Our oldest daughter Emma was born in 2001. A friend of ours came to the hospital with her dad’s digital camera and we were able to send pictures to the family in France. In an email! The day she was born! I still remember how unheard of that was. Nor did it stop there: using the Windows live messenger with a webcam and a dial number, aunts and uncles in France could see (and hear!) the baby, almost as if they were in the same room. It was of course nothing compared to what we have today with Skype on mobile devices, but it sure felt like science fiction back then.
13 years later, technology has become a friend and an ally in our bilingual efforts. It doesn’t replace, but instead promotes the one thing we try to make happen when raising our bilingual children: interaction with other speakers of the minority language, namely friends and family in France. Our main means of communication with them are the following:
Skype. We skype with the grandparents in France at least once a week as a family. We noticed early on that if we parents had to leave the room for a minute, the children would be a lot more motivated to speak with the grandparents than if we hovered over them. When Emma started coming home alone after school a few years ago, we taught her to turn on the computer and asked that the grandparents check up on her through Skype in the afternoons – just like they were living next door and not 2000 km away! Now that both girls come home together, the grandparents sometimes even play referee in their sibling quarrels over Skype. Oh well – at least they have a natural relationship despite the distance, right?
We also used Skype last year when daddy was in France for 6 months for work. We made it a point to have dinner together as often as we could: the girls and I had the tablet in the kitchen with skype on and my husband had dinner at the same time in France with skype on his phone. This way we could still have a table conversation even if it wasn’t the same table.
Facebook. Yes, we have a teenager now and this is important for her. It also helps her a lot to stay in touch with her French friends and – this is more important than one might think at this age – to keep up with the popular culture of teens in France. She knows what’s in and out and the vocabulary that goes with it. She’s the same (lovingly) annoying teenager in French as she is in Finnish – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. She will be at ease with her peers at soccer camp in France next summer. Grandparents are not excluded here, either – Emma helped them to create their own Facebook accounts!
Blogging: For years we’ve had a blog for family and friends in France where they have been able to follow our life even if we’re far away. This has provided great reading and writing exercice for the girls in French.
There is of course more to technology than this: the gadgets that don’t necessarily promote communication, but can still be useful as they (may) increase the interest level in the minority language. Here are some that we use:
Gigatribe.com is a peer-to-peer private file sharing network. The grandparents record our girls’ favorite programs on TV and share them (privately) with us this way.
VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection is something we recently purchased and which helps us access French online TV as if we were living there. We’ve sure come a long way – to think that Emma’s first French video tapes were black and white when played in Finland due to the different video standards!
Online resources: we watch videos and listen to French music on YouTube and Tunein.com. We have access to French radio and child / teen websites (which honestly are not that great for language learning, but kids use them anyway – so why not at least do so in the minority language?)
Mobile devices: we are apparently the only parents in the world who have not bought their teenage daughter a smart phone. I see what my students use it for every day at school and I’d rather my daughter didn’t do the same. At home they get to use the tablet and I try to steer them towards interesting things as there are many: audiobooks, games and videos in different languages. While I am strict on the smart phone issue, it is a lot easier to persuade me to buy the latest teen book in French on the Kindle and Emma knows this – I simply can not say no when my child asks me for a book!
But yes, there is such a thing as too much of (even) a good thing. Emma sometimes goes a bit overboard with reading: here she is glued to the Kindle while making S’mores (at the hotel barbecue) during our recent trip to the US!
We’re big fans of reading, yes, but the Kindle was put away right after we took the picture. Technology is great but should not make us forget that life happens around us and that communication with others (in person whenever possible) is what it’s really about. On that note, I can’t wait to see the family in France this summer (and, by the way, that’s where we put the money we saved on the smart phone 🙂 ). Until then, though, we do the best we can to communicate through our weekly Skype meetings.