Monday, July 18, 2011

Planning Lessons and Bilingual Families

I wonder if every parent of bilingual children comes to this point one day or another: to compel or not to compel a reluctant or just not so enthusiastic child to speak, read and write in his second language as well as in the first. 

Pierre and I have decided to pursue a formal level of grammar and composition in French for the children this year (the ones who are 9-14). We have come to the conclusion that since being truly bilingual means the written as well as the spoken language, it is high time the older children knew how to construct a proper sentence in French; spelling, conjugated verbs and all. This is contrary to the way I have watched these same children evolve in English. They are constant readers who are always either reading or listening to a book. Apart from a brief foray into the incredibly uninteresting world of "First Grammar Lessons," in the early years, we have never done any formal language lessons. Yet their writing is fine, rich and varied in vocabulary and expressions. True, there is a need for editing for spelling and some punctuation, but no more than an average child of their age would require.

It's just not the same in French. After years of reading to them in French, some reading on their own and the occasional letter to the relatives over there, we have simply not spent the same amount of time on the written language. They can speak fluently and they think that is pretty cool now, but learning to spell is not quite as fun or cool. 

Yet, it is what must happen. There are opportunities that will only be open to them at certain ages and only if they can read and write French at a high school level. As the adults, we know that these are a privilege. To let them pass by the chance to go to college for free, for example, would simply be negligence, and I think they would resent me later for not being stricter while they were in my care. 

Some part of me though, is wondering if my reasoning is any different than parents who keep their children at baseball or cello practice long after they are bored with it and tired out, under guise of "opportunity". I would argue that language is a natural part of being human and our family's identity is  tied into these two languages that compose our world. My unschooling, trust-your-children mind wants all learning to stem from a true desire to do so, from a place of pure joy and auto-inspiration. I think all the schools in the world would ideally be libraries, the knowledge and people of knowledge there for the seeking, never forced, never a chore.

Ah, but some things in life do not come easily. This will be a year of gentle encouragement and lively teaching as we tackle French grammar, among other things, together. Du gateau?


  1. I am so right there with you! This year we are trying to figure out how to go about "encouraging" more formal Spanish in our eldest who is 14 and is a high school freshman. Part of our problem is the small homeschool co-op we are a part of has decided to pursue French as their foreign language for the next 2 years... So not only do we want to "push" Spanish because our entire family is bilingual (and much of my husband's family only speaks Spanish)it is part of who we are, now we have the added problem of a third language being thrown in, when we feel at this point it will distract from more formal studies of Spanish... At home we are very much unschoolers as well, however everyone does enjoy the one day a week spent at this co-op... ughh! The choices we must make for the good of our children, never easy clear cut decisions are they?!

  2. You know, French, like German, is a complex language, and spelling and grammar does not come naturally. I remember while I was teaching at Notre Dame that there were students in French and German that had learned German or French at home from a parent who was a native speaker. They conversation skills were excellent, but they couldn't write or do any grammar exercises. In the end these students got worse grades than their non-fluent classmates.

    I start teaching spelling and grammar right from the start (grade 1). My children have regular spelling, grammar, composition, and reading assignments throughout the week. Of course, they sometimes complain, but it will be so much harder to learn all of that at once when they are older.

    I can see that in myself also. I had 7 years of Latin in school and remember quite a bit of it (my knowledge is being tested right now because my two oldest are learning Latin from me). I also learned Greek, but that was later in college, and I passed a major exam, which is equivalent to the same amount of Latin I learned in school. We're doing Greek right now as well and I don't remember nearly as much as I should.

    Learning complex concepts, and grammar, writing, and spelling are complex, in a second language takes time and it should be done piece by piece, otherwise it won't reallly stick. Good luck with your new endeavors.

  3. Outsourced ;) we handed the teaching of French to a very good language arts teacher for my daughter.


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