The Second Language Problem (When You Don’t Really Have a Second Language)

When I was pregnant with my daughter I had very lofty goals of making sure she was exposed to enough French to hopefully help her become bilingual.  My husband’s mother’s side of the family is Francophone first-language (though most of them are fluent in English too, as my mother-in-law is) and my grandmother’s mother was French.  There was something about the idea of her learning a family-history language that appealed greatly to me.  Of course there was also the added benefit that studies show bilingualism tends to help kids overall when it comes to academics and learning, but even that was secondary for me.

We were lucky that I myself had been in the French immersion program in school and am able to converse, if not wonderfully, enough with a baby and eventually toddler and child.  My husband, oddly, doesn’t speak much French at all, but was fully supportive.  At first I figured I’d try and speak French at least one day a week while we were alone which would help me practice my own French and get her used to it, but we also had books I was ready to read too.  To help things, I picked up a CD of French songs to have playing in the house as well.  I was prepared!

Well, she was born and pretty quickly the whole ‘speaking French’ thing flew out the window.  I tried, I really did, but if you’re alone with no one to speak back and it’s not your first language, it’s not that easy to fall into using it.  I would do it for a while when I remembered but that faded pretty quickly.  However, I had books and at least I could read to her, right?  Wrong.  For whatever reason, every time I sat down in the rocking chair to read her a French book (this never happened when we read English), she would scream blue murder.  Very quickly, my plan was going down the drain.  The French CD?  It was actually great for a while as there were songs she loved, but like many things in this house, it too seemed to vanish into thin air.  Three years later and I have no idea where it is still.

However, at a year, I had to go back to teaching once a week so I employed a friend who happens to be Francophone to watch my daughter during this time, telling her to speak as much French as she wanted.  Well, my daughter definitely got some French, but given she didn’t fully understand it, engaging became more difficult and English was fallen back on frequently.

By the time my daughter was two, I had all but given up.

Then one day in her third year of life, after the Iron Man obsession had started (note it still hasn’t ended), we bought her (by request) a DVD of Anime Iron Man.   She sat down on the sofa, I started up the first episode, and went to the table to do some work.  It took me about 10 minutes before I realized I was hearing something weird.  She was happily watching the TV and had not bothered me for anything.  I walked back over toward the TV and realized it was in Japanese.  The cover was in English, but the DVD was playing Japanese.  And my daughter didn’t care!

This was it – the way to introduce the second language again.  I realized that if she loved what she was watching or reading, perhaps then the language wouldn’t matter so much.  I’m lucky that almost all DVDs bought in Canada come bilingual so I can select which language she watches in, but all of a sudden there were options: She could watch Max & Ruby in French or Blue’s Clues or even Iron Man in Japanese if I so felt like it.  Guess what?  It worked.

Does she always want to watch in French?  Heck no, but she seems okay with it most of the times I start her off in French.  Sadly with our recent use of Netflix, there is no French option (if there is, someone tell me!) which means she sees more English than French these days, but when we do use the DVDs, I make sure to use French at least some of the time.  This exposure seems to have improved her love of French books as well as she now requests them at home.  One more benefit is that if, like me, you always feel a twinge of guilt at turning on the TV, the whole learning another language from it is a benefit that truly helps assuage those feelings.  I know it’s not nearly as good as speaking in French to her, but sometimes we have to fall back on the tricks we may not love in order to get the greater lesson across.

Although she still doesn’t get the French daily that I’d like, more often than not she at least gets a good French book in a day (or more) and I hope the French she sees in her shows is helping too.  Although she’s still not speaking French, she definitely understands me more than before.  Will she end up bilingual like I had hoped?  I honestly don’t know.  I know the cut-off for early immersion is coming up so we’ll have to see.  I guess I’ll have to have her watch a bit more of that Max & Ruby… ;)

By Tracy Cassels

March 10, 2014