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    Guidelines for Children’s Bilingualism

    by Bonnie Ramjoué

    In the years since AAWE's foundation, children's bilingualism has been of special interest to its
    members. The Bilingualism Committee has organized meetings and accumulated literature on
    the subject, and various studies have been made by members, notably Ruth Métraux (1963), Judy
    Marie, Harriet Frankel, and Nancy Le Floch (1967), Olive Lorsignol (1971), and Gabrielle Varro
    (1980 and 1991).

    The majority of AAWE members are faced with a bilingual and bicultural situation in the home.
    The typical case is that of an American woman married to a French man, native speakers of
    English and French respectively, and living in France. However, there are numerous variations
    on this pattern: French women married to Americans or American women married to Europeans
    speaking languages other than French, members living outside of France, and members who
    themselves were brought up bilingually.

    These guidelines will deal mostly with the typical case of an American native speaker of English
    married to a native speaker of French, living in France. However, each reader should adapt the
    general conclusions to his or her particular case.

    Some Introductory Remarks on Children's Bilingualism

    Children in the earliest years are uniquely programmed to learn to talk any foreign language or
    languages in their environment.

    Linguists refer to the way in which small children learn languages as the "assimilative phase" of
    language learning. In this phase, the ear is sensitive to new sounds, the muscles of the mouth and
    tongue are flexible, and the neurological pathways of the brain are supple. The young child is
    capable of instinctively absorbing not only the phonemes, vocabulary, and melody of a language,
    but also its grammatical structures, and within a few years can express him/herself freely.

    As the child grows older, sometime between the ages of 9 and 12, the ability to assimilate a
    language naturally is lost and language-learning passes to an "analytic phase" - the process by
    which all of us who learned languages learned as teenagers or adults.

    Language learning in the very earliest years has another important characteristic. It is a by-
    product of emotional attachment. The small child responds to the language or languages of those
    who care for him - mother, father, siblings, grandparents, nurse, or au pair. At this age, a child
    naturally accepts two or more languages in his environment if they are used in a consistent way.
    It is not confusing to him to hear different languages from different people. He can also accept
    that a different situation may require a different language or that the world outside the home may
    require a different one from that used within. As the child grows older, the languages of school
    and playmates take on increasing importance.

    Nevertheless, while all normal children are able to assimilate two or more languages at an
    early age, not all children are programmed to learn at the same rate or in the same way. Among
    monolinguals it is well-known that some children are early talkers and some are late talkers. The
    same is true of bilinguals. There is no evidence that bilingualism as such influences the age at
    which children learn to talk.

    Similarly, both monolinguals and bilinguals suffer from various degrees of pronunciation
    distortions. Some children pronounce very accurately almost from the start. Most pronounce
    many sounds incorrectly when first learning to talk, gradually improving until they have adopted
    the characteristics of a native speaker.

    Among bilingual children, some never mix languages. The language codes, separate and
    distinct, are used consistently. Other children persist for months with a potpourri of French
    and English sounds. If mixing occurs, it is most common between the ages of 2 ½ and 4 and
    disappears naturally with time. It does not indicate confused thinking. Mixing is less common
    if the parents are consistent in their use of language. Some young children seem to have a better
    instinctive grasp of language codes than others. They make few grammatical errors resulting
    from interference from a second language. Some borrow grammatical structures from a second
    language. This, too, disappears with time.

    Personality seems to play a role as well. Some children are natural extroverts and naturally
    verbal. Some children are natural mimics. These characteristics tend to foster bilingualism.

    However, all children can and do become bilingual if the environment is favorable. It is the
    environment that varies so much from family to family, which largely explains why some
    children become and remain bilingual in the early years before English may be reinforced as a
    school language.

    Bilingualism - A Commonplace Phenomenon

    One of the most basic elements in a favorable environment for bilingualism is a positive,
    optimistic approach on the part of the parents.

    To most parents brought up in America and living in France, children's bilingualism is the
    exception rather than the rule. It may seem like a difficult state to attain, especially for those
    whose first exposure to foreign languages occurred in a school situation. To maintain a positive,
    optimistic attitude, it is therefore helpful to remember that approximately fifty percent of the
    world's children are in a bilingual situation of one type or another, where ability to speak two
    or more languages is often taken for granted or encouraged in the schools from a very early
    age. These bilingual situations differ from those of AAWE members in that they usually do not
    involve a bicultural, bilingual family. They refer instead to naturally bilingual countries such
    as Wales, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, the former Soviet Union, the state of Hawaii, the
    Philippines, and numerous third world countries. In many countries a dialect is spoken in the
    home that is not the same as the language of instruction in the schools. For children, a dialect is
    a separate language with its own set of codes. In many countries, there are large immigrant or
    minority groups who speak one language within the home and another outside.

    Hence, a bilingual situation is much more common than it appears at first sight.

    The Family Situation

    Since children's bilingualism is not so much a function of the child's abilities as of the particular
    family and language situation, it is useful for parents to ask themselves several questions in
    considering how to foster bilingualism:
    1) I n what language was our own relationship established?
    2) What is, at present, the most spontaneous and natural language between us? Do we
    feel equally at home in either language?
    3) Do we expect to remain in France, or is it possible that we will move occasionally or
    frequently to other countries?
    4) Will we educate our children in a French school, an American school, or a bilingual
    5) Do we want our children to have the option of attending college in America?

    If parents have analyzed their own circumstances and have clear-cut objectives, it is easier for
    them to encourage bilingualism in a consistent and effective manner.

    Family situations differ subtly from one another, but they can be categorized for the purpose of
    establishing bilingualism guidelines in terms of the languages spoken within the family.

    Different Language Situations

    Mother speaks English, Father speaks French to the children.
    According to most experts, this is the ideal model for bilingualism in a bicultural and bilingual
    family, sometimes referred to in linguistic literature as the "one-person, one-language" method.

    If the parents are consistent in sticking to their respective languages, this provides a highly
    favorable environment for bilingualism. The main advantage is that both parents are at ease
    speaking their native languages with their children, which encourages a natural emotional
    rapport - important for language development in the early years.

    AAWE studies have indicated that children whose mothers speak English to them on a consistent
    basis usually maintain a high level of bilingualism. They are less apt to reject English and
    switch to French during the difficult period from approximately 6 to 10 years. (See paragraph
    on "Elementary School Age Children" for more details.)

    The father feels comfortable speaking his native language and the emotional attachment to the
    father is established in French.

    This method raises several practical questions:

    1) What language should the parents speak together?
    The method undoubtedly works smoothly if both parents are bilingual and feel relaxed speaking
    both languages. Easy comprehension occurs no matter which language is spoken.

    There is no evidence that the "one-person, one-language" method is affected in principle by
    parents speaking either French or English to each other or switching back and forth depending
    on the circumstances. However, in practice, for AAWE families living in France, it is certainly
    advantageous if the parents can use English much of the time. This is simply because language
    learning is very much affected by the amount a language is heard and the prestige that a language
    seems to have for the listener.

    Since French is the language of school, of everyday life, as well as of the father, it tends to
    gain the upper hand and seems more important to the child in the early years before English is
    reinforced as a school language. The more this tendency can be counteracted within the family,
    the more favorable the family environment is to bilingualism.

    Conversely, if the French-American family lived in America, then it would be advisable for the
    parents to use a good deal of French at home.

    The "one-person, one-language" method still works well if the language between the parents is
    habitually French. However, in this case, the mother must be especially careful to use English
    consistently enough for English to remain the language of emotional rapport with the child. If the
    mother is not consistent, the usual case is that the child loses the incentive to continue speaking
    English. Even if the father does not speak English in the home, it is also important that the child
    sense that the father approves of his speaking English to his mother.

    2) Do I have to speak English all the time?
    Mothers immersed in a French environment ask this question often. The answer is no. It is not
    necessary to speak English "all the time" if exceptions are made for easily identifiable reasons
    that the child understands, such as the presence of guests, playmates, or relatives. Children seem
    to accept a situation in which French is the family language at dinner, but the mother then returns
    to English when speaking to the children individually.
    The important thing is that the mother should be as consistent as possible so that English
    remains her language of rapport with the child.

    M other speaks English, Father speaks English to the children.
    This is a very favorable situation to foster bilingualism for the family living in France. The child
    will learn English at home and French from grandparents, teachers, and playmates.

    It is a good solution if the father is bilingual and feels very comfortable speaking English with
    the child. However, if the father is a native speaker of French, he should give much thought to
    whether he will be happy to continue to speak in English when his children are of school age,
    doing their homework in French, and increasingly influenced by French society. Since language
    is an emotional link to the parent, an abrupt switch from English to French could be unsettling
    for a child.

    Another consideration: Is the family sure they will stay in France? If the French father starts
    speaking English, the child will be used to that language with the father. In the event of a move
    to America or to a third country, then the child will have no reason to continue to speak French,
    since French is not an integral part of family life.

    Thus, while this language situation is favorable to bilingualism in theory, it is not necessarily a
    satisfactory long-term solution if the father is a native speaker of French.

    Mother speaks English and French, Father speaks French or French and English to the
    This is a very common situation. Often mothers who started speaking English to their children
    find themselves speaking more and more French as their children grow into school age, bring
    home playmates, and become involved in school activities. This tends to occur less frequently
    with an only child or first child than with second and subsequent children (see paragraph
    on "Older Brothers and Sisters").

    The children exhibit varying degrees of bilingualism, French usually being the dominant
    language. AAWE studies conducted over the years all point to the following conclusion: if the
    mother does not speak English exclusively or consistently enough to follow the "one-person,
    one-language" model, then the bilingualism of the children is greatly helped if English is used by
    the parents together and on some occasions by the father with the children. This provides more
    exposure to English and raises the prestige value of English in the children's eyes. Even if the
    child speaks little English, especially between 6 and 10 years, the ear-training is valuable and
    will help when English is reinforced as a school subject.

    Mother speaks French, Father speaks French to the children.
    There are various reasons cited in our studies or discussions why our members may have decided
    to speak French to their children.

    For example, the mother may have had a bilingual upbringing herself or have spent school years

    in France. She may have preferred to speak French to aid her own integration into French society
    and may have judged this more important than her children's bilingualism.

    She may have decided that it was simpler and less stressful to use just one language at home.
    A reason might be the frequent presence of non-English-speaking in-laws who object to the
    presence of a language they do not understand.

    It may be that she was advised by friends or her husband against bilingualism for a small child.
    Or she may have started to speak English at home and then switched to French because her child
    was a late talker or mixed languages, and she feared that bilingualism would impede language

    Since our studies show many cases where mothers have started to speak French to a young child
    and then switched to English later on, it is probably wise for an American mother to ask herself
    these and similar questions before deciding to speak French to her children:
    1) Will I always want to speak French with my child? Or will I regret his missing out on
    books and songs in English, shared American culture, etc.?
    2) Will the child be placed in many situations (vacations in America or visits from
    grandparents) where being bilingual is important and where not being so might make the
    child feel uncomfortable?
    3) Will my child resent the lost opportunity of growing up bilingual when the time comes
    to take languages at school?
    Whatever the reason why French is spoken in the home, most of our members, as pointed out
    before, do want their children to become bilingual eventually.

    It is important to remember that once the emotional and language links have been established
    between children and parents, an abrupt switch is not usually advisable. Children may balk at
    any attempt to introduce English. Small children may even refuse to talk altogether.

    The best approach is to try to introduce English gradually, with games and songs and natural
    situations when English can be spoken. A certain time of day may be set aside for playing in
    English or for English-language books, tapes or CDs. Often more successful are vacations in
    America, visits from grandparents, English-speaking au pairs, summer camps, or bilingual

    If, in spite of all efforts, a young child is not bilingual, the mother should be comforted
    by the fact that studies have shown that ALM OST ALL AAWE CHI LDREN do become
    bilingual eventually. Children who are weak in English can take it in school, and it will be
    continually reinforced in an academic setting.

    Specific Situations and Questions Encountered in the Course of a Bilingual

    Elementary School Age Children
    In the above section, the possibility has already been mentioned that children, especially of
    elementary school age, will prefer to speak French and cease to answer in English if they are
    surrounded by an entirely French environment, particularly if the mother is not very determined
    and consistent about sticking to English.

    There are various reasons for this tendency. Children between about 6 and 10 years often feel
    a strong need to conform to their peers. Even a child who is completely bilingual at home may
    be embarrassed if his mother speaks to him in English on the street or in the presence of French

    playmates. At the same time, 6 to 10-year-olds are subject to the first pressures to do well in
    school. If they are in a French school, this automatically enhances the importance of French
    rather than English.

    Older Brothers and Sisters

    Another difficulty that sometimes arises in a bilingual family is that older brothers and sisters
    are used to speaking French in school and speak French to the younger members of the family.
    Although their language preference by no means precludes bilingualism for the younger
    children, it increases the dominance of French vs. English in the home environment and makes it
    more difficult for the mother to use English on a consistent basis.

    A Course of Action
    To combat both of these problems, the mother should be as consistent as possible about speaking
    English. Even if the child answers in French, the mother should continue to speak in English.
    This may seem futile and frustrating, but is by no means wasted effort since the child continues
    to understand English, and his ear remains attuned to the language. If the mother is persistent and
    patient, the child will often spontaneously begin to speak English again with his mother when he
    becomes older and more self-confident. Apparently, most children do not mind if their mothers
    speak to them in English while they answer in French. They often scarcely notice it.

    At the same time, the mother can try to reinforce English by any means available. With an
    older child, the important thing is placing the child in a situation in which he is relaxed and
    comfortable, but where he must use English to be understood and to get what he wants. A
    summer in America, away from the parents, can well result in an older child beginning to talk in
    English to the mother when he returns.

    Reading and Writing
    Reading and writing reinforce the spoken language by repetition of language patterns and by
    developing vocabulary. It is therefore important for the bilingual child to learn how to read and
    write in both languages.

    Unless the child attends a bilingual school, it is the mother who is faced with the problem of how
    to encourage her child to read and write in English. Luckily, the technique of reading seems to
    be transferable. Thus, if a child has learned to read in one language (usually French in the case of
    children living in France), it is usually not too difficult for him to apply his skills to a second one
    with which he is already acquainted. Some children virtually teach themselves to read English
    having once learned how to read in French. Others need a good deal of help in learning how to
    read in a second language.

    It is generally felt inadvisable to teach a child to read two languages simultaneously in a formal
    way. This should, however, by no means discourage mothers from continuing English games
    with words and letters in an informal way as long as the child is interested and receptive. They
    can continue to encourage children to write down stories of their own, write letters to their
    grandparents, and so forth. Another informal approach is the "lap method". The child sits on the
    parent's lap while the parent reads to him. He has ample opportunity to see the words while he
    hears them, thereby synchronizing the audio and the visual.

    If a child wants to learn how to read in English and is enthusiastic about learning, this is a clear
    indication that he can handle it and that it is a good time for the mother to teach him. If the child
    has difficulty mastering reading in French at school or needs a great deal of help with reading in
    French, it is probably advisable not to press him to read in English until he feels ready, or until
    reading and writing in French is well established.

    Many mothers have found vacation to be an ideal time to teach reading in English.

    School Performance and I Q

    There is little clear evidence of how bilingualism affects school performance. Although
    linguistic literature contains numerous studies on the subject, they seldom deal with the type
    of bilingualism acquired by our children. Most are studies of minority language groups or the
    situations in dual-language countries, and the results are heavily influenced by sociological

    The most objective and scientific studies that do exist indicate that bilingualism develops general
    intelligence. It enhances flexibility of thought and the ability to grasp abstract concepts. Some
    studies have indicated that bilingual children tend to do better on non-verbal IQ tests than non-
    bilinguals. They may perform less well on verbal tests in the early years although the difference
    tends to disappear later. However, the linguistic studies that have been made deal almost
    exclusively with bilinguals who have acquired a second language outside the home rather than
    with bilinguals experiencing two languages at home.

    AAWE studies also provide little conclusive evidence concerning bilingualism and school
    performance in the early years, since so many variables must be taken into consideration. A few
    specific observations, however, can be made:
    - Dyslexia and dyslexia-related reading difficulties are under no circumstances caused by
    bilingualism. Naturally, a child who has difficulty reading for this reason will take longer to
    develop reading proficiency in both languages. It is probably wise to let him develop his
    confidence gradually in the first language before introducing a second one.
    - Many bilinguals are excellent readers and spellers, but in some cases there is interference
    between the two languages. Usually, English words are read or spelled in a French manner or
    vice-versa. The parent can help the child by pointing out the problem and working together with
    him. The difficulty tends to disappear gradually with time. It helps to remember that spelling
    problems persist for years with many monolingual children as well.
    - A change in language of instruction and school system requires both adaptation to a new
    language and adaptation to a new culture, mode of thought, and style of discipline. Demands vary
    markedly from one country to another.

    All these pressures can have a negative effect upon school performance. For some children a
    bilingual school can serve a real purpose in easing the transition to a new language or culture.

    Realistic Expectations for Bilingualism
    It is virtually impossible to be equally proficient in several languages. Among adult bilinguals,
    specialized terminology is learned in one language and not in another. American mothers living
    in France are often hard-pressed to think of American equivalents for French words that are part
    of their daily life. Many a French computer expert would find it nearly impossible to explain his
    job in understandable French.

    Thus, an American mother should not be surprised if a bilingual child sometimes gropes for
    words when trying to explain to his mother, in English, something he has done in school in
    French. In addition, during the child's language development, one language will often take
    precedence over another for certain periods of time. During the school year it is usually
    French or the language of instruction; during vacations it may be English or another language,
    depending upon the environment. These shifts of dominance are of no importance. Both
    languages will gradually become more and more firmly established.

    Identity Problems
    Some critics of bilingualism have maintained that it leads to an uncertain sense of identity.

    Our children are bicultural due to their heritage and are inevitably placed in bilingual and
    bicultural situations as a result. Being bilingual helps them to understand the countries of their
    parents. Ideally, the parents should try to emphasize the positive elements of both cultures in
    order to help their children appreciate them. Such bicultural children have wider horizons and
    often develop a more tolerant and flexible viewpoint concerning other cultures.

    The children will question their identity anyway. It is well known that the "identity crisis" is a
    function of age and not of bilingualism or monolingualism. The best that the children can hope
    for is supportive parents who can give them a sense of security while they are finding their own


    Children are natural bilinguals with the innate ability to learn two or more languages. But
    bilingualism does not occur automatically. It requires a home environment in which both
    languages are appreciated and encouraged. Children need continued incentive and motivation to
    speak more than one language, and this requires a determined and sustained effort on the part of
    the English-speaking parent, especially in a situation in which French predominates in the home
    environment. It means reinforcing English in any way possible, particularly in ways that are
    enjoyable for the entire family.

    In some ways, encouraging English has never been easier than today. The dominance of English
    in films, popular music, and the Internet gives it a high status and provides children with extra

    Nonetheless, parents are faced with new challenges in a multimedia world. The early years of a
    child's life are a wonderful opportunity to teach songs and rhymes; it is a chance to read stories
    aloud and play games together. It is a chance to introduce children to the wonders of nature and
    encourage their creativity with drawing and painting, interaction that can take place in English.
    Wisely-chosen videos and computer games for children can be a great addition in encouraging
    language, but they are not a substitute for family activities, because language is, above all, the
    way that people communicate with one another.

    A sample list of ideas to encourage English:

    books, tapes, CDs, videos, films
    teaching and encouraging reading and writing
    writing letters and e-mails
    sound and word games
    songs and music
    educational software for children
    subscriptions to children's magazines (see “ American Magazines for Children” )
    bilingual schools and kindergartens
    vacations abroad
    English-speaking playmates au pairs and babysitters
    visits from English-speaking relatives and guests
    summer camps

    Bonnie Ramjoué, a native of New Jersey holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. from Johns
    Hopkins University. She and her German husband raised three daughters with three languages, English, French and
    German, in Paris and Munich. She currently lives near Munich, where she does freelance work in networking and
    repairing computers.

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