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Naturally Bilingual

field of flowers

I stopped this morning to talk to two older neighbors who started a conversation with me about the weather. It wasn’t long before one of the men took the opportunity to tell me that I should speak French with my children and not English. His reasoning is that because my children are French I should speak in French with them. He went on to explain that it is, also, important for me to speak me in French so that my French will continue to improve.

It surprises me that there are still people that don’t understand and are not comfortable with bilingualism.

I explained to him that my children are American AND French. My children are bilingual and I will never stop talking to them in my own language. It is our language. So, why would I speak to them in French when it is not our language? That would be unnatural.

He smiled and finally got around to the real reason he wants me to stop talking in my own language with my own children. He told me that everyone speaks French here and that I should speak French here. It is the language here.

I politely told him that even if it is the language here I will continue to speak in English with MY children. I agreed that it is important for me to speak in French with everyone else here. As I pointed out to him I was speaking with him in French since that is the language here. I didn’t expect him to speak to me in English. However, I don’t see why it is a problem for me to speak with my children in our own language. He gave up and told me good day with a shake of his head.

It is not the first time I have had someone confront me about speaking English with my children. One day the mailman brought me a package I had to sign for. I told the kids to speak in French since he didn’t understand English and it was rude because he was talking with us as a group. He sternly told me that, yes, the children should speak in French so that they learn to speak French. I explained to him that they do speak French and their father is French. However, they are bilingual and speak English with me. I could see that he didn’t approve. He was not comfortable with anything but French being spoken.

I have found that few people in our village understand what being bilingual is about. They either think that I should not speak in English or they assume that because I stay home with the kids and speak English to them that my children cannot speak French well. They assume that English is the dominate language when French should be.

My children speak both English and French at the same level. However, I could bring up the fact that my children speak French together. They speak English only when talking with another English speaker. If I or another English speaker join their conversation they will switch from speaking French to speaking English together. They do it naturally without even thinking.

Because they regularly speak in French together does that mean French is their dominate language?

I don’t think so.

I think they have to pick one or the other to be consistent and since we live in a French speaking society the children speak French together. While we were in America for six months they spoke English together. It is logical for them and again they don’t think about it and simply do it naturally.

For my children, I think it is important that we move to a larger city where being bilingual is accepted and understood. I don’t want them to think that being bilingual is something ‘special’ when it isn’t. It is a natural state of being when you have two different languages spoken to you every single day of your life.

It is just the way it is.

I think that people put pressure on bilingual kids by making it a big deal when it really isn’t such a big issue for the kids. The kids don’t even think about being bilingual.

It is who they are.

It is not an issue or hard or special or something that needs to be pointed out. It is only when others have an issue with bilingualism that it becomes an issue. It is only when others see it as special that it becomes special when in fact it is not.

Lausanne is full of people openly speaking in their own languages. I felt a freedom to speak in English that I do not feel here. I felt like I could be myself and that our family was normal. We were just another intercultural/bilingual family in a sea of people like us.

I want my children to grow up in an environment where being bilingual is not controversial or special. With forty percent of the population of Lausanne being foreigners, I am sure that my kids and our family will fit right in.

This is the biggest reason for my wanting to move to Lausanne. My children are my first concern and I think living in Lausanne will provide them with an open environment where they can flourish without the pressure to change who they are or live with being labeled special or different.

My children are American.

In America, we speak English.

That is who they are whether the old man I was talking to this morning likes it or not.

It is him that will have to change. Not us.

Next time I see him outside I will be sure to speak even louder to my children in OUR language. He will just have to deal with it…won’t he?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • sissi June 25, 2008, 11:37 am


    People are always so inclined on letting you know how you should raise your children, I can’t stand that.

    What is the matter with them, it’s not like their lives are affected by your choice in child-rearing.

    I find it very insulting and even close-minded to tell you you should speak french because you’re in a french speaking place.

    Bottom line, when you don’t belong with the “herd” you’re not welcome.

  • Kathryn June 25, 2008, 2:22 pm


    I found your blog through a blog through a blog. Internet is great, isn’t it? I’m new to this blogging thing and have made a website, but I still need to work out the kinks and writing style, etc. Anyway, I’m an American living in Germany (Berlin) and have been here for 7 years now. Wow…that long? Time flies. Anyway, wanted to pop in and say hi. I like reading about life of other ex-pats. I’ll post my blogsite when it’s up & running :O)


  • Pumpkin June 25, 2008, 3:46 pm

    I am still taken aback by the bluntness of some of the villagers here. It is like they have a superiority complex which means nothing to me as an American. I grew up in a country that has one of the biggest egos on earth. So, they can try if they want. But, it isn’t going to impress me. I am too proud of who I am as everyone should be.

    I don’t like when people step on other people. Everyone should respect the fact that other people should be able to live their lives how they wish as long as it is not hurting someone else.

    I am so happy I have the Internet so that I can be with others like me even if I am in an isolated village. I would go mad if I didn’t.

    I look forward to reading your blog as I too like to read about other expats lives. Don’t we all?

  • might i add ... ? June 25, 2008, 3:48 pm

    Truly it is a gift that you are giving your children. You may not think of it this way, as it is just normal and right that you and your husband speak to your children in your native languages (as it is). But your children are capable of something that most people are not: owning two languages. They are completely comfortable in both languages, which is so much more difficult to achieve when one starts learning a language at a later age.

    I have spoken to many people whose parents did not speak to them in their native languages after having immigrated to the US, and now these adults (and their parents, too) are sad that the language is dying with their generation. It is very sad when this happens.

  • expatraveler June 25, 2008, 4:31 pm

    I think the man is jealous and possibly he can’t speak English well at all.. You are definitely doing the right thing and you are probably correct about letting them see bigger cities. Take the Dutch or Scandanavians or for that matter – Biel/Bienne…

    Obviously foreigners are strangers to them and they aren’t welcome, but this is the close minded Swiss you are running into. They do exist…

    Just keep doing what you are doing. That is so wonderful they all speak 2 languages!

  • Pumpkin June 25, 2008, 6:08 pm

    Might i add,
    I know people in the States as well that didn’t speak their language with their children and each one of them regreted it. My step-sister cannot speak with her family in Canada because they do not speak English and only speak French. She was raised in the States. It would break my heart if my children were not able to speak to my family in the States. My mother used to worry about it all the time when we were in France but now that they talk more and separate the two languages she knows they will always be able to speak with her. Now, she is proud that her grandchildren can speak two languages.

    When we were in the States my mother would even have my five year old who was four at the time translate what Vilay said to me when he spoke in French because she couldn’t understand and wanted to know. My daughter was able to translate every single word for her grandmother and my mother loved to tell my husband she knew what he said to me. It took him all of two seconds to figure out it was our daughter that told my mother everything.

    Thank you. I know that there are closed minded people everywhere not just here in the Jura. I just have never had so many people confront me on this one issue before I moved here. This village is closed to outsiders and I think it sad. A Swiss family (French speaking) just sold their house and moved out of our village because they felt so unwelcome. So, I know it isn’t just me but everyone that is not “one of them”. I have started speaking English again in public with my children even if others are standing nearby like I did in France before moving here. I don’t care if they think it is rude. Most of them understand what I am saying even in English and if they don’t too bad. My children need me to speak English with them as often as possible and I think in the end it will keep them from feeling strange about speaking it in public as they grow older. I don’t want them to ever feel like they have to hide who they are. I want them to be proud that they are American and French.

  • LolaB June 25, 2008, 6:26 pm

    Hi Pumpkin!
    I’m an American married to a French living just over the hill from you! It’s really interesting because while I totally agree that the Francs-Montagnards can be close-minded and exclusionary, I’ve not had the experiences that you seem to have had! My children are bi-lingual [will soon be tri-lingual as the two oldest are studying a second Swiss nat’l language in school]; and I only speak English with them when out and about and I’ve only had positive comments and reactions from people. It’s funny how just a few kilometers can make such a difference.
    My youngest is starting ecole enfantine, btw, and we are thrilled with the teachers here and the program. My daughter started la deuxième année école enfantine the year we moved here, and now her little brother will be in the same class with the same teachers. We went to visit the class last week for an afternoon and the teachers were so warm and friendly, talking about how they remember me pregnant with him while they had my daughter in their class.
    I know it can be hard to feel at home amongst the people here, and from the sound of it, you’re having a particularly hard time. Hang in there, though! It’s a great place to bring up children, even though I do find myself longing for the bigger cities.

  • Pumpkin June 25, 2008, 7:50 pm

    I have heard that my village is particularly closed to outsiders while neighboring villages and small cities are not. If we do end up staying in the Jura we will most likely move to a small city nearby. I think it is sad because I had someone tell me that our village has many people moving in and a year or two later they move out of the village like the Swiss couple I meantioned in an earlier comment. The man that lived in our apartment before us was Swiss and got so fed up with the neighbors he moved after only one year. I can totally understand why. Honestly, I think that if we moved out of the building we are currently living in I would feel much better. I will be even happier when we move out of this village.

    I have emailed you and hope to hear back soon.

  • Liz de Nesnera June 26, 2008, 12:50 am

    I just happened upon your blog & can SO relate to what you’re going through!
    I grew up in NYC to European parents, and the “langue de famille” was French!
    I wasn’t ALLOWED to speak English at home until I was in High School and started attending the Lycée Francais de NY…It IS such a gift you are giving to your kids, don’t give in! ;-)
    What’s interesting, is that NOW I make my living as a Bilingual Voice over talent – recording in BOTH English & French! (you can listen at: http://www.HireLiz.com)

    When I was growing up, the question most asked was “Don’t you get confused?”…I laughed at that!…As a kid actually I would mix (NOT mix-UP) my languages not because I was confused, but because I was using the word that best fit…and that may be in another language than what I started the sentence in! ;-) …My parents put the cabash on that pretty quickly with the classic (in our family anyway) :”Me mélanges pas les langues!”

    To this day when my brothers & I talk about “les affaires de famille” it’s pretty much always in French..although business is discussed in English.

    Good for you in giving such a wonderful gift to your kids. They will appreciate it more & more as they get older!



  • M'dame Jo June 26, 2008, 7:26 am

    Where do you live now? I can only encourage you to move to Lausanne, it’s a good place to live. And yes, I’m totally partial.

    I’ve always been a little jealous of my friends at school who would speak another language at home and perfectly master italian or spanish on top of french… Bilinguism is definitely a plus, as long as your kids speak french well enough, just ignore those remarks… and move to Lausanne :D

  • Pumpkin June 26, 2008, 9:53 am

    Thank you for your comment and your voice is lovely in French and English. My two youngest girls did try to mix the languages in the beginning as well. If they prefered a word in French or English they would use that word all the time no matter which language they were speaking in. My husband and I tell them that they have to speak all English and all French and that they can’t mix up the languages just as your parents did you. :)

    M’dame Jo,
    We have been living in the Jura for a little over a year. If I have my way we will be living in Lausanne next year…sooner if we are really lucky.

  • M'dame Jo June 26, 2008, 10:40 am

    Good luck then!

  • Pumpkin June 26, 2008, 6:44 pm

    M’dame Jo,
    Thank you! :)

  • Cathy Y. June 26, 2008, 8:20 pm

    Pumpkin, if you ever have this conversation again with anyone else, you might mention that your children have grandparents in the U.S. who do not speak French, and you want to keep the kids’ English current so that they can be able to speak with their grandparents. While I don’t feel you should “have” to explain yourself to anyone, if you do choose to explain, I think this kind of explanation might be better understood by those who are close minded such as this man was. It would help remind them that not only are the kids also American, but that the kids have “other people” in their lives that he can’t see.

  • Pumpkin June 27, 2008, 7:49 am

    Later I thought about that…telling him that my children must know English to talk with their family in the States and the fact that English is a language in great demand here which will make my kids marketable when they are looking for work as adults. If he ever brings it up again I will be sure to tell him.

  • Mom June 30, 2008, 12:35 am

    I love the person who remembered the grandparents. I only speak english. My grandchildren can talk to me and understand me. They are so smart to speak two languages. People should be proud of children who can speak two languages.
    By the way I’m the grandmother.

  • Pumpkin July 1, 2008, 9:12 am

    Don’t worry, Mom. Your grandchildren love talking to you too much to stop now. :)

  • lapagefrancaise July 1, 2008, 4:42 pm

    I just can’t believe that man had the audacity to tell you what language you should be speaking to your own children in, for several reasons:

    -First of all, it’s YOUR children. Who is he to tell you how to raise YOUR children?

    -Secondly, English is part of who they are, as you pointed out. They are just as much American as they are French.

    -thirdly, as a commenter pointed out above, English is the international language, and your children being able to speak it fluently will be a very marketable asset in their future. Why, most of the business people I teach English to, tell me they wished they had learned it as a kid, and that it’s important to them that their children learn it.

    And lastly, and perhaps most important of all, of course, being able to speak with family.

    I don’t think you need to clarify anything with that man next time you see him and anyway, I doubt if he will change his views. Some people are so set in their ways.

  • Pumpkin July 2, 2008, 12:45 pm

    I don’t think he will say much to me now. He has told me bonjour from his balcony as I walk by after I tell him first but he will now try to avoid me if he can which I find funny. I don’t let it bother me. It is his loss not mine.

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