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!"


Alice in Austria said...

Excellent post, here! :) (Thanks for the link to the article, btw).

I don't know why pediatricians and doctors always like to assume the role of linguists when it comes to Bilingualism? Because, as harsh as this sounds, unless they have a degree in Linguistics with a specialization in Bilingual language acquisition, or come from a multilingual background themselves and therefore have first-hand experience in the matter, they shouldn't pose as the experts in a field that is not theirs. Especially when they try to scare off mommies who are looking for support and encouragement. Makes me mad. Grrr.

Like you say, a support network is soo important in our situation. As well as the realization that we are not alone here, that there are many other families out there like us.

As for the doctor's quote regarding medicine being an Art. I dunno. Does this make patients the canvass on which the art is to be applied? I think when it comes to my health, I'd prefer it if medicine remained a hard-core science. Sounds safer! ;)

Alice in Austria said...

I also wanted to add, when debating on who are the "Experts" in the field of multilingualism if not doctors. Of course there are the Linguists, for one, but if you read their studies they all collect the experiences of families like ours, and based on our surveys and interviews they draw conclusions, which are often quite generalized.

So maybe it's not too presumptious so say that those on the forefront of bilingualism are the experts: you, I and all those other mommies on the bilingual boards...Which leads us back to the importance of support networks!! :)

Guillaume said...

Did you know that your choice of speaking another language than French could lead your children to delinquency?
That's what some french députés wrote in an official report last year (rapport Bénisti)...
and a reaction at


Clo said...

Thanks for your inputs Sophie! Just for anecdotal purposes, the pediaterician in question had his studio walls covered from floor to ceiling with expensive and rare art pieces...I think he really wanted to be an artist, and was eventually obliged by his parents to go into medicine!!!

Guillaume, thnaks for the heads up-I was not aware of such a report and I think it is very easy to read between the lines of it, and see exactly where it is heading. Nevertheless, a scary and crooked approach.

Anonymous said...


i read from a very reliable source that speaking french results in higher incidences of becoming homosexual. it's true.

Clo said...


I think you missed the irony in Guillaume's comment: he was being sarcastic. The report he refers to, unfortunately, says exactly that. But we are not going to talk politics here, aren't we?