Bilingual Children – It’s Complicated!
So, my son started school in France at La Rentrée ( start of the school year ) in September and almost overnight his little life changed dramatically. Just a few weeks in and I’m beginning to realise that having bilingual children can be a complex business. At home in France we speak English, although both fluent French speakers, and my three and a half year old has fantastic vocabulary in his mother tongue. I’ve no idea if he is clever or average for his age but we think he is pretty much the best kid in the world. In English, he is sensitive, kind, funny, dramatic, chatty and grumpy at times. He sings and acts and chats and chats and chats. In French he is a strange contrast of shouty and shy, frustrated yet funny. As if starting school at the tender age of 3.5 wasn’t tough enough ( some start as young as 2 ), he has a whole new language to learn and friends to make without speaking the same code. Our journey into educating a bilingual small person has begun and it’s a long old road.
Day 1 was a breeze. Our little man had spent the past year doing time in the local creche so he understood French ahead of d-day and wasn’t too worried about being away from me for a morning or two. We potty trained day and night in a week so he was dry from day 1 and I can’t believe it but he still hasn’t had an accident. We couldn’t get him anywhere near a toilet for months – he even starting peeing outside next to the dog! #wildboy! Keen to find out what this school thing was all about, we pulled on his nice new suede boots and headed off into the classroom to meet his teacher, or Maitresse as she’s known to the class in French. I still have no idea why this is the same word used for a mistress, best not to ask. He sat himself and his little blue cords down on a minute yellow bench and was ready. Waiting like a little sponge to find out all about school and learn lots of wonderful new things. The teacher rang a bell and promptly the tone became serious -no running, laughing or playing with toys, this was proper school now. So far so good. Then, the worst thing happened, three boys bawled their eyes out, big, massive crying with snot dripping everywhere. His lip quivered but I shot out and he soon moved on and managed to survive day 1.
Day 2 he was crying by the time we got out the car and I foolishly stayed too long in la classe while settling him in which made it VERY hard to leave. I am sure anyone with a memory of the first week at school will vouch for this – you really need to get out of the class asap. Because I usually wear red lipstick all the little girls in his class stuck to me like magnets making me look like some kind of pied piper of kids. I sloped out and after lunch picked him up with a smile on his face, to my utter relief. I had no idea what he’d been up to but he told me he had crudité with vinaigrette for a starter followed by fish and vegetables, a slice of camembert cheese and a fruit salad. But what did you do a school I begged with him?
“I had lunch”, he swiftly replied.
On the one hand, I am immensly proud of my little tot who not only goes to school four mornings a week and eats lots of courses but also manages to smile and get through his school day just like any little French kid. On the other hand I feel plagued with worry that he can’t communicate effectively, show his funny, creative, mad and lovable self in his best twinkling light. It’s a bit like I have put him into a board meeting and volunteered him for a presentation but forgotten the projector and notes, a tad harsh. Schooling bilingual children is a complex business and my son is basically learning how to be French at school and how to be English at home with his family. There’s no margin for error learning French at school, you have to muck in and do the same as everyone else regardless of who you are and where you’re from.
Thinking back on my own school years...
Everything is different, down to the hours at school, long days finishing at 4.30pm with an 8.30am start – it’s like holding down your first job aged 3.5. I loved school when I was a child and skipped in and sang my head off in assembly and made friends with anyone who could bear to put up with my constant chat. I think school is good and I think the French school have taught my little boy an incredible amount in a very short space of time. Suddenly my son can do his coat up, take his shoes off and god forbid you if you try to do it for him. The equivalent of the preschool years includes a lot of training in independence and social skills, although my son seems confused and SHOUTS a lot in a strange garbled French that makes other children slightly fearful and look at him like he is slightly mad.
On the school run home, I find it difficult to manage his let down time as he clambers into his car seat frustrated and exhausted every day – often shouting at me or cursing for the first five minutes until he is back home safe in my nest and his old self again. Every day he asks me what a word is in French like bench or door or a shape. It’s impressive and hard core rolled into one and he is so tired at night he snores like a little old man from under his duvet. I get mixed advice on how to educate and raise a bilingual child successfully and I know a lot of people who can’t speak any French at all yet their children thrive in a foreign school environment. Some people say we should burn the TV times and watch nothing but French bingo, others say it’s important he learns French from French speakers and that we keep up the good work on the English side. I’m not sure what the answer is but I await anxiously for the day to come when he can communicate just as well in French as he does in English. He’s bossy French classmates, so be warned – that quiet little Woodmouse might well surprise you one of these days!
When the school holidays came I thought he would hate going back to school again but bless him, little man was ready with his shoes and socks on, hair brushed and satchel in hand ready to go back for round 2. How brilliantly resilient.
Do you have experience of schooling bilingual children or educating children abroad? I’d love to hear from you x