Building a Bilingual Baby

I may not be first (or even second generation) American, but I grew up in a bilingual family.

Well, to be more specific, my mom, a high school French teacher and Francophile through and through, had the harebrained idea that even though we weren’t one bit French she would teach me French by only speaking to me in French as a child. Of course, this plan only went into effect with me, so no one else in my family spoke French but me and my mom. So maybe “family” is a bit of an exaggeration.

The problem with this whole idea was that she spoke to me in French, and while I understood it, I was completely embarrassed by it for one reason or another and always responded to her in English. Why she never forced me to respond in French I have no idea, but I really wish she would have.

So, now I’m the mommy in this scenario and I’ve got a baby that I desperately want to not only speak French as well as I do (or even grandma) but better. But how do I turn that dream into reality? So far I’ve come up with a four-prong plan:

First, I only speak to him in French. From the first “Bonjour, Bébé” in the morning to the last “Bonne nuit, Bébé” at night, we’re speaking frog or we’re not speaking at all.

Second, I joined this mommy group that a friend forwarded me through called Bonjour, Les Amis. The group is for mommies with infants (<5 yrs old) who want their babies to learn French. Although I was totally mortified by the fact that I had to find friends via the Internet,  I love this group. I don’t know everyone yet, as they meet several times a week and I’m lucky if I can squeeze in one rendezvous, but the Friday regulars are fantastic. I think what I really like is that everyone’s kids are close in age and that the mommies’ language skills are all about the same, so you can get into some good conversation. Of course, at this point, this playgroup is all about the mommies wanting to speak French, but the more the wee ones hear other people speaking it as well, I think the higher the chances that they will not do what I did and refuse to speak French because it’s different than what their friends at school speak.

Third, I aim to take to baby to France (or other French-speaking countries) as much as possible, which I hope is at least once a year.

Fourth, I support his oral development in French by reading to him in French as well as English. This means having lots and lots of books in French and reading some of them to him every night. Sounds simple enough, but it’s a challenge to get good quality books in French here in the States. The Canadian portal to offers some selection, but I now consider it a travel perk to spend a half hour in a foreign bookstore picking out French children’s books.

Take my latest trip to Chamonix, for example. Besides the scarves I brought home as gifts for my mother-in-law, nanny, and cleaning lady (and me!), the only other souvenirs I brought home were some baby clothes and baby books, the latter which made my suitcase very heavy on the way back, incidentally. But I couldn’t resist. Why?

First, I’ve always been a sucker for books. My grandmother used to take me on shopping sprees–to the bookstore. There she would buy me as many books as I could carry. (I loved that.) Second, I don’t want baby’s entire library to just be filled with translations of English books. (Although I really love that I have Goodnight Moon and Guess How Much I Love You in both English and French.)

And third, how can I say no to books that are absolutely adorable? Take for example, this one called Poux by Stephanie Blake. It’s the story of Simon who loves Lou, who in turn loves Mamadou. That is until Lou catches lice–poux–and Mamadou says he’s through but Simon’s love shines true. And that gives you an idea of how the book is written–completely in these beautiful, little, sing-song-y rhymes about Lou and her lice.

But for as much as I love the love story, I’m infatuated with Pomelo et les contraires by Ramona Badescu and Bejamin Chaud. It’s a simple book, all about opposites, with an adorable elephant as the main character. The book covers all the basics–high, low; left, right; near, far; open, shut–but the illustrations are what totally make the book. The illustrator definitely had a sense of humor because some of the interpretations of these opposite pairs are hilarious. Point in case, this one about “inside” and “outside”:

Très amusant



Filed under bilingual baby, childrens books, foreign language, reading

14 responses to “Building a Bilingual Baby

  1. Jenny

    It’s funny that you say you were embarrassed about your mom always speaking french to you, because I always thought the exact opposite. Granted, sometimes I would be frustrated that she would be spouting off what we needed to be (or not be) doing, but after awhile I found myself almost understanding what she was saying.

    In fact, to this day, I still talk about how cool I thought your mom was for only speaking french. I’m sure Aleksi will appreciate your efforts, and if not, at least his friends will!

  2. Marta

    I love your blogs. For me it’s not easy bringing up bilingual babies. My son is a bit speech delayed so sometimes I wonder if it would be better if he only had one language to tackle. But I haven’t given up. Now he has a sister maybe they will talk to each other one day since I can’t join any group of mommies here that would speak my language. But we do go back to Europe and bring books too 🙂

    • Thanks, Marta! And you would definitely know better than I since you’re already doing it and I’m just starting. From what I understand, it is very common for bilingual kids to have delayed language skills. But when they catch up, they do it in a big way. They grasp some pretty difficult concepts in language, such as parts of speech and synonyms, very early because their little brains are processing two languages simultaneously. I do hope you find some people in your with whom you can speak your native tongue. It’s always good to have reinforcements!

  3. It was cool that she decided to make me her guinea pig. But I guess that, as a kid, when you start going to school, it changes things. You want to fit in rather than be different. And that starts early. A woman in my French mommy group (who incidentally is French, as is her husband) says her two-year-old has started to be conscious of the fact that, when he speaks French, people here can’t understand him–and is almost a little embarrassed, like he’s done something wrong. So it makes me think that there’s some sort of emotional thing bilingual kids go through when trying to reconcile learning two languages. But thanks for your message, and I’ll be sure to channel this message when it gets hard and baby starts resisting the language.

  4. I just stumbled on your blog by searching “bilingual babies.” I haven’t read anything else on it yet but love this post! I had been wanting to blog about my experience speaking Spanish with my baby, but since it’s been patchy, I thought I’d see what others are doing first. My son is almost a year old, and I’ve been trying to use Spanish with him some of the time since his birth. However, I don’t stick to it all of the time. Although I’m a certified bilingual teacher, I do not have all of the vocabulary to say in Spanish everything I can say in English. I’ve heard I should really stick with Spanish all the time with him if I really want him to learn it. How do you do it and not feel that you need to slip into English at times? Your French must be amazing.

    • Thanks for the comment! And I’m glad you found us. It’s definitely tough trying to raise a bilingual baby. I mean, it’s hard work just raising a baby much less adding in the foreign language element. But do persevere! And don’t be discouraged if you don’t know every word. Sub in English until you get a chance to look it up in the dictionary. A lot of times native speakers even mix in English when they’re speaking because there’s not a good translation for certain words or expressions. That’s how we get Spanglish and Franglais. 🙂 I would also encourage you to join a Spanish-speaking mommy group. (I found a French one through I would venture a guess that other mommies like you are struggling with the same lack of vocabulary related to all things baby. In my group, for example, only one woman knew what the French word for “onesies” was. We all learned something and didn’t feel so stupid after all for not knowing that vocab term.

      • I appreciate the encouragement and suggestions! I’ll have to look into the mommy group thing, although I’d probably be more likely to find that if I lived in a larger city. It’s good to know that subbing in English words isn’t a major no-no!

  5. Hey, no one is perfect. We can only do what we can do. So, dust off the Spanish-English dictionary–keep it in the kitchen for when you need it–and persevere. 🙂

    • iwonderifmaybe

      A few more questions for you: Do you speak French all the time to your son–even when you are around English-speaking friends and family? Or do you switch to English around them so that they know what you are saying?

  6. Yes, I speak French to him all the time–even around non-French-speaking friends and family. That part is a little tough, but it got easier once I got over my own feeling of awkwardness. An if I could do it again, I think I’d teach my dog French commands so I wouldn’t be switching back and forth as often. 🙂

  7. Maria

    Hi, there, I am desperately searching for a copy of the best selling pregnancy book, “What to Expect When You are Expecting”, but in a French translation. Any ideas where I can find one? Can you tell me the name of this book in French? I live in Dallas, TX, USA, Thanks soooo much, Maria

    • I read somewhere that the book is available in something like 30 languages, but a quick Google search didn’t turn up much for me. Have you tried checking or I also posted a note to WTE’s FB site to see if I couldn’t get a response. I’ll keep you posted on what I find. Thanks for your inquiry; it’s a great question.

  8. Avez-vous essayé le site d’Archambault? C’est une compagnie bien connu au Québec. Ils ont beaucoup de livres pour enfant en français. Voici le lien:
    Bonne lecture!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s