Raising Bilingual Children in France

It isn't easy raising bilingual children outside of your "home" country. How do you raise a Multicultural Child? An English teacher living in France recounts her experience.
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Editor’s note: I love hearing other points of view so we’re meeting other expats, immigrants, and locals who are Living in France. Enjoy!

It’s not easy raising bilingual children outside of your “home” country. Do the children automatically become multlingual? Will they speak multiple languages effortlessly?  How do you raise a Multicultural Child?

This week, English teacher Leila Lorenzo shares her experience trying to teach her own children English in France, and how it led her to her latest project: an English club for bilingual kids in Paris.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

We are a mixed nationality family, living in the western suburbs of Paris. My husband is French. My two kids were born in my homeland, the UK, and moved to France at 2.5 years old and 5 months. Now, both kids attend French school, but they speak English at home.

But on top of that, my husband is also half Spanish and he speaks 3 languages fluently. And I am half Tunisian, so I have a bit of knowledge of French and Arabic as well.

Multinational and Multicultural Children seem to be becoming more and more the norm.

At one point, I tried to label my kids with a nationality, but I found it very difficult… Are they British? Are they French? Where does Spanish and Tunisian fit in?

When they were babies, I remember a very odd conversation I had with a British relative of mine. They told me that they wanted my kids to be British, and they thought that my French in-laws probably wanted my kids to be French… I was caught in an imaginary situation of two sides of our family preferring single nationality children. But why? Why do we need to label our kids with a “nationality” at all?

Minority language or One Person one language

What language(s) do your children speak? Do you follow the Minority language method or One Person One Language?

Since we live in France, my children speak more French than English. It has been a battle sometimes to make English the language of the home, but it is an ongoing conflict that I am winning (fingers crossed). 

We use the OPOL (one person one language) method in our house. My children go to a French school, but I speak English at home to them, while my husband speaks French.

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So are they more comfortable in French or English?

Well, I’m not 100% sure. My son seems to be more comfortable in French and my daughter more comfortable in English. But at 4 and 6 now, they both say they really want to learn Spanish (from their Father’s side)!

They are generally open to new languages, and confident in trying to produce new sounds. In addition to their language skills, I can see that they have a deep understanding of two very different cultures. And they have self confidence, because so many people marvel at their language skills, and compliment them for how “lucky they are“.

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How is your French compared to theirs?

Hah! Yes, my kids really enjoy knowing more words in French than their mum! My 4-year-old is the best French teacher I’ve ever had. He has the patience and time needed to really practice all those tricky vowel sounds with me until I finally get them right. Eureka! I can finally pronounce “écureuil” (squirrel in French) correctly! I think..!?

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Benefits & Downsides of Bilingualism

We all know the benefits of bilingualism, but what are the downsides to raising your kids here in France? What has been the toughest part for you?

I was afraid that one day my children would lose their English. Or that they might not form strong enough bonds with my British family back home.

But my real fear was that one day, they would want to just be French. What if they started to disconnect with my culture and beliefs? Worse, what if they started thinking I was strange or that my social behaviour was embarrassing because it didn’t fit into theirs…? 

A few years ago, I went through all those emotions. I felt like we had landed in France surrounded by 99% “French people” and I was trying to cling on to my British culture and language, for the sake of my family and kids. I even bought some “British” touristic ornaments for the house!

What did you do about it?

Well, my perspective changed. My children started attending the local French public school. And I took a closer look at who exactly was in their classes. I listened more to parents chatting at drop off and pick up times.

And I realized I was listening to Arabic, Russian, English, Portuguese, Mandarin, etc. And there were many more languages flying around the schoolyard, I just couldn’t decipher them. I realized that at least 50% of their classmates were also bilingual and multicultural.

Yes, I’ve seen statistics show that at least 40% of children in Paris have one foreign parent, and in some areas even more. Paris today is nearly as multi-cultural as London, New York, and Toronto!

And all the parents of bilingual kids were behaving in the same way; only speaking their mother tongue language to their kids… I expect they were going back to their homeland for large chunks of their holiday time, like we do.

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French statistics don’t allow the identification of ethnicities in the official census, but anecdotally there are a lot of expats and immigrants here. Whether they are here for a short amount of time, or planning to stay for the foreseeable future. Little Italy in New York, or Chinatown in Paris!

Yes, and I feel like the “nationalities” look for their tribe. If they want, they can find similar groups of parents who speak the same language; the Russian mum’s group, the Arab mum’s group and of course the Anglo mum’s group. We even have a WhatsApp ‘coffee’ chat on the go.

Being an immigrant, I totally relate to groups of nationalities sticking together. It’s not just to have someone to chat with. It’s so much more than that. It is to have a small group of people who understand your struggle, and it’s for practical reasons.

We can help each other understand things. Some of us have been here, in France, for longer. So we can offer support with French Administration, and sometimes be just a shoulder to cry on. 

And this, of course, impacts the children.

Yes, we can create a space in which we can strengthen our roots and culture together. Our kids can listen to us speaking in our language. The group gives our children little friends, who also speak their second language. The kids learn a lot about their other culture through the relationships they have with multilingual, multinational kids who have the same other culture in common. 

Keeping the second language strong is crucially important, not just for academic reasons, but for social and character-building purposes.

But these, of course, are informal groups and it is not always easy to organize having your kids meet other kids with similar backgrounds. I was looking for something more.

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Bilingual schools

Did you think about putting your kids in a full-time bilingual school?

Actually, yes I did enrol them into an International school at one point, with uniforms and all, but I just felt it wasn’t the right place for them. We are international people but we are also French, and we probably won’t move. I just couldn’t see the long term benefit from sending them there.

My husband and I don’t necessarily want our kids to progress to an International school or a British university… I actually really appreciate the French education system. I like how strict and traditional French it is. We love the attention to detail, the handwriting skills, and how they learn to train the memory. That’s one skill I wish I had been taught in school

And what about your extended family? How are they reacting to all this?

They think it’s great that my kids are bilingual. And I have to make sure that my kids master and enjoy English! Without being able to communicate fluidly in the same language, I’m worried that the relationships they currently have with their grandparents and cousins might disappear. 

But let’s face it, we can’t always find the money and time to go home to the UK or America for several months every year. At some point, we want to travel to new countries and experience different sights and sounds. I can’t forget that it was my wanderlust that brought me here in the first place! It sometimes feels like an annoying bind having to traipse back to the UK every year just to give my kids that English immersion they so desperately need.

Yes, we have this issue as well. Goodbye backpacking trips to Asia, we now have to focus on the kids!

Well, I think sometimes the kids would like a small backpacking adventure too. Last year we went backpacking with them, and two donkeys, in France. This year, we are going for a big trek tour in Sicily. But they miss the English immersion if we don’t go home to the UK.

The thing is, how do we solve that problem, without putting our children in a crazy expensive international private school? Is it enough immersion to simply speak to them in English at home? I ask myself that question regularly.

It is interesting that you say that with you being an English Teacher, trying to make your own children fluent. Can you tell us a bit more about your background in Teaching English?

I was trained as a writer at university, after which I felt like I had spent too long behind a desk, and I was drawn towards EFL (English as a foreign language) teaching. I studied CELTA, and found my first teaching job in Thailand, Bangkok. That was around 10 years ago.

After which, I moved to Singapore where I taught reading skills to young learners. The interesting thing about Singapore is that most Singaporean children are bilingual, and their English level is a bit lower than an average monolingual anglophone child. I see a similarity now, with how my kids speak English and how Singaporean kids speak English.

What do you think the main differences are between monolingual children and bilingual children, in terms of their English skills?

Firstly, bilingual kids lack vocabulary. They just don’t have such a huge pool of words to choose from when they speak. Also, grammatical mistakes, they use a first language grammar rule on a second language word, or the other way around. A classic mistake is when my kids use a French verb in an English sentence, adding ‘ing’ at the end.

They also lack literacy skills. But personally, I am more focussed on their speaking skills, because I feel like language is primarily about verbal communication, sharing ideas, stories and opinions, and speaking cohesively.

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So with your teaching background, what steps do you recommend to others and use yourself to teach children English?

I try to keep strong bonds with other English speakers in France. I believe that my kids need to hear me speaking with other adults, and not just with them. It is important that my kids feel confident speaking English, and that they have an interest in British, American, or any kind of English-speaking culture.

I also give my kids a few English lessons at home, with other multilingual, international kids. In 2019 I started an English club, exclusively for International kids who are fluent in English. I wanted my children to have a weekly dose of pure English immersion with someone other than just me.

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And you have expanded from there?

Yes, through an unexpected demand, my course is now available to the wider expat community-based in Paris. It is not just an educational business, it is an anglophone community project. We are all over Paris, but our busiest areas are on the western side: 15th, 16th, and 17th arrondissements.

My goal is to make sure that the kids feel confident speaking English, and that they have an interest in English-speaking culture. I aim to help bilingual kids maintain and develop a curiosity in their second language.

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You mentioned you have a special offer on at the moment?

Yes, if you follow us on Facebook, you can book your first class this coming September.  Links are below.

photo of Leila Lorenzo
Leila Lorenzo
Contribution by Leila Lorenzo

Founder of International Kids Club, open exclusively to international kids who are fluent in English.  Our aim is to build interest and excitement about using English, and for our students to use English creatively, and with the same passion that we do!  Follow us on Facebook and book your first class in September.

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