Amanda Everitt: Why I worry about my son’s four languages

Posted on August 20, 2017

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I start my day by telling my one year old in BSL, “I don’t like croissants, I want a bacon sandwich.”

Then I tumble into la langue des signes française sign for “café before switching to the New Zealand Sign Language for “need.” Its clear that I need my morning coffee but it’s on the kitchen bench at home and we have left the house.

I really do need to get better at separating the languages I use to communicate with my son. But then again, it’s been proven that babies are hard wired to recognise the difference between all the languages in the world.

So between six and 12 months they gradually become used to the languages that they are exposed to. In other words they become native language specialists. By their first birthday, they begin to lose the ability to separate the differences between languages (Ferjan-Ramirez, 2016).

It’s not all lost. Researchers agree on one thing, that:


After that it becomes much more difficult. Believe me, I know. I’ve grappled with annoying french conjugations that change constantly depending on who I am addressing.

The interesting thing is that French children start learning their first foreign language, normally English, German or Spanish around the age of 8.

This is so far past the critical window for learning languages that it is not funny. What would you know, the French have been ranked the worst in Europe for learning English. There are several reasons for this, one being that existing teachers with little or no knowledge of English are the ones that teach the language. So this is no surprise.

Being a parent, I typically worry about how much exposure I am giving my son to his native languages. We use sign language at home, he spends time with other French children and we have someone come to our home to speak English with him.

Is this enough? They say that true bilingualism is when we use two or more languages or dialects in our everyday lives. It does not matter if the language exposure is equally split between French and English. The key is that he uses the languages regularly. Cue Skype sessions with his NZ Grandma and Sunday afternoon gâteau with his French Great Aunt.

Hence our search for a bilingual English / French nursery school that our son can attend. Easy? Far from it. We’ve been told that all these schools require a 3 year old to pass an oral exam to get in. Ooh la la the pressure! What’s more, these schools are not cheap. Who can put a price on language? Apparently the French can…if it’s English.

We will just have to muddle through the best we can. And it’ll give me an excuse to hop on the Eurostar and finally get that bacon sandwich.

Amanda is a New Zealander slash Briton currently living with our continental cousins, Les Français. Amanda is rising to the challenge of raising un bébé who likes to get into the nappy bin and trying to make moody french waiters smile.
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Twitter : @ammynz

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