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Advice on introducing a second household language to a 6 year old who is only here some of the time...

(5 Posts)
eslteacher Mon 06-Jun-11 19:51:19


I'm English and have been living in France for two years, the last year and a bit of which has been spent living with my boyfriend (who is French). My boyfriend has a son who has just turned 6, from his previous long term relationship. The son spends about two out of three weekends with us, plus quite a lot of holiday time.

I speak decent French (but have never studied it formally, just picked it up via the immersion experience plus independent study) but think I have a long way to go still before I'm 100% comfortable and fluent in the language. My boyfriend speaks very good English, I'd say his level in English is similar overall to my French level, but with different strengths and weaknesses. When we are alone we frequently switch between French and English, using whichever one we feel like at the time.

My question is whether or not it would be a good idea or not to introduce English as a second household language to his son. The kid has definitely shown an interest in English, and has mastered the very basic level social interaction words plus can count to ten, name certain food items etc, but his attention span is pretty short, understandably, for learning and consolodating new stuff.

We have been happy to just leave it at this level for the moment, but lots of people often say to my boyfriend and I "oh (BF's son) is so lucky to be getting exposed to English at a young age, I bet it's really benefiting him to hear you speak in that language around the house etc"...whereas in reality, we never, or very rarely, speak English together when he is around (it's very useful when we want to say something not suitable for childish ears though!).

I'm not really convinced that trying to speak in English for sustained lengths of time around the child, especially as he isn't here during the week, would a) be a good idea in terms of our overall step-familial relationship and b) actually do him any good in terms of language acquisition.

That said, we are considering maybe making one mealtime per weekend "English time", really just sticking to English albeit trying to keep it quite simple, and see what kind of effect it has...

Does anyone have any advice / experience to share re: this kind of situation?

RuthChan Mon 06-Jun-11 20:14:09

I have never encountered your specific situation, but I live in a bilingual household and I am a language teacher.

As your boyfriend's son is only 6, I would not worry at all about introducing the English, in fact I would actively encourage it.
The most usual way to do this, rather than having 'English time' would be to have 'one parent, one language'. Ie, you should speak English to him exclusively and your BF should speak only French to him.
It will be of more benefit to him to hear the native speaker speaking each language rather than you both making mistakes to him in the other language.
Also, it will give him consistency and will help him to know which language to use with each of you.
Don't worry about the language of the conversations he hears around but that are not targeted at him. They can be in whichever language you want at the time.

He won't understand the English at the start, but that won't bother him as much as you might think. Don't forget that children spend a lot of their lives understanding less than perfectly the language they hear around them.
You can help him by translating into French when necessary, but that should be less and less.
Don't expect him to speak to you in English for quite some time. Initially he will reply in French even when he understands you, but you will find that he starts to use simple English after a while and this will build with his knowledge and confidence.

It's great that he has an interest in English. You can use that and give him a really great life skill.

MIFLAW Wed 08-Jun-11 14:54:09

What Ruth says. give it a go - as long as he knows he will not be judged or assessed if he fails to understand 100% you will probably be able to make a game of it.

two really useful techniques are to anchor the spoken language to the physical world (e.g. "phew, I'm hot!" as you fan yourself with your hand or "can you change channels please?" as you pass him the remote) and saying the same thing in two or more ways, so that he can link language he does know to language he doesn't ("what do you think of this? Do you like it?" or "did you have fun at school? was it good? what did you do?")

Remember, too, that the most important thing is he enjoys being an English speaker and the second most improtant is that he understands the gist; accuracy, tests, "teaching" and mistakes come way, way down the list.

MIFLAW Wed 08-Jun-11 14:56:51

Re the two ways of saying things, it can also help to anchor a (genuine) loan word to a more common word. so, in French, rather than say "let's go to the shops" you might follow it with "let's go and do some shopping", capitalising on the loan word "le shopping". Ditto for using "weekend" in conjunction with the words Saturday and Sunday.

fraktious Thu 09-Jun-11 06:01:51

I would also say jump in and do it. Start speaking - the more he hears in context the more he will understand. Encourage him to sing songs or nursery rhymes, play word games and use the English he has already to get him speaking. Capitalise on the interest!

Are there any other anglophone families around you?

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