Friday, June 25, 2010

Non-native speakers bringing up bilingual children

I've recently received some requests for some of my history as a bilingual person given that I learnt one of my languages from a non-native speaker. In my case, I was raised in Australia which is a very monolingual English-speaking country. However, I speak French natively although lack of use for many years has left it a shadow of what it was in my late teens.

My biological family is monolingual English-speaking. When I was very young, a car accident destroyed my family, leaving me effectively fostered with family friends for several years. From the age of 5, I lived with a family friend who was a French teacher and francophile, being an Australian who had learnt French at school, lived in France for several years then had returned to become a teacher and had decided to speak French to her kids. Although not a native speaker, her French is impeccable with only a slight accent when speaking. Being at that perfect age for language acquisition and fortunately having well above average language skills, I took to French like a duck to water.

One thing about my experience which I've found to be fairly atypical of children speaking a non-societal language is that I cherished French as something very special that I had that none of my peers had. I gained immense satisfaction from being able to say things that nobody else could understand, and with a couple of my French-speaking friends we had our own 'secret language'. Most bilingual kids I grew up with were indifferent to their 'other' language.

I took French at school as one of my languages and was gifted with several brilliant teachers who fostered my intense interest in the language. There were luckily 3 other bilingual French-speaking kids in my class, 2 of whom were as a result of non-native, French-speaking parents and one girl with a French mother . The 4 of us were given special exercises to do, had access to all the senior reading material available, plus there were several exchange teachers from France with whom to chat. Out of the 4 of us, 3 were language buffs and one had virtually no interest at all, he just did the language for easy marks.

I went through a stage in my teenage years of only reading novels and comics in French. I would read my neighbour's copy of Le Monde most days. By the time I left school my French was on par with my English. It was so gratifying when I finally went to France in my late teens that people didn't realise I wasn't French until I told them, although my accent was a bit of an odd mix due to the circle of French speakers I had grown up with being from just about every country in the Francophonie. Parisians just assumed I came from a regional area (just more regional that they anticipated).

In my mid-teens, I spent a year in Japan as an exchange student where I picked up Japanese. Whether it is my natural love of languages or my bilingualism or both, my Japanese after that year was better than most speakers of a European language achieve in that amount of time and certainly my accent is very close to native, to the point where I've had short telephone conversations with people who haven't realised I wasn't Japanese. When I came back to Australia after not having spoken English for a year, I struggled to cope with the onslaught for a couple of weeks, and my English was often garbled.

I can really understand how people can lose a native language through non-use. A university friend had an Australian father and Japanese mother. Her mother had lived in Australia for 25 years, only ever spoke to her in English (and indeed had barely spoken Japanese at all since moving to Australia). This girl felt that she had not had a proper relationship with her mother because her mother had never really learnt English well. So as an adult this girl had gone to Japan to learn Japanese, and she returned to Australia with fluent Japanese. She expected to have an awakening of her relationship with her mother now that she could speak her mother's native language, but her mother's Japanese had deteriorated to the point where it was worse than her English. It really hit this girl hard how much both her mother and she had lost, as her mother had basically ended up alingual and that there would be so many things that she could never share with her mother.

My languages have shifted over the years as I have lived in France and Japan, which have brought those 2 languages to the fore at those particular times in my life. I spent the first 10 years of my working life working for Japanese companies, speaking Japanese more than English despite living in Australia, so I was very comfortable in my Japanese. The one thing that I can truly say is that I never feel 'all me' in just 1 language. There are so many words, expressions and cultural concepts that only belong in my 'other' languages. Whenever I'm with bilingual friends, code switching is the norm and provides a much freer and complete means of communication.

To those of you who are bringing up your children speaking a language that you do not speak natively, don't worry. Your kids will be native speakers. As native speakers, they can polish their grammar, their idioms and their accent in a way a non-native speaker can't. I have friends who are native speakers of various languages because it was their family language due to it being a lingua franca of their parents, despite neither parent being a native. Around the world for hundreds of years (and probably millennia) people have been learning languages from non-native speakers due to migration, immigration, colonialism and conquest. As long as your kids have some contact with native speakers or native language material, they won't end up speaking pidgin even if their parents' language use is a bit dodgy. In fact, you'll find that your seven year-old will be correcting your grammatical mistakes and commenting on any mispronunciation like a patronising university lecturer.

Don't think of your kids as learning a language, because that's not what very young kids do, they grow in the language. The language isn't outside of them, it's in them, it's just part of how they perceive the world.

This post was done as part of the Bilingual Carnival, have a look at more blogs contributing to the Carnival at Enjoy!


  1. President Barack Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language,as well, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish.

    Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese and Hindi out of the equation. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto :)

    Detail can be seen at . Alternatively see

  2. It doesn't matter. A bilingual kid is a bilingual kid, be it Uighur, Pashto or German, the advantages it gives you are wired in your brain. Literally.

  3. This is fascinating and encouraging--thanks for sharing. I especially like your last paragraph.

  4. This is so encouraging! I am working hard to learn Hindi so that I can raise my children bilingual when I have them. I only speak English, but I have high hopes that my kids will have many more languages.

  5. I do hope you don't mind, but from now on I am going to quote your last paragraph whenever people ask why we're making him learn French in an anglophone country.

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