Emma Roussel is a British physiotherapist who works in Central London. Her husband Jérôme is a financial analyst originally from France. She supports him in their endeavour to raise bilingual children and is proud that her family has made it to the cusp of schooling while chatting in two languages.
We have two girls, a nearly three and four-and-a-half year old. I am English and speak English to them, Jérôme is French and speaks French to them. We made the decision when we became pregnant. It was important to us to make sure our children would pick up his language naturally.
How could we not share this? How could we not give the girls this gift to just have it in their system and make it easy for them. For me it has been anything but easy to learn French. I’m still struggling with it, and I still have barriers with my in-laws because of that language difficulty.
On dealing with your in-laws
They all speak English quite well but it seems to me that it’s quite French that they don’t speak it especially when we’re in France. It’s much better for us and I really want them to speak French with our daughters. It is good for me as well but it doesn’t make it easy. It’s difficult and why on earth would it not be? This chatting together in French helps our girls to be fully immersed when we’re in France.
Sometimes, especially with Jérôme’s family or French friends, I find myself speaking little bits of French, too. And then I think: Is this weird? Was it weird for our children? They don’t seem to mind at all.
On supporting your partner and each other
My family actually spoke more German than French. My parents lived in Germany, I was born in Germany, I did German at school, my mother is a German teacher, so for me German had always been that second language. Now it has all disappeared because we don’t use it anymore.
Jérôme and I met in London and have always spoken English to each other. I think he doesn’t feel confident that he has the skills to teach something because it’s not his profession. Whenever he tried to explain French grammar to me - it didn’t work. I spent a fortune on French lessons!
He has lived in England for a long time and was concerned that he doesn’t speak French well. He came here when he was 21 for his first job, he has never worked in France and has been in England ever since apart from when we lived overseas but it was still in English speaking countries.
Jérôme grew up in France speaking French where as you grew up in a mixed environment. Do you think that explains the different stances you took in facing bilingual parenting?
Yes, but I was in Germany only for six months. I didn’t speak German with my parents at all at that age and they are both English so we spoke English at home. Perhaps the mere fact that my parents were there, and I was born in Germany, and my mum studied languages at University, and is a language teacher - all this might explain why I did German at my A level and became interested in travelling. There’s definitively something within me that is interested in linguistics and our family feels very much aware of other languages and other cultures.
On teaching yourself a new routine
Usually the minority language parent is trying to explain to the majority parent why it’s important to speak their language.
My husband definitely saw the advantages as well. He said “Yes, that sounds great and I’d love to do it but I don’t know if it’s going to work.” He felt nervous about it. I believe he agreed with the idea and the whole concept but simply questioned his ability to follow through.
When I was pregnant we chatted to the bump and I encouraged him to speak in French to her. He started getting used to it at that time. He commented “This is really weird!” but somehow found the courage and after a while started thinking “Yeah, maybe I can do it after all”.
Our first few months as a family when we had friends to visit who didn’t speak French I think he felt a bit awkward, but now it’s completely natural to him and he thinks it would be really weird to not do it.
We’re lucky in that I can understand most of what he’s saying to our children. It makes it a lot easier compared to friends who have a situation where one parent speaks a language and the other parent doesn’t understand it at all. That is a much bigger challenge!
Our daughters are now speaking to Jérôme more and more in French - neither all the time nor the majority of time - but it’s definitively there. In the last weeks I even heard our youngest speak a few little phrases to her sister in French. This is so rewarding! I’m slightly envious but just think they got it now, that’s it!
On bilingual childcare settings
Jérôme was reassured by discovering that we had a bilingual nursery on our doorstep and I felt relieved when the girls started there three days a week. I felt slightly guilty because he had all this pressure on his shoulders and I was a little bit helpless and couldn’t do a huge amount. Even though I speak a little bit of French I would definitively not be comfortable trying to speak it to our children as well. It would be very unnatural for me.
They know I understand it. My oldest is also becoming more aware that her French is better than my French. She likes to test me and sometimes will correct me when I’m reading a French story. She will say “It’s not ‘to-bogg-ann’, mummy, it’s ‘tub-oh-gaun’.” with her perfect French accent which puts me to shame. Quite often she plays the game of “Do you know this word in French?” And then obviously she is very proud when she can teach me. I really enjoy this. It’s just wonderful to have that and see little glimpses of French language increasingly coming through.
Jérôme is the one putting in all the hard work. It’s difficult living in an English-speaking country and having to be that minority language even though there are so many French people around us in London. He’s done an amazing job.
When doubts creep in
Have you had any doubts about your girls’ identity or how they would feel?
We had an interesting discussion around passports. Our eldest was born in Australia and because neither of us are Australian, she can’t be Australian. We assumed she would get a British passport, sent off the form, paid the money, and waited. But they wrote back saying: No, she can’t have a British passport - because I wasn’t born in the UK! I’m British by descent, even though both my parents are British and I grew up in Britain, just because I wasn’t born on British soil I’m not a naturalised British Cititzen, which I hadn’t ever realised! That was such a shock, I had a bit of an identity crisis. I called my mum asking: “Why am I not British, what’s going on?”
In order to move the family back to London we had to get our daughter a French passport. It raised some issues about how is she going to identify? At the moment she still doesn’t have a British passport, whereas her sister who was born in Britain has both nationalities. She must live here for five years until we can apply for her papers and we have to pay a fortune, too. You have so many assumptions but it’s not automatic at all.
On preparing for change
Was there ever a time or moment when you doubted your approach? Apart from it being strenuous, exhausting, putting pressure on you. Was there ever a question about whether this is the right thing to do?
It didn’t cross our minds to not do it. It was always clear that this was the right thing for our family. The only questions have been: Are we making the most of this opportunity? Are we doing it in the right way? Sometimes we were unsure whether it was going to be confusing for them.
Our first-born seems to be quite good with language and speech. The physical stuff came a bit later and that meant we didn’t have those questions around “Is her speech going to be delayed because we have two languages?” We wondered about her sister who was always more physical than chatty but I think it’s just down to personality and has nothing to with language. Besides, she caught up now.
The doubts might come in September. Our big girl will start at an English school and obviously lose the input she’s having now at her bilingual nursery. We might find that all the benefits we’re seeing which we think of as proof we’ve done so well because they’re speaking French to us, will evaporate.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised and therefore won’t be that disappointed if this happens. Once she is surrounded by mostly English speakers we won’t get French coming back to us as much anymore - although we’re lucky that we’re living in a very multicultural and diverse area and there will be other families in the same situation around.
The challenges might come then. The girls will speak less French to their father and I think this in turn will make it harder for Jérôme to hold on to the belief that this is the right way to go and to stick with it. Imagine a very spirited five year old saying “I’m not going to talk to you when you talk to me in that language!” That’s hard, isn’t it? Because you want to have a good relationship and you don’t want language to become yet another thing you’re battling about amongst all the other things that are going on day to day. I like to think that we would persist. The challenge will be trying to make it fun for them, trying to make it cool, make it something they are proud of.
On managing resources
Do you plan on staying in London?
For the foreseeable future, yes. We’re definitely not planning on moving to France. So we made the decision that French school is not for us. If we thought we might be moving to France and Jérôme would be working there then that would be something we would consider.
What kind of resources do you have in French at home and how do you source them?
We have tried really hard to have as many French books around as possible and we’re lucky that family will send over books, too. Whenever we go to France we’ll always go to the bookshop or the supermarket. It’s really good for kids’ books. I love going to Carrefour or Intermarché, they always have a little book section that has really nice kids books you would have to go to a fancy book shop in England to get. We don’t really buy new French books here because they’re very expensive.
Jérôme’s sister signed our daughters up for a subscription to a French magazine for kids, which is amazing. Every month it comes through the door and they love the idea that post is coming for them. It includes lovely activities and stories and is simply perfect for their age group. Both really enjoy it.
Our daughters started getting more into watching screens and that’s our quiet time now that they’ve dropped their naps. We try to make sure it’s in French to justify the move. We’ve asked the extended family to send over Disney movies in French and for a while they didn’t realise you could watch them in English, too, until my mum came to stay one day and put on The Jungle Book in English. From then on they keep asking “Can we watch it in English, please?” We try to persist.
The Oxfam Shop on Upper Street has a little kids’ section and a very little foreign language kids’ section. Every time we walk past I go and have a quick check.
What do you do with your old French children’s books?
I always feel reluctant to get rid of the French ones but eventually they will go to a charity shop or I’ll pass them on to friends. Our neighbours upstairs are French and have a little boy so we gave them some books last weekend. Although, hilariously, they want English books to encourage his English because both parents are French. They’ve justhired an English child minder. At first I got all excited thinking she could help out with school pick ups and asked “Is she French?” - when they said no I thought shame but of course I understand.
The role of grandparents
An important reason for us sticking with the whole bilingual effort is that we want our children to have a close relationship with their family in France. Aunts, uncles, cousins - there are lots of them around.
When we left our daughters for a few days with them they came back speaking French for the next week. It’s great for the girls and great for the grandparents. The grandparents love that their grandchildren have this English influence. It’s exciting and interesting for them. We have to keep asking them politely to please only speak French because they always want to try out their English. Jérôme’s mum is taking English lessons and wants to practice, which is understandable, but you have to go “No, please speak French!”
As the girls get a bit older, it would be lovely to organise a kind of exchange with the cousins. It would be brilliant for their language and all the other aspects of French life. There are many little things our daughters have incorporated and think are really funny. For instance sometimes we say we’re going to have dinner and bath French style: In France they have their bath before they have their dinner, which I think is crazy because they will get filthy again. Sometimes though, if for whatever reason we think that’s going to work best, we say “We’re going to do French style tonight!” They know what it means and are immediately entertained.
There are other cultural aspects we see when we go to their grandparents. The aperitif is always very important in France and our kids are very much involved in it and like that of course. It’s fun to bring some of that back and do it at home as well.