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Raising bilingual children – Q&A

If your children are being raised in France, this will affect the way they learn both languages - how can you help?

One of the first priorities for English-speaking families with young children who move to France is for the children to speak French. The children need to speak French at their new school and to make friends. How can parents encourage their child's emerging bilingualism?

Parental concerns range from wondering how long it will take for their child to become bilingual, to specific queries on how their children will deal with mathematics, or writing in two languages.

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert is a researcher of family bilingualism and multilingualism and is the author of Language Strategies for Bilingual Families - the one parent-one language approach (2004).

Mrs Barron-Hauwaert is British, married to a Frenchman, with three more-or-less bilingual children, aged 12, nine and six. She has a Masters in Education, teaches English as a second language and lives in Poitiers. Here she answers ten frequently asked questions on the subject. She is currently working on a book about siblings and bilingualism.

1) How long will it take for our child to become bilingual?
On average, it takes around six months. The process can be sped up by having a few local friends who chat to them. It can take longer if the child is missing their old school or is unhappy with their new life.

Children can be scared of sounding 'wrong' or not know enough words to communicate with children of their age. They can refuse to speak the new language.

If possible, the class teacher (and other staff) should speak French and not translate. The child needs as much exposure as possible.

This early stage of language acquisition is often referred to as immersion, like being dropped in the deep end of a swimming pool.

Once the initial shock is over, children find they can easily switch from language to language, without thinking about it.

2) Will our child mix French and English words?
Mixed language use is normal. There are two kinds of mixing. The first is word-substitution, common in very young bilingual children. The child uses his limited knowledge of the two languages to form a simple phrase.

For example: “I want lait.” shows that the child knows the word for milk, but has not yet learnt the verb in French yet. As the child learns more vocabulary this mixing often fades away.

The second type is mixing for communication. A child might purposely drop in a French word, or switch over to French mid-sentence, while talking to another bilingual person or child. For example: “We went to the piscine for my brevet de natation.”

The word piscine has made the child switch and think in French. Often bilingual children mix the two languages for fun, making up new words or playing with language.
It is usually grammatically correct and is a sophisticated way of communicating.

3) Do we need to speak fluent French for our child to integrate into the French school system?
You do not need to speak fluent French for your child to manage at school. But speaking some French will make communication between school and home much easier.

Parents need to understand the messages sent via your child from the school (for equipment needed/school-trips etc). It is tempting to stay in the background and avoid meeting teaching staff, however, teachers really appreciate being able to discuss a child's progress.

You do not need a high level of language for a teachers meeting and you can ask them to speak slowly and explain things. You might want to volunteer to help at the school, either on school trips, social events or on the school council. Being involved will help you feel part of the school community, and you will learn more French along the way.

4) Our child already learnt to read and write in England. Will he easily be able to read and write in French too?
The process of making the link between letter shapes and sounds transfers across languages. English and French have the same alphabets and general writing standards.

Nevertheless, French does include some extra sounds, such as letters with accents.
Some sounds are different; an English 'i' is pronounced as 'e' in French. Learning to read and write is more formal than in the UK or USA, with the emphasis on correctness rather than creativity. With a change of country or school, some children might regress a little, and may find reading and writing challenging.

You can suggest that the child is given easier work for a short time, until he regains his confidence.

5) How can we help our child with her French homework?
Homework (devoirs) is written in a weekly diary notebook (cahier de textes). Often children do not write down the homework properly or misunderstand instructions. Make sure your child's handwriting is legible.

Always ask for help if your child is not sure what he should be doing.
Try to find a parent (or child in the same class) who you can call to clarify homework tasks.

For children aged six and under there is rarely any homework. In primaire (primary school) there is usually a dictation and/or a poem to learn per week. Children are asked to review work done on maths, grammar, science and history work for evaluations.
In collège and lycée, (secondary school) homework can be intensive, with up to two hours per night. Most children can manage alone but if your child needs help, invest in supplementary textbooks or course summaries.

Holiday workbooks are good for extra practice too.

I recommend L'aide-devoirs - a mini flip-chart summary of school curriculum (from CE2 up to 4ème).

6) Is learning maths the same in both languages?
Children learning a second language often find mathematics easy because the basic concepts and rules of adding, subtracting and multiplying and geometry do not change.

The signs and symbols are familiar and a child already knows what is expected.
Nevertheless, mathematics requires a good knowledge of times tables. Ideally, these need to be learnt, by heart, in French, or the child will be endlessly translating and wasting time. A rapid knowledge of times tables will help children keep up with the class.

Equally, a child needs to know some specific maths vocabulary, such as geometrical terms like l'angle droit (right angle). Without these words a child might have problems to understand what he or she is supposed to do in a lesson and fall behind.

As the child moves up the school system into collège and lycée maths can get difficult, with increased new vocabulary and timed tests. The following sites may help: (exercises for primary school age) and (exercises for collège age)

7) How can we help our child learn the French way of writing (attaché)?
French children are taught joined-up writing or attaché right from the beginning and have often practised simple words and phrases in the last year of maternelle. This kind of writing is more formal than in the UK or USA and can seem rather old-fashioned.

There is a specific way of forming each letter, and your child will simply have to practise as much as she can.

You can buy practice books in most bookshops inspired by cartoon characters.

Otherwise, you can ask your class teacher for an extra copy of the ruled practice book (cahier d'écriture) with accurate samples of letters and words that your child can copy. You can use a wipe-clean whiteboard (tableau blanc) to practise too at home, a technique that is used in class too.

For printable examples of attaché writing visit

The website advises parents to print out each letter and slip it into plastic cover, and then copy letters with a washable felt-tip pen on the plastic, so that the child can reuse the example again.

8) Our child brings home a school library book from school each week in French. Should I read to her in French or translate it?
This depends on how old the child is and their level of reading skills. It also depends on how good your French is, and how comfortable you feel using it with your child. If you do not feel comfortable reading in French then you should not.

Some children find parents reading in the 'wrong' language quite odd and do not like parents to read in their second language. Other children are happy just to hear a story and do not mind if you mispronounce something or are not sure about a word. It can be a joint learning process too, as parents can learn some French too.

Young children who cannot read yet will be happy for you to describe the pictures, or translate approximately or make up a similar story. With an older child you can ask them which language they prefer you to read in.

An older child can also read the book themselves and give you a mini book review or re-tell you the story afterwards.

9) The English classes in the French school are boring for our child. What can we do?
This is a problem for a lot of English-speaking families living in France. Unless children are in a bilingual school the English classes will probably be too easy and barely challenge them. In a primary school the teacher teaches all the subjects, therefore some teachers will be quite fluent and confident in English, while others struggle with the language.

Some teachers take English children out of the class and give them extra French written work to do. In collège and lycée, there is a specialist teacher, but their job is to teach the French children English.

English speaking children need to practise spelling, story-writing and reading in line with their age group to become biliterate. English-speaking kids can also be enlisted to 'help' the teacher, by bringing in examples of magazines, books, songs they can show the class. They can talk about their life in the UK or USA, and explain some cultural differences, like the way Christmas is celebrated.

10) After living in France for a few years we've noticed our children's English reading, spelling and writing skills are going downhill. What should we do?
Often English-speaking children living in France speak perfect English but have problems with basic skills such as reading, writing or spelling. English classes in France may have been too easy or not demanding enough for them.

School is such an important part of children's life and over time the school language tends to dominate the home language. Friends and teachers often recommend French books, websites or magazines to read at home.

Over time, English becomes under-used and children find reading a book in English difficult and prefer to buy a translated version.

Parents and family need to encourage them to read and write more at home, providing materials for their age and interests. If there are several families with children of the same age you can pool resources.

Pick books that are being read by English kids and if they like one track down the author and find more. Remember that a book on a bedside table is more likely to be read than one on a shelf.

Children love collecting books and reading a series. I read them my favorite classics from my childhood (Roald Dahl, Pollyanna and The Railway Children), which gave them a taste for reading.

The internet is also a good way to practice reading.

Older children can have an email account and write to friends and family, or access to child-based sites with links to other children who they can communicate with. An English-language magazine they like could be sent over to France.

Parents with older children can discuss the advantages of being biliterate; they can attend university wherever they like, have a job in either language and use their languages when they travel.

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