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Three Awkward Challenges for French Immersion Moms

By Kelsey Bilyk

My husband and I chatted a lot about whether or not we should enrol our children in French Immersion. It’s easy to see the long-term benefits of learning a new language, especially one that is an official language of our nation. However, let’s be honest, talking about the travel opportunities and unique careers available to those who are bilingual is hardly top of mind when getting ready for kindergarten. In all honesty, I was losing sleep just trying to decide how to get him there on time, what clothes he needed and which supplies would best suit his needs. Should I go for the name brand Crayola markers, like the list suggests, or would the Staples brand for $3 less suffice?

Anyway, back to my point on deciding about French Immersion. What challenges would lie ahead for my son? In Alberta, is French Immersion a valuable asset? I had completed the full immersion program K through grade 12 and loved the close-knit community and long-lasting relationships I still have today thanks to the program. However, my French is now rusty, and I am not certain that I would be able to help my son as he learns. My husband had never attended a French class while in school (I say attended because I think he was probably enrolled in at least one but he claims that the odds he was actually in class was doubtful). So how would he be able to get involved and help? While we debated and pondered over this, we finally came to the decision that we would give it a try and see how things went for our boys. It turns out, we may have missed some things worth considering in the beginning.

Awkard Challenge #1: Translating.

Library Day. A day my son comes to look forward to every week. The teacher asks that every student take home a French and an English book to read. For the first few weeks of school, he picked straightforward beginner French books, but as the weeks went on things changed. Full-length novels were coming in, and our bedtime story routine was turning into a comprehensive research and study session with SIRI on hand for translating. However, then we ran into this:

“Mom, I am so excited to read our story tonight! I got this one special from the BIG KID section at the library!”

I looked at the book, it was his French book for the week, and the title read “Savais-tu les Tigres?” Okay, so I knew it was a book about Tigers, that seemed fairly harmless. We settled in that evening and began to read. Now, I should mention that when we read our French book, I would read a sentence in French and then translate to English, then back to French and so on. We are moving along nicely, learning about how big Tigers are, how long they live, what they eat, etc. I feel like we are approaching the end of the book and without pre-reading the last page, I read out loud:

“Saviez-vous qu’une fois couplés, les tigres accoupleront 25 fois par jour pendant une semaine?”

I paused, looked at the page and see that the cartoon shows a Tiger in bed with the sheets pulled up and their mate at the door telling the zebra, from next door, they are “too busy” to chat.

“Mom, what did this page say? What do Tigers do 25 times a day?”

I couldn’t help laughing and being completely stumped on how to explain or not explain what the page was saying. On the inside, I was giving thanks that with what little French I had left, I knew better than to ask SIRI for a translation on the spot.

“Ummm… it says, ‘Did you know that when Tigers get married, they like to hug each other 25 times per day?’”

I know, pretty lame, but it was the best I could do at the moment. Not to mention I was frazzled that I was now apparently reading Tiger porn, in French, to my six year old. For those of you still wondering what the translation is, well it quite literally says, “When a tiger finds a match they will mate 25 times per day for a week.”

“Why would they do that? 25 hugs a day seems like a lot! Why is the one in bed to hug?”

I could see that he was studying the cartoon very closely and it wouldn’t be long before he was able to see that hugging was not exactly what the page was depicting. So naturally, at 8:30 pm on a weeknight, I ducked out of this conversation as any mom would who wants to avoid “the talk”.

“Yeah, let’s move on… it’s getting late. Tigers are just really loving animals.”

The next morning, I made a point of explaining that he should pick books from the section meant for his grade. To avoid getting back into a conversation about the sex life of tigers, I merely reasoned with, “Mom is learning French too and its best if we read easier books from now on.”

Awkward Challenge #2: New words.

Understandably, it’s exciting to learn a new word and be able to show off in front of your family. We got to hear about blue carpets, black cats, trees and everything in between almost daily. Typically, the “oh ya, I learned something today” moment came around supper so no matter how it was pronounced or said we were still in the privacy of our home. I truly wish that could have been the case when he learned a certain French word.

Picture this, in the grocery store trying to get through the Saturday crowd.

“Mom! I forgot to tell you that I learned a new word in French. I kept forgetting, but now I remember.”

I am doing that “uh huh, uh huh… that’s nice” thing most parents do when they pretend they are listening to their kids but are actually in the middle of something else. We’ve all done it because we all know that if we didn’t say the filler fluff words, and completely ignored our kids, they would just get louder.

“Phoque! The words is Phoque… do you know what Phoque is?” (It’s pronounced exactly how it looks.)

Mortified, I look around hoping that for some magical reason that no one would be down the pasta aisle with us in that exact moment. But of course not, it’s Saturday, and at least a dozen people are standing there and all within earshot. Some are chuckling under their breath, a few just carried on awkwardly as though they hadn’t heard and then of course two ladies had to show their discontent with a glare over to my son and me.

“Mom, are you listening to me? Do you know what a –“

I quickly interrupted him and said in an unusually loud voice so that even the cashiers at the front of the store could probably hear me.

“Yes, yes – IT’S A SEAL! That’s right, well done! That’s the word for SEAL in FRENCH!”

So we didn’t end up with any pasta on that shopping trip, but I did think about writing a strongly worded letter to some important French person discussing the options of alternative words for that cute, cuddly and innocent (might I add) animal being grossly misrepresented.

Awkward Challenge #3: Younger siblings.

While we are very excited to see our eldest doing so well in French Immersion, we hadn’t considered the affect on our youngest. You see, he was 2 and just starting to develop his language skills. However, in his case, he was now picking up the odd french word or sound from his brother, creating his language “Frenglish” and deciding for himself what French was.

The change initially affected his early learning skills:

“One, deux, three, four, cinq, six, seven….”

“Jaune, blue, violet, gris, black and rose…”

“A, BEH, C, D, UH, F, Jay…”

Okay, not so bad really. We can fix that, and at least those combinations were words in the same category. Our conversations got more interesting when he began interpreting the French words his older brother was saying and repeated them back to his audience.

“Blah ble bluh, blah ble. See I talk French, too!”

This would insult the older and begin an argument worthy of politicians on what French really was… no real possible winner and many undeniable “truths” such as you can’t speak French when you’re under six years old. But lastly, there was one more awkward challenge that came with our commitment to enrolling in French Immersion, and that was how our toddler began introducing his brother.

“This is my brother, he doesn’t know how to speak.”

Okay, I’ll admit these awkward challenges may seem more like funny side effects but truthfully, supporting a French Immersion student is hard at times. It takes time, energy and commitment. You will always be translating and trying to help them understand even when often you don’t. Working with them to learn how to read and write in two languages at once has it’s frustrating moments for everyone. With a little creativity, many laughs and some awkward moments it can be done.

In the end, our family is happy we decided to go for French Immersion. It does present some challenges, especially when helping with homework and reading, but it has opened everyone in our household up to learning and experiencing different things. I believe that everyone should try to expose his or her kids to as many different experiences as possible. If we only place them in situations they are familiar with then how can they learn and grow in their unique way? Showing our kids that we as parents are willing to try new things too will help them to build confidence and a willingness to keep learning no matter what their age. Now, I am not saying immersion programs are the only way to do that – sports, the arts and extracurricular activities can also provide incentives to learn. In conclusion, have some fun, try new things with your kids and see what funny adventures will come out of it. We certainly have, and now I am sitting here smiling while writing these stories for you.

PS. Our toddler has now successfully mastered his colours, numbers and letters in English but looks forward to trying French when he is a “bigger kid” who rides the bus.

Living life one load of laundry and a hockey skate at a time, Kelsey embraces the chaos of a young family, full-time job and starting her own business. Her professional career began over 10 years ago within the Automotive Sector working in Customer and Public Relations. In 2011, she was promoted to Marketing Director for a group of companies, managing all Social Media and Marketing for three businesses. In 2016, Kelsey presented at Social Media Breakfast Lacombe and then soon after joined their team as a volunteer to help manage their Facebook and Instagram feeds. In 2017, Kelsey has embarked on a new adventure as a freelance Marketing Consultant helping local businesses with Website Development, Graphic Design, Social Media management and Marketing Strategy. Outside of her love of all things Marketing, Kelsey is happily married with two young boys. She enjoys running and cycling and is proud to have completed several races including a Triathlon and a Duathlon. “Someday, everything will make perfect sense. So, for now, laugh at the confusion, smile through the tears, and keep reminding yourself that everything happens for a reason.” – Anonymous. You can find Kelsey online on her  Twitter , Instagram , Facebook