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Language learning with Mama

Back in August I made a post about my bilingual children and language learning. I wanted to make the follow up post sooner but kept putting it off due to lack of time due to laziness. Now, I am making myself sit down and do it.

While in college, during one of my social psychology courses, I learned that a mother naturally talks to her children in a sing song high pitched voice. A mother is more likely to repeat words and sentences over and over than a father is. I assumed that is where the term ‘mother tongue’ came from. I tried to find this information online to write about it in this post. What I found wasn’t what I learned in college.

I found that mother tongue doesn’t mean the mother’s language.

The term “mother tongue” should not be interpreted to mean that it is the language of one’s mother. In some paternal societies, the wife moves in with the husband and thus may have a different first language, or dialect, than the local language of the husband. Yet their children usually only speak their local language. Only a few will learn to speak their mothers’ languages like natives. Mother in this context probably originated from the definition of mother as source, or origin; as in mother-country or land.

Quote from Wikipedia – Mother tongue

In fact, most adults (not just mothers) and children in all cultures will talk to babies using baby talk. While baby talking a person speaks using short and simple words spoken in a high pitched cooing voice.

After reading this information I thought about it. Are mothers better at teaching language or is it a stereotype?

In our family, I am the main teacher as far as language goes. In the beginning I taught the kids French right along with English. I am naturally and sometimes overwhelmingly nurturing and talkative.

While we lived in America, the kids were able to speak in French with Vilay and they understood him. Yet, they didn’t speak French at an increasingly higher level over time. I saw that English was taking over where as when we lived in France both languages progressed at a near equal pace.


Honestly, I think it is because I sing with them and read to them more than Vilay does. Of course, I am singing and reading mostly in English since that is my native language. Day to day, I am the one that takes care of the children. I give them their bath, feed them, change diapers, clean up after them, brush their hair and teeth and all the other little chores of life.

Don’t get me wrong. Vilay does correct the kids in French and English. He does occasionally cook and change diapers. Yet, he isn’t as involved with the children as I am.

I talk to the kids. We have big conversations every day. I ask them questions about the world and how things work. I play with them.

My husband will do these things but not as often. I am the parent that spends the most quality time with our children even when we lived in America and I was the one working. I was still the main caregiver of our children. My husband simply isn’t as nurturing as I am.

I am not saying he isn’t a good father. He is. It is that he does not take care of them unless he has to. Meaning if I am not there he will do what he must do until I get home to take over. It is the daily chores he doesn’t want to do. Those little chores are important in raising a child. Childcare isn’t about being the fun parent. It is work.

Vilay is the fun and silly dad and the strictor out of the two of us. Which is kinda ironic. How can he be fun and strict all at the same time? Yet, he is.

I would take it even further to say that even more than the day to day childcare is the fact that I work on building their language skills. Vilay doesn’t put as much energy into it as I do. He is more laid back about it than I am.

Speaking a language correctly requires learning to navigate in that language. I give my kids the skills to navigate in English. I talk to them about English and give them different examples of how to say something.

It isn’t really about learning rules. You can know the rules of a language and still not speak it naturally or even well.

I teach my kids American slang, American idiomatic phrases, songs and make up and play language games with them. American-English is a part of who they are deep inside just as French is. When we are living in a French speaking world their every day lives are split equally between American-English and French because of all the extra work I do.

We talk about how it is important for them to speak English so that they can talk with our family in the States. We talk about what it means for them to be American. I tell them stories about American history and customs that are appropriate to their age.

Each day, I teach my children how to speak like an American and to be American. I do it all naturally and unforced just as any American mother or father does in the States. Yet, I have to work a little harder at it because I am the sole native English speaker in our life.

In the end, I have to conclude that the reason my children are stronger in both languages when we live in a francophone world as opposed to an anglophone world is because I am the main caregiver and I am a stronger teacher than my husband.

While men can be as nurturing as women, I will say that I do think that more women are apt to be better at teaching language. Not because we are born knowing how to do it. But, because we are taught from the beginning through socialization to be more nurturing and attentive to children than men are.

However, I think that is slowly changing. More and more men are participating in the daily care of their children.

It is becoming less of a choice for men to change diapers and more of daily reality. It only makes sense that if fathers are giving kids baths, feeding them, changing diapers, dressing them and playing with them that fathers will also be more involved in their children’s language development.

I can’t blame Vilay for the fact that I am the main caretaker. I was raised to be. It is who I am. Even if in my heart I want to work, there is a part of me that makes me feel guilty for even considering not staying at home with my children.

Why do I jump first when one of our children cry at night? It is because I think my husband won’t be able to calm them with a mother’s touch. It is my ego. So, it is not only my husband that is caught up in all the ideas of what a mother’s job is and what a father’s job is.

We are both equally cabable of taking good care of our children. However, it would be hard for me to let him take over or even share as the main caregiver of our children. It is a learning process for both of us.

I do think it would be better for our children if I learned to let go of some of the responsibility of caring for our children and if my husband learned to take on more of those responsibilities.

It is safe to say that men aren’t alone in the need to break free from society’s stereotypical way of thinking.

It will take time and effort on the part of both sexes.

Until that time, it is better for my children to continue being bilingual in French speaking Switzerland or France.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Caffienated Cowgirl November 6, 2007, 7:13 pm

    Intriguing post. And I agree with you…the parent who spends the most time with the children tends to have the greatest influence. My little one, even though he speaks with a British accent and uses the Queen’s English more often than not, has my American slang phrases…not my husband’s.

    And bravo for teaching them about being Americans…I think that is a dying art form in the US…

  • patdem November 7, 2007, 9:27 pm

    I really appreciated your post, as french father living in a foreign country, I am a bit in a the same position of yours except that … I’m a father.

    I try to spend more and more time with Mathys 4 y.o and I push him to practise french. We chat together in my language and I let him watch french cartoons. He has his mother en his school to practise his dutch.

    As we talk english home (frenglish or dutchglish), he also learn few words. I’m just scared that he might have problems to write a perfect french. I would like that he write so. He also spend time with my parents in France for holidays to improve his french.

    Julie almost 2 y.o. doesn’t talk french yet but she get it really good. She refuses to say a word in french, I think she does that for teasing me and it will come soon. By the way i change her diapers almost every day (lol)

    Both of our children have a gift, later, they will have access to 2 differents cultures and way of living They will take what is best for them. They will use it to apply for a job or to travel or whatever else.

    According to your blog it seems that you like very much France, it also seems that our new president (jack bauer) do like americains…

    Go on with your blog.

  • Pumpkin November 8, 2007, 9:32 am


    I miss France terribly. Vilay and I go back and forth because he feels it is “safer” financially to stay in Switzerland while I would really like to return to France.

    In my heart I belong in France…not the States and not Switzerland. I miss the French way of thinking and looking at the world.

    Everything you are doing with your children is perfect. When my five year old was one year old I would tell her to come here in English and she didn’t understand. I had to say it in French. We were living in the States at the time and my husband was taking care of her during the day for long hours because I worked all the time (this was before we moved to France the first time and later tried it in America again for six months which is the time I was writing about above). He stayed at home with the kids because daycare was too expensive. He was a part-time student at this time as well. Soon after she picked up the English ‘Come here’ but it took her a while to get it. So, I would say come here and right after say ‘viens ici’. Perhaps, this is how it started…me saying it in English and then repeating in French when I knew how?

    I think it is much better for children to know two or more languages in todays world which is getting more and more global. It makes me sad that my oldest daughter which lives in the States with her American father does not speak or understand French very well.

  • patdem November 8, 2007, 8:32 pm

    You both remind me Lynette and Tom Scavo in Desperate Housewives, for 6 months he takes cares of the children and now it s your turn to take care of them…
    Seems also that u two moved a lot. sorry that u can’t see your oldest daughter.

  • Pumpkin November 9, 2007, 8:16 am

    I have never been able to watch desperate Housewives. My brother tells me it is great. We have moved alot. Too much. Actually, I have moved around my whole life and am really ready to settle down somewhere and call it home. I hope that my oldest daughter will come this Christmas. So far it is a go but I have learned not to think about it until she is on the plane on her way to me.

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