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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