Raising a child to speak a second language

On the day our daughter, Genevieve, was born, I began speaking French to her. Her father spoke English with her. The result: at four and a half she not only chatters away normally in her native tongue, she can also carry on a pretty decent conversation with a French visitor. The learning process has been delightful for all of us.

I was one of those early '70s European wanderers, another kid wearing jeans and a backpack. If there was anything I learned from all that seemingly pointless wandering around and ''rapping'' in youth hostels with kids from other countries, it was that most of the European teenagers spoke at least one language other than their own. I decided, if I ever had children, I would give them this gift of languages.

I had a BA in French, had spent time in Europe, and had afterward remained involved in some teaching of French and in various cultural activities (like the Alliance Francaise) that allowed me to speak French.

But before I began to teach French to Genevieve, I had to learn an entire new vocabulary. After all, who ever heard of sandboxes and swingsets in a class on Sartre? And there were various procuring difficulties to overcome. I soon learned, for instance, that while many American educators were pressing for the availability of good children's books and textbooks in Spanish - and having difficulty being heard - no one was even half as interested in providing them in French (or Polish, or German, or Japanese).

In the metropolitan area where we lived, the one bookstore that advertised a supply of French books turned out to have three rather poor English-into-French translations of fairytales. There were no games, no records.

Meanwhile, I was the only one among Genevieve's friends who spoke in French. So I began to ask friends who were traveling to France, Switzerland, or Canada to pick up small, inexpensive, easy-reading books in French that were like the little Golden Books we buy here in our supermarkets. Our friends seemed to enjoy their quest. In addition to the less expensive books, we soon received a songbook, ''Les Belles Chansons de France,'' and Larousse's dictionary for children, ''Mon Larousse en Images.''

Like most parents, my husband and I have our ''cute kid'' stories. Several of them revolve around our daughter's bilingualism. When she was a year and a half, I locked myself out of the house with her inside. Her beady black eyes peered at me through the mail slot of our front door. She was amused with this game, Mommy on the outside, she within. ''Apporte-moi mon sac,'' I pleaded, hoping that if she would just bring me my purse, I could then get her to pull my keys out and slip them through the door. Obediently she trundled off, only to return a few minutes later with a battered brown lunch bag (''bag'' being the same word as ''purse'' in French), which she happily pushed at me through the door. I called my husband from the neighbor's house across the street, and he came home with his keys and let me in.

The process of bringing up our baby bilingual has been fun. I kept a diary of her early words, most of which were French. (She seems to have been awfully fond of bananas and chairs.) Later, as she expanded her world, her English slowly advanced beyond her French. Today, though I continue to speak nothing but French to her, she usually responds in English.

For awhile, I worried that she couldn't speak French, but could only understand me. Recently, however, a young American-French couple whom we'd met on the road when they were hitchhiking paid us a visit. The French wife spoke at great length with our daughter about a book in French that Genevieve had been given. Genevieve didn't seem to hesitate to tell her visitor the story of Titou, a little boy who was making his house all by himself because his parents were busy. Her conversation included words like hole, screwdriver, saw, wood, and ''spy'' -- but all in French! I had to keep myself from dancing around the room!

Here are some points for parents who think they might want to teach their children a second language:

* Start early. That way, very little conventional ''teaching'' will be needed. Newborn infants are totally conscious beings. When you change your baby's diapers, sing or talk to him or her -- in Indonesian, or German, or whatever second language you've chosen. Anything you would normally say in English, say in that second language. Later on, when disciplinary action may become necessary in the course of normal activity, deal with it all as a normal parent. But in that other language. Total immersion, right from the very beginning, is the only way.

* Be sure you want to do this. You may get a lot of opposition to your plan, and you are going to need a fair amount of confidence. Occasionally, people may tell you that your child will have trouble with English, or will lisp, or will feel left out of his playgroup. However, if you've ever met any offspring of non-English-speaking parents, you know that it will all come out just fine.

On the other hand, the parent who is going to be speaking the second language must speak it well. While a degree in the language may not be necessary, you should not be at the stage of ''translating'' in your mind. But you don't have to be too hard on yourself. For instance, you may not be able to carry on a philosophical discussion about Camus with your college professor, but you might be perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation about airplanes or birds with an eager child.

* Have the right tools. These include books, games, records, all in the other language. If you're speaking Dutch to your baby, but you can't travel to the Netherlands to buy ''Baby's First Toys'' or its Dutch equivalent, explore another way to get the book. Do you know anyone who travels in the course of making a living? If not, you can write to the consulate of the country that speaks your second language and obtain the names and addresses of bookstores in that country (or sometimes, in this one) that sell children's items. Then remember that the items should preferably be only in the other language and preferably published in the native country. American publishers often cater to a child's casual interest in another language by providing picture books in English with a few of the ''foreign'' words thrown in.

* Follow through. At first, depending on how much time you can spend with your son or daughter, your child will speak as you do. If you speak Portuguese, for instance, so will he or she. You may begin to congratulate yourself, but as your child grows and begins to play with neighborhood children and to go to school, you'll need some kind of outside support. He will prefer to answer you in English, even though you continue (and you must) to speak to him in the other language. Try to find people in your community to whom this langage is native. Or consider housing a foreign student from that country for a year. Look into children's programs in this language at your local college or university.

* Continue to grow in the other language. You can, of course, take classes on your own, but the child can help you to further your education, too. He will ask a multitude of questions. You will find the answers for him, of course, but you will give him all the answers in the other tongue! Keep handy the very best dictionary you can find in the language. And when your child starts playing with a new object, learn the name for it in the other language. Say it with him, over and over, just as if you were working with him in English.

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