Monday, September 2, 2013

Supporting children as they tackle French

My granddaughter is turning four today, and tomorrow she is starting school. It's a big event made even bigger by the fact that she has been accepted into a French public school. Fiona, a red headed little English speaking child, will soon be immersed in a sea of French.

I confess I was concerned for my granddaughter but at the same time I was elated her mother was giving her an opportunity that I never had. Oh, I took French in high school back in the '60s but I did not graduate bilingual. I doubt that many of my friends did either.

There was something wrong with the old approach to teaching language. The proof was in the failed results. Shortly after I left high school, the Canadian government introduced French immersion. If you can believe the government bumph, French immersion has been a huge success.

Recently it occurred to me that children seem to learn language differently than adults. Babies don't talk nor do we expect them to. What babies do is listen and respond. Babies grow into toddlers who wordlessly carry out complex tasks. When Fiona was only a bum-scooting baby, my wife asked the little girl, "Where are your red spoons, Fiona," the little toddler skooted over to the kitchen island, found her red spoons on the floor and brought them to grandma with nary a word.

When I googled this observation, I learned I had stumbled upon a concept well-known in language-teaching circles: the "silent period" theory. Kids learn to process language before they develop the boldness to attempt speaking. I also stumbled upon lots of other stuff as well. Such as the following list of myths about bilingualism complied by François Grosjean of the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland. (Grosjean is frequently referred to on the Web. He has devoted years to his study of language. He has an excellent blog. If you have the time, check it out.)

Myths about bilingualism

Bilingualism is a rare phenomenon. WRONG. It has been estimated that more than half the world's population is bilingual, that is lives with two or more languages.

Bilinguals acquire their two or more languages in childhood. WRONG. One can become bilingual in childhood, but also in adolescence and in adulthood. . . . In general, people become bilingual because life requires the use of two or more languages.

Bilinguals have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages. WRONG. Bilinguals know their languages to the level that they need them. (I've noted this when traveling. Taxi drivers or hotel staff may appear to be fluent in English but they actually speak what I call "taxi" or "hotel.")

Real bilinguals have no accent in their different languages. WRONG. Having an accent or not in a language does not make you more or less bilingual.


Bilingualism will delay language acquisition in children. WRONG. This is a myth that was popular back in the middle of the 20th Century. Since then much research has shown that bilingual children are not delayed in their language acquisition.

The language spoken in the home will have a negative effect on the acquisition of the school language, when the latter is different. WRONG. In fact, the home language can be used as a linguistic base for acquiring aspects of the other language. It also gives children a known language to communicate in (with parents, caretakers, and, perhaps, teachers) while acquiring the other.

If parents want their children to grow up bilingual, they should use the one person - one language approach. WRONG. There are many ways of making sure a child grows up bilingual: caretaker 1 speaks one language and caretaker 2 speaks the other; one language is used in the home and the other outside the home; the child acquires his/her second language at school, etc. The critical factor is need. The child must come to realize, most of the time unconsciously, that he/she needs two or more languages in everyday life.

If the bilingual child realizes that the minority language is not really needed, the child may question why keep up the weaker language learning. A better approach is for all family members to use the weaker language at home, if at all possible, so as to increase the child's exposure to it.

I now believe Fiona may be ready for school. I'm the one who isn't prepared. My head is filled with negative ideas and unhelpful myths.

I must get my head around the idea that supporting my granddaughter as she tackles a second language is important. I have to find ways of making French necessary in her everyday life and maybe in mine as well.

Are you interested in learning French? If you are, here are links to French instruction found on the Web.

  • The first site is the RFI Mondoblog. I especially like the section: Journal en francais facile. One bit of advice, I have found Google Chrome better for downloading the audio files than Firefox.
  • The next site is hosted by TV5 out of France. It is called "Parlons francais. C'est facile."
  • Sadly, what had been another fine French language learning site has been severely cutback. Hosted by the British BBC their Learn French page is now filled with mothballed pages and dead end links. The Ma France interactive videos are still online but the BBC makes no promises to keep even these active in the future.
  • A truly fine site for learning French online is offered by the University of Texas out of Austin. Click on the link to Tex's French Grammar and enjoy. This is one cool site for grammar instruction. When last I checked, there was also a textbook available for use in conjunction with the online program. I ordered my copy from Chapters here in London, Ontario. I encourage you to make a donation. Tex has earned it.
  • The following is one of my favourite sites for French exposure online. I especially love the tests. Visit: Learn French at About.com.
  • For vocabulary, try wordPROF. This site was originally developed to accompany a vocabulary course sold on CD-ROM. The disk is no longer available but the site is still online for those wishing to improve their French vocabulary.
  • One of my big problems is pronunciation. This Australian educational site does not have the largest number of phrases but it is still good for getting a handle on how spoken French sounds.
  • Another site linked to French speaker audio is the Language Guide page. Just make sure you do not click on the ad for French instruction. It can be confusing but make an effort to stay on the main site and learn for free.

If you know some better sites, I'd love to hear from you.

Lastly, I have found that listening to French music is a fine way to train one's ear. Personally, I like the music of the Belgium singer Axelle Red who performs mostly in French but has been known to slip into English now and then.

After my wife listened to The Coffee Song at home, she told her Quebecois boss at work, after he asked her to do something the first thing in the morning: "Laisse-moi boire mon café." He laughed.

Axelle Red is one of the best selling recording artists in France. Some of her other songs you might like are:

The French lyrics and the English translations can be found online if you should find it necessary.

One great trick for introducing French into one's life is watching French television with the hidden captioning for the hearing impaired activated. This makes it much easier to follow the action while attuning one's ear to a new language.

A version of this approach is offered on YouTube for young children being introduced to French. Check out: Animated Stories for Children: BookBox Inc.

Lastly, the Octonauts are very popular with little kids at the moment. French versions of many cartoons can be found on YouTube. I'm hoping I can interest Fiona in watching the French speaking underwater adventurers in action.

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