherese I’ll come back and share with you all.

Whatever sounds he ends up making, I know he is talking up a storm now, and already really trying to imitate.  I love our conversations.

Why do I work so hard to never use the language I work so hard to learn?


I am perpetually posing this question to myself.  Over and over I run into a situation where I can easily use my French but somehow fall completely mute.

The other day I took Nelson for his first swim.  He was showing off his gums and being adorable, no surprise.  A woman came to the pool– which was small, and otherwise empty– and of course wanted to tell me how beautiful my baby was (I mean, look at him).  She spoke perfect but accented English.  And I tell myself “Oh, she probably doesn’t speak French.  You don’t really have enough experience to pick out a French Canadian accent.  Don’t bother her with French.”  A few minutes later, out comes her husband.  He also speaks to us, I ask where they are from, forgetting for the moment to be avoidant.   He tells me they are from Montreal and explains that Montreal is in French Canada.  Do I respond in French?  Tell him that I am obsessively plotting trips to Montreal so that my son can be somewhere where it is normal to speak French?  Or even tell him, in English, that I speak exclusively French to my son?  No, I respond in English, and with a blank stare, and they go off to the other side of the pool and speak French to each other, and I stay in the shallow end quietly speaking French to my baby.  But they definitely hear me.  When they help me open the gate to let me get out with the toweled baby and the diaper bag, I don’t even manage a “merci.”  Why?  I posted once about how my fear of speaking French in public was certainly making me look more crazy than if I just spoke my bad French.  This is certainly another one of those situations where my fear of looking silly makes me look so silly that I may as well have been wearing a gorilla suit in the pool.

I can speak French in France.  That is, to anyone who doesn’t speak English.  But to anyone who speaks English I can’t say more than “Oui, un petit peu” (“Yes, just a little bit”) when asked if I speak French.  I think in part I am in awe of the truly bilingual.  The gods among men who have really mastered two languages.  I can speak French to other mere mortals who struggle to speak another language, but not to the bilinguals.  Forget the fact that I could learn so much from someone who could listen and explain my mistakes, or who has struggled their way to real fluency.  Forget that I am in desperate need of French conversation.  Forget the fact that I am working my tail off to learn a language so that I can talk to people– real people, in the real world.  Forget the fact that it is downright bizzarre to be in the same playground as a Frenchwoman after telling her in English that you’ve been studying French for a couple years and speak French to your baby but not to her (another incident that I am not proud of).

I worry that this will be my Achilles heel.  But we can’t let this all be for naught just because I still have some residual middle school emotions.  So here is my challenge to myself:  Next time I find myself in this situation, I want to speak three sentences in French.  Just three.  Just to see what will happen.

Slow motion

Tummy time

If Nelson can get through tummy time, the bilingual experiment can survive this week.

This week was the first time since I became a new parent that I felt really, truly, tired to my bones.  Alex was in the midst of final exams and papers, so I was on full time baby duty while Daddy pulled all-nighters in the computer lab.  Had it been a normal week it wouldn’t have been so bad, but has been a needy little one this week, in need of constant consoling.  I laugh at myself reading the bright-eyed optimism of my last post.

I don’t know how to feel about this past week.  The first couple days after my last post I was an engine going full steam ahead.  I was writing journal entires to get corrected on, I was listening to an hour of French talk radio a day while he napped, I was pounding away at French flashcards, and at night I would watch an episode of a TV show in French.  I felt like a superhero.  It was great, though probably not sustainable even in the best of conditions.

From that starting point, I felt like the past seven days had been a disastrous backslide, though now taking stock for the blog I feel more like we are just moving in slow motion.  While I have been alone with him he only hears French, except the occasional sentence I let slip out because I am too tired to notice which language I am speaking.  But where before I was constantly chatty, this week I’ve spent a lot of time just staring at him or saying simple and repetitive things:  “Je t’aime toujours mon petit lapin.”  “Ce ne’est pas le fin du monde ma puce.”  “Ciel, quelle moue !”*  Where I once had many topics of conversation, this week I struggled to describe what we would be doing that day or what items of clothing I was putting on his (very unwilling) little body.  I also spent a lot more time out with other mommies, speaking English.  Not for the English, but for my overall sanity– one can only spend so much time cooped up in an apartment with an unhappy baby, and for some reason the little rabbit is a lot happier when we are out and about.  I brought a book with us, and would sometimes read to him in French if I found myself between new parent support groups and coffees with friends, but still some days I would barely manage two hours in slow, repetitive, zombie French.

I don’t know wether I should regard this week as a success or a failure.  I fell short of my most recently stated goal for sure.  I keep trying to remind myself that I far exceeded what I would have thought possible 8 weeks ago while I stared at my very pregnant belly wondering what the future would hold, when I thought I would speak French for maybe an hour a day and build up from there.  But I also feel like those old goals are outdated, based on insufficient knowledge, and established before I experienced the joy and frustration of living life with my baby in a language in which I can’t fully express myself.  I guess in the end this week doesn’t really matter, what matters is the general trend, the slow compounding of hours on hours until him and I either wind up fluent or drown in a sea of linguistic dispair.  I think I am sounding melodramatic– I assure you, it is mostly the lack of sleep.

I am trying to make myself accept that there will be ups and downs.  Really, it won’t just be this past week where the bilingual project is in slow motion.  Tuesday Nelson and I fly to Florida for my best friend and cousin’s graduation, and to get out of Alex’s hair while he prepares for his qualifying exam for his doctorate.  I’ve never heard anyone say that traveling with an infant is easy, and we’re going to be spending another week without Daddy’s help.  The trick will be coming back to full speed after the world settles down.

So for now, I am focusing on the small triumphs.  Even zombie French is French, and I did manage to get through some flashcards!



**”I love you, always, my little rabbit.”  “It isn’t the end of the world sweetheart.”  “My, my, what a pout!”