The Bilingual Teen – Modus operandi


“What is it like to have a bilingual teen?” I’ve been asked. Pretty much like having any teen, I guess. They just have two languages in which they can ignore you and tell you to (please) leave their room .


I know that it’s a cliché, but I really do remember like it was yesterday when she was a toddler! A smiling round face with dark curls everywhere – and always happy to play and interact with her dad in French as much as he wanted.

Fast forward 10 years  and the toddler’s mutated into a teen who prefers to stay in her room with her computer and books rather than talk to anyone. When she does speak (or grunt), it’s not quite what it used to be. It seems that we have become a trilingual family and “teen” is now spoken  in addition to French and Finnish at our house – even if we parents apparently don’t really master it since eyes are rolled repeatedly when we try. Most of the time the terms come from English; there’s swag (a noun, an adjective, a verb, and an all-purpose expression of agreement or endorsement – I had to look it up here) and semi (used on its own as an adjective as in kind of okay) Then there’s yolo (you only live once to explain all the silly things she does) and the sarcastic Sherlock (as in, you guessed it, the famous detective) when we accidentally say something so obvious and lame that she just can’t believe we’re related.

I’m slightly exaggerating; in truth she continues to be a wonderful girl and I am extremely proud of her. Nevertheless, she IS a teen and we have needed to look for new strategies to keep communication and the minority language going. I hope that you are reading this when your child is not yet a teenager because honestly, the foundation was laid in early childhood. All the effort we put into creating a need and motivation for her to use the minority language is now bearing fruit. She may question and resist a lot of the things we parents want her to do, but she never questions the language issue. Her bilingual identity is so strong that it seems to be completely untouched by the teenage crisis she is going through.

Still, we’re not naive and know that a language is never done; therefore we are always looking for ways to make sure she continues to have language exposure in both languages. This is what we’ve found useful:

Taking advantage of the bio-rythm. Adolescents have very different biological rythms than adults and they tend the be the most receptive and open to talk late in the evening. This is certainly the case in our family, and we have noticed that from 10.07 pm to 10.37 pm is the optimal moment to achieve interaction as that’s when a very different and even talkative girl emerges from her “teen cave.” While we parents have a very different rythm (and would really rather be in bed already!) we really treasure these moments and in depth conversations we can have at the end of the day. Top tip from someone who needs a lot of sleep: taking a nap in the afternoon helps.

Looking for meaningful one-on-one time. Emma plays soccer and Gilles is very involved with her team. I actually love soccer too, but I’ve decided to let them have it as their “thing” together. They go to practice and games together, watch the sport on TV, talk strategy and – of course – at times disagree about soccer in French! Emma has a favorite female team in France and as chance would have it, they visited Helsinki last year. Long story short, as a huge fan and French speaker Emma got to meet the players and talk to them. She even ended on the team’s video as the players took turns in signing her ball. This summer she is participating in a soccer camp the same team is organizing for girls her age in France. She understands the part her bilingualism plays in this.

Connecting her with the popular culture in the minority language. These things just are important to the teens. Emma is subscribed to a French teen magazine, she watches movies and music that her peers in France like and many times she has found out about these (and the local teen slang) from her French friends on Facebook.

Making (or keeping) the language and the culture “cool.” Tap into their interests! Look for websites or any minority language material about the things that genuinely interest your teen (even if it’s Hunger Games!). At this age, fitting in with their peers is another important thing for most and unless we parents play our cards right, bilingualism may just become something that they feel makes them different from others in a negative way. Look for recently-arrived expat families with children that speak your minority language to get your teen to know others his/her age who speak the language or find out about babysitting opportunities with the younger expat children. Earning some cash can be a strong motivating factor. Last, but definitely not least, travel to the minority language country if possible. Visiting relatives, looking for a summer job, camp or similar can all be good ways to make the language more attractive. Social media is also a good way for the young to keep in touch with new friends despite the distance.

Last week, Emma was invited to be the French-speaking Master of Ceremony at the end of the school year party of her bilingual school. Here is a picture of that. If I could, I’d rather show you another picture and that would be of the look on her face when she told me she had been picked to do it and that the teacher had told her it was because of her French skills.

Worth having made bilingualism a priority for the past 13 years? Absolutely and more.


Introducing Sara TV – “Le Bêtisovore” part I


A while back, I shared with you how we’ve tried to motivate our 8-year old to read in her minority language French. Well, turns out the strangest things motivate our children and this one lit up when I suggested we film her reading and call it “Sara TV.” When I suggested that we send it to other children who speak French at home, she was even more excited and wanted to add some listening comprehension questions at the end.

So feel free to share this video with any multilingual families who have French as one of their languages – Sara would love to hear back from them and hear their replies! :-).

P.S Sara had a lot of fun filming this and would like to continue with this. If you’re interested in French resources and would like to see future episodes of Sara TV, please join us at http://www.facebook.com/TheFrenchFactor (and for bilingual and multilingual resources in general at http://www.facebook.com/bebilingual.net

Finally in France – now where are all French kids?



Our family of four started to form 17 years ago when future daddy from France and future mommy from Finland met in Helsinki. During the following summer spent apart they decided that against the odds they were made for each other and got married two years later. Emma was born in 2001 and Sara in 2005, and the bilingual adventure began. Since the beginning it has been our aim to help our children become as comfortable as possible with their two languages and cultures. The idea behind this blog is to share with others what this actually means in our daily life (hoping that it might be interesting or useful to others), meet like-minded people and learn from their experience too.

Summer is high season for many things, also for bilingualism in our family. Since it’s the only time of the year when our children can spend several weeks in France, a lot of planning, a great deal of which involves finances, is done throughout the year to make sure that this actually happens. I have great money saving tips for travelling, but we’ll get to that in another post later. Today, though, I want to write about another kind of engineering which takes place when we actually get to France, and that’s trying to find opportunities for our girls to meet other children their own age. This year the plan was for them to spend seven weeks in France and that’s a long time to play only with the grandparents (for both parties, I might add!). The previous years the grandparents have taken our girls camping with them in Lozère and that has been an excellent way to meet other children (I highly recommend camping for this!). For many reasons this won’t be possible this year, so we needed to look into ways the girls can meet other children in their grandparents’ village since there aren’t any kids their age in the family.

I’ve always felt that  meeting others their own age is a great way for children to integrate and to learn the language of their peers. Over the years we’ve tried many things. Going to places like playgrounds, swimming pools, workshops and similar places where one finds families with children. These have worked well to create  interaction in French for an afternoon or so, but never for much longer than that. This time of the year we knew that we wouldn’t meet children anywhere during the day – they were all still at school. So thinking in the lines of  “if the mountain won’t come to you…” we asked to enroll our children in the local village school for two weeks, knowing that at this time there wouldn’t be any hard school work on the agenda, but instead a lot of time playing outside and trips to the swimming pool.

The school accepted and the girls, knowing that no actual performance was expected of them, were perhaps not overjoyed about going to school during summer, but at least okay with it. The resistance came from an unexpected source. The French grandfather was doubtful of the idea and didn’t keep this to himself. My husband was still working in Finland so I was alone to face the music: I was pushing too much, he said. The girls were on vacation already. There was no reason for them to go to school. Emma of course caught his mood and here I was, with an idea I really believed in – and feeling like the bad guy!

Long story short, I didn’t give in and the girls  went to school. A little nervous, all three of us (body language in the photo above says it all!) At the end of the first school day, Sara had found a new “bestest friend” and Emma had met a girl in her class that lived just two doors down from her grandparents’ house (but whom we had never met!). Two weeks went by very fast and here is the outcome in a nutshell:

– The girls were accepted by their peers better and faster than we expected.  Emma had  friends over to play and we kept running into her schoolmates in the village and at the super market. Plans have been made for her to go to the village party with some friends. Her social life in France is better than ours now.

– Both girls were clearly happy to go to school everyday. Since it was the end of the school year they had 45-minute breaks outside several times per day. Both went on excursions and Emma’s class went to the swimming pool for a few hours every other day.

– Emma’s teacher told us that Emma read and wrote French way above her age-level…It would seem that it pays to be a bookworm!

So for Emma, 11, the experience was clearly a success. For Sara, 6, it was very good too, even if not to the same extent. At her age she has only attended a very relaxed preschool in Finland and the school-like atmosphere in a French school was new to her. A few times she got tired and irritated in class and the teacher wanted to meet with us. Turns out Sara had responded to her “dryly”.  The worst part, however, was that she had told another little kid (“well he didn’t stop tickling me”  she told me later) to, translated freelly, get out of her face (= dégage was the exact term in case French speakers are wondering…). We, embarrassed, apologised on her behalf and discussed good behavior with her daily. Grandma, however, couldn’t stop laughing about it.  At some point during the two weeks I also understood why grandpa was so reluctant about the whole experience. Looking at it all from his perspective , I could see that he probably felt like he was losing the kids. Until now, he and grandma had been all that the children needed when they came to France. The fact that they were growing up and enlarging their social circles was probably threatening to him. I felt it was the contrary: with friends in the village they would want to come back even as teenagers.

We also found another great way for Emma to integrate into the village life : soccer! It’s one of her favorite things in the world, and the local team was happy to let her train with them and participate in the last tournament of the year. The teamspirit was great and many of her schoolmates were there to cheer her on. She scored three goals, but I must admit that I didn’t see all of them. Exhausted by my efforts to help my kids integrate, I was by the drink stand, finding out the advantage that French soccer moms have over the Finnish ones:


P.S Lest you get the wrong impression, I only had a small glass together with a Finnish friend who was visiting us. It really hit the spot, though! 🙂