Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas 1980


This entry has nothing to do with multilingualism, but it represents one of my fondest memories of childhood. I'd like to dedicate it to my brother and sister, my partners in crime during many wonderful years.

When I was about 10 years old, my younger brother was 6 and our little sister was 3. A few weeks before Christmas, one day she came home from kindergarten heartbroken by some horrible rumors: apparently Babbo Natale (the Italian Santa Klaus) did not exist! She was appalled! And so were we, that some cruel kids could poison the best of all dreams and illusions.

My bro and I were determined to protect her from such disillusionment and we proceeded to reassure her with tons of arguments...but the damage had been done, the doubt had been instilled in her head.

The next day she found a letter addressed to her, hanging on the Christmas tree: the hand made stamp was from the North Pole. It was a letter from Babbo Natale! We read it aloud for her:

"Dear Silvia,
I have heard that someone told you that I do not exist. To prove you that its not true, I invite you this Saturday to a sleigh ride with me! Much Love,

Babbo Natale"

She was ecstatic! Her eyes were sparkling, she was happy again! And so were we, proud of our little bravade. Only to find ourselves shortly later banging the head against the wall, trying to figure out how to have Babbo Natale take Silvia for a sleight ride! For starter, it had not snown yet, and the weather forecast was not foreseeing a single flake of snow in weeks! We had no clue about how get a hold of a sleight, let alone a couple of reindeers, and a Babbo Natale impersonator! We were stuck in the hole we had dug ourselves...

We decided then to divert our strategy and focus on the essential: Babbo Natale. And we thought that a picture of Babbo Natale would convince her that he really existed! The only way to take such a picture was that one of us would dress up as Babbo Natale. So, here is one of my greatest memories of childhood: dressing up my 6 years old brother as Babbo Natale, using what we had in the house: my red cape and his red hood, lots of cotton around the mouth and on top of the hood, and my swimming bag as a substitute for the toys sack.

The result was probably on of the oddest portrait that my brother ever had (I wish I could post it), of an obvious six years-old camouflaged in red and white!

...but it did the affair: on the day of the scheduled date, Silvia was super excited. She found instead another letter from Babbo Natale hanging on the tree. At first, disappointment: but upon opening it she saw the picture, while we read the note:

"Dear Silvia,

I am very sorry to cancel our sleight ride, but one of the reindeers is very sick and I need to take care of her. I send you an authentic picture of me, so you can see that I exist! Be very good and I'll bring you many toys at Christmas! Love,
Babbo Natale"

That was enough for her: she was convinced! And so we saved another Christmas of unspoiled magic...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Milus Oedipus Rex

I don't know exactly when and how, but we suddenly got there: the oedipian phase! It started with a tooth ache a few weeks ago, and Milo being particularly grumpy and needy, grognon as they say in French. There weren't enough cuddles to soothe him, and sleeping time kept moving later and later in the evening...He woke up a few times in the middle of the night in panic (surely a nightmare, we thought naively), and there he is now regularly coming in our bed at the oddest hours! And we lay there, sleepless and cornered on the hedges of the bed for the rest of the night...

This week I was determined to correct this nasty little habit and set the rules straight again: by 9 pm Mr. Milo must be in his sweet little bed. Well, on night 1, the little mister tricked me into staying by his side until 10:30! Exhausted, famished and puzzled, I had nevertheless developed enough motivation to play harsh mama the following night. So, after a good half hour of cuddles, book reading and singing, by 9:30 I tell him sweetly but firmly that he is a big boy now, and he can fall asleep alone. I leave the room while he performs some of the most impressive ear piercing screams of his entire life (the neighbors must think we torture him) and I barely managed to reach the kitchen when I heard his little steps frantically following me: there he stood , sobbing in tears, calling me with heart broken voice: "Mamma, mamma!" and hugging my legs for dear life. The little critter had managed to jump off his crib!!! I was in shock, it was as if I saw a ghost...How did he get out of the bed? He could have fallen on his head...And once again, by the time I calmed him down and cuddled him to sleep, it was 11 pm. And by 5 am he was again between us...

Last night I threw the towel and confided the task to Milo's dad, who seems to have a better success rate: by 10:15 the rascal was down! A slight improvement, I must admit! And when he called in the middle of the night, I went to check on him, but put him back down in his own bed. He did not protest.

I am worried, though:
1. He is not getting enough sleep...He has never been a big sleeper, but this way he gets a maximum of 9 hours of sleep per night (+ 2 in the afternoon nap). Shouldn't he sleep longer, at 19 months?
2. His bed jumping stunt frightened me. What if he keeps on trying it? If we take the bars down now, we condemn ourselves to entire nights spent chasing him around the house! For now I surrounded his bed with pillows, just in case...

...and I also started looking at king size beds!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Dutch vs. Italian: 1-1

I read in an article that when a baby reaches the age of 10 months, it's good to start naming objects in front of him, to help him build up is vocabulary. At the time, I shared the bit with Milo's dad, who enthusiastically welcomed the suggestion, and begun immediately naming in Dutch everything at hand.

Recently this habit has gotten a little out of hand. What happens is that we find ourselves wanting to provide Milo with the two versions (Italian and Dutch) of any given item almost simultaneously. Sometimes the exchanges are almost comical:

MUM: Milo, adesso mangiamo una bella mela...MELA! Prova a dire MELA...
Milo is about to open his mouth when..
DAD: APPEL...dat is en APPEL en neederlande..APPEL
Milo is about to open his lips to say A...
MUM: MELA! La mamma la chiama MELA!
Milo looks at us as you would look at a dog with two heads, he frowns and looses completely interest in the topic.

So we decided to refrain ourselves from these silly competitions and avoid providing him with the same name in the two languages at the same time, he's too young. What we try to do, is to come back on the topic a little later and always provide the framework:

MILO: Appel! Appel!
MUM: Si, papá la chiama APPEL, ma la mamma dice MELA.

What's interesting is that for certain items he retains the Dutch and for others the Italian, although he understands both perfectly.

An appel is an apple, after all!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Milo falls in love…

We spent the weekend with friends in the Belgian Ardeens, a lovely hilly area, with fairy tale forests, horses, and romantic views. We rented a house and we camped around the fireplace with the kids, while chatting away. It was the second time Milo was meeting 5 year old Flemish Minne, a cutie with very long blond hair and blue eyes, and very sweet manners. This time it was love!

I was quite impressed with his seducing techniques: big smiles and an obvious attraction…but instead of drooling over her and following her around, he would tease her and then run off to his own business, playing with his helicopter or trying to steal the crayons from Dilara…and just when Minne would start wondering about him, he’d be back with a funny face, to wonder off again few seconds later!

I was in charge of a babysitting slot in the afternoon while the others went hiking in the icy forest, and stayed home with Minne and Milo. I was a little concerned since Minne only speaks Dutch, which I barely understand, let alone speak…but we managed to understand each other very well! We danced, we played train, Minne taught me and Milo how to count in Dutch, we took silly pictures, et. Then Minne proposed enthusiastically to play "Stoppeke"…I looked at her in dismay…she proceeded to explain, and I still did not get what in the world stoppeke was, until she said something along the lines of "I will start" and she went to the wall and begun counting: that’s when I got that she meant Hide and Seek! So I ran behind the couch, finding in no time a perfect spot, although Milo gave me away as soon as Minne finished counting!

This morning, when he woke up back at home in Paris, he called out for his new friend « Minne?… Minne…? »…I think I amgoing to print some pictures of the weekend for him!

Milo, Minne & Dilara (2005)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Errata Corrige

I had an enlightment in the middle of the night on something I am truly grateful for, so I'd like to withdraw from my list the #5 item (French sense of humor) and subsitute it with the following:

Number 5: Epideural

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Thrill of Being a Foreigner

On a business trip to Madrid a few years back, I met an old Spanish girlfriend who attended my same graduate school in California, and had, in the meantime, returned to her native Spain.
"You did it again: you’re living abroad!" said Ruth, referring to the fact that I had returned to Europe, but settling in France instead of my native Italy.

There is definitely something thrilling about "being a foreigner." Loads of articles describe the difficulties that expats experience, but I mostly see the thrill and advantages of never being bored by constantly learning new ways to think and doing things, being surrounded by a landscape which is different, and certainly having to speak different languages. Which brings me to...

...The Thrill of Switching Languages

I learnt most of my languages as an adult, therefore this is something I have enjoyed fully and mostly in the last 10 years, in other words, I didn't grow up with it, as Milo will.

I took English in middle and high-school. The teaching methods of the 80’s in Italy were purely theoretical and hardly stimulating: we were submerged by a great deal of grammar rules and British literature (there is nothing exciting about Beowolf when you are 16…) and impractical examples (such as "The pencil is on the table," or "The cat is under the table"), which I never, ever got to use once I become fluent in English! Moreover, the teacher had never stepped foot outside of Italy…my main use of the language at the time was to decrypt the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen!

My first live encounter with the English language took place when I was 18 and I attended a summer volleyball camp in upstate New York. At the camp I got to meet American girls my age who shared my passion for volleyball. The struggle to communicate was immense, especially on the court, but after the 3 weeks spent there, I could finally handle a conversation…I felt powerful! The girls were moved by my accent and often corrected me, sometime made fun of me too… which became a motivator to learn the language properly, finally with a purpose.

During college in the US I took Russian as a foreign language. I loved its sound and the challenge of having to master a different alphabet. I did not go further than a year, unfortunately, but I love renting Russian movies from time to time, and bathe in its sweet musicality.

Iin the US I became friends with several Spaniards and fell in love with Spanish. I took a few courses in a community college, and practiced it during the summer and business trips to Spain. As an Italian native, it is not so difficult, I must admit. I am far from being fluent, but I can get by and understand 80% of what I hear and read.

French is a language I always flirted with; being from the Romance language tree, it is very easy for Italian natives to understand it and pick it up. Furthermore, I am from the Piedmont region, and our dialect has the same roots as French. I bought a grammar book when I was in college and in my spare time I would try to learn it. It wasn’t until I was offered a job in Paris that I applied myself seriously to its sticky grammar traps. But I love to be able to watch French movies in OV and finally have access to its rich literature.

Dutch is a serious challenge: since I met my Flemish companion, I felt obliged to try to learn it, but I was discouraged by the guttural sounds, incomprehensible long words filled with harsh sounds never pronounced before! Since Milo’s birth, however, I hear it every day and I am inevitably picking up a few words and the sentence structure. When I hear my companion speaking on the phone I understand the gist of the conversation and sometimes I decrypt full sentences. Little by little…

I work in an international environment, surrounded mostly by Europeans. Every day I get to speak English, Italian and French at work. At home it’s English with my man, Italian with my son and French with the nanny. It’s only recently that I realized that I was addicted to this, that I consider it a luxury.

Why do I like it so much? Perhaps because each language brings out a different nuance of our soul, it allows my chamaleon personality to play out its game…Each language has its rhythm and pace, its semantic weight and its idiomatic expressions.

There are days when I don’t find my words in any of the three…or, often, when I speak with my man I throw in a word in French and it takes me a while to find the English equivalent. The first days after Milo’s birth we were so overwhelmed that we were mixing everything! I would take Italian worlds and anglicize them…I was a mess!

But in general I think it’s great mental gymnastics and it allows for a wider range of linguistic expression. And, above all, it allows me to reach out to and communicate with a much wider number of people…that’s the real thrill!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Learning bad words!

Last night a friend from San Francisco who’s in town this week came over for dinner, with her three-year-old son Enzo. He’s the son of a French man and an American woman of Nicaraguan origins. His dad is no longer alive, unfortunately, and so his mum speaks to him in French, while thematernal grand parents speak to him in Spanish. He learns English from school and the environment. At this point he expresses himself primarily in English.

Milo and Enzo hit it off immediately and spent the whole evening running around, playing hide and seek and with the cars, communicating in the international language of play! Until little Enzo decided it was time to show he was a big boy and knew forbidden things: he started pointing randomly at things, shouting proudly:


His mum and I, caught by surprise, couldn’t hold back our laughter! It was, unfortunately, the breaching of the dyke.. from that moment on, he knew he got our attention: it was cacca all over the wall!

Milo at first looked puzzled, then rather amused, and decided that it was probably a very cool thing if it had made mum laugh. And so, inevitably, he followed his new friend, shouting all night the new stinky word!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Milo’s vocabulary at 18 months

Papá (dad)
Nonno (grandpa)
Nonna (grandma)
Anto (Antoine)
Bibe (milk bottle)
Pappa (food)
Ace, for grazie (thank you)
Nano, for naso (nose)
Nanna (to sleep)
Tenda (curtain)
Pesce (fish)
Uva (grapes)
Ape (bee)
Bambino (kid)
Ciao Ciao
Vasca (tub)
Doccia (shower)
Etto, for cubetto (little cube)
Mela (apple)
Torta (cake)
Barca (boat)
Due (two)

Bye bye
Op (finished)
Ashblee, for alsjellieft (please)
Ja (yes)
Noc (again)
Batch, for bard (beard)
Kat (cat)

Au revoir

A boir (to drink)
Nounou (nanny)
Doudou (staffed animal)

Balle (ball)
Bateaux (boat)
Anco (encore)
Dodo (to sleep)

Other onomatopoeic sounds:

  • PAA-POO-PAA-POO (to indicate the sound of the fire tracks siren)
  • BAU (the bark of a dog in Italian)
  • MIAO (the cat noise)
  • Cucú!
  • Tuuu-Tuuuu (train noise)
  • NNNNNoooooooooo!
  • A-ta-tá (to call his friend Antoine)
  • TA-TA (to call his nanny Tamou)
  • MMMHWA! (To blow kisses)
  • A-bu-bu (?)
  • Wroom wroom (make the car noise)
  • Peeh Peeh (to imitate the car horn)
  • AAAM! (to imitate a lion eating)
  • Imitates the rocket ascending in the sky

Friday, October 28, 2005

Which one really are you?

The other day in a rare moment of calm, a pensive Milo looked at me with a profound look and said:

"Mamma….Mama….Mamán ?", pronouncing them perfectly in Italian, Dutch and French.

It was evident that at that moment he was really aware of the three different ways of pronouncing my name, and it was as if he was questioning me whether they really meant the same thing…

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Modern hyperpolyglots

Ever wondered what's the maximum number of languages that an individual can learn and speak? Here's what I found about it:

  • Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), head of the Vatican library, has been known to speak fluently 78 languages and dialects
  • Ziad Fazah is the contemporary man who speaks the most languages: he is a Lebanese living in Brazil and speaks 56 languages!

According to Wikipedia, an individual who can speak 6 or more languages is known as a hyperpolyglot! I know at least two of these amazing individuals:

Jan is a 27 years old Flemish manager who seamlessly converses in English, Dutch, German as well as Spanish, Italian and French.

His linguistic odyssey started at age 7 when his parents moved to Spain for professional reasons. Signed up at the local French School, he suddenly had to grasp not one but two foreign languages at the same time. Despite the initial struggles, when he left the country 4 years later, he was fluent in both French and Spanish. His parents had kept on speaking Dutch at home, so coming back to Belgium did not pose too many problems verbally; however, he had some catching up to do in terms of writing skills.

He continued studying French; by the age of 13 he began English classes and by the age of 16 he was also studying German, which he learned quite well motivated by a German girlfriend ("The best method ever!" said Jan).

At 22 while pursuing his university studies he signed up for the Erasmus program and spent 6 months in Siena, Italy. His strong bases in Spanish and French accelerated his command of the language. Trips to the US and the UK also gave him the chance to strenghten his English skills.

He feels very good about his ability to switch from one language to another, both in his personal and professional life. Leaning languages increased his openness to people, cultures and other values, said Jan. It also dissolved any fear of "change" and increased his capability to adapt to any environment. On the other hand, he feels that quantity goes to the detriment of quality: in other words, he feels that sometimes, when fatigued, he finds himself mixing up languages or not finding the right words.

Another wonder of multilingualism is Alain, a French man who discovered at 24 an extraordinary ability to learn languages; today he is fluent in six. The fascinating thing about Alain is that, despite having lived in different countries all is life, he has been in a mostly francophone environment until the age of 8; and yet, French does not feel like the primary language to him, today.

Alain grew up in Picardy until the age of six. His father was in the military and was then transferred to Chad, in Africa, where Alain attended the French school until the age of 8. The family then moved to Baden-Baden, Germany. Here he lived until the age of 16 on the military base, which was a French island in a German environment. He learned German in school, but with great difficulty, having to start from scratch while the other kids lived with at least one German-speaking parent. German has been, therefore, his first foreign language. soon after, he also began studying English.

At 16, he returned to France to finish high-school. He then moved to Saarbrücken, Germany, to begin undergraduate courses, and two years later to Berlin to attend military service. In Berlin, he began fooling around with the Italian language. A three-month stay in Italy to visit a friend sufficed to pick up the language almost fluently.

"I learned tons by watching TV," says Alain.

At that point, at age 24, his passion for languages literally exploded: three months in the US cemented his English; two years in Barcelona made him a great Catalan and Castillan (Spanish) speaker. He then moved to the UK for four years and subsequently to Italy for professional reasons.

"Today I am most at ease when speaking English," says Alain, "but Italian remains the language of sentiments and friendship: I lived some special emotional moments while in Italy, and the language has developed a lot in that sense."

Alain adds that languages need to be polished and trained regularly: "My German is at its most rusty these days, because that is the language I use the least."

He inevitably tickles the interest of his interlocutor, because in each of his six languages, he has an accent or an inflection."Even in French I have an exotic accent!" adds Alain, delighted.

And his accents are not the same in every language:

  • In French, he sounds foreign (Belgian, sometimes Swiss)
  • In Italian he has a soft French inflection
  • In English he has a soft French, but mostly unidentifiable, foreign inflection
  • In Spanish he has an Italian accent
  • In Catalan he has a French accent
  • In German he sounds like he’s "from somewhere in the south"

"I feel more as a European of French origin, rather than a French European; I feel prisoner of a passport which does not really correspond to my cultural identity," said Alain.
Today he lives in London, one of the few cities where he gets to speak all of his French, English, Italian, German, Catalan, Spanish, while studying Portuguese, for fun.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Science vs. Art: the importance of environmental support

I recently read a great article by Alice Lapuerta on how multilingual mums are often confronted by the narrow view and misconception of monolingual professionals and parents.

When Milo was born, we immediately started pondering how to manage our four languages with him. We consulted several local pediatricians, one of them also a published expert in contemporary pedagogy, hoping to get some guidance and practical advice, backed up by scientific research.
To our dismay, they all discouraged us from multilingualism. They could envisage at most a bilingual household, which meant that in addition to the environmental French, we could choose only one of our languages.
"Which language should we choose, then?" we anxiously asked the expert.
"Just drop the Dutch…I mean…he will learn it later!" he replied randomly.
We were in disbelief! I kept on probing him on the topic, to get at least some scientific explanation to his bizarre 100 EUR advice.

"Madame, la medicine, ce n’est pas une science, c’est un art!" * he replied emphatically.

Professionals with experience in multilingualism are a scarcity in France, where the local culture is so strongly rooted and rich, and where multilingualism has only recently being recognized as an asset. Consequently we contacted some experts in Belgium, but we were especially reassured by expat families and other transnational couples we met in online communities.

When the entourage is not understanding, one can be easily discouraged : for instance, one day at work I was chatting with a Moroccan colleague who speaks Arabic at home, and we were comparing the multilingual skills our kids are developing. Suddenly a French colleague joined the conversation. I asked him innocently if his kids were already studying languages and he replied snappily:

"No, they only speak French…but a very good level of French!"

We soon learned that it's important to develop a certain level of self-assurance when making the choice to bring up multilingual children, and also to know how to find not only the proper support network, but also the opportunities for the children to use these languages outside of the family nucleus.

Luckily in our little entourage, Milo can already count on half a dozen little toddlers who, like him, speak one or two more languages in addition to the local French.

I’d argue that multilingualism as well, is an art!

* "Medicine is not a science, it’s an art!"

Third Culture Kids

This week I finally got an intern at work, I have been waiting anxiously for some help on our increasing anglophone marketing activities. Human Resources phoned me to announce his arrival:

« Pierre-Henri will start on Monday ».

"Pierre Henri" is a distinctly French name, and I had specifically asked for a native English-speaker! It turns out Pierre-Henri had dual citizenship and spoke and wrote impeccable English, even with a thick French accent. His linguistic skills turned out to be as varied as his cultural richness: he is a native of Zaire, who grew up in Japan, Venezuela and recently settled in Paris, where most of his family resides. He speaks Spanish, French, English, Japanese and two local Zaire dialects.

I was about to meet a Third Culture Kid !

Third Culture Kids (or TCKs) are children who grow up or spend a significant part of their childhood living abroad. This definition was coined by the Ruth Hill Useem, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, who conducted research in the early 90’s on this growing portion of the population.
"Third Culture" refers to the unique culture developed by these individuals who grow up abroad, influenced by their parent’s culture (the "first" culture) and the culture of their host country (the "second" one).
A TCK is usually someone who develops an international outlook. In the article "Strangers in their own land," David Holmestrom writes that in 1998 the US State Department estimated 3.2 million Americans living abroad.
"Kids of these diplomatic, military and corporate parents grow with attitudes and values molded by two or more cultures. In the best of all possible outcomes, TCKs grow up to be the prototype multilingual citizen and ideal worker of the future, sought after professionally as markets and jobs expand globally, " writes Holmestrom.
Professor Ruth Hill Useem came up with some interesting facts about TCKs :

  • They are more likely to earn a degree than their peers back home.
  • They are often successfully employed in the top ranks of their profession.
  • They are more likely to work and live abroad.
  • They experience problems when repatriating: their integration is complicated by their world views and by a lack of vital cultural points of reference, such as pop culture icons.
  • They are more likely to hit it off with other TCKs, even when they have experienced different countries and cultures.

I do not qualify as a TCK, but I can relate to some of these issues: I grew up in northern Italy, and I moved to the US to pursue my university studies when I was 19. After a few years, I have distinct memories of feeling equally at ease and equally uncomfortable in both my native Italy and in my new host country.
My freshman year in college was a true culture shock. For instance, I had nothing in common with the average American teenager who was trying all sorts of tricks to enter bars illegally and get wasted ! In Italy there’s no drinking age limit, therefore the youth is not focused on breaking down that barrier. And back home, my high school friends were intimidated by my new experiences, so it was best to avoid any recounting of my life in America.

Eventually, with time, I developed un understanding and appreciation for the Amercan way of life and upon graduating from college I had to make a decision: was I going to pursue a career in the US, where I was finally starting to feel at ease, or was I going back home? Where was I to find my home?

It was Petra, my Art History professor, a Dutch historian married to a naturalized Chinese -American, who mentored me in those delicate days. I will never forget when she told me:

"The key is to find something you are passionate about and find a place where you can practice it. It does not matter where: you will always feel at home when you meet people like you and I, those who have had the chance to confront themselves with other cultures and values. You will see, there will be an immediate link."

Over the years, her recipe proved true more than once. I guess that’s also why I am having a great time working with Pierre-Henri!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What’s your Family Language Strategy?

In a seafood restaurant in Boulogne-sur-Mer, on a warm September Saturday evening, Milo was attracting the attention of patrons by loudly repeating his new word "fish," both in Italian ("pesce") and Dutch ("vis"), at the request of his mum and Belgian grand-parents.
The owner, a middle-aged French lady, asked me:

"In what language do you speak to him?"

I proceeded to tell her about our quadri-lingual experiment and relative fears and hopes. The lady shared some of it: she was married to an Irish man and had two children, a 7 year-old girl and a 3 year-old boy. They were both born in Ireland, and moved to France when the kids were aged 5 and 1.

Today they speak English at home, as the father does not speak French, but when they were living in Ireland, she tried to speak French as often as possible, to ensure that the kids could learn it [this method is known as the Minority Language (spoken) At Home (a.k.a. mL@H)]. As a result the girl is fluent in both languages and has no accent, she’s a native speaker of both. The boy, on the other hand, understands English perfectly but refuses to speak it, even to his dad. When he does utter some words in English, he speaks it with a thick French accent. For him, French is his one and only mother tongue. The lady has no doubt that, thanks to consistent exposure to English, the boy will eventually start using it, but she feels sorry for the anxiety he experiences using the language.

This case illustrates very well the Family Language Strategy concept, as described by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa in her book "Raising Multilingual Children." She claims that a multilingual family should determine its language strategy (i.e. which language will the parents speak at home with the kids) early and stick to it, despite the change in circumstances or environment, for the sake of the children’s consistent language development. Our strategy so far has been the classic "one parent, one language," (a.k.a OPOL).

But I am particularly intrigued by accent development:

  • My Italian friend Francesca, who is married to a French man and lives in Paris, has a 4-year old boy and 2-year old girl. The kids are perfectly bilingual, and when speaking Italian, showcase a French accent.
  • My Portuguese colleague Joaquim, married to a Portuguese woman, has two boys, born and raised in France, both perfectly bilingual. They are now learning English and they speak it with a French accent.

What determines these accents in early multilingual kids?

Dr. Steven Weinberger, director of the Linguistics Program and the Speech Accent Archive at George Mason University explained that accents are a natural phenomenon as a result of acquiring a second language after a certain age (approximately age 6). When learning a second language in adult age, the range of sounds we can produce is limited; often the sounds of the second language do not exist in our native language, so our best effort to imitate them, determines the accent.

Professional linguists say that people who start learning a new language after puberty can never completely get rid of traces of their original tongue.

But for kids who are multilingual from birth, their story is different: their language acquisition resides in a different part of the brain, and their attitude to language learning is completely different, less self-conscious, more playful.

So, why would they develop an accent? Stay tuned for the reality behind early accent development, in one of the next entries…

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The beauty and perils of “Baby Language”

A study carried in 1997 among American, Russian and Swedish mothers showed that the way parents tend to speak to children (that is with acute tones, accentuating vowels, exaggerating the tones) is actually beneficial for the kids' language apprehension, and this is equally true in every language.

This is referred to as Baby Language (or Parentese) in English, Bambinese in Italian and Parler Bebé in French. But in French and in Italian this concept stretches as far as developing a whole new set of made up words, used exclusively with and by kids, which can multiply unnecessarily the vocabulary the kid needs to learn.

  • To take a nap in French baby language is « faire dodó » while in Italian is « fare la nanna »
  • To eat in Italian is « mangiare » but for kids becomes « fare la pappa »
  • In France almost every kid has a « dou dou » which refers to his favorite stuffed animal.
  • In our family we have taken the habit of referring to the bowels as « poo-poo », in Italian that would be « cacca » and in French "caca".
  • « Pipi », luckily, is the same in French, English and Italian. But while in English kid language it also refers to the genitals of the boy, the French kids call that « zizi », and in Italy that would be « pisellino » (literally little pea)
  • When the kid is hurt, in Italian « si é fatto la bibi », but in French it’s « bobo »
  • A kid’s nanny in Italian is often referred to as his « tata », while in France she’s the « nou nou »

Modern pedagogists suggest avoiding this artificial language after the age of 1, even in monolingual households, to facilitate the correct learning of proper vocabulary.

I was going to embrace this theory wholeheartedly, when I realized that the reflex to use these words was just too strong to modify my behavior: I did not realize how embedded certain terms are in our linguistic experiences! I grew up myself eating « pappa » and making « nanna » at night and getting « bibi » from time to time; I still use that expression to let my mum know I’m sick!

Milo for the moment seems to get it all, his favorite word being « Pappa !».
Luckily my little boy is blessed with a vigorous appetite, not only for food, but also for words!

Friday, September 02, 2005

Milo says "Au revoir !"

Milo has just spent 2 weeks in Italy with his grandparents, enjoying a full immersion in Italian. This has increased not only his vocabulary, but also his gestures inventory !

  • When eating a delicious food, he accompanies his verbal appreciation ( « Mmmmhhhh ! ») with his hand swinging up and down, at the height of his shoulder !
  • He has developed an appreciation for cars (the real ones) and can imitate very well the action of steering the wheel while making the typical car noise (« Wroooooom ! »)
  • He waves good bye very professionally when leaving a place or a room, and says « Ciao ! » with non-chalance !

Among new words he learnt there’s « torta » (cake), « bau » (the dog’s bark), « pappa » (food in kid language)

He can call his Nonno (Grandpa) and Nonna (Grandma), his uncle Papo (Paco) and auntie Titti (Kikki), and of course his beloved Mamma and Papaaaaaaá (always pronounced literally)!

Upon our return to France the other day, Milo totally surprised me: as we entered our building, we met the concierge who greeted us (in French); this was the first French he has heard in over 20 days. As we left after a brief chat, he waved good-bye to her and said:

« Au Revoir ! »

At 16 months Milo is aware of who speaks what…

Meet Yannis & Dominique

I was on a flight from Paris to Torino, Italy last week and my seat neighbors were two lovely mulatto rascals aged 6 and 7, traveling with their mum. We begun the conversation in French, language that they were using among one another; as I pointed out to them that we were flying over the Mont Blanc glacier, something in the way I pronounced the word «glacier» gave away my nationality: the two boys looked at each other and instantly switched to perfect Italian:

« Ma é italiana! »* Said Yannis, the youngest.

From that moment on, we continued the conversation in Italian, and even among themselves they kept speaking the tongue of the peninsula. They turned out to have an Italian father while their mum is from French Guyana.

« Nobody knows where the French Guyana is, in Italy! I always have to show them on the map! » said Dominique. It is true, Italians are not strong on French overseas territories…

Their mum woke up shortly after:

«T’a dormi bien, maman ?»** Asked Yannis.

«T’a bien dormi, tu veut dire !» replied their mum, correcting the syntax.

This seems to be a recurrent issue with bilingual kids: they often translate in one language using the syntax of the other. I wonder if this phenomenon has been identified and classified by linguists.

Yannis and Dominique attend the French School in Torino, where most courses are taught in French, but they also learn Italian and some English. However, I noticed that, once they switched language, even with their mum they kept speaking Italian.

Their accent (or, rather, lack of) was that of a native, with a soft inflection of torinese. Even their enthusiasm was that of an Italian boy when they noticed that we were flying over a soccer field! They immediately told me about their favorite team and players in the Italian league.

Before leaving the baggage claim, Dominique sighed:

«I cannot wait to see my room again and sleep in my own bed…I miss my bed!»

Something common to every culture: the notion of 'home sweet home!'

* «But she is Italian!»

** The equivalent phrase in Italian is: "Hai dormito bene?". It would be as if he asked:
«Did you well sleep, mum ?» instead of « Did you sleep well ?»

Monday, August 22, 2005

What are we going to speak for dinner ?!

My concern for my son's language development solidified when I started to wonder which one, if any, will become our family language.

At the moment, we decided to apply the "one person, one language" method:
  • I address Milo exclusively in Italian
  • his father speaks to him in Dutch only
  • the nanny speaks to him in French (and this is, at the moment, the language he hears the most, in quantitative terms, being also the language of the environment)
  • he regularly hears English passively, since this is the language his parents use among each other and with several friends

But in a few years, when, let's say, he'll be 3 or 4, which language will we speak once we are all sitting at the dinner table? Are we going to keep on switching according to our interlocutor? Will English eventually take over? Or French?

To give you also a better understanding of the complexity of our situation:

  • I speak fluently Italian, English and French, but I do not understand Dutch
  • Milo's dad, on the contrary is fluent in English, French, Dutch and has a very good understanding of Italian

We spent the weekend in Brussels visiting our friend David, who's Flemish (hence Dutch speaking), married to a Turkish woman; they communicate in French and their 2 1/2 years old daughter is growing up trilingual. Until now, they also have stuck each to his own language, and their girl seems to understand very well all three languages. David seems convinced that none of the three languages will prevail as a family one, and they will keep on switching: a perspective I find fascinating, but also somewhat schizophrenic!

Friday, August 19, 2005


My son Milo is 16 months old, and, to date, his vocabulary consist primarily of these three words:
  • "Auto" which we believe is pronounced in Dutch and he has learned from his Flemish father;
  • "A boir" (that is "to drink" in French), which he has learned from his Moroccan nanny;
  • and a very polite "Grazie" in my own mother tongue.

He's the son of an Italian and a Flemish (Belgian) living in Paris, France. To add spice to the menage, Mum and Dad speak English to each other! Hence, he is surrounded by 4 languages every day.

Milo has several little buddies with parents of different nationalities, who are confronted daily with multi-linguism; a task which can develop great assets for this generation, but that can also mine their language learning process. It is not unusual for bilingual kids to start speaking slightly later than monolingual ones.

My curiosity as Milo's mum and as woman, inspired me to start this blog, in which I will monitor his language development, hoping to share some useful insights!