Keeping two languages in a household isn’t as easy as it seems. It requires a lot of discipline from both parents.
I grew up in France in a bilingual family, a French-speaking father and an English-speaking mother. They would speak to us in their respective languages and speak to one another in English so that we could hear English at home. It worked quite well until we all got to school. As soon as we started our French school we all rejected the English language. A child wants to fit in and does not want to be different from the others. All our friends spoke French and we could not understand the need to speak English. We just wanted to be like everybody else.
As a result, my parents set up a rule: At suppertime everyone must speak English! By the age of 16, we had all mastered “What’s next?” and “May I be excused?” and our dinner conversations were mainly limited to these two sentences. The rule slowly vanished but luckily we still managed to keep the English we had learnt as children. We are now all bilingual and although we all reluctantly spoke English in France we are all very thankful to our parents that they have given us such a precious gift.
Raising a child in two languages requires a sustained effort over several years.
Intercultural couples are quite common nowadays. A lot of them have their own techniques for keeping two languages (or more) in the household. Some families may not have any techniques and just follow their instincts. Others may choose the “one person one language” rule. For some families the outside world might be where children acquire their second language. Others have geographical rules within the house.
There isn’t one good technique to make someone bilingual. However there are things you can do to help. You can check the section on tips for bilingual parents to find out more about how to foster bilingualism in the home.
The best time to learn a language is between birth and 8 years old. From 2-3 years old, a child naturally knows the language to which he is exposed and expresses himself in that tongue. However, most languages are introduced much later in schools.
In a bilingual program, language is not considered an academic subject, it is integrated into the curriculum. The language is not the object taught it is the instrument used to teach the curriculum. We are no longer teaching a language we are teaching something through the language. As the linguist Madeleine Lowenthal says being bilingual means speaking two languages without having learnt them. In a bilingual educational setting children are learning the language without realising.
So how does it work?
There are different methods of education employed to teach “bilingually”.
There is the transitional bilingual education method. Students are taught some subjects in their native language from kindergarten to year 3 and from year 4 to year 6 these subjects are taught in a second language. This method implies no geographical movement for the whole schooling of your child.
Another method is the dual language bilingual education where both languages are used within the classroom. Half of the students in the classroom are native English speakers and the other half of the students are native speakers of another language (i.e. French). Together, they will learn each other’s culture and language.
The third method of bilingual education is immersion. This is the one person one language approach. There would be one teacher teaching the native language and another teaching the second language. This method could be organised on alternate days, or perhaps one morning in the native language and one afternoon in the second language. Teachers speak in their respective language but allow children to speak in whichever language they chose.
All these methods have proven to be effective. The key is to balance both languages equally.
Such programs require a solid tri-partite partnership –– strong commitment from the schools’ leadership, very qualified and dedicated teachers, and ceaseless involvement from the parents at all levels.
At the end of their education, children can interact fluently in two languages, not necessarily with the same proficiency but children will be able to read, speak and write in both languages with ease.
I’m a firm believer that anyone can learn a language, even if you don’t have bilingual parents! There are two case scenarios for monolingual parents.
The first one is when both parents speak one language at home and the child learns/speaks another language at school. Usually this language is the one spoken outside. The child usually picks up the language within a year or two. He/she might go through a silent phase, which is part of the learning process but once mastered, this second language very often becomes the dominant language. The challenge for monolingual parents will then be to ensure that the first language is maintained. This can be done by maintaining strong links with the first language -trips back to home country, speak to family, maintain language at home etc. This is probably the most successful model to make children bilingual.
The next case scenario is when parents happen to have one language at home and want their child to learn a second language that is neither the language spoken at school nor the one spoken outside. With a bit of effort and passion you can definitely make your child bilingual.
The earlier you start the better. Don’t wait until your child is in high school! The key is for your child to find the need to speak the language. You need to find opportunities for him to speak the language the most naturally possible.
A child will be willing and interested in learning a new language if he sees that both his parents show an interest and passion for this language. So it is very important that the child sees your love for the language: learn the language yourself, listen to some music, turn the TV/radio on so that the language is heard at home. As Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer explains “Pas d’apprentissage si l’affectif n’est pas garanti” “No learning will take place if you can’t secure an emotional attachment to the language”. [translated by me]
If you get the chance, try to go on holidays where the language is spoken, get some books/magazines in the language. If you are learning French type in google.fr and find age appropriate games, videos, websites for your child. Try to get in touch with the community and see if you can organise play dates with children that speak the language. If you can afford it, an au pair is a great way to get your child exposed to the language in a natural way. Finally, bilingual schools are a fantastic way to get your child immersed in the language. You can find a list of bilingual schools in Australia below.
Just keep in mind that a language to be learnt needs to be spoken! Learners need to find opportunities to speak the language as much as possible and this needs to be on a continuum, not just a one off.
To facilitate a bilingual education, bilingual schools are ideal.
Bilingual schools are evolving around the world. Unfortunately Australia only has a few French/English bilingual schools. Governments need to make a greater commitment to promote bilingualism. As Professor Clyne says about Australia: “We have so much language potential, and we should be taking advantage of it. We could be leaders in cross-cultural communication, and an important link between Europe and Asia.”
I have put together a list of schools offering a French/English bilingual or partial immersion program from preschool to High School:
Les petites classes , NSW, Les Petites Classes follow the French curriculum, they teach French to children who already have a French background. It’s from 3 to 11 years old.
Bonjour Babies , NSW, Bonjour Babies is French language learning program for little ones aged from 6 months to 6 years.
Lycée Condorcet, NSW, from 3 years old the lycee has a maternelle with a bilingual class.
Ecole maternelle franco-australienne Red-Hill , ACT, preschool program is accessible to children from the age of 3.
L’ecole maternelle de Melbourne , VIC, preschool with a French immersion program.
Telopea Park School, ACT: In the primary section, the school provides a bilingual education in the English and French languages from Kindergarten to Year 6. All students learn to speak, read and write in French and English. The bilingual program continues in the Secondary part of the school to Year 10 and to Years 11 and 12 at nearby Narrabundah College. The schools are recognised by both the French and the ACT Department of Education.
Killarney Heights Public School, NSW: K-6 Public school with a French program integrated into the curriculum. French teachers team-teach together with an Australian teacher.
Lycée Condorcet, NSW: The International French School of Sydney teaches an intensive ESL program and has just started a bilingual Kindergarten class.
East Claremont Primary School, WA: Offers a French partial immersion language program.
Camberwell Primary School, VIC: K-6 Public School offering a French/English bilingual program from kindergarten.
L’école française de Melbourne, VIC: K-6 Public School with a French immersion immersion program.
Lycée Condorcet, NSW: The International French School of Sydney teaches an intensive ESL program.
Benowa State High School, QLD: is a co-educational school located on the Gold Coast. Benowa’s French Immersion program is a three year course offered in years 8 to 10, where students learn four of their six subjects in French.
Methodist Ladies’ College, VIC: (commonly referred to as MLC) is an independent, non-selective, day and boarding school for girls. They offer a partial French immersion program.
Mansfield State High School, QLD: is a co-educational government secondary school. The school offers a French Immersion program.
If you would like a full list of all the bilingual schools across Australia, have a look at this link: