Giving up on Bilingualism, for a While at Least
How a family gave up on their children's bilingualism before bringing it back.
Posted March 9, 2020
One of the least talked-about aspects of family bilingualism is how and when parents resign themselves to the monolingualism of their children despite all the efforts they made to bring them up bilingual. Some are sad, some frustrated, some resigned... and almost all, outside the family circle, do not easily talk about what happened.
I have real empathy for their feelings and what they are going through, as the very same thing happened to my French-speaking wife and me. When we arrived in the United States for what turned out to be a 12-year stay, our son, Cyril, was a 22-month-old, French-speaking toddler. Since we both had to work, we found him a daycare in the city we lived in, Cambridge, MA, and within weeks, he was making headway in his second language, English. He also watched his favorite shows on television, and he would repeat all kinds of expressions he heard.
In a matter of months, and without us quite realizing it, our little French boy was becoming bilingual and was using more and more English with us. At first, we would only speak to him in French and try to get him to answer back in that language, but enforcing French became difficult. With time, he used less French with us, especially in front of other children.
I personally recall the day he told me outside, “Dad, speak like all the other dads,” by which he meant something like, “Since you also speak English, and English is the language used here, and I don’t want to be different from the others, then let’s speak English together instead of French.” Cyril became a dormant bilingual (see here), and we sometimes wondered how much French he continued to understand.
We didn’t worry too much as we thought we wouldn’t be staying that long in the States—we were on a two-year exchange program—and his French would be reactivated in no time once we got back to France.
But we stayed on, and our little Cyril never went back to French. Four years after our arrival, our second son, Pierre, was born, and we hoped that with him we would do things right and make a real bilingual out of him. We made sure to speak French to him, and we read him stories in French. However, from birth, he was also in contact with English through his brother, his brother’s friends, his brother’s TV programs, and finally at daycare.
For the first few months of language learning, Pierre spoke both French and English, and I remember proudly posting his new words in each language on my lab’s notice board. But Pierre quickly realized, like his brother four years before, that he really only needed to use one language and that, for reasons related to school and to his life outside the home, it had to be English. So he too slowly became monolingual in English.
All this happened more than 40 years ago when there was very little literature on bringing up bilingual children. Had we known back then what we know now—see, for example, my Bilingual: Life and Reality—we would certainly have done things differently. There are a number of strategies parents can use, and there are ways of creating a real need for each language.
As I write in a post, "Planned bilingualism: Five questions to consider," children acquire languages, but also forget them, in a very short time, depending on the need they have for each language. If they feel that they really need a language, and other psychosocial factors are favorable, then they will develop that language. If the need disappears or isn’t really there (e.g., the parents also speak the other language, but pretend they don’t), then the language may no longer be used, and over time, it may be forgotten.
One lesson I learned firsthand is that bilingual parents are not a guarantee that their children will be bilingual. The latter are very pragmatic and will not acquire, or maintain, a language unless the conditions are right. In addition, our own boys simply didn’t receive enough French input either from us or from other French-speaking caretakers, friends, family members, etc. to foster their bilingualism.
We had become a bilingual family in that two languages were spoken in the home, English and French. But only we, the parents, were in fact bilingual; the two children were monolingual in English. I reflected this when I dedicated my first book on bilingualism in 1982 to my wife and to our two sons, “for their monolingualism, so categorical and yet so natural.”
Fortunately, after eight years in the United States, we spent a sabbatical year in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. This was our chance to make Cyril and Pierre bilingual, and everything worked out perfectly. I have related in two posts how they acquired their French in a small Swiss village (see here), and how we used various strategies to maintain their bilingualism when we came back to the United States (see here).
We finally returned to Europe for good after 12 years, and the boys then added other languages to the two they already had. As adults, Cyril is trilingual, and Pierre uses five different languages regularly. We feel grateful that we were given a second chance to allow them to live with several languages. May this also be the case, if at all possible, for other parents who are in the same predicament we were in back then!
François Grosjean (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.