Raising bilingual children can come about in the most unexpected ways.
Today’s podcast focuses on the experience of Helene Demetriades, a French expat and illustrator residing in Cyprus with her husband and 15-month old son Nicholas.
They have been raising their toddler son to be bilingual in French and Greek.
Incidentally Helene is responsible for the cute illustrations you find on this blog. Her work can also be found on http://wontdrawyouasheep.blogspot.com/ and http://icionnedessinepasdemouton.blogspot.com/.
Below are snippets taking from the podcast highlighting Helen’s child-rearing experience.
BKR: Hi Helene. Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you become bilingual?
Helene: I was born to French parents so French is my mother tongue but my parents really wanted their children to learn a little bit of English so when I was a teenager, my parents sent me and my brother to an English-speaking organized summer camp for foreign children who were learning English.
I attended the summer camp for two or three years and I loved them because there were really good methods to learn English. This is where I really took off in English and started to learn English properly.
I’m extremely happy about it because it has changed my life tremendously. I could work in different multi-nationals where English is the main language. I could meet new friends and communicate in English. It was a wonderful asset that I got thanks to my parents.
BKR: When you had your son, did the decision to bring him up as bilingual come right away?
Helene: My husband is Greek-American , lived many years in America and is extremely influenced by the American mother tongue so his English is excellent.
When I got pregnant one of the issues that we discussed right away was that it was extremely important for us that our child had to grow up bilingual, with him being able to speak at the very basic 2 languages.
My husband was a little hesitant for a while choosing between English and Greek but I told him he could do as he wants as long as he picks one language. I immediately decided that I would teach my child French and later my husband also came to the decision that since we live in Cyprus our child should learn Greek of course.
BKR: So what is the language structure like in your home now?
Helene: I speak French with Nicholas. My husband speaks Greek to him. And we speak English to each other to communicate despite my Greek being decent. Hopefully, because we speak English to each other Nicholas will also pick up some English. I’m not really sure how good or bad it will be but as long as it is present in his daily life then that is good for me.
BKR: What is your current environment like in terms of language?
Helene: French here is very limited. There is a very small French community and only one French bookshop. I would have trouble if I needed to find a French babysitter which is why I have had to be resourceful and really find the tools that I have been needing by myself.
BKR: What are your other personal reasons for raising a child bilingual?
Helene: The first reason is that I have always believed that it is a pity when children do not speak the mother tongue of the parent. It is a pity because if the child doesn’t understand the language he will not understand so many things about the culture.
Communicating using the mother tongue is a very unique way of communicating. There are lots of nuances and ways of thinking that can only be communicated in your own language. If you don’t speak the language you already lose some of the refinement and nuances in the mother tongue.
Reason number two was that I was very concerned that here in Cyprus French is the minority language. Most people here speak Greek and as soon as Nicholas will go to school he will learn Greek in a couple of months and blend in immediately.
A lot of other parents have told me that as soon as this happens the minority language can be ignored by the child. It is so important to me that before he reaches that age of wanting to blend in he will already know how to speak, read and write in French properly.
The third reason is that the for us the world is extremely global and interconnected. We have no idea where our son will want to live and work. If from a young age he has the chance to learn more languages then it will be extremely advantageous for him. It will help him adapt more easily, understand more cultures and generally survive better.
BKR: So far what methods and strategies have been proven successful with 1-year old Nicholas?
Helene: Nicholas doesn’t really speak yet save for Mama and Papa which I think sounds very French but my husband says sounds Greek. But I have noticed that he understands a lot of French phrases that I tell him as well as Greek phrases that my husband speaks to him.
I have noticed that he responds more to the French maybe because I am at home with him more as my husband works. I spend most of the day with him so he hears more French at the moment.
BKR: Are there any activities that you do with him that you feel are best for him to grasp the language?
Helene: I used to teach French here so I kept from that time flash cards with drawings of different images of everyday objects. Now we have gotten to the point that he grans the card and he can say what the object is in French.
We also have books and I tell him stories and he loves that. On a daily basis from everything we do I always tell him everything I do in French and I can see that he enjoys it.
BKR: Do you use any media to support the language?
Helene: I do but I’m very picky with the things that I use. I select clips on Youtube and make sure that the illustrations and the voices are very nice and appropriate so my son can have a nice memory of it.
BKR: How important is humor in bringing up a bilingual child and how do you incorporate it in your daily routine?
Helene: I think humor is a very important part because we want to raise happy children. I try to make our learning environment fun and light so that he won’t even see it as learning and he will always want to do it again and again.
BKR: How do you plan to teach French literacy to Nicholas?
Helene: I haven’t really thought about it but I will probably research a method that agrees with me. I will probably teach him by myself. I’m not too worried as I know that with some research and structure I will be able to do it.
BKR: What is your advice for parents who are planning to raise their child bilingual?
Helene: First is to take it seriously. It really doesn’t come naturally so plan as much as you can and really make the effort.
Try to make the small things exciting for your child so the learning experience is very pleasant and fun.