Readers’ tips: How to bring up bilingual children in France

Each week The Local asks its readers to share their tips about various aspects of living in France. This week we asked our readers for their advice on bringing up bilingual children. Here's what they had to say.

Readers' tips: How to bring up bilingual children in France
Photo: AFP
One of the most difficult challenges for foreigners living in France with their children is bringing them up to be fluent in French and a second language – which for most readers is English.
Coming up with a strategy can be tough and it can be equally difficult to get both partners to agree on how to go about navigating the situation.
For some parents, particularly when the couple are dual nationality , it can cause a fair bit of stress. It can be even more complicated when the couple are of different nationalities and neither of them are French, which means there are three languages to master.
One thing many of our readers agreed on was sending children being brought up in France to French school as it provides a good entry not just to the language but to life in France. 

The best and the worst things about having kids in France Photo: AFP

“Let them go to a French school, sure it's hard at first but they learn to speak French a lot faster. They also learn the French customs and way of life,” said reader Robyn Carroll. 

Another reader Sedulia Scott who raised bilingual children said: “If the kids go to a French school and speak English at home, that seems ideal for becoming truly bilingual. However my kinds started to want to speak French at home — that was a problem for a while.” 
Michèle Pignarre Wronski who grew up with an American father and French mother, also advises sending children to French schools. 
“Enroll your children in French schools. They will receive a far superior education, if young enough will easily become bilingual and it will open their social life to a new world.
“In my opinion, any non native language must be taught in infancy or elementary school years. That is the optimum time for a child’s brain to process the duality or plurality of a second or third language,” she added. 
Are these the best places in and around Paris to bring up children?
Photo: AFP
Speak English at home
Equally important to many readers who contacted us was speaking English in the home. 
“Carry on speaking English to them at home. This way they remain truly bilingual – it can be very easy to forget the English vocabulary in speaking another language 24/7,” Shani Booth said. 
Vanessa Smith Powell added: “Our children would translate from French to English as they learnt everything in French and we only speak English at home. I never thought they might lose their mother tongue.”
However others suggested that at home each parent should speak to the child in their own language. 
Linguist and a mother of bilingual children June Hutchinson also advised speaking to children in your mother tongue at home, advising that parents start doing this while the child is still very young.
OPINION: French parents don't value a child's independence as much as the British
“My suggestion is that a parent should speak to children using his/her own native tongue – unless the parents are totally bilingual or even trilingual. Best to do this before the age of say 4 or 5 years,” she said. 
And others said they mixed it up, trying not to stress out the child.   
Lucy Yvart, who is British and lives with her French husband and their children in France said: “Not putting our children under pressure has worked for us. We start in French and finish or answer in English, or vice versa, it’s a muddle of language at home. 
“But the eldest is now completely bilingual, I have no doubts that the youngest two will be too,” she said, adding that the family had a lot of contact with her British family and friends.”
Another reader Francesca Michel shared a similar sentiment, saying: “Never give up, never scold if they won't talk English. Take a deep breath, say the serenity payer and just keep going.”
Francesca added that it is a good idea to try and make English fun, suggesting that starting a Wednesday English club: “Nothing beats English party games – the chocolate game teaches them to count, play pass the parcel with English language forfeits in each layer!”
Some readers suggested children's television programmes in English or French, with CBeebies, a BBC channel for children. 
But the overwhelming message from the parents who contacted us was the importance of being patient. 
“Don’t get hung up on the fact that your kid replies in French, persevere, continue in English – it will sink in. They will always have a bigger passive vocabulary in the less dominant language, but that’s ok. They may understand more than they can say,” said Francesca. 

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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.