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!