Bilingualism in the home today and what you should know
Updated: May 14, 2019
With so many multi-cultural families in France who are dealing with bilingualism on a daily basis, we thought a blog on this subject would be of interest to many parents. We met with bilingual expert Jane Fabulet-Roberts who works and lives in the Grenoble region and asked her a few questions on this subject.
Q. Hello Jane, can you introduce yourself and give us a quick insight into your background and training?
A. My name is Jane Fabulet-Roberts. I was raised in France in a monolingual French family. Even though my first name is English, I learnt English at school like everybody else. My last name “Roberts” comes from my American husband.
When I was very young my parents chose to host many different people (coming from everywhere in the world) and they would stay with us for several weeks or even a year. That’s when my passion for French as a foreign language started. I traveled in various parts of the world and moved to the US in 2004 to live with my future husband. I gave birth to my two boys there and we moved to France in 2014. While in the US, I was working at different French schools and at the Alliance Française. I worked with children, adults and families. I realized then that lots of students, parents and teachers included, had questions about bilingualism and often would rely on hearsay or what was being said without really knowing anything such as studies to backup their answers. There are many myths about bilingualism that are important to debunk. I did some research and became passionate about the subject. I read many books by specialists and then, in France, I followed a program at the Université Paris-Descartes about bilingualism and children. I also teach French as a Foreign language and an Intercultural Studies course at the American School of Grenoble.
Q. Do you see bilingualism as a problem or an advantage for our children?
A. It should never be considered a problem but many societies are built on a model based on monolingualism even if they are diverse, even if they think on the surface that bilingualism is an advantage. When we start looking a little deeper, there are lots of inequalities that start coming up at the surface and need to be addressed. So the answer should be it’s an advantage, right? Well, it is. Being bilingual or multilingual allows us to look at the world in its complexity, and to me, it’s an advantage. Our tendencies as humans is to simplify things but nothing is simple. Raising a child with multiple languages is not simple but it’s worth the challenge. Raising children with different cultures and languages is giving them the chance to look and embrace difficulties and challenges while making them see that there are many ways to think, to belong, to be critical, to be creative, and just to be.
Q. Do children who are bilingual do better at school, or does it make school more challenging?
A. Again, there are no simple answers to this question. Studies show that overall bi-multilingual brains should perform better however, nothing is magic and each child, each situation is different. One example is that the metalanguage function is more developed from the beginning. This means that they have the ability to reflect on language early on. It makes sense because unconsciously, they know that the same object can be identified with two different sounds: “bottle” and whatever other word is used in another language. But for this function, and other advantages that the bi-multilingual have, to be positive, they need to be brought to the surface. These advantages need to be used. One way that educators and parents can help is by asking questions that help the child compare his/her languages. No need to be specialist and to “work” for an hour. It can be easy and short and it should be fun! For example, when playing a game: “Oh, what is that word in … I forgot”. Oh wait, it sounds like…. And later on: how do we write it in plural in such and such a language?
All of a sudden these little things give value to ANY language by mentioning it, showing interest, questioning its structure, its sounds and reactivating the vocabulary. Language is developed by listening and talking to other humans. Our relationship to screens are making it challenging for our children to develop strong language skills. I would say that to do better at school no matter the language: read with or to your child until they ask to read on their own. Watch shows with them so you can discuss and they want to tell you about it. And if a bilingual child seems to not perform as well as we think he/she should, it’s never because she/he is bilingual but other factors need to be taken into consideration: situation at home, at school, personality, health, speech troubles, etc… Look for support from specialists and it’s always good to check if the specialist is aware of bilingualism because too often, we hear that parents are told that it’s because of bilingualism, well, if you hear that… it’s a red flag because that probably means that that specialist does not know anything about it. Raising a child, bilingual or not, requires consistency and addressing the situation in all its complexity so the child can thrive.
Q. How early should you address bilingualism?
A. You should educate yourself about it as soon as you decide to have a child. Starting with the parents’ own language situation, discussing your goals, etc… Have a plan and then, don’t be afraid if it has to change. In our case, we chose the strategy of the minority language at home so it was French until we moved to France and we had to switch and adapt. I knew the challenges ahead and I knew I needed to make adjustments, observe and have faith because it’s a long path. One important thing we did was to explain to our kids when we moved, why I started speaking more English at home, and more importantly why we did not pressure them into speaking English. They are not perfectly bilingual (that’s a myth, nobody is…) but their bilingualism is happy and as balanced as it can be now. Parents and educators should educate themselves about bilingualism so they feel empowered to address questions, difficulties and successes when they occur.
Q. Why is it easier for a younger child to learn another language compared to an older one?
A. It’s not easier, it’s different. There are several factors why children, teenagers and adults learn languages differently. One easy answer is that a child’s brain is wired to learn languages. From the womb to young adulthood, the brain continues to adjust and learn languages skills. However, once the child is surrounded by a few languages, she/he is going to focus on those, first in terms of sounds and then in terms of syntax. A young child will be efficient: “want bread”. Done ! An older child’s brain knows that making a full sentence requires a little more than just two words. Young children tend to be immersed at school and go through repetitive situations that help them get some of the basics of the language. They are prone to making mistakes but that’s how they learn so they are not afraid like an older child, or adult can be. They are less inhibited or self-critical. That helps. All of this seems to make it easier for them. But children are not sponges when it comes to language (emotionally, they can be), they just learn differently. If we were immersed the way they are, and if our needs (for communication) were not as complex, we would probably learn as fast.
Q. Is it too late if it concerns teenagers?
A. It’s never too late to learn a language. I am what is called a “late bilingual”. Anybody can become bilingual at any age. There is no perfect way to be bilingual. It’s all about the situation, the motivation, the needs. We can lose a language, we can gain many.
Accent, for example is only one aspect of a language. People often focus too much on that aspect making it either a sign of failure or success. The right question should be: Why this language more than an other? What are the reasons? What is my goal? Where and when will I use it? How frequently? Do I want to become proficient at reading and writing or just using it when I see family?
Children and teenagers go through phases where they feel more or less attached to a language either because they need to fit in or they feel discouraged or lost. The key is to observe, observe, observe. What is going on? For how long? And talk to them. It depends on what is the problem if there is a problem. Is it academic, is it at home? If they refuse to speak one language, try to understand why and tell them why it’s important to you and for them even if they don’t see it now.
Q. What language should you use at home to reprimand a child? Is using one language over another bad?
A. I use both my languages to reprimand my child because I want them to have more vocabulary! Even reprimanding them, to me, is about language skills… :) I often hear people who are speaking their non-mother tongue to their children say that when they are tired or angry, they switch to their mother tongue. It makes sense when you think that we are beings of emotions. The problem with that is if the mother tongue is never used other than that then, it can (depending on the situation and the child) give the child the impression that this language is not used for other things than negative things. That is why it’s important to use all languages in various situations. Fun things, reading, watching movies together…
Q. How can parents who are not bilingual help and keep up with their bilingual children?
A. First, they need to keep speaking the language that is important to them and they need to explain to their child why it is important to them. If they can’t help their child in the other language, but their child needs help, they need to look for help. There are two things they can do and one is making sure that children have access to literacy equally in both languages so the child can improve vocabulary and syntax in both. And they can also show that they are learning the language to set the example that they are also making efforts. They can also find organizations, activities, and tutors in the other language if they feel that they need to get an extra boost.
Q. What is your best advice for raising bilingual kids and making sure bilingualism is balanced out?
A. The ideal is a balanced bilingualism for sure. But it’s easier said than done. Not impossible! Each situation is different and can change very fast so parents need to be ready and have a plan knowing that it might need to be adapted along the way but feel comfortable that some things are normal, that it takes time, that they know where to find answers and be reassured. Working on it everyday is exhausting but rewarding in the end. Be consistent but relaxed to create a happy family life.
Q. Do you hold any classes to educate parents on how to deal with bilingualism?
A. Yes, I have started hosting monthly meetings with Helen McEwan who is a speech therapist and a teacher. We have similar and different personal and professional experiences (she is trilingual) but, more importantly, we have the same passion about bilingualism and multilingualism. We want to share this and empower parents and educators so children can thrive.
Q. How often do you hold these classes and where can we find out more information about them?
A. Right now, we are working on changing the format, offering more, etc… the best way to get in touch with us is through our email : firstname.lastname@example.org
I also post some information on my Facebook page: Langues & Theatre - Ateliers et accompagnement bilinguisme
There is one coming up on May 18th. We meet for 2 hours on a Saturday morning downtown Grenoble. The next meeting is about tips for literacy: reading and writing. Even if your child is a baby, you can start these early.
Q. Do you have a website? A. I'm working on it…
Q. Do you recommend any books or websites that can also help parents dealing with this?
A. Many, but my favorite is : François Grosjean. It’s a goldmine: easy to read, kind, reassuring. He talks about all aspects of bilingualism. Here is his website and you can find his book there as well: www.francoisgrosjean.ch
I also like a book that was translated in many languages “Le défi des enfants bilingues” by Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer. You can find the different translation on her website:
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