Why I Speak to My Baby in French

I only ever speak to Évelyne in French. Since the moment she was born. It doesn’t matter where we are, who we’re with, when I speak to her in my “parentese”, whether it’s to comment on what she’s looking at, what we’re doing or where we’re going, it’s in French. Always.

The books we read, regardless of what original language they’re in, get translated or read in French. The songs we sing are in French.

Andrew also uses French words and phrases, sings French songs and reads to her in French (mostly the French books we already have). Even though his first language is English. Even though he makes mistakes.

Context: our little family lives in a majority English speaking area. I was raised bilingually and am Acadian and completed all my pre-secondary schooling in French (not French immersion, but in the French school board). Andrew was raised in an English speaking only household and took late French immersion in a majority English city. We live in a country where French is an official language. My job is the francophone consultant for Speech-Language Pathology preschool services in the province. So I kinda know a bit (hah) about the current research around bilingual language development in children. Bonus.

There are many reasons why families might want to speak the minority language in the home and why it would be valuable and important. These reasons have been documented by research:

  1. Language shares culture, morals, values and identity. Particularly when cultural identity is tied to a language that is specific to that culture- such as Acadian French. It’s not just important that Évelyne learns standard “French”, but that she learns ACADIAN French specifically. With it’s different grammar, vocabulary and dialect. By speaking Acadian French she will be able to communicate with all her extended family members and Acadian community members.
  2. Self-esteem: Children who learn and use the minority language of their parents have better self-esteem and feel more connected to their family, language community and culture. There’s an aspect of pride and ability to communicate and connect.
  3. Job opportunities: In Canada it pays to speak both official languages. There are better job opportunities for bilingual French-English individuals, even in more English speaking provinces (For example, when I was hired to work in BC, an English speaking province, I was told that my bilingual status worked in my favour since the government provides extra funding for organizations with a bilingual speaking staff member).
  4. Possible cognitive benefits: The research is mixed here, despite what mainstream media may report (ie “Bilingual people are smarter!!!” etc). That said, there is *some* evidence supporting children who are exposed to two or more languages early on in life (prior to 3 years of age) developping stronger metacognitive skills and flexibility in world view and thinking.

For us, the first two points are the most important.

Then there are the MYTHS around bilingualism that I hear from parents, the media and even health professionals. Why do these myths still exist? Why do Family Physicians, Paediatricians and even other SLPs continue to promote these myths? Because science is slow to trickle into clinical practice and most health professionals are monolingual speakers who have difficulty understanding the ease with which children can learn multiple languages (since it’s much more difficult in adulthood), and don’t have the time to read current research or attend talks on the topic.

Thankfully, reading research and attending professional conferences on bilingual and multilingual language development is a huge part of my job. So let me breakdown the most common myths around bilingualism:

1.MYTH: Learning two (or more) languages is more difficult than learning one in childhood.

This is FALSE and has been proven over multiple research studies in multiple contexts and countries. What we know is that children, particularly those under the age of 5yrs, but even more so for 3yrs and under, are very capable of learning multiple languages. Their brains are hardwired for it, in fact. Bilingualism does not appear to take more neurological effort, or neurological “load”. This myth comes from two places: adults who are monolingual and have difficulty envisioning the ease with which a child can learn multiple languages, since they themselves would find it challenging and outdated research in countries where the minority language is not valued. But of course, we can’t forget that children’s brains and adult brains are different.

2. MYTH Bilingual children will learn to speak later than monolingual children.

It follows that if in fact learning multiple languages is easy for children, then there is no reason why they’d be late in their language milestones. This way of thinking, the “she’s not talking yet because she’s learning two languages” stems from the outdated belief that learning multiple languages is hard. Since we’ve determined (above) it’s not, science has also clearly demonstrated that bilingual children will say their first words and combine words within the same timeframe as their monolingual peers. If your child is bilingual and late talking, it’s not because of the bilingualism. A referral to a Speech-Language Pathologist would be helpful.

3. MYTH: Children with a language delay or disorder will have more difficulty learning another language.

This Myth has stuck around for much too long. There’s been excellent research out of Canada as well as other countries clearly demonstrating that children who have a language delay or disorder, as well as children with a cognitive delay or disorder (such as Down Syndrome and Autism) are very capable of learning two languages. Not only are they capable, but being bilingual does not impact either language. In other words, their delay or disorder doesn’t make learning a second language more difficult. These children perform just as well as their monolingual peers WHO ALSO HAVE THE SAME DELAY-DISORDER.

Often parents will be told to “just work on one language first”, or “make sure he has a solid foundation in English before introducing another language”. This advice isn’t founded on research.

What we do know is this:

A: Children with a language delay or disorder as well as children with a diagnosis of Autism and Down Syndrome are capable of becoming bilingual without added harm to either language.

B: Removing one language completely from the family home is very difficult in many cases (consider the family where parents only speak the minority language. It is very unlikely that all conversation and communication will be in English. It’s more likely that parents will continue speaking the language with which they are the most comfortable).

C: Models in a language that a person is not comfortable with will not be as rich or grammatically correct as language models provided in their first language.

D: Since it’s unlikely parents will fully remove one language from the home, the result is often that children are left out of conversations where they don’t understand the language and provided with poorer, English, language models instead.

E: This may result in poor self-esteem, a disconnect from the family’s culture, heritage and community as well as less education and job opportunities.

F: Speaking the minority language in the home will NOT harm or delay a child further.

G: It matters when the family introduces the minority language. Children who are exposed to both languages from birth, or before the age of 3, fair much better in pronunciation of sounds and vowels and accuracy of grammar and vocabulary. Even more importantly, minority languages require MUCH more input and exposure to fight the effect of the majority language. Even if both Andrew and myself only spoke French at home, Évelyne would easily learn English because it is literally EVERYWHERE. Research supports this.

Finally 4. MYTH: Acadian French is a lesser form and incorrect version of standard French. Speaking to your child in “Acadian” will damage their French language development.

I understand all to well where this myth comes from. Acadians have historically suffered via political and cultural oppression (expulsion and deportation of our people along with blocking access to education in French). Other French speakers find the grammar and vocabulary odd and often assume it’s “poor” or “incorrect” French when in fact the vocabulary and grammar (and accent) is more the result of hundreds of years of isolation from other regions and French speakers. Our French is archaic and old. NOT wrong.

I find it eternally frustrating and insulting when non Acadian speakers follow up my “I speak Acadian” with: “Oh, so you speak Franglais” or “Shiac”. No. Code-mixing (mixing both languages) is the (natural btw) behaviour of a bilingual speaker, NOT the Acadian language. Sure. I mix both, when it is appropriate and when the listener understands both languages. I actually vary the percentage of “mix” depending on who I’m speaking with. It’s a pretty fricking neat skill, I gotta say. But it is definitely not Acadian French.

Acadian French is a beautiful hold over of vocabulary, grammar and accent from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Imagine a pocket of people still using “thy” for “you”.

For example (From my Dictionnaire du français acadien):

“Hucher”: français standard equivalent: “Hurler” (to yell). First documented use in written form in 1538, used by French (France) speakers since the 12th century. In other words, it was the version that came BEFORE “hurler”.

“Embourrer”: français standard equivalent: “envelopper” (to wrap). Since 1877, used by French (France) speakers.

“Arrumer”: français standard equivalent: “arranger” (however, arrumer specifcally means “to fix”, and only that. Whereas “arranger” can also be used in different contexts. I think “arrumer” is a much prettier and elegant word). Used since the 15th and 16th century in France.

Grammar: Acadians use a different conjugation for “ils”. Instead of “ils+ent” (ie “ils marchent”) Acadians in South Western Nova Scotia use -ons or for the past -ions (the more current ending with “nous”). Using the same example it would be “ils marchions” or more accurately “y marchons” or “y marchions”. We also will commonly replace “nous” with the dialect for “je”= “euj”. This would look like “euj marchions” to mean “nous marchions”.

Both these usages are from archaic French verb conjugation.

Accent: Where I’m from every village has a different accent that identifies them with some overarching similarities. Vowel changes (ou for “o”- “houmme for homme, poumme for pomme) along with dipthongization of final nasal vowels (“faim” and “temps” become “fa-ille-N” and “teh-ou-wN”- hard to do without IPA symbols) can significantly change how words sound (vowel changes are one of the major reasons for impacting understandability). Add other minor changes such as “ch” for all “cu” (ie “chuisine” for “cuisine”) and you’ve got a hell of an accent.

All these differences are systematic, due to historical use and follow rigid linguistic rules. As such, they are not incorrect or wrong. Just different.

Therefore, speaking Acadian French will not damage a child’s language skills. They will learn standard French at school. They will essentially be “tri-lingual”.

So. I speak to Évelyne in Acadian French. All the time. As much as possible. She’ll attend a French preschool and daycare as well as the French school board. Yes, it’s an extra effort and not always easy. Andrew and I generally speak to each other in English. I don’t have a lot of French speaking friends. But together Andrew and I have decided that Évelyne will benefit in so many ways from being connected to the Acadian language, culture and heritage.

So the effort will be worth it.

(Caveat: Although I’m discussing early bilingualism- ie prior to school entry- and not second language learning, ie French immersion, many parents struggle with schooling decisions and receive conflicting information from education and health professionals alike. There are plenty of excellent reasons why parents choose not to place their children in French immersion or French school. These reasons shouldn’t be because the language will be “too hard”, since there isn’t any evidence that this is the case. Parents should have information based on evidence in order to make the decision that is best for their child and their family. 

I’d also strongly argue a switch from the thinking that “the school will teach my child French” mindset. Truly, language is not solely learned from education professionals. Feeling like a) we can wait until grade primary or b) by speaking Acadian we would be teaching incorrect French and we should just wait for the school to teach “le bon français” results in children missing literally YEARS of language exposure that would have supported stronger bilingualism, vocabulary, grammar and accent production. There is no reason to wait.)

(Links to excellent summaries of current research with citations included:

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