What Happens When Kids Speak a Foreign Language and Parents Don’t

In New York, American parents anxious for their children to become bilingual in French are rolling up their sleeves and heading back to school.

Sarah Voisine, a mother of two girls enrolled in a bilingual French-English school in Brooklyn, understands this problem well. As much as this Nevada-born American likes the idea of her children being bilingual, she feels lost when homework time rolls around and she is unable to assist.

“I’m not able to help my oldest son anymore. I can read children’s books in French, but nothing more complicated,” she confessed. “My husband doesn’t speak any French. Our children tease him for that.” Though Voisine’s paternal grandfather was French Canadian, she was not raised bilingual “My father didn’t pass it on,” she laments. These days, she feels deprived every time the girls call her “maman” instead of “mom”, “because it means they want to have a conversation in French”.

It may seem strange for parents who have not mastered the language of Molière to enroll their children in a French school program. But in New York, bilingual French-American programs attract as many Americans as they do expat families. Ten public schools, including P.S. 110, offer bilingual curriculums. Already popular, French school programming in the U.S. increased exponentially with the creation of a $100,000 grant program sponsored by the French Embassy and the FACE foundation.

As evidenced by Sarah Voisine, these programs present a paradox: young Americans training to be future ambassadors to France are unable to maintain their levels of spoken French at home. As explained by psycho-linguist François Grosjean in Huffington Post, children are terribly pragmatic when it comes to languages. If they have a true need for two or more languages, they will become bi- or multi-lingual. Without that need, they revert to a single language.” And with each passing school grade, it becomes more difficult for children to continue their unique educations. Only three public middle schools in New York offer bilingual French-English program, allowing for a mere 60 students to continue their bilingual education in middle school.

For the time being, Voisine’s children Auden (10) and Linnea (6), follow an alternating curriculum at P.S. 110 in Greenpoint—one day in French, followed by one day in English. Their mother has also enrolled them in extra-curricular classes, where discussions are carried out internationally, between a classroom in New York and one in France. These invaluable classes allow “American children to discuss school directly with French kids,” explains Voisine. They also help Voisin feel better about the fact that she herself cannot help her children.

Further west in Brooklyn, Jolene Poydar also understands the feeling of powerlessness. “I can’t help my sons do their homework,” admits the mother of nine year-old twins, Billy and Felix, who are currently enrolled at P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens. Since kindergarten, the two boys have followed an exclusively French curriculum. “It’s the only kindergarten that would accept them. We’re the only exclusively American parents, and we feel like outsiders. It’s crazy. My children will grow up speaking French without having any French heritage.” 

Motivated by her sons’ fluency in a language she could not speak, Poydar began  French lessons three years ago, “but it’s not enough,” she says. To maintain the boys’ spoken French, Poydar hired a French babysitter to work and talk with them twice a week. 

Kate Dautrich has adapted her life to accommodate the children’s second language. Enthused by their bilingual curriculum, she enrolled in language courses herself, spends holidays traveling to France, and frequently hosts French students at her home: “I want French to be a part of everyday life for Wyeth (9) and Wynnie (6).” Twice a week, Dautrich takes part in after-school sessions organized by parents of P.S. 133, during which English-speaking parents read to French children, and vice versa.

At times, Dautrich hedges the difference between her and her husband’s level of French versus that of children as a way to motivate them. “I told them that, thanks to French, they can say whatever they want in front of my husband and I, and we won’t understand,” laughs Dautrich. For the most part, she feels “proud but jealous” of her children. “It’s like a superpower.”

A superpower that could be stopped by monolingual parents. The ability of a monolingual environment to overpower a child’s ability to become bilingual has even inspired one French mother at PS 110 to give French courses to American parents in the evenings. And that’s not the only opportunity that exists for parents wishing to match their children’s level of French: the Science, Language and Arts school, after receiving requests from American parents, began offering occasional French classes. Starting this winter, the school will also commence weekly classes for adults.

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