Alice looked like my dad. She was seven seconds old and lay on my wife Bénédicte’s stomach, staring at me through cloudy eyes. That was a relief; not the cloudy eyes, the looking like my Dad. Definitely a Fielding, unquestionably half-English. Béné leaned over and kissed Alice’s mushy head and whispered, “Bonjour ma Belle,” into her left ear. I leaned over, my life having changed forever, and said, “Hello Alice, welcome to the world,” into her right ear.
And our bilingual journey began.
In reality our bilingual journey had begun several months earlier when I had started reading Charles Dickens into Béné’s stomach. After a little too much of Great Expectations my wife said, “You can read her children’s books, you know?”
It was true, I could have, but I thought I needed to get ahead of the game. I knew English was the minority language and Alice would be playing catch up with that pesky majority language soon enough. Reading aloud would buy me a little time, accelerate the minority language base ahead of its faster, more readily accessible and successful friend Majority Language. Alice had ticked off On the Road, Wuthering Heights, The Colour Purple and 1984 by her third trimester.
So much for great expectations.
Alice was born on Saturday, and by Monday she had heard no fewer than 35 different French voices from over 50 doctors, nurses, mid-wives, family and friends. No amount of Faulkner or Fitzgerald could possibly make up for the French accents of Marie-Jose, Emilie Dutronc and the rest of the caring medical staff at the Franco-Britannique hospital in Paris.
Act 1 – Setting a Goal for Our Language Journey and Learning the Ropes of Bilingualism
At the time I was an English teacher, which perhaps goes some way to explaining my obsession with the language. As the bilingual adventure unfolded, obsession wouldn’t be enough. I would need tools, strategies, mental models and patience.
The bilingual goal was quite simple: Alice will only ever speak with me in English and I will return the favour.
How hard could it be?
We lived in Paris (I’d been enticed there for love). With the birth of Alice we had moved to the suburbs and said au revoir to the concerts, restaurants, museums, parties and hedonistic beauty of the incandescent inner city and said bonjour to more space and a long commute.
We knew a lot of ex-pats but none who had children. As the months passed the reality that everyone was French and speaking the majority language hit home. With my family in the UK and contact with the English community at a minimum, it was time to take the scale of the task more seriously.
1. Start with Books – The King, Queen and Albert Einstein of Language Acquisition
I took my wife’s advice and started reading children’s books at breakfast time. I quickly became addicted. So did Alice. Five children’s English books a day; six books a day; seven books a day. Old classics, modern favourites, picture books, pop-up books and everything in between. They were working their bilingual magic. Hour upon hour, chapter upon chapter and story upon story. I read while she ate, slept, played, learned to walk and yes, even when she was on the toilet.
I’d long had a love affair with books so it was always a joy reading to a dribbling baby who spent most of the time, first crying, then, as she got older, trying to push food into the pages. She was two before she started listening to me consciously, but by then the subconscious mechanisms of the language had been programmed in. At least I hoped.
2. Add Poems and Shakespeare
During the weekends and evenings it was poems and Shakespeare, both formidable tools in the language repertoire. Vocabulary, expressions, similes and metaphor, it’s all there, bound up in fairy tales. What better platform to pass on the minority language than from the man who wrote most of it?
I found the key was to embody the role, embody the poem, the character, the story. Vocal register: From bass to falsetto. I sang opera. Accents: Italian, French, Scottish and English. Language isn’t just words; it’s movement, romance, scheming, negotiation, comedy and joy. All of the facets of humanity you find by the score in Shakespeare.
I’m a terrible actor, singer and poet. But that isn’t the point. It allows you to be a thousand people at once and when you are on your own with the minority language, you need an army. The poetry also helps you take on the day to day tasks with a different perspective and a new way of describing the world.
“Daddy,” Alice said, months later as we walked back from the park hand in hand, her second birthday having recently faded into the rear-view mirror of life. “I wish I could be a fairy queen like Tatiana. Is Mommy a queen too?”
“Of course she is,” I said. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
And Alice said, “Summer? Already? Can I have an ice-cream?”
“Yes,” I said, seizing on the question, like you must. “What flavour? And why do you want it? And describe the best ice-cream you ever ate?”
3. Stop Speaking the Majority Language
My French was good enough to get me into awkward situations, but not good enough to talk my way out of them. When Alice said hello to the world, if she was in earshot, I stopped speaking French completely. An amusing anecdote from this is I once heard my father-in-law saying he thought I was very wise and thoughtful. Sorry, Jacques, I just have a bilingual baby and can’t be heard talking in the majority language.
4. If You Can, Make Time
Back in Paris I took a day off each week to look after Alice. I knew that the first few years were critical and had read about the magical 25 hours per week. I tried taking two days but the financial pressures of living in Paris soon put paid to that.
5. Travel to the Home of the Minority Language
We travelled to England in the winter of 2016. Alice was one. I went ahead without my wife, Alice in a baby carrier. I stood up the whole way and talked nonsense for 16 straight hours. I read every sentence in the Eurostar free magazine and still remember the restaurant recommendations they gave for Brussels. I read the train timetables, the menus in the dining cart. Alice just listened. She didn’t have a choice as she was strapped to my chest.
Two weeks may not seem like a lot, but if you had heard Alice’s grandmother speak, you would quickly realise how many words Alice could learn in such a brief period of time.
Slowly but surely small victories would start to appear. The minority language would start to bubble to the surface.
“Dada,” Alice would say as she approached 17 months, her eyes sparkling like the creation of the universe. “Cake.”
And then, “Milk.”
Then, “Cake.” Again. She says that a lot.
Act 2 – Getting into Shape, Mental Models and How Your Mindset Affects the Bilingual Journey of You and Your Children
As parents, as a bilingual family, we needed everything in our power to make this work. The reading and acting was a good start, but we needed more. So I laid out a 16-year plan. That meant getting into shape physically but, more importantly, mentally. I took up meditation, yoga and researched breathing methods and how to build patience. This may seem drastic to some of you, and perhaps it is, but I’m prone to a sense of occasion and I’m very happy I took on the lifestyle and mindset changes. It made, and continues to make, a huge difference.
I started working on my mental biases. The biggest discovery I made was not how Alice reacted to being bilingual and learning two languages, two cultures or having different parents with strange voice patterns. She was a linguistic machine. No, the stumbling blocks would be our mental biases, how I reacted to setback after linguistic setback.
1. The Recency Bias
“Recency bias is a cognitive bias that favours recent events over historic ones. A memory bias, recency bias gives ‘greater importance to the most recent event.'” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recency_bias#cite_note-1)
The recency bias is the most useful to be aware of with a child growing up in a bilingual house. The minority language will get pushed to the side. Last week I walked into the kitchen for breakfast. (We live in France so it was croissants and fresh bread. We’re lucky like that.) BBC radio 6 was on, as it is most mornings. But Alice was singing a French nursery rhyme and speaking to a train in French and completely ignoring the English being spoken on the radio. The immediacy of the situation was a sting. Why doesn’t she sing to her trains in English, I thought?
But that’s where the mindset kicks in. Three days earlier she had said, “Daddy, can we read (the Usbourne Illustrated) Shakespeare? I like Shakespeare. Why are there so many naughty people in the stories? More fairies, like in a Midsummer dream. Can we read that?
Not bad for a three and half year old in their minority language, is it?
Recency bias: Don’t focus on the immediate and forget the past.
Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and I shall move the world.” With a small amount of input, if leveraged efficiently, we can make huge and profound leaps with the minority language. I learnt to leverage the time, leverage the books, and leverage the phone calls and the video calls and the trips to the UK.
3. Second Order Thinking
“(second order thinking) requires us to not only consider our actions and their immediate consequences, but the subsequent effects of those actions as well.” (https://fs.blog/mental-models/)
It is very easy to be discouraged when your child is embracing the majority language with complete commitment and your beloved minority language is just a play thing for the weekend. What you invest now will compound over time, but equally what you DON’T invest will compound over time also. And when it comes to second order thinking and bilingual children, we have found the latter of these facts to be more potent. Every word, phrasal verb, expression and noun you teach and every book you read will have second and third level consequences down the road. Equally, every book you don’t read because you are disheartened will too.
Call me a cheat. I gave her sweets if she spoke English. Is that bad? I still do it. Pavlov’s Alice.
5. Feedback Loops or, the Flywheel
The latest addition to the language learning mindset is the flywheel and how the business model of Amazon can be applied to the bilingual model of Alice. It is, in essence, all about momentum and stored kinetic energy. Getting started (the first words) is where all of the energy is needed. Once the wheel is moving (the vocabulary and grammar base) it keeps on spinning unless an outside force stops it. I like to see language acquisition in a similar way. Alice is truly on the language learning flywheel, I just have to keep it spinning. (I will be writing about mental models and how they apply to bilingualism at a later date.)
Act 3 – Bilingual Setbacks and How to Deal with Them
We had momentum. We had our mental models. The foundations were being laid. Simultaneously of course, her French was on its own trajectory for the stars. Every action having an equal and opposite reaction doesn’t work in the head of a bilingual child. The majority language takes the lead and you have to attach jet packs on the minority language to keep up (and you won’t keep up, but you can keep the fight fair).
In the autumn of 2019, disaster struck.
Alice started calling me Papa and using French words.
“Papa,” she would say, “me besoin de cake.”
“Papa, pourquoi is you crying?”
“Mamam, pourquoi il pleut Papa?”
Outside the bubble of home, the seduction of the majority language had started to pull on Alice’s left frontal lobe and I didn’t have enough cake to fight back.
“Mamam, Papa, Est-ce que je peux prendre de gateaux?”
“Mamam, Papa, pourquoi? Pourquoi? Pourquoi?”
All the hard work undone, all the hours invested for nothing.
Or that is what I thought.
1. Act Quickly by Not Acting
I had to act quickly and decisively. So I didn’t act. At least not at normal speed. Whenever she would use this vocabulary-shaped dagger to my heart I would move like a sloth, treading water to answer her request. Alice quickly learnt that if she switched to English I would sprint to her aid and say, “Yes, what can I do for you?” She would laugh, but it worked.
I stopped saying, “What can I do for you?” because I realised I sounded like a customer service representative in a car show room.
2. Patience, Self-doubt and Quotes from the Internet
“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
Thanks, Bruce Lee.
Act 4 – Life Decisions, Breakthroughs and a Lot of Snow
We made the decision as a family to leave Paris in late 2017. Living in the suburbs, commuting into Paris and not being able to take advantage of the heartbeat of the city had forced our hand. We needed to spend more time with our children and more time together. So we upped and moved to Bourg-Saint-Maurice in the French Alps (as far as city names go, not the catchiest). Béné went from working at Place de la Concorde in the hustle and bustle of Paris one week to working in a ski resort 2000 metres above sea level in a snow storm the next.
Living much nearer crèche, nursery and work presented me an extra ten hours a week of precious English time with Alice. I used that time. I leveraged that time.
And the small victories became large scale victories.
1. Life is a Collection of Moments. So Is the Bilingual Journey.
People will speak about special moments. After all the hard work, it came. They were fast and they were many. But I’ll always remember the first.
We were in the car driving, nursery rhymes and children’s songs blasting from the radio.
“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” came on.
And Alice sang.
And I couldn’t see through the tears.
Fortunately for us the road was deserted.
Alice started switching, mixing, combining French and English words, playing with the sounds, constructing her own meaning from the chaos. Individually the words were the building blocks of two languages; she put them together and laughed.
She started singing the alphabet.
The vocabulary and the grammar continued to grow.
“Daddy,” she said, drinking water from the watering can she was supposed to be using to water the flowers. “I love dusk. When the sun sets and the sky goes orange, it’s awesome.”
She threw in a crazy little accent.
One day she said, “It’s such a pig’s ear, Daddy,” and “I’ve never been to China, Daddy, is it nice?” and “I love flowers, they are so beautiful. But where does Winston Churchill live on the world map, Daddy?”
These are the moments that make it all worthwhile, that make your heart sing and make you realise how wonderful, how special, how incredible having bilingual children is.
3. Reality and School
As I recount this, rest assured French was her majority language. It is her majority language. When the moment I had feared the most showed up and Alice started school, I had to bring in the big guns.
“Do you want to play Daddy?”
“Yes,” I always say. “I’d love to. What are we playing?”
“Frozen,” she said.
She always said Frozen. Or mummies and daddies, or doctors and nurses. It was never football or poker.
But I always said yes.
I still do.
Act 5 – Lockdown and the Apocalypse Daddy
Then the world changed.
How has Coronavirus affected our bilingual journey?
I work in tourism. There are no tourists. I was furloughed at the start of the crisis. The schools and crèche were closed. I felt like I had been given another opportunity to add an acceleration turbo charge to Alice’s minority language and Apocalypse Daddy was born.
Essentially I made a commitment to write a blog post every day during the lockdown and document the previous days “home school” activities. It would serve both as a document to look back on and as a tool for implementing some serious bilingual acceleration.
So you have a frame of reference, Alice turned four during lockdown.
I had to really get granular and plan the day’s activities so we would hit the ground flying. We created a morning routine which started out with a gratitude journal of the previous 24 hours. As a quick English activity to do whilst preparing breakfast this was a nugget of English gold.
The morning was then spent learning one subject. I am a dad, not a teacher, so there was not too much teaching prowess, we would simply talk and focus and draw on that particular subject. If it was maths we would count flowers in the garden, add the number of birds to the ants, subtract the daisies from the dandelions. If it was science we would watch Brian Cox on Youtube, make rainbow cakes, blow bubbles, test the laws of water by filling the bath until it was overflowing.
This was all carried out under the guise of building expressions, grammar and phrasal verbs into the foundations of her language base. Constructing scaffolding around her left hemisphere of language acquisition had never been so much fun.
2. Zoom and video calls with England
We had always used technology to help us improve the minority language. With lockdown, Zoom calls and WhatsApp group calls became scheduled into the afternoon, a daily accent class with friends and family, old school friends and acquaintances I hadn’t spoken to in a decade, two decades. The fabric of the world may have been altered forever but I could only do what was in my power, only change our reaction as a family to the chaos. We can’t save the world but we can improve the language skills of our bilingual monkey.
Act 6 – The Future of Our Bilingual Journey
“Where does creativity come from? A lot of it comes from language. You have to encourage the chaos, add fuel to the fires of creation.” – Mark Fielding
As no doubt for a lot of you, our bilingual journey is really only beginning. Alice is still four.
We had a second child last year. Luca was born in March.
Luca can’t speak yet. He can scream. He’s really got the hang of that. Is he screaming in French or English? I have a funny feeling he is screaming in both. The neighbours say they don’t care which language he is screaming in, could he please stop it.
I say no.
Here we go again.
This time will be different though.
There are three of us now.
Alice is helping.