Bilingual Parenting: Planting the Seeds of Bilingualism-The Movie

by Christine Thuau on March 23, 2010

in bilingual parenting, Bilingualism

Author: Christine Thuau

Sometime ago, before the never-ending Cold & Ear Infection Epidemic of 2010 hit our family, I wrote about our family’s musical lifestyle and promised a companion piece on our movie-viewing activities… The kids have finally—FINALLY!—gone back to school, so here we go.

Now, I wasn’t too surprised to find that French songs outnumbered American in our repertoire, because we really made a conscientious effort to make “song time” French time. I’m a little surprised when I look through our DVD collection, though, to realize how close the count is between French and English/American DVDs among those that the kids watched regularly. We’ve taken kind of a hard line, globally, on limiting television viewing, and I seem to recall that we started off with the goal of only letting them watch movies and shows in French.

It’s hard to do a completely unambiguous analysis of our movie library, since a number of the discs have soundtracks in both French and English, but here’s the tally according to my best recollection:

  • 1 ballet (i.e. no dialogue at all—the Bolshoi production of The Nutcracker)
  • 25 French movies
  • 23 English movies

For a long time, I really, really thought we were maintaining the T.V. as a French-only zone. OK, maybe not French-only, but definitely “predominantly French.” I had this little fantasy going on, wherein the children took for granted that only French came out of the television, except for on rare and surprising occasions when it would broadcast PBS Kids in English. Not so! Apparently we eventually accumulated a whole lot of English-language DVDs—and oh! how they’ve watched them! (Though not so much anymore.)

So, how exactly did all those non-French DVDs infiltrate our collection? Chance played a role: during a drive up the California coast, when our daughter was about eighteen months old, we found under the hotel bed an exotic and sadly-abandoned artifact of some other family’s vacation—a Wiggles video tape. (If you’re a parent, I’ll give you a moment to visualize what that might have been like, meeting the Wiggles for the first time after spending all day keeping a toddler entertained while winding our way up the Pacific Coast Highway.) We thought it might be too low-brow for our brilliant kid, but lo and behold… it wasn’t! Not at all! Au contraire. And can you imagine how rapt her attention was when those Wiggles began serenading her in English?

Had we been pure in our television-viewing ways up to that point? I can’t really recall, but I honestly think that maybe we had been. Mostly. Anyway, the point is that the scales were lifted from our eyes. We had our first hit of electronic babysitting in its purest form, and we were hooked. Because I was in Grad School. And we don’t have family (at least, not the babysitting kind) here in Los Angeles.

Eventually we ended up with, on the one hand, a plethora of French DVDs—available for our kids’ linguistic and cultural enrichment (i.e. Bob le Bricoleur : Sardine sur la branche). And, on the other hand, another plethora of DVDs in English for babysitting purposes (i.e. Bob the Builder: Bob Saves the Day).  (Stop laughing! How could Bob fail to be culturally enriching when he speaks French???) And soon it wasn’t just grad school that had us pulling out the big guns. There were long transatlantic flights to France and twice-yearly drives from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, and the kids were just so much more catatonic (stimulated! I meant stimulated!) when an English-language DVD was playing…

And so I guess that’s how it happened: the demands of real life (not that grad school is actually “real life,” but you know what I mean) ate our conscientiousness and good intentions. And then we all had a snack and a nap. The end.


Part of me wants to despair, looking at how far we wandered astray of our intentions vis-à-vis the television. The kids rarely watch T.V. at all anymore (cold epidemics aside), but they don’t show too much interest in watching French discs when we propose them: it’s too hard to understand the French, so easy to just switch the audio track over to English. Is it a complete wash, though? I’d say… not really. Because here’s the funny thing: our daughter’s absolute favorite movie (from an early age, too) is the A&E production of A Year in Provence, based on the novels by Peter Mayle. The dialogue is mostly in English, but with a high quotient of both real French and franglais, as well. Exactly like at home!!! So while our kids may not be entirely bilingual, they clearly do have bilingual… sensibilities, perhaps? They value bilingualism, they see the entertaining side to negotiating life in bilingual settings, and they’re aware that even when they choose English, their situation is such that there is a choice: French audio or English audio. There’s a choice. That’s pretty cool.

About the Author: Christine Thuau is mom to two kids (8 and 6) who might, with a little bit of luck, be bilingual someday! She is currently working as a freelance translator and editor, and has a doctorate in medieval French literature (yes, really). She enjoys reading, walking, gardening, photography, painting, writing, baking and the internet—among other things.

Additional Posts Written By Christine Thuau

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

wenjonggal March 23, 2010 at 11:19 pm

You are a good writer. I laughed out loud several times at this! YES I spent outrageous amounts of money to get bootleg copies of Bob the Builder in Mandarin (off ebay: the guy ripped me copies before he sent them off to the actual highest bidder when I lost the bidding war!), and we watch Bob Bricoleur as well. My son PROBABLY thought Dora was only in Chinese til the purveyor of said dvds sent us an English-only Dora she got by mistake… rue the day. Yesterday I let him watch English Dora twice. AGH!

And yes, the rule used to be to watch the movie once in English to get the drift (ie Annie, Mulan etc) and then afterwards only in French or Chinese… sigh… Big Boy has now realised that there are language choices on the menu and is learning to use the remote. And then there ar ethe English Bob the Builder vhs tapes I got for peanuts at Value Village while shopping for Halloween.

It is hard, but fortunately he still choses Baby Learns Chinese (the one with firemen and police cars) and sometimes even Mei Mei over Sesame Street (admittedly Oldtime Sesame Street so it is QUALITY English programming!). But I don’t know how long we’ll hang in there in the minority language choices.

One good thing is that going into the French school system in September with mostly monolingual francophone kids means that peer pressure will push him to want to watch French tv and movies. It will be the Chinese that will be the hardest to push, esp as toddler and preschooler chinese is not so hard to understand, but gradeschooler-appropriate Chinese language movies and comics are going to go over his head.

Thanks for another great post!

ebodeux March 30, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I agree–Christine is a great writer – that was a fun read! In reading the post, I saw a lot of what goes on in our lives in it. I have spent thousands of dollars on getting French DVDs (and books) shipped to us in the US from France. The one thing we have done, however, to prolong the “TV is only in French stage” is to cancel cable (meaning, American TV). We have not had it for several years (too expensive and we never watched it anyway). So, our kids do not really realize what TV is–with commercials and all those “normal” American shows (kind weird, I know, but it is working so far). We also have some dual track versions of movies (bought in US) and my older son (7) recently realized that he could change the track (I purposely never explained how to do use the remote for that exact reason), but will still watch in French if I insist. In any case, it is good to hear that other families go through similar trials. Thanks for the post.

Christine March 30, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Peer pressure is just so ideal for language learning! I really hope we end up in a French-speaking place at some point in the next few years–then I could totally sit back on my laurels and just watch the French flow, right?
Stay strong! I found it so hard to really be upset about the English movie-watching a lot of the time, especially when it came about because the kids mastered the art of the remote, etc. Maybe I overvalue deviousness and tech know-how…

Christine March 30, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Oh, we don’t have cable either! I though we were the only family in the whole wide world who didn’t… Our kids watch PBS (only on weekends), which we get through the rabbit ears, and then we’ve recently started watching Jeopardy as a family in the evenings. But that’s it. So, very few commercials, and virtually none that are targeting kids. I am bummed, like I said, that they don’t watch more French stuff, but I guess my priority overall, now that they’re older and in school, is eliminating TV and video games during the week, which just doesn’t leave much screen time… especially when we’re using screen time to sleep in on weekend mornings!

wenjonggal March 30, 2010 at 10:42 pm

“especially when we’re using screen time to sleep in on weekend mornings!”

Yes! yes! So then there is little time left for quality dvds that we share. I feel a bit guilty about his amount of screen time (Chinese, French, and some English… we watched Oliver yesterday), when in speech therapy they talk about how little screen time does for language skills. I try to rationalize that he DOES repeat things he hears on screen while watching (esp Mei Mei learn chinese dvds) and has learned French songs off of movies. And yes, not at 7 but at 4 he is realizing there is often an English track on movies. Drat.

multilingualmania March 30, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Yikes! It’s AMAZING how tech savvy kids are becoming at such an early age. I practically can’t even use the DVD half of the time, and kids already know how to change the languages!

multilingualmania March 30, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Well, maybe not yikes! I suppose it is a good thing.

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