Identity and Raising Bilingual Children

This weekend, my six-year-old daughter brought me over a coffee cup that had the word coffee written on it in several languages. She pointed to the word coffee in English and said, "That's how English people write café." And then pointing to the word café she said, "This is how we write it in French."

You might think that her comment simply demonstrates her skills in both languages. But what took me by surprise me was the "we" part. Obviously, my daughter identifies more with her French side (her father's side), which I find somewhat strange. Okay downright weird! And for reasons beyond my control, I start to wonder is this really my daughter? I mean when exactly did I get relegated to "you people" status? Or more specifically when does identity start?

To me, language is a strong marker of identity, and I find it hard to imagine that my daughter would not feel at least partially an English speaker. After all, the term "mother tongue" has to do with the language that a mother speaks to her child, and in our case, it is English.

If you think back to life-changing events, most of them are in your mother tongue. In my case, about 30% were in French, like explaining that I was having contractions, or insisting that my water had broken. But my formative or childhood years were strictly in English, and anything French was three hours due east on the Trans Canada highway or in a beautiful foreign country where people wore nice clothes.

I guess I could say that my daughter's life so far has transpired in a community with a Francophone majority, but a fair-sized English minority. We chose both my daughter's daycare and school based on the quality of instruction and care, rather than on language, and it just so happened that the predominant language in both cases was French. Yes, obviously these are two factors that would influence the language she best relates to, but I was always under the impression that a mother's language would outweigh these factors in influencing identity.

I realize that bilingual children go through different phases where one language is stronger than the other. I have also been told not to relent. Your child's English will improve. And bilingual children, we are told, have better professional opportunities later in life. But sometimes I fear that having two languages creates distances that might not otherwise exist.


Anonymous | January 17, 2009 at 9:09 PM

Hey, AKAmamma!

This is so interesting. Being a unilingual English speaker until my late 20s, I have to say I've always been envious of people who grew up bilingual. Montreal is pretty interesting because I've met quite a few people who have no dominant language. Or maybe it's better to say two dominant languages. I suspect schooling has a strong influence on identity at that age, but it could easily change as your daughter gets older. I know someone who strongly identified as francophone while living in Vancouver, but once she came to Montreal she was surprised to discover that she was identifying as anglo!


Heather | January 18, 2009 at 6:04 AM

Thanks for the comment. Identity is an issue that never ceases to amaze me.

Anonymous | March 19, 2009 at 8:09 PM

Very interesting post. My kids aren't biligual, much to my chagrin -- their dad is Chinese; I'm American. But he just didn't have the patience, or whatever to teach them Mandarin.

However, I'm kind of fascinated by how kids figure out race and that's related to you discovering how your daughter self-identifies as French.

My kids, especially my daughter, look Chinese, and I wonder if they think of themselves as Asian or white or what that means. Do they think they look like Mommy or like Daddy.

Interesting topic to explore as they get older.

Heather | April 13, 2009 at 10:32 AM

I have to say that raising a child who is stronger in French helps keep her away from online virtual pet worlds, which are thankfully only offered in English. This Hasbro Littlest Pet Shop virtual world, where they create a world where they further promote their products and create little consumers, has me worried.

I'm sure this will not be my last post on the topic.

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