We knew that raising Julien to be bilingual was a good idea, but the choice also came down to inevitability.

We live in France, my boyfriend is French, but not to speak to my son in English seems impossible to me.  It’s my native language, the language I think and dream in.  It’s as close as language can be to my soul. 


One of the things you quickly learn when you have a bilingual child is that languages are status symbols.

“He speaks two languages! He’s so lucky!” people here say, or “He’ll grow up speaking English without an accent!”  

Many of the people who say things like this are bilingual, themselves, and so are their kids. But the second languages they speak aren’t as prized.  Here, you never hear someone say, “Oh, he speaks Arabic!  How wonderful!” Or “He’ll grow up speaking Cantonese without an accent – how lucky!” 


When Julien’s first words were in French, I went through some soul-searching, wondering why, if he spent so much time with me, he didn’t seem receptive to the language we spoke together. Wondering if I’d done something wrong, if I just wasn’t loving enough, no matter how much I love him.  When I found out it was actually because he knows I speak French, as well – has heard me speaking it even before he was born -- I can’t describe the relief. Or the joy at finally, and perhaps for the first and last time, being fully included in this language in which I’ve always been an outsider.

Still, as his words come, there can sometimes be a sense of victory or defeat.  Why does he insist on only saying “lapin, when we read so many stories together about bunnies? 

Then again, for me, there are more victories than defeats.  He may currently say twenty or so words in French; he says well over double that in English. Even when he imitates things like counting or saying the alphabet, it’s usually English numbers, and always English letters.  This is only partially my fault -- some of it’s also due to the very catchy children’s songs he likes to listen to.  He has music in both languages, but the English counting songs and our version of the alphabet seem to have stuck with him more.


Many times, when he discovers something and I tell him what it’s called, I feel like I’m cheating.  There’s the boyfriend, away at work, and I’m only sharing my native language.  But if I do otherwise, I’m afraid it could affect his accent.  Sometimes I try anyway. “That’s a carriage”, I’ll tell him, “and Papa would say poussette.”

I try to remember that bilingual kids, even those who spend their early years immersed in only one of their languages, come out okay and adapt and catch on quickly.  And I’ve seen evidence of this in Julien, as well.  Not long after he started daycare, for example, he started saying gâteau, as well as “cookie”.  He knew that if he wanted a snack there, he had to be able to ask for it.


There are other words he can say in both languages.  I think of these bilingual pairs as a sort of portrait of his current life and needs: “Hello/Bonjour”, “Bye-bye/Au revoir,” “apple/pomme”, “Thank you/Merci”, “car/voiture”, “mouth, eyes, nose”/bouche, yeux, nez”, “cat/chat”, ”cow/vache”.

He's been intrigued by cows for a while.  He first saw them in books and video sing-a-longs for kids, as well as in sculpture form at his French grandparents' house (courtesy of my artist father-in-law). A few months ago, my mother-in-law came upon this cow stuffed animal.  It now has VIP placement in his crib.

In our house, language is fluid.  We try to represent our native tongues to my son, but when the boyfriend and I are together, we often speak a blend of both.  

Outside, though, I follow rules. I find myself feeling rude for speaking to Julien in English, even when it’s something as simple as asking him if he wants a snack when we’re at the park.  I feel snobbish somehow, like I’m isolating us from the rest of the world.  

And so, out comes my French.  Like anyone speaking another language, my very voice changes.  And since we’re in public, I unconsciously find myself making more of an effort with my pronunciation.  Julien sometimes gives me a strange look: “What are you doing?”

It feels false, but maybe that’s something I’m also teaching him: How we sometimes have to put on a polite face for the world.

And perhaps, above all, that language is so much more than just words.  


I’ve been meaning to write a piece like this for a while, but I was inspired to do it after several people asked me questions about my last post, where I talked about my son discovering snow and saying “Au revoir, ‘no’”.

Views: 208

Comment by Phyllis on March 14, 2016 at 4:35pm

If I had had kids, my intention was to raise them bilingual, us mono-linguals are at such a disadvantage. They say that children raised with more then one language are much more able to pick up more, as well. Julien is off to a good start.

Comment by nerd cred on March 14, 2016 at 4:52pm

For a number of years when my girls were little, we lived in communities with many bilingual kids. Their first school had a population of about 40% bilingual or non-English speaking students. I loved hearing little kids talk with their parents, usually the kid in perfect English, the parent in another language, back and forth, fast, always fast, no one missing a beat. Occasionally the kid would throw in a word or two in the other language.

I'd always ask and learn that the kids had perfect accents in both languages and that in the other country or with non-English speakers, the kid was comfortable in the other language.

My own kid was 2-1/2-3 when we spent 6 months in Warsaw. She played with Polish kids every day and learned some words or expressions only in Polish. She couldn't always tell which language she was speaking. When she insisted "dajme da roka" (give to my hand) I could tell from context she wanted me to give her something but no had clue as to the words.

I only learned a bit of shopping Polish while there and had retained just scraps of Spanish from my none too successful history studying it. Maybe I spoke either one on the level of a 2 year old child. For a time I would have to stop and think to know which word began to which language when I tried to say something in either.

Reading what you write about Julien, my guess is he doesn't know yet which language is which. Cookie and gâteau, apple and pomme may be still interchangeable in his mind and he may not fully realize which language he is using.

My grandkids learn sign language early in their day care, before they have the English words for things like "more" and "I love you." My memory of Judah using and then outgrowing that follows that pattern. (dammit, they don't reinforce ASL once they start speaking fluently) Mirah is just starting to sign. I'll watch this with her and see if I can do a better job with the memory.

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on March 14, 2016 at 4:53pm

My comment isn't abt uni- or bi-lingualism... tho  I understand and applaud you here.

My son is 26. When he was a bit younger he said to me, Dad, thanks for always talking w me as if I am an adult, even whan I was a little kid. It's why my vocabulary's so good.

(That and wide reading.)

Comment by nerd cred on March 14, 2016 at 4:54pm

p.s. There are a number of schools here now that are full-immersion in another language and start at the beginning, kindergarten. They're usually charter schools. I think. I'm no expert but a distant observer!

Comment by Alysa Salzberg on March 14, 2016 at 5:04pm

Thanks for your comments, guys. 

Phyllis - I hear ya.  There is definitely a lot of research that shows tons of advantages for bilingual or multilingual people...but at the same time, I feel like this makes it seem like monolinguals have nothing to offer - which is absurd.  I know people who tell me they think they've failed their kids because they only speak one language, and that is so silly - there are bright, brilliant monolinguals and stupid, boring bi/multi -linguals, too.  

nerd cred - What you wrote is so interesting, especially the part about kids not knowing which language they're speaking. I've never thought about that.  Julien seems to realize when he should speak French (in terms of using the French version of one of his bilingual pairs of words), but maybe it's just trial and error? Like we had a French friend visit the other day and Julien wanted to show her his favorite toy car, and he kept saying "Voiture, voiture!"  But she responded to it; maybe if she hadn't, he would have said "Car"?  You make me want to do more research....

Jonathan - It's awesome that your son is grateful to you for his language skills.  I've often heard that about parents who don't speak in "baby talk" with their kids. I don't have a particular stand on it, though...  But I've always found it hard to baby talk with Julien.  Even when we see a dog or something, I always just say "dog", not "doggie" - which meant he was confused when he saw an episode of "Elmo's World" about "doggies".  But I don't talk to him this way on purpose; it just makes sense to me, I think because I think of Julien as my little sidekick sometimes.    

Comment by JMac1949 Today on March 14, 2016 at 5:23pm

Two languages can easily lead to three, four or more.  Julien is a lucky boy.  R&L

Comment by koshersalaami on March 14, 2016 at 6:11pm
Thanks for writing this. I'm one of the people who asked.
Comment by Alysa Salzberg on March 15, 2016 at 4:03am

JMac - That's what they say! I hope if he wants to become multilingual, he will.  

Kosh - I remember you being one of the people who asked.  I'm glad you liked this post.

Comment by tr ig on March 15, 2016 at 8:19am

What a conundrum. I'm thinking he must be so confused, little Julien, but that's my old person perspective maybe. Surely he doesn't know he's learning two languages at once---rather, he is just listening and talking in a huge fantastic language that has many words for things. I so love the French language .. the way it sounds (I know very little, but now I know rabbit/lapin). How do you say conundrum in French? 

Comment by Alysa Salzberg on March 15, 2016 at 1:15pm

tr ig - Your comment, like nerd cred's, makes me want to do more research about how bilingual kids perceive language. From what I've read, I got the impression that they were aware certain people spoke one way, and others, another.  But now I'm not so sure. As soon as I have some time, I'm definitely going to look into this!

As for your question about "conundrum" in French, it's funny: When I read it, no word immediately popped into my mind. I thought maybe "mystère", but that just means "mystery."  I looked into it and found that you can either say "énigme" or "casse-tête"... but for me, neither one quite has the flair of "conundrum" (although the latter is a fun one - it means "head break" or "head breaker").  This is often the case when you're translating English to French; the French language has less words and prizes itself on precision, all the same. A few notable exceptions aside, there's not much larking about in French, unlike in English, where we have so many more words to play with.

....And I guess that what I just wrote reinforces how much I love English. I'm not saying it's the best language out there; all languages have their good and bad points.  But I find English to be so rich and fun. French has been following rules since the 17th century, with the creation of the Académie française, which governs how the language is officially used (with the exception of aspects of language they can't touch, like slang, made-up languages, dialects, borrowed words, etc.).  The advantage is that you can read literature from this time and from the centuries after, and pretty much understand it without needing many footnotes - even classic works by Molière and Racine.  We English-speakers today often struggle to understand everything Jane Austen writes, not to mention Shakespeare.  But there is something so beautiful and free about English.  A thought I've just had - maybe something I read somewhere?: English is like the English garden style, all free-growing and romantic, and French is like the French garden style, cropped and cut and geometric and orderly, but also still very beautiful.



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