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…