Sunday, 1 July 2012

Non-native Bilingualism - My Top Five Tips

Recently, I was asked to share my top tips for those considering non-native bilingualism by the author of an upcoming ebook relating to multilingualism.

This got me thinking what a great blog post that could make and what a wonderful way for me to give a few tips to others whilst thanking those that have done the same for me.

When I first even considered the prospect of speaking French with my children, I did a lot of research (for those of you that know me... this will come as no surprise....oooh how I love research).

I would definitely credit a couple of really kind and helpful people for giving me the courage to get started. Papa of Papa et Piaf, Sarah of Bringing up Baby Bilingual, Corey Heller of Multilingual Living fame..... each of these people, despite never having met me, took the time and effort to respond to my queries, writing helpful encouraging personal emails to me and that is something I will be forever grateful for.

Once I got started, I came accross more and more people out there with shared goals and visions, people who had already begun wandering the same or a similar path, that were only too happy to provide advice, encouragement and personal stories. One person in particular - (Tamara... it's time for you to stand up and be counted - and I do apologise for making you blush since you are, indeed, hosting this month's carnival for which I am penning this very post) - got me through the extreme wobbles that epitomised the first 6 months or so of our journey.

Since then, I have "met" many many more wonderful, inspiring people.

So, onto my tips. I would say that for me, the following things have been invaluable:-

1 Build a support circle of like minded people.

My blog has helped hugely here. Through it I have connected with so many people I otherwise wouldn't had the fortune to connect with.

Also, I have found that utilising resources such as the forum on the Mulitilingual Living website has really helped to find like minded people.

I have also made real efforts to grow my circle of friends to include more french speakers or people interested in language.

2 Avoid people and situations that stunt your language use - at least when you first start out.

If there are situations or certain people that zap your confidence to speak your second language, then my advice is stay clear of them until you no longer feel that way. Seriously, I just always remind myself of the bigger picture and our ultimate goal of having bilingual children and think why should I let naysayers (or my reaction to them) jeopordise that?

Also, I remember just how self conscious I used to be speaking French to my English daughter in England in public. Don't let that stop you. Don't let your own insecurities deprive you and derail you. It is a fair assumption that the very people you think might be laughing at your language ability are actually rather impressed or at least intruiged - and the majority probably don' speak your second language fluently enough to hear any mistakes you might be making anyway.

3 Build your resources.

There are so many great resources out there - things to suit everyones taste and language learning/ language consumption preferences.

There's lots of free stuff online plus of course there are millions of books, DVDs, CDs and bilingual toys etc.

As a non-native, my experience has been that I am often learning niche language alongside my children or just ahead of them and so resources that they enjoy using have often first been devoured by me.

4 Practice practice practice.

At first my language use felt a little artificial. Now, due to having spoken french everyday for upwards of the past 17 months, it has become second nature and I would go as far as saying it feels artificial if I have to speak english with my daughter as I am not used to doing so.

Also, take any opportunity you have to listen to or speak your second language wth others.

5 Remember that language is only one part of your relationship with your children.

It is very easy to get caught up in the whole bilingual enterprise to a degree that you no longer see the wood for the trees. It's good to sit back and take stock now and again. A fun and loving relationship has to come first. If you are lucky enough to be able to throw an extra language into that then great.

If you are interested in looking a little deeper into how things work in our home from a bilingual perspective, you can pop over to Gato et Canard ( and read a recent interview I did with its host Annabelle - "Multilingualism in my family (Nichola's Story)".


  1. Some great tips! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Tracey

      i'm glad you found the tips helpful and thank you for taking the time to comment. It's always good to know who's out there reading and to receive feedback and support :D

  2. Anonymous06 July, 2012

    I think you chose 5 of the best tips there are for encouraging us non-native speakers to use our language with our children! Well done!! I feel like I should print this out and post is somewhere I can see it every day to remind me to keep going, even when I struggle. Thanks so much for another inspirational post!!

    1. Hi Kate

      I'm so glad you found this useful...I have to say I think I ought to print it out and stick it all over the house too..for those moments when I forget my own advice :D

  3. When you were starting out, how did you deal with the times when you didn't know how to say what you wanted to say? Or did you ever just have days where it seemed too hard? Some days I'm constantly reminding myself why I'm doing this and how far I've come since my daughter was born 6 months ago. I'm also never sure whether to use French with her in public. I don't want to seem rude by speaking a language others don't know, but when I speak English with her in public she pays more attention to how I'm speaking than to what I'm saying and it's quite possible she doesn't know what I'm saying in English. How do you handle the public and translating to the baby, etc?

    1. Hello Betsy!
      It is difficult sometimes to keep up the effort, but just take it one day at a time. And please do not hesitate to speak to your daughter in public in French! Do you apologize to other adults for teaching/advising/commanding/reprimanding her in English? So how is French any different? If you feel you must translate for the benefit of English speakers, then just do so, without making a big deal out of it. For me, my first priority is my son's well-being, and that means that I sort his issues out, in French, FIRST, and the rest of the world waits for the subtitles.

    2. Hi Betsy

      I know only too well what you are going through and, if i'm honest, I still share those same feelings from time to time (although far less often than when i first started out). One thing I have found is that once a child is old enough to respond (in actions or words) to what you are saying to them it becomes easier to speak French to them. I often felt bizarre speaking French to Poppette when she was really tiny (although I still did) because mentally i couldn't compute that she could actually understand - now, obviously Iknow she can and I know that its the foundations you lay before your child is able to respond that allows them to do so eventually.

      Keep going! As Liavek says above..some days it is hard...but do just take it one day at a time. That's how I deal with it. Every day that you succeed adds up and eventually you look back and say wow...this is actually working. If you look too far ahead you can frighten yourself with the unknown... If I let myself think how on earth I will cope when my daughter is a teenager and wants to discuss her astro physics homework with me in French :D I would run for the hills right now... but the chances are, by the time we arrive at that stage, my skills will also have evolved and there won't be a problem..

      Liavek's other point about sorting out her son's well being first and letting the rest of the world wait for subtitles is spot on and something I myself plan to take on board to help deal with the niggles you feel around people that dont understand. There's a balance isnt need to be rude to others but also no need to tie oneslf in knots worrying about these things either.

  4. Wow, you came out with your name!! How exciting!

    I LOVE this post, thank you SO much for sharing it. Not to mention your super sweet, kind and loving words about me above. I am SO happy to know that I got you through some of the certainly did the same for me! We gotta meet up one day! How fun that would be!

    All to continuing this carnival's funny, there's a part of me that wants to reference other carnivals to 'make sure I'm doing it right', and another part of me that doesn't want to have the fodder to compare myself to...=)

    Thanks again! Tamara

    1. Hi Tamara

      Great Carnival this months. Hats off to you.

      Meeting up would be a blast! A total multilingual gathering :D

  5. Great tips...thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Hi Lynn

      Thanks for stopping by - glad you found the tips useful :D

  6. Well done Nichola!
    And as someone who also only speaks French to her son, I totally identify with the "alien" feeling of speaking English to little ones in general, and particularly those to whom I feel some attachment. My 8yr old niece has pointedly asked my 4yr old son "What did Auntie T just ask me to do?", on more than one occasion!
    Keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Liavek

      Thanks so much for so your comments here - you have given me some food for thought. I would love to chat more. If you're happy to do so, would you send me your email address to so that i can drop you a line.

  7. Hello there, Thank you so much for providing such a wealth of information on this topic. I am a non-native French speaker and I've started speaking to my 6 month old in French in the past week. While I do not speak fluently I can communicate well. My concern is that I cannot express myself as well in French as I can in English and that this could affect my relationship with my little boy. I am trying to learn myself and improve every day so that I can teach him more and more. Is this a problem? Also should I speak exclusively in French to him and read to him in French exclusively? I am happy to do this if I think it will benefit him but I do not want to limit his powers of communication in English. I would be very grateful if you could give me your opinion. Many thanks, Mary.

  8. Hi Mary. Thanks so much for getting in touch. You sound like you're feeling exactly the same as I did when considering whether to go ahead with speaking french to my children. I think it's par for the course that, as parents, whatever decisions we make that affect our children come with a certain degree of angst :D and I do still worry from time to time about our decision for me to speak French with Poppette and Little Man. That said, I worry far less than I used to and I am really pleased that I didn't give up whenever I had a wobble earlier down the line.

    Like you, I definitley do not feel that I can express myself as well in French as I can in English. That said, so far,I have been able to express myself well enough for this to work. It's kind of like a work in progress, each day I learn more words and phrases through my interaction with my children and through responding to their evolving needs. It's not a case of needing to know everything right now which will hopefully reassure you. There are days, of course, that I get frustrated becuase i cant quite find the word i'm looking for or because i hear an incorrect phrase come out of my mouth... when that happens i just repeat the phrase as it should have been said and make a note to look up any words i might need for future reference.

    I have found that i have learnt so much vocab thru reading stories to my children, reading French parenting magazine and baby manuals, French blogs about parenting and childrens crafts and also watching French langauge cartoons.

    In answer to your question as to whether to speak 100% French to your son. If you can, then yes, I personally think this is a good choice to make. I think doing so helped me to commit becuase it got to the point where speaking English just seemed wierd. That said, I know lots of sucess stories from families where the lines aren't as clearly drawn. I think it really depends on your own family dynamic and what you're comfortable with. One thing i would say though is that for a short time i fell into the trap of not speaking at all sometimes if i couldnt think of the french simply because i didnt want to speak english.... i realised that this was a case of language getting in the way and allowed myself to speak Englishj if i wanted or needed to... the desire/ need to speak english doesnt happen much at all at the moment but that's not to say it wont again at some point.

    Finally, i too worried that my relationship with mu children could be affected. I'm pleased to say that that's not the case :D I just try to be myself and let go of the angst.

    Good luck and please keep in touch :D

  9. Thank your for sharing your experience. It feels great that there are tons of people out there going on the same adventure. As for myself, I am Argentinian, living in a totally Spanish monolingual community, and I have been speaking to my girl in English since day 1. Now she is 3, I dare say she has picked up L2 so well t be bilingual, and I am continuing with my second baby, whi is now 10 months old.Reading blogs where we can feel identified is of great inspiration. Thank you. Lucrecia