Reflections on a decade of bilingual family life - an anglophone/francophile parent's perspective
When I had my first child, it had been about 15 years since I'd spoken French regularly, as a kid in Alberta, where I completed kindergarten to grade nine in French immersion. My husband, born and raised in a big extended franco-Manitoban family, was perfectly bilingual and used both French and English regularly in his personal and professional life.
I'd always wanted my children to learn French, because I felt that it had been such a valuable experience and one that I was glad my parents had given me. But for my husband it was not just a skill; it was an essential part of his culture. We agreed that our children would go to francophone school and that we would try to create a life with as much French in it as possible.
My husband knew from growing up in Manitoba that it was inevitable that our kids would learn English regardless of whether we taught them, simply because there is English everywhere. Because French is a linguistic minority here, we'd have to work extra hard to provide a French life for our family.
So before my first child was born, I took a refresher French class at Université de St-Boniface. Despite not having really spoken any French for many years, I was one of the more proficient students in the class. But there is a difference between knowing vocabulary and sentence structure, and being able to carry out a personal conversation, and those casual conversations were what I wanted to become comfortable in. Compared to some of the other students, I felt quite advanced, but those feelings evaporated around my French-speaking in-laws and acquaintances. Still, I hoped to at least speak to my children in French, even if I if I didn’t get to the point where I was comfortable speaking to other adults.
So, when my first was born, I quickly learned how to talk to babies and small children just by observing my husband and his family members. All the funny little expressions and terms of endearment and comfort eventually became so familiar to me that I now I instinctively use them for all babies, even if they are not from French families! As my kids grew, my French grew with their French, and though I often struggled with being able to fully articulate what I wanted to say, I always enjoyed reading with them in French. Through books and music, my vocabulary grew and I learned new terms and expressions.
Over the years I have tried hard to use as much French in family life as possible, both as a way of supporting my children’s first language, and to honour my husband’s wish to carry forward his heritage and culture. While my husband and I speak in English with each other, he speaks exclusively French to the kids, and I speak a mix of both. While I spoke to my children almost exclusively in French up until about the age of three or four, at a certain point the level that I wanted to communicate in surpassed the skill I had in French and I began speaking in English as well. One of my children does not show a preference for whether I speak to them in French or English, while another seems to have clued in that English is my default and my emotional language and sometimes will admonish me to speak in English, not French. As for the youngest’s preference, well, we will see!
It has not always been hard, and it has not always been easy. There is emotion inherent to language, and I have felt "all the feelings". Now in my 10th year of parenting bilingual kids whose first language was French, I try to remember that all feelings are okay and that they change and evolve. Reflecting on them and talking about them with other parents in the same boat is helpful, too.
Here is an honest look at the wide range of emotions I’ve experienced during the journey.
Watching friends, family members and strangers delight in observing my children effortlessly switching between French and English, despite their concerns of “but how will they learn English?” Knowing that my kids have the valuable skill of being fluent in a second language, which will serve them well their whole lives, in terms of future opportunities in life and work. Proud of being part of a wonderful community that is tenacious and vibrant and interesting.
I am a language lover and so it's fun for me to learn new idioms and expressions in French. I especially love regionalisms and hearing about local terms. I LOVE accents and find it incredible and fascinating that there are many different franco-Manitoban accents that are easily identifiable and distinguishable to locals. Then add in the accents from other provinces and countries and it is truly remarkable.
I believe that my kids’ experience of minority language education in a richly multicultural and diverse school will encourage them to be open-minded, accepting and compassionate people. There is something wonderful about being able to notice and understand someone who’s speaking a different language–it sometimes gives you an opportunity to strike up a conversation, say a few words of encouragement, or even just share a knowing smile…ultimately, it builds bridges and a sense of connectedness that’s so vital and precious in life.
Knowing two languages enriches each of them, provides many opportunities to think critically about words and word origins, and even to make educated guesses about words in other languages that we don’t know. Babies and children are truly little sponges and can easily learn two languages at the same time! And it’s a powerful thing to witness how quickly they learn and apply that knowledge in unexpectedly deep ways.
The franco-Manitoban community is relatively small, and if you pay attention you will start to see the same last names popping up everywhere. It's fun to play "French bingo" when I meet someone with a French last name, trying to determine who we may know in common (or may even be related to!). I didn't grow up in Manitoba, so this connection is valuable to me.
Fun: Learning about franco-Manitoban culture has been so much fun! From discovering talented local musicians that we have here (both for kids and for adults) and learning popular and folk French songs, to the delicious food traditions and celebrations—there really is such joie de vivre! A Christmas Réveillon is the holy grail, combining great music, food and special traditions. And of course there’s Festival du Voyageur, which we look forward to all year long! I also love children’s books and discovering amazing French Canadian authors and illustrators out there has been a great pleasure for me.
Language is emotional. My youngest is three and just starting to show off some English she's learned, in addition to her fluent French. Because I have only ever spoken to her in French it feels odd to reply in English, but also makes me wonder whether my communication with her—and indeed all my children at this age—has ever had the complexity and richness that it might have, had I not been limited in my French.
And oh, the sting of someone innocently describing your child as "un petit anglophone" when you work really hard to not speak English, effectively over-riding your own emotional language. To be honest, sometimes it feels like my efforts are invisible or taken for granted. Sometimes it feels like francophones think it’s enough just to speak in French, while here I am speaking a language that often does NOT feel instinctive, going out of my way to buy and read French books, play French music, etc., to support a French environment in the home.
At the kindergarten orientation session for my oldest child, the school principal made a point of addressing the non-francophone parents, and acknowledged that there is an element of sacrifice involved in this experience for us—just as one example, not being able to participate as easily and freely as a French-speaking parent in homework help or school volunteering. I was deeply moved, because it was the first time I’d heard anyone come right out and say they knew it wasn’t easy, and that our efforts were both seen and valued by the francophone community. I have a dear friend who is also committed to a French life at home; her first language is English but her French is very strong after 12 years of immersion and then working in French for several years. Still, I totally related to her when she once remarked, “I sometimes feel like I would be a much better parent if I was speaking my first language.”
When French is not your first language, you will probably always be a little shy about using it around fluent speakers. Being nervous about making mistakes is normal. Thankfully, I have found that most franco-Manitobans are thrilled and honoured when you speak their language, however imperfectly, and almost no one will correct you when you make mistakes (though how quickly I retreat when I feel my words being scrutinized for correctness!). It's funny: if I was speaking to someone whose first language was not English, I would never think any less of them because they made mistakes… and yet I don't extend that same grace to myself.
Ten years into my journey, I have learned that sometimes the best thing to do is invite people to speak to me in French, and I will reply in English. I’m fortunate that I can do this because my oral comprehension is strong. That way we both understand each other, and both feel more comfortable and able to express ourselves optimally. I think we should try not to force or pressure ourselves to communicate in a way that feels unnatural or inauthentic if we don't absolutely have to.
Feeling bad that I could try harder to speak more French, become more proficient if I devoted more time to it, or do more to become comfortable in speaking to other adults. Shame that I will put off writing emails to teachers because I know I will make a lot of mistakes and have trouble articulating if I try to write in French, but that if I write in English, while most teachers will understand, I fear it will reflect poorly on my kids or on my family's commitment to French schooling. I'm not a perfectionist, but somehow, I feel I should be able to do better in this department, despite knowing in my heart that I am a good parent and that what I do is enough.
As you can see there are lots of good parts but also many challenging parts of this experience. Despite the struggles, I wouldn’t change it for the world—though maybe I would be gentler on myself!
Emma, mother of 3, Winnipeg