In this interview we talk about the ease vs. the struggles of raising bilingual and biliterate children.
We’re a French-American family. My husband and I met when I was working in France and we moved back and forth between France and California a few times before deciding that France - the Southern Alps - was where we wanted to settle down. It’s a rural area and our two kids are bilingual. Our oldest daughter is just becoming biliterate.
What benefits or differences do you see in your children due to knowing different cultures and languages?
Both my husband and I are teachers and have worked in languages and bilingual schools etc. Both of us are bilingual as well. I suppose it’s not surprising that we really value bilingualism for our children. As teachers, we’d always heard that children who grow up bilingual can appear to have some language confusion and/or even a delay, but we really haven’t found this to be the case in our family. I don’t really know how to answer the question of what is ‘different’ in our children. In California, and in bilingual schools, even where we live in rural France, there are bilingual families all around. Maybe we’re not different after all. Maybe we’re the new normal :)
How do you add minority language practice in your daily lives?
We’ve done something that we actually learned not to do as educators. We all speak English at home - including my husband - most of the time. His native language is French, and you often hear advice suggesting parents speak in their native language. But it felt unnatural in our family. My husband felt odd being the only one speaking French. English is just the language in our family, at least when we’re at home. The children only watch TV and online videos if they are in English, and we’ve always read plenty of books to them in English. I also try to make sure we hang out with other bilingual families as much as possible. I don’t know any other English-speaking families in the area, but I like having the kids see that other families are speaking multiple languages at home as well, and that it’s ok to have multiple languages going on in a social setting.
Staying consistent in raising multilingual kids is tough. How do you and your kids stay motivated and focused on the goal?
It hasn’t been that hard staying consistent with speaking, reading, and entertainment. What has proved more challenging is the biliteracy. My oldest daughter has struggled to read in general, so we’re very conscious of the fact that reading in English is an extra effort. Motivation is extremely important. When I taught high school in California, I had students come into my French classes who were essentially native speakers, but who only wrote phonetically. Really, that experience alone - and the frustration of the students - was enough to convince me of the importance of keeping up with literacy in all the languages you speak. We also take breaks and don’t feel bad about it. Sometimes we skip reading on a busy weekend or if she’s been really tired. I think that helps with motivation in the long-term.
Have you encountered difficulties? How have you dealt with them?
Our biggest problem has been dealing with the basic difficulty of learning to read - in any language - for my oldest. We have decided to let our daughter work at a slower pace than she has been working in France. Since we’re working with her one-to-one, we don’t have to worry about ‘teaching the whole curriculum’ in one year. So we’re able to cut down on frustration, read easier books and stick with topics until they’re learned. In English, she gets to learn at her own pace. Sometimes letting go of outcomes a little can really help.
What would you tell parents who are hesitating about teaching their kids to read in multiple languages?
My experience as a teacher in California (and with plenty of friends who grew up in bilingual families) is that reading and writing is not something you just ‘pick up later.’ I can’t state that more emphatically. I do think that if you don’t have time to read and write, at least do the reading. There is quite a bit of evidence that shows that what you read is extremely important for your writing. I’ve also found that, while my daughter struggled to read in French, the individualized attention I gave her with reading in English helped her in reading over all. Especially with your help, Ana. I feel that you helped us focus more on the sounds and that she became more willing to sound out words even in French. Also - teacher that I am - I should point out that there is quite a bit of evidence that says that children who read in two languages read better than children who only read in one...
Tell us about Vagabond English. How did it start?
Vagabond English started when I realized how much I love being around people who read. When you read, it gives you a different perspective on the world. And if books are a chance to travel to different cultures, places, perspectives and languages, then what could be better than reading books and discussing them with people from all over the globe? Writing is, to me, simply the flip-side of reading. If you think about it, whenever you read, you collaborate with the author to create a mental picture or find the meaning in the story. Perhaps it’s unconventional to have a reading + writer’s group in one community. But it makes for some really interesting connections and collaboration.
Trisha Traughber is a writer and teacher. Originally from California, she now lives in France with her bilingual family. She loves reading and writing adventures.
You can sign up for her Short Story Series, visit her website and blog here or join up with her at the Vagabond English Book Club on Facebook.