Secretarial: My children just don't speak the same language

Nicky Maitlis and her husband want their children to be bilingual. It can be a slog at times, but it's worth it
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The Independent Culture
WHILE OTHER couples relax with a newspaper at the end of the day, you will find me hunched over my sons' tape recorder, swotting up the words to yet another verse of "Le Bon Roi Dagobert", so I can sing along in French. Is this song really about a king who puts his underpants on backwards? I fast-forward the tape, which uncannily stops at "J'ai du bon tabac" - only a Gauloise-puffing nation could possibly incorporate smoking into a children's nursery rhyme. My husband Paul is from a French- speaking family and we are trying to bring up our children, Simon, 21 months, and Daniel, five months, to be bilingual.

Paul thought I was mad when I enrolled Simon in the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle, the only French state school in London, four months before he was even born. Strangely enough, I'm the one who is completely obsessed with making sure the children learn French. Paul takes his bilingualism for granted because speaking French comes so naturally to him. But I slogged my way through a degree in Modern Languages so I know what it's like to have to work hard in order to speak a language fluently. I'm thrilled at the thought of my kids effortlessly absorbing French. I'm determined not to let them miss out on this opportunity, especially as my own bilingual father did not bring us up speaking German.

Cohn Baker, Professor of Education at the University of Wales, Bangor, and author of A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism(Multilingual Matters, pounds 9.95) believes parents should adopt a structured approach when raising children bilingually. "They should discuss which languages they intend to speak to their children before they have them - a sort of `language family planning'."

So Paul and I started by following the "one-parent-one-language" system, where each parent speaks to the children in a different language and sticks to it (Paul in French and I in English). But since the boys spend most of their time with me, if Paul is home late or abroad, there are days when they don't hear any French at all. So, going against all advice, I began to sing and read to Simon and Daniel in French.

On a day trip to Paris, I dashed out halfway through a sumptuous family lunch in search of children's books, CDs and cassettes of nursery rhymes. I played these so often that after a couple of months I had learned more than 100 songs off by heart.

Thanks to one verse of the song "Cadet Rousselle", my vocabulary of the construction industry is good - beams (poutres) and rafters (chevrons) - which could prove useful if we ever buy a house in France. Friends are astonished when I pass up the opportunity to watch Grosse Pointe Blank on video as I am currently glued to Le Manege Enchante (The Magic Roundabout) in the original black and white French version. Paul says he's never known my French so fluent, but what about Simon and Daniel?

I am consoling myself with the knowledge that bilingual children often speak late, though I was secretly delighted when, at 18 months, Simon said his first word, "gris" (grey). "Where on earth could he have picked up such a useless word?" asked my mother. Only I knew my French nursery rhyme brain-washing technique was working.

Like many bilingual families, we're finding it's a continual struggle making sure the children really get the chance to practise their second language. Dr Gideon Lack, Consultant in Paediatric Allergies at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, who is in the enviable position of being trilingual (English, French and Hebrew) sends his bilingual sons to a summer camp in Switzerland where only French is spoken. "In England, they are less keen to speak French because none of their friends do and they are the odd ones out."

I sometimes worry whether Simon and Daniel will simply end up dazed and confused, speaking neither language properly. After all, how can Simon possibly distinguish between his French nickname "chou chou" (poppet) and the English word "shoe" which sound similar? But at the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle in London, the headmaster, Jean-Michel Fouquet, is encouraging. "Many of our pupils are from bilingual families and we find they do not get confused; they seem to be able to differentiate between whom they are talking to and in which language."

Marjukka Grover set up the Bilingual Family Newsletter 15 years ago because she wanted to discover more about bilingualism when she was raising her own children to speak Finnish and English. "The newsletter gives parents a chance to share their questions and concerns about bringing up their children in multi-lingual environments. Our subscribers are from all over the world and though the languages may be different, the worries are often the same."

As I read Le Petit Ours Brun for the sixth time before putting Simon to bed, I fantasise how, if I had put as much effort into boning up on Samuel Beckett and Sartre at Cambridge as I do in reading Simon's French stories, I might even have got a First...

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