Language Report

I’ve been getting requests for an update on my children’s experience learning French, so I thought I’d write up a little report. For a timing reference, March 1st marked one full year in French schools, and at home, we speak almost exclusively in English. Here’s an update kid by kid.

In school situations, Betty seems pretty much fluent. If she’s out of school and speaking with a neighbor, sometimes she needs more context to understand (but at her age, that’s true in English as well). She gets complimented on her accent (or the lack of it) all the time. Here’s a little video of Betty telling part of the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

Oscar is doing great as well. When we ask him to speak French at home, he sort of huffs and puffs about it, and is very resistant. But when friends come over, he doesn’t have to think twice and communicates with them only in French. He also thinks when I attempt to speak French in my thick American accent, that it’s hilarious!! He about dies laughing every time.

Olive is also excelling. She gets compliments on her accent as often as Betty and if we’re not listening, she speaks freely with any friends or neighbors she encounters. She never hesitates to answer the phone in French, and you may remember, she went a week-long ski trip with her class and spoke only French.

Maude gets compliments on her ability to construct a sentence correctly. She works hard! Maude is more hesitant to speak because she wants to get it right. And she’s doing great. Her grades are where they would be if she was in an American school, and she does all her homework in French.

Ralph’s French is impressive. Last week, his Language Arts teacher wrote on his paper: Your French is getting better every day. He often has top scores in his classes — even courses like history and physics which involve pretty challenging French. When the Hunger Games Movie came out last week, Maude and Ralph watched it in French (with no English subtitles). Previously, they’ve only wanted to see English movies, so that seemed like a major milestone.

As for Flora June, she’s almost 2, and we’re delighted with every sound that comes out of her mouth. She is a charmer!


Overall, they’re doing marvelously with their language and both Ben Blair and I are constantly impressed with how hard they work. Learning a language is tough! It makes your brain tired. For reals! It’s surprising out physically challenging it feels. For all of our children, it’s true that they understand more than they can speak — I’m not sure when/if  that evens out.

My thoughts on kids + a new language, in case you’re curious:

It seems like, if you want to give children the gift of a second language, and make it easy for them, bringing them to a foreign country and putting them in school at age 5 and 6 is a wonderful way to do it. After a year or so, they’ll be pretty darn fluent without even trying! Ideally, you could then enroll them in a language immersion program when you move back to your home country so they can keep up their language skills. But the downside is, at those ages, they’ll probably have almost no memories of their time in a foreign country.

Keeping that in mind, if your goal is to give your children a broader world view or more cultural experiences, moving to a new country at age 10+ seems ideal. But picking up a new language will definitely be harder the older your children are.

P.S. — If you’d like to read them, earlier kid reports are here and here.

99 thoughts on “Language Report”

  1. Congratulations to your kids – French is such a hard language to learn, but I find it amazing how kids can pick it up and absorb it easier than adults. My kids are growing up speaking French and English ( a real necessity here in Canada if you’d ever want to work for the government) and they have no problem switching back and forth. I wish I’d been more consistent speaking German to them for that added bonus, but I know they’ll be fluent in two languages so that will be great.
    Are you planning on keeping French in their education plan when you move?

      1. I take French classes at Alliance Francaise in Denver. There are classes for children also. My friend’s grandchildren, aged 2 and 4, take classes there and she says they love it.

      2. I’m not sure if this helps, or if you’re set on Denver, but i read a blog by someone in Colorado Springs who sends her children to a French immersion school. I think the schools in Colorado Springs are open and you can pick which to send your kids too (the family is LDS, as well).

  2. this is a wonderful gift to your children and believe it or not, they will thank you for it one day. children absorb language at any age so just keep giving them the opportunity to grow and learn and as a parent, that’s the best we can do i think. incidentally, for the curious, i grew up not being allowed to speak english at home at all ;)

  3. Betty’s accent is perfect! She sounds like a native french speaker. How do you plan to maintain their language skills when you return — or should I say if you return?:)

    1. Thanks, Ann! Yes, we are researching options. For the younger kids, we may be able to enroll in French immersion. For the the older kids, it might just be high school French…

      We’ll have to see what we can find.

  4. Thanks for the updates! It is so interesting to watch your adventures, and its wonderful that your children are at so many different ages, to be able to compare and contrast.

    My son is 6, and I was remarking to his teacher about his ability to know and remember things that just seem crazy to me. She said at this age their minds are just like sponges, where they absorb everything in, but nothing falls out of it. They just soak, soak, soak it up.

  5. Very interesting to hear your experiences. We decided to put our school age kids in an international school where they are taught in English, but I often wonder if that was the best decision. They are learning French as well though and suddenly, after six months, they are coming out with all sorts of French phrases unbidden! Our two year old goes to a wonderful Halte Garderie two days a week and her English/French is 50/50 at the moment. She will be our little French girl! I am slowly resurrecting my school girl French and you’re right, it is exhausting!

  6. I did an exchange year in Germany in high school, and I would be so exhausted just from hearing and speaking German all day I would fall asleep right after dinner. My younger host brother thought all Americans just went to bed at 6 o’clock. Ha!
    Love hearing all the details from your adventures –

  7. The language immersion that kids get from living overseas is wonderful. And the cultural immersion just as wonderful if not more! I do believe that it is an opportunity not to be missed if you can swing it. Such an eyeopener to live somewhere else and have your own beliefs and ideas challenged.

    Having two official languages in Canada makes the French easier – hopefully you can find a good immersion program for the younger kids in Denver.

    I lived in southern Africa for two years pre kid and it was incredible. Since we are both fairly portable career-wise, we are debating doing a move overseas somewhere in the next few years.

  8. that video of betty is so sweet! i wish i could speak french as well as she does. makes me motivated to learn a new language!

  9. As a point of comparison, my 7 yr old is finishing first grade this year. This is his third year in a French immersion school where 80% of their school week in French. His French is not as fluid as Betty’s — he hesitates more — but his accent is about the same. He definitely trips up over masculine/feminine in his grammar. The children at his school definitely revert to English after school and on the playground. That said, I do see a fair of amount of French concepts sneaking into his English, i.e., “I refused her” instead of “I turned her down”.

    There is a fair amount of variation among his classmates — some sound like natives and some sound very American both in accent and grammar. Although the children with a French speaking parent do seem to do somewhat better, the success of the child seems to have more to do with the child (duh) than whether there is French at home. There are some kids whether neither parent speaks French at all who do amazingly well.

    We’re hoping to do a home exchange with a French family this summer to up the ante for our older child and get things started for our youngest who will start immersion soon.

  10. Gabriella, this post warms my heart. It is wonderful to hear about the progress! I am so happy for you and your children. This is definitely a post I will forward to friends in the future, when discussing language. As you know, My husband grew up trilingual. As a one language American (although I had a restaurant level French), I felt as though his language was almost like a “party trick.” (By adulthood, he’s fluent in 5+ languages, but European humble about this.) You know, I felt almost as though I could say a word & he should just press a button and give me a fast translation. He would be frustrated on days when I was inpatient for a fast reply and through this, it paved the way for understanding in raising trilingual children. I consider it a true gift to our children that they could be fluently trilingual before elementary school, but this was definitely something I put the time into — so that it would feel natural for them. Ideally, living in a foreign country is the best. (This was how I learned Swedish — making a Swedish friend who insisted that I speak her language.) One has to have compassion, humility, patience and tenacity when it comes to learning and teaching children languages. (I certainly still need this, as an adult). So, first, I agree that learning a language is work and it is both physically and mentally exhausting. Here. Here! Second, everyone experiences a language differently and has a different road to mastering a language. All three of our kids were completely differently with this mastery; and my husband, sounds like he was, yet a 4th story. Last, I would just add, as well: It is extremely difficult to become fluent without living in the country. However, if you want young children to pick up another language, then in addition to books, cd’s, music and films from the culture, having help of some kind (a baby sitter or nanny) can be a tool. Stay consistent. There are so many reasons that bilingualism is an asset in life. Bravo. Such a cool family. And, what a wonderful bond for your family!
    PS: How was your weekend party? I thought of you! Our “Secret Agent Party” was beyond fun! I’ve posted a little today…. if you’re looking for future birthday inspire — but you seem to have plenty! Happy day!

  11. Betty has a wonderful accent and seems to be quite comfortable in front of the camera to boot! We are a half French/half American family and our daughter is just learning to speak. It is amazing how the minds of children absord the language so quickly.

  12. That video is precious. And impressive! (Not that I know any french…)
    That’s so funny that Oscar sees humor in your American accent.

  13. Loved this. And loved hearing your little one speaking French! I think the last two tips at the end about what age to take your kids abroad were so helpful. Thank you!

  14. I couldn’t agree more. We speak only Spanish at home with our daughter, and she’s in a French immersion school. When she went to French school in pre-K 3, she had just started learning English so I was nervous. Now at age 5, she’s fluent in all three languages and starting to read in all three as well. It was the best decision ever.

    That video of Betty is amazing!

  15. That video of Betty telling a story in French is probably the cutest thing I’ve seen in a while. What a sweetheart! I don’t speak French, but to me, she sounds like a native French speaker.

    It’s fun to hear about how each child is doing. I’d love to live in another country for a year or two, but my husband is a real homebody and I don’t think I could ever convince him to. :) Ah, well!

  16. Oh la! Tres bien, Betty! That accent is awesome! (I sent the video link to Ben–maybe it will convince him that we need to move to France.)

    I am so impressed with your kids. They are awesome. You know this already, but I think you and Ben Blair are such great parents!

    Allez! Au Revoir!

  17. That is just wonderful! My sister and her young family are in Brazil for 3-4 years. Her husband learned Portuguese before moving (he’s a whiz at languages), and she is doing pretty well in it, too. The girls, 5 and 3, are taking Portuguese lessons. The baby, 20 months, is similar to June–they’re happy that he’ll say anything. :)

  18. Ahh, I love the French language! Living in California I was pressured into taking Spanish in highschool and college “because I’ll need it more than French”, they lied to me. In my adult life I have needed to use French more than Spanish.

    Becoming Heather

  19. Kids are amazing when it comes to learning multiple languages.

    My kids speak , more or less, 4 languages. English with me, Dutch with their father, Italian (because we live in Italy) and they do French as a second language at school (Dutch as a first language).

    And for them this is normal. They may not speak all four perfectly but just the fact that they can communicate in all 4 is a huge advantage for them in so many situations.

    I’ve read a lot on multilingual children and all the research says that it’s so beneficial for learning other subjects as well.

    Great post!

  20. i love how she’s using the passé simple to tell her story. so cute!
    children’s brains are like sponges. i grew up hearing and speaking three languages, and while it was hard at times, i am forever grateful to my parents for this.

  21. Forgive me if you already posted about this, but how have you and Ben Blair been learning French? Mostly by immersion? I know you had mentioned you were going to hire a tutor, did that pan out? Being in America and not particularly immersed in an area that speaks another language I wonder what is the next best way to learn. I know Rosetta Stone comes up frequently. Have you tried RS or have other suggestions to learn another language?
    P.S. Betty is so cute speaking French!

  22. Oh-my!!! That video!!! So amazing!!! It really makes me want to pack up and do what you did – what a gift you have given your children!!!

  23. From my own personal experience I’d like to add how important it is to learn how to read & write a language as a small child if you want your child to remember all they’ve learned. I used to know Danish (lived there from 1-5) but now can’t remember a lick of it – I never learned to read or write it! I do remember all the Dutch and German I learned subsequently (grades 1 through 11) and am now most comfortable in English (which I learned in school abroad, then really became fluent once we moved her in 11th grade).

    And yes, at 5 or 6 they may not remember as much as the older kids, but trust me – they’ll remember plenty! Some of my fondest childhood memories are of when we lived in Germany (grades 1-4) and I even remember some kindergarten in Denmark!

  24. Very interesting too read! But about one thing you might be wrong: even your small kids will probably remember a lot. We spent 2 years in Russia when I was 7 and 8 and I remember everything!

  25. That video of Betty is amazing!

    My family lived in Luxembourg when i was a kid (16months-7years) and I attended french montessori and catholic school through second grade. Like Oscar, I can remember huffing and puffing whenever my parents would ask me to speak french in front of the camera or for our guests visiting from the states… and I can remember feeling SO embarrassed of my moms heavy american accent whenever she tried to speak french in front of my french friends!!

    When we moved back to michigan my mom desperately tried to keep us in programs and lessons, hoping we’d keep up our french. But life got busy, sports and music lessons got in the way, and sadly by middle school I had lost all of it. I’d watch home videos of myself speaking and have no idea what I was saying!

    BUT! As a senior in highschool, I spent 8 months in Rennes on an exchange… and it all seemed to come right back! In my last months there I would get so many compliments when people learned I was actually an American on exchange. My mom, who had been mourning the loss of my french all these years, was beyond thrilled!!

  26. How awesome is that…. what a gift.
    I know people who have lived in our country for over 20 years and still don’t speak the language.
    My husband speak fluent Spanish and uses it everyday at work or at Church….I know a little and man is it hard to learn a new language if you aren’t willing to put in the time.
    So way to be!

  27. You can always move to Brooklyn where we have 2 French immersion programs for public school and one (relatively – NYC standards) affordable private school that offers both French & Spanish immersion… :-)

  28. your post was lovely to read. I speak to my baby in persian/farsi, so she knows some words in persian but most of her words an small sentences (she is only 20 months) are in English. I feel that she might not be able to communicate what she wants when she only knows a word in Farsi. But I guess, she will learn the english version sooner or later at daycare.

  29. This is absolutely fantastic! I would so love to give my boy such an opportunity of living abroad someday! There is a very realistic chance it may be in New Zealand or Australia… but oh, how I would love to hear my son speak French like that! Maybe someday… he’s only 4 ;)

    Very, very COOL!

  30. Gabrielle, don’t be so quick to sell the memories of the younger kids short. I have very strong memories of being 5 and younger. My memories start when I was 3. It pains my mother to no end that I remember things she wishes I would forget. ;) My own 3.5 year old has an amazing memory and we talk about things in his far past (a trip we took when he was 2 or things we did around that stage) all the time. I’m hoping those memories stay with him for a lifetime.

    As for language, Betty is so impressive! I love her animated story telling.

    My parents put me in a bilingual class starting in kindergarten to learn Spanish (it was 1979 in California). It was a totally failed experiment. :( More than 70% of the kids in the class were native Spanish speakers and needed to learn English. I stayed in those classes through 2 grade, took 3rd grade off and went back to it for 4th and 5th grade. At the end of it I was barely farther along that people who hadn’t taken it and was behind other peers academically since the curriculum was adjusted slightly to make room for the other language. I am sure that public and private immersion schools are very different now. My own child struggled to learn to speak at all and adding another language isn’t in the cards for him right now so we will specifically not be looking to enroll him in any of our local immersion schools (which are very popular in our area).

  31. I can’t understand a word, but Betty sounds darling! Just last week I was discussing with a parent whose children go to a spanish immersion school here in Boston the pros of early language introduction. He is European and speaks 5+ languages. His children speak 3. My children go to a school where Mandarin is taught starting in pre-k, but we find the program not as strong in the upper grades where the focus shifts to high school prep (one needs to test to get into a few of the prestigious public high schools). The principal does make it clear that the progam is only meant to introduce the language not make them fluent (Mandarin does have the added difficulty of using symbols versus an alphabet), that said we specifically chose the school for the mandarin (and that my children are minorities – we thought that’s a good thing to learn as a city kid). It’s proven that indroducing languages young is beneficial to the learning experience of both language and other subjects. In fact June and Betty will find it easier to pick up other languages because of this experience. I think, and I am grossly generalizing here – most reading this blog won’t be of this mindset, that many Americans tend to think that it’s hard enough learning one language so the shy away from introducing a second early on when the opposite is true. Ideally new languages should be introduced at the newborn stage. Thye say children just hearing foreign languages helps them speak without an accent later on. Good luck with finding your French progam in Denver. I know here in Boston quite a few of my sons classmates go to French school on Saturdays (we have a few freinds with a native french speaking parent) that is an option as well (although I’m not sure the kids are thrilled with an extra day of school!) If you do find an immersion program I think you’ll find your kids excel because of there time abroad. The hardest part about immersion programs is learning your other subjects in the language – if your struggling with your french it hurts all of your subjects, but it sounds like your children are doing great.

  32. this was so interesting to read. i still have the dream that someday we’ll be able to live abroad for a few years, and France has always been #1 on the list since that’s where Patrick went on his mission and then at least ONE person would know the language when we first moved there! i’ve always known it’s easier for younger children to learn a new language, but it was interesting to hear how that has proved itself in your family with your children of varying ages. our girls are now almost 7, almost 9, and almost 4, so that’s something to think about!

    even though we’ve never met, i love living vicariously through your family’s adventures in France! i’m sure all your readers feel the same way. . .

  33. Hello or should I say, Bonjour!

    My husband and I just moved back to the US after one year in France with our two young children. We too placed our children in French Public school and we were amazed at how quickly our children learned the language. We have been back in the US for 4 months and their willingness to speak French has drastically declined. We are frantically seeking a French teacher to assist in continuing our children’s French speaking ability. I showed my daughter your video and she smiled from ear to ear!

    No worries about the children forgetting the adventure of living in France. My children are 3 and 5 and they often ask about various events and places that we visited during our wonderful time in France. If you know of a French school in the Denver area please let us know.
    I am living vicariously through your blog…I truly miss our precious time in France.
    Enjoy the many frustrating but yet rewarding challenges of living in France!

  34. Learning languages is so fascinating. We only speak Portuguese to our kids so their fist language was Portuguese. Then my son (6) started pre-school, and primary, and started making making friends, and hanging out with cousins, and by the time he was 3 or maybe 4 he was totally fluent in both English and Portuguese. Now we’re living In Brazil for a year, we’ve been here for 7 months. We home school him in English, he can read fluently in English and understands English perfectly but rarely gets to have conversations in English. He tells us he’s forgotten how to speak in English. We’re not worried and we’re sure that as soon as he goes back he’ll pick up English again. I’m sure you guys will find a way to keep up the French in your house.

  35. We were blown over by Betty’s fantastic French! We keep listening to it over
    and over and over! Do the children interchange with their siblings in French? Do they tease or joke in French? Again, Je Suis enchantee’!

  36. I loved hearing how each of your children are doing learning French. By the way, I would love to know how old your children are as I was guessing from your descriptions. I also am curious to know how you and your husband are doing learning French. Did you take lessons. Have you been able to make friends and what language do you speak with them. We have friends who live in Normandy and we all speak English together because their English is far better than our French (sad but true).

  37. Wow! I’m blown away by Betty’s video! I’ll have to show it to my husband to further my case for multicultural living. This is truly a beautiful gift you have given your family, Gabrielle. Kudos to you and Ben Blair!

  38. Betty’s French is beautiful! Although we don’t live abroad and neither my husband or I speak a second language, we are raising our children in a dual language home. We are on our second au pair from Brazil and I encourage her to speak Portuguese to the children (2 and 4). Its been fun learning a new language as a family and I marvel at my two-year-old’s ability to understand both languages. I can’t wait to take the children on vacation in Brazil when they are older.

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