What can you do if your child doesn’t speak at their French school? Two language experts offer advice for parents on managing the challenges and how to help children overcome them
When my chatty, curious, sociable son started school in our small French village a few months before his fourth birthday, I was sure he would relish the new adventure. So it was a bit of a surprise when, by the time he blew out the candles on his PJ Masks cake, his teacher had told us that Remy had barely spoken a word at school since he’d started.
He’d been with a French childminder regularly since he was about 10 months old and spoke to her and understood, but he was reluctant to speak to other French adults and often branded timide. When we asked him how he felt and why he didn’t want to speak, he said it was because he wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted to in French.
What do the professionals say?
Although worrying for us, this is not unusual, according to speech language therapist Ana Paula Mumy. She says: “It is perfectly normal for children to go through what we call a ‘silent period’ in the process of second-language acquisition. The silent period is a pre-production stage where children are just taking in the new language input and not yet willing or ready to take risks to communicate. It can last two to six months, or sometimes longer, depending on the temperament of the child.
“French is your son’s second language of acquisition. He will naturally be more confident communicating in English, so the hesitation to communicate in French is likely a function of less exposure and less-advanced skills in French. He may understand quite a bit of French, but his expressive language skills have not caught up yet.”
François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, agrees and adds that Remy’s close relationship with his childminder may also have been a factor. He explains that young bilinguals often rely on a person-language bond, perhaps to help them differentiate their languages. “In the case of your four-year old,” he says, “he had developed this bond with his childminder – they spoke French – but he still had to do so with his teachers and other children. It takes time.”
In Remy’s case, time did help and he has now made friends and, although sometimes quiet, does speak at school. Interestingly, in terms of the person-language bond, he seems to have developed a close relationship with the teaching assistant, who he spends more time with than the teacher. But the length of the silent period differs greatly between children.
“Social anxiety can be present in children and manifest itself as failure to speak in social or performance situations which cause excessive and persistent fear,” says Ana Paula Mumy. She suggests that, if the silent period is extended to years rather than months, an expert may need to get involved.
If a child is really struggling to speak at school for a prolonged period of time, Ana Paula suggests that selective mutism should be considered. This is a childhood anxiety disorder where a child is unable to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. “These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed, such as the home,” she says.
Selective mutism affects about 1 in 140 young children, according to nhs.uk, and it’s more common in girls and children who are learning a second language. The website states: “Experts regard selective mutism as a fear of talking to certain people. The cause isn’t always clear, but it’s known to be associated with anxiety. A child can successfully overcome selective mutism if it’s diagnosed at an early age and appropriately managed.”
What can parents do?
So what can parents who are worried about their child’s reluctance to speak French at school do to help? Give your child as many occasions as possible to speak French, including at home, Ana Paula advises. “Children’s language use is dependent upon need and opportunity for that language in their everyday lives with a variety of speakers,” she says. “If English has been predominant up to this point, in other words, if the need and opportunities for language use in their life have been primarily in English, then it’s perfectly normal that they may not speak French as readily in public. In private, with you at home, there are no inhibitions, so they’re probably willing to explore French a little more at home.”
François adds that something called the ‘complementarity principle’ is worth noting, which states: “Bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different aspects of life often require different languages. It takes time for children to link French to the school environment. They don’t yet know the vocabulary or language style used in school and they prefer to wait a bit to let all this sink in.”
Remy is also becoming more confident in French now and is speaking a bit at school, but still not in new situations. Recently at the park he wanted to approach a little boy and play with him, but he said he didn’t know how to ask him. When I gave him a short French sentence he just said, “I’m not sure”. Ana Paula’s advice is simple. “The best thing to do is continue to give him the need and opportunity for French language use,” she says. “The more that is present, the more confident he’ll become. You can’t force language use, but you can encourage and model and provide opportunities for varied and frequent interactions.”
We’ve seen this to be true at our local circus school, Zmam Ecole de Cirque in Mazamet, Tarn, where we’ve been taking Remy every Saturday morning for almost two years. Encouraging him to go every week and participate in the activities has resulted in him doing demonstrations in class and working one-on-one with the teacher.
It’s a journey that is continuing for us and many expats raising children in France, but one that – with plenty of support and love – should have a happy, bilingual ending.
For more information visit François Grosjean’s blog