Our toddler was speaking French before either of us knew the language

Guest post by Hailey
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My husband and I are Canadian, and bilingualism is a big part of our national culture. Unfortunately, depending on what part of the country you grow up in, the likelihood that you will learn both French and English can be greatly diminished — as was the case for my husband and me. We grew up in Western Canada, to Unilingual Anglophone parents. While we both studied basic French in high school, our understanding was rudimentary at best. Shortly after we were married, we moved to Ottawa so I could attend graduate school.

Ottawa is truly a bilingual city — it borders Quebec, and a large segment of the population speaks both French and English. There are also large portions of the population that speak exclusively French or English. We felt that our lack of language ability was definitely a hurdle to cross in that environment. We found out we were expecting our first child shortly after moving, and quickly moved to Gatineau, an almost exclusively French part of the country.

Gatineau has some amazing government programs for families — one of which is a subsidized educational daycare program. Parents pay $7 a day for care — regardless of income level. When it came time to place our daughter in daycare at nine months old, we found out something we weren’t expecting: all the facilities that offered the government program in our area were exclusively French-speaking. Instead of being nervous, we were overjoyed! We couldn’t believe that our not-yet-verbal daughter would be exposed to as much French as English in the formative years of her life. After some research about language acquisition in children, we went out with confidence to find the right French daycare for our little girl.

We were very blessed in the search and found a wonderful family daycare run by a Moroccan woman and her husband. When we began to tell our families about our plans to place Charlotte in an exclusively French daycare some were concerned. Many were worried that Charlotte would be confused, and not learn any language properly. My husband and I decided that this concern was only because they were not familiar with bilingual children, so we went forward with our plan. Everything went very well: Charlotte loved the daycare, and they loved her. They treated her just as well as we would at home. The only hiccup was that the daycare provider, Naima, didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak French. Google translate became our best friend!

She was talking just fine, she just had a larger vocabulary in French, and was using what she was most comfortable with.

When Charlotte was about a year and a half, I started to worry. She wasn’t talking! She had one or two words, but wasn’t nearly where I thought she should be (of course I was a first-time mom obsessed with milestones). I was very worried that our doubters had been right, that I had ruined my child for life. I started to work hard with her on language acquisition, but she just wasn’t advancing as quickly as I thought she should. Around this time (both my husband and I needed to go out of town for work during the same week) a friend of mine offered to babysit Charlotte with her parents, who are Francophone. When I came to pick her up, they were happy to tell me how much she talked. I was shocked, I had been so worried. They told me that she was saying many words in French, we just didn’t understand her at home. She was talking just fine, she just had a larger vocabulary in French, and was using what she was most comfortable with.

When Charlotte hit two years old, her language exploded — her English ability began to match her French ability. For a while she was mixing French and English and would use what she had in her vocabulary to get her point across. What was most amazing was when she started to language sort. She knew to speak English at home, and French with her friends and teachers at daycare. Everything we had hoped for had happened. She became equally comfortable in both languages!

Now that she is three, we are amazed at how well she speaks in both languages. At this point she has actually surpassed most people in her age category in terms of language acquisition. Another added benefit has been that my husband and I have learned much more French. My husband began to study French full time when Charlotte was two and after 10 months is functionally bilingual. Speaking French to Charlotte and to our care provider gave him with a great venue to practice. Through conversing with my daughter’s care provider, I am now to a point where I can “get by” in French. It is ugly, and I wouldn’t pass a language evaluation test, but I can make myself understood, and can understand a lot of what is said to me.

We feel like our daughter has received a gift, one that can never be taken away from her. We have made the decision as a family to make bilingualism a priority and will place Charlotte in French schools or French immersion for the rest of her life. We also make sure that she has French media such as books and music around her all the time. I acknowledged that where we live made this process much easier for our family, but I would still encourage all parents to help their children achieve bilingualism, regardless of their own language ability. Languages are tools that open opportunities, and in my opinion providing our children with tools for opportunities is what parenting is all about!

Comments on Our toddler was speaking French before either of us knew the language

  1. I’m so glad to read this story! We just found out that immersion schools here have a long wait list and I probably should have got our son on at birth. He is only one, so it will probably work out for pre-school. I was nervous about not being able to understand the German words, but so far I’ve only ever read good things about these schools. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. This was totally what I needed to read today! Beau and I have been discussing raising any of our future kids (and his son who is already three) bilingual, and I’ve been having a hard time grasping how to keep kids from getting confused in their language sorting/organization. When to use this word in this language, when to use this one… But kids are fascinating! I’ve read articles online where some children in Japan are speaking four languages fluently by age ten. Amazing!

    Thanks again for this! If anyone has any book recommendations for raising children to be bilingual (or trilingual, no shame in throwing an extra in there! Haha), that would be fantastic.

    • Bilingual bi-cultural kid here (born in South America, raised in the States, so not only was I raised with TWO languages, but with two (very) different cultures. Don´t worry about a thinking kids won´t figure it out, they all learn how/what to say/act to/with whom, we just need more patience to match a person with a language/culture. I grew up to speak many (more) languages with fair ease because I (and my four sisters) already learned that skill when we were kids. So when we were going to move to a Francophone country, we became bilinguals in two years (even though in the end we finally didnt move), becoming a TRI lingual family. There are A LOT of books at your local bookstore to learn how to do his with your infant from day one, my sister found A TON of books to use with our new nephew!

  3. I’m so glad this has come up!
    I’m planning to speak Dutch to any future kids my English partner and I might have, and I was wondering about how being bilingual from the start would affect children.

    It’s nice to be aware it can take a while for them to start speaking both equally.
    Heck, I might even teach them my dialect and spruce it up myself too!

  4. This is awesome! It’s so great that you have something like the daycare available to you. I’m expecting my first baby in April and my fiance and I only know english (a small bit of french) but really want our children to be bilingual. You are SO lucky (and I’m really jealous) that in Canada you have the opportunity to immerse them and teach them 2 languages even if you aren’t bilingual yourself. we’re in the USA and I’m having a really hard time finding any sort of resources to raise bilingual kids if neither parent is bilingual! I keep hoping to find a baby/parent foreign language class or something lol any suggestions would be great 🙂

  5. My husband and I are unilingual Canadians but we have French-speaking relatives on both sides of the family. We also want our daughter to speak French. My research indicated that the critical mass for fluency is at least 16 hours per week of exposure. I searched hard for a French daycare but the closest are 30-40 minutes away by car, instead of the 15 minute walk we now have. We are considering looking for a French nanny for 2 days per week. My sister did immersion through Grade 8 but isn’t 100% comfortable in French which makes me think that establishing fluency before age 5 is best.

    • I knows my people who did just immersion in k-12 and are very comfortable, and many who aren’t. Languages seem to be quite a bit of if you don’t use it you loose it. I think k-12 is still a great option.

  6. We had the same worries when we moved to China and hired a Chinese nanny for Charlotte. But in the past few months her language skills have exploded, in both english and mandarin, and like you we’ve concluded that we’ve done right by Charlotte!

  7. This is fantastic! I’ve always had the idea of French Immersion school in the back of my mind for any future children, but this definitely makes me think daycare/preschool is the place to start! I am from Western Canada as well, and have never heard of immersion childcare before, but I will DEFINITELY start looking as soon as there’s a baby on the way.

      • Hailey, I’m an American who currently speaks zero French however my husband is French Canadian from Gatineau. I’m hoping to learn French but still living in the US, I’m not sure how- Rosetta Stone? Anyway we may be moving to Gatineau in the near future. My worries are about our 3 year old son who speaks English and no French however he seems to comprehend some French…
        Would you be interested in sharing your email with me for further advice?

  8. What a wonderful story! Unfortunately, our only bilingual school here was closed down due to lack of funding, and it’s hard to find day care providers who speak multiple languages. I would love my son to learn to speak Spanish, and may start him on a preschool class in a neighboring county soon. I’m glad to hear of a system that worked for you.

  9. Okay, I want to raise our children bilingual (its SO much harder to learn a language once you’re grown) but I’m afraid. Specifically, I am worried about my children having a language they can talk to each other in that I can’t understand. It just seems like I’d be setting myself up for problems. Sure I would try to learn it, too, but who knows how successful I would be. Any reassurances?

    • If you can seek out resources for parents raising their children bilingual, that might help. Many parents don’t speak the language(s) their children are learning initially, and it’s not necessarily a problem for them.

    • Oh, kids will just make up a language if they really want to. That’s what my sister and I did. =] We turned out just fine though, and we’d use the secret language for fun and for make-believe games rather than for malicious reasons. Trust that you’ll raise your children the same way! You won’t always be right next to them to hear what they’re saying anyway (even if it is English!); if they reeally want to talk without you knowing, they’ll find a way.

      Sorry if that wasn’t terribly reassuring. The takeaway message was that you can raise your kids to not be tricky and malicious children.

  10. Somme starting resources and background for bilingualism in children:

    ” Although many parents believe that bilingualism results in language delay, research suggests that monolingual and bilingual children meet major language developmental milestones at similar times.
    • Despite many parents’ fear that using two languages will result in confusion for their children, there is no research evidence to support this. On the contrary, use of two languages in the same conversation has been found to be a sign of mastery of both languages.”

    “The ‘one-parent-one-language’ method is sometimes put forward as the only way to raise bilingual children. It isn’t. There are many routes to this end. If both parents can speak a minority language then their best strategy might be to speak only the minority language to their children, and let them learn the majority language of the community outside the home. If the family live in a place where everyone is bilingual in the same two languages, then they should behave naturally, switching languages and mixing them as they normally do.”

    • The only problem that can come up sometimes is that linguists suggest that there can be problems if people are trying to raise children exclusively in a language they don’t speak very well. Children learn best in natural language environments with fluent speakers. So basically, if you don’t speak the language of the country/region you are in all that well, you should just speak to them in your native tounge and they will pick up the main language of the area you are in through osmosis (unless you live in an ethnic enclave). Children learn more than one language at the same time fine and it doesn’t confuse them, they just switch.

      Also, the research suggests that if you are trying to raise your children in a minority language context (ie. an indigenous language that is not commonly spoken anymore or a foreign language that isn’t common in your area) there are certain things you can do. Usually if one parent speaks say, dutch, and the other parent doesn’t, the only way to raise your kid speaking dutch fluently for the dutch speaking parent to always speak dutch to the child and the english speaking parent english. It’s also important for older that if you speak dutch to the child (or cantonese or whatever) that you only let them answer back in dutch- otherwise your kids might be passive langauge speakers, where they understand but can’t speak the second language. Other families make rules like “this house speaks gaelic on tues, wed, and fri” or “galiec in the house, english outside” or whatever- the point is to have clear rules when in a minority context like that. There are quite a few scholarly linguistic books on second language acquisition, they are pretty good.

      Unfortunately the ‘common wisdom’ on children learning multiple languages tends to be crappy and not based on evidence, even in a supposedly multi-lingual country like Canada.

  11. Yeah! Vive le Quebec!!!!
    I am french Canadian and my parents sent me to French school and I learned English at home! Best way to go to be bilingual at a young age:)Keep it up, your kids could be trilingual by age 10!

  12. I love this story! My mom and dad (mom’s Vietnamese/Chinese/Hakka, and Dad’s Dutch) had the same discussion when they were deciding to have kids. My mom didn’t want to teach us how to speak Cantonese, because she was afraid it would affect our English learning, and because she didn’t think it would be as useful. My dad disagreed, and my mom spoke to us almost exclusively in Cantonese when we were growing up.

    It was tough when my brothers and I entered kindergarten, because we used to mix Cantonese and English, but now that we’re older, we appreciate our language skills alot more! Our grandmother speaks almost no English, and she talks to us in Cantonese exclusively. It was also great for her because she could brag about her amazing grandkids who were not only tall, but could speak fluent Cantonese even though they looked like they were white!

    My brothers and I also went to Mandarin school for almost 8 years, and out of the 3 of us, only I have maintained even a passing knowledge in Mandarin. I plan on going back and relearning it, so I can improve it. We all speak Cantonese at home, and live in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, so Cantonese has been a blessing in more ways then one!

    If you or your partner speaks another language, or if you are in a place that allows your child to be exposed to another language, encourage it! I’m one of my few friends who are of Asian descent who can speak the language. And bilingualism is always helpful!

  13. Sounds about right to me! My mom knows a woman who had the same concerns; her daughter was waaaay past the typical “first word” age, and she hadn’t said a single thing. What actually happened was that the dad spoke to her in German, the mom spoke to her in English, and the nanny spoke to her in Spanish. When the girl finally spoke, she could speak in all three languages, and she knew which person to use which language with. Amazing!

  14. This is awesome!!!! I did the same thing when my daughter was 18 months (panicked) until I realized that she was speaking a lot of Spanish hahahaha. It’s funny how kids learn stuff soooo effortlessly and leave us in the dust.

  15. I was just thinking about this the other day. Children are a year away (before we even start trying) but I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to raise them, there’s so much advice! Language is one of our priorities, we believe bilingualism is a vital skill for the future.
    However one of my concerns is how would dyslexic children adapt to billinguism from a young age? I’m dyslexic and I’m pretty sure my husband is, though he refuses to take a test. It’s not a dead cert our children will be but my dad and 2 of my sisters are (none of his family has been tested but I think his dad and at least 2 of his brothers are) so it’s likely.
    I’ve been told that for a dyslexics learning their native language is as hard as learning a 2nd language for people without leaning difficulties. Also my husbands language skills are phenomenal but he reads at a slow pace, whereas I’m great at reading and listening but terrible at expressing myself coherently, verbally and in writing.
    Does anyone have experience with a bilingual dyslexic child?

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