Friday, December 12, 2008

Something is going on...

In the last few weeks some major shift has occurred in my kids' use of languages: after returning to a certain strictness with OPOL, Zeno's habit of mixing has been restrained and he is now more aware of what-word-belongs-to-what-language. It's amazing how it only took a few weeks to rectify the situation. He still mixes certain items: if he's saying a negative sentence, he would use the French "pas" even if he's speaking in Italian ("Pas dormire, io! Pas cadere, io!"). But overall, there has been a major improvement.

On the other hand Milo is suddenly doing what I've been reading in most manuals and books on multilingualism, that is....starting to speak French at all times! It began in the afternoon when I would pick him up from school, and I have been tolerating it, knowing that MTKs often have a better time relaying what happened in school in the school/environment language. But now it is systematic, he speaks French all the time at home! I asked him gently why, and he said it's easier for him. Luckily we're soon off to Italy for the holidays, and that should reinject his motivation to keep Italian and Dutch up and running!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The challenge of choosing the perfect multilingual-baby name

Thi is an article I wrote for the column Eurapsody, featured in 'Multilingual Living Magazine' in March 2006. I am posting it today with a special dedication to my friend Holger, a German native living in Japan, who's going to be soon father of another Multi Tongue Kid!

Choosing a name for a (future) multilingual kid can be quite a task. There are issues of pronunciation in both parents' languages, eventual meaning in each of the parents' culture, personal taste, tradition, etc. For out first child, coming up with his name was an ordeal: we felt the responsibility of choosing an identity we (and he) will have to live with for a long time, but, especially, an identity which worked in several cultures. We were so concerned about the name that the poor kid remained nameless for the first three days of his life!

In our case, the criteria were multiple: we needed a short name, since the father's last name is quite long. We also needed a name that could be pronounced in Dutch, Italian and French, and that could make sense in English too. The initial draft list was huge, and so many names we liked had to be scratched for one of the above incompatibilities!

-Dad liked Kaan, but it sounded like cane (dog in Italian).
-Mum liked Matilde (for girl), but the reference to the homonymous Belgian princess was too much to bear for Dad.
-Mum and Dad liked Vyn/Vin, but in French it would have been mistaken for Bacchus' juice (wine!).
-Many Flemish names would have simply been unpronounceable for the Italian side of the family
-We even dared Vancouver, on the list! But it was too cacophonic with the last name (which starts with "Van" as well).

After long discussions, Milo (pronounced mee-lo) and Sander were the chosen finalists. Somehow we thought that Milo would have been perfect for a dark, Mediterranean boy while Sander would have fit well a blond, Scandinavian type. It was Milo the blond, in the end!

So, here are 8 tips on things to consider when choosing a name for a future multilingual baby:

1. Consider carefully the pronunciation of the chosen name in all the languages involved in your life, and make sure that the name does not carry an undesired hidden meaning.

2. Make sure the name is easily pronounceable in the language of the environment, and by all the relatives/friends who will be part of the baby's life.

3. Make sure the chosen name correctly reflects the sex of the baby in all the languages you will be involved with (Andrea is a feminine name in the USA, but masculine in Italy).

4. Don't be afraid to be creative and to reflect the baby's multicultural background! However, think carefully how fun or hard it is going to be for him/her to be too much original and singled out.

5. Consider the initials: make sure they also don't spell out undesired meanings.

6. Consider carefully family traditions (like naming the child after the grandfather or an uncle, for instance): make sure other living relatives are not currently carrying the same name, avoid homonymy, if possible. Reserve such names for the middle names.

7. If you're considering original names, be wary of commercial products that might carry them. Perform a Google search for the name, just in case! (We found out afterwards that Milo is also the name of a milk drink popular in Australia...luckily it is not distributed in Europe).

8. Consider any nickname that might derive by your chosen name, and submit the nickname as well to the cultural/linguistic analysis of both parents' languages.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Of Languages mixing, or when OPOL is harder with the second child ...

"Pas male, ik!" claimed proudly little Zeno (now 29 months old), using all of his three active languages in one sentence. This has been happening more often than not, and it is quite striking the difference with his older brother Milo, who had a similar vocabuary at his age, but did not mix.

Zeno learns a handful of new words each day, but seems to have a harder time at sorting out in which linguistic pool they belong. His mixing takes place mostly at home and especially when Milo is around. At his daycare they reassured me that he has long ceased speaking Italian, and his French level is perfectly comparable to that of monolinguals his own age.
But once he' s at home, his linguisting boundaries vanish and anything can happen!

One reason I can trace is that we ourselves have been less strict than before with OPOL; I catch myself replying in French to Milo when he uses French to tell me something about school; or, when he's tired he'd squeeze some French words into an Italian sentence ( "Mamma, i trois petits cochons hanno catturato il lupo e l'hanno messo nella marmitte"; "Non si deve mangiare i bocconi grossi se no le...joues...esplodono"). Milo often makes mixed setences (IT/DU) when talking to his dad, using Italian when he does not know the corresponding Dutch (ex: "Papa', perché metti de lenzen in de ogen?"). The Belgianite also might reply in Italian to Milo. And we code-switch frequently mid-sentence, inadvertly...

Secondly, Zeno looks very much up to his older brother, who uses indiscriminatingly all of the three languages throughout the day at his own will and need; therefore, Zeno has been lacking some strict parameters and boundaries.

Milo addresses him less and less in Italian, and more in Dutch and French depending totally upon environmental circumstances and topics. Zeno follows the flow and always replies in the right language. Within the day, their exchanges are equally spread among the three languages and they can switch back and forth from one to another within a matter of minutes, depending upon who's with them and the topic of their conversation. Zeno's meta-linguistic awareness however is lower compared to that of Milo's at the same age. Personality-wise he is much more outgoing, open and communicative than Milo at his age, he also benefits of his brother's established social network; as a result, he just goofs around in whatever language comes to his mind!

We have decided to pay more attention and came up with a few guidelines for this phase:

1/ We are back to strictly usig OPOL and doing our best not to mix anymore
2/ When Zeno addresses us in French I make sure I provide him with the proper corresponding vocabulary in Italian, and the Belgianite does the same for Dutch
3/ I try to read a book in Italian to Zeno alone every day
4/ The Belgianite and I try to spend some time alone with Zeno, especially during the weekend, in order to clar the semantic confusion in his head, and provide him with some solid and fluid blocks of time where Italian and Dutch are spoken only, by us respectively and specifically with him.
5/We begun naming languages for him again (In Italiano we French they say...etc.)

On the positive side, Zeno seems to be more at ease with us speaking the other languages, while Milo used to be uncomfartable when I'd speak French to him in a public situation (that is when I needed to be understood by the people present). In general I dare to say that it is just harder to provide the same quality time and stimulation to the second child: the time is just not there...but that is not an excuse to fail our second MTK!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My boys and the girls...

This post has nothing to do with languages but rather behaviour between young males (in this case my boys) and the women of the future!
Milo has always been very popular, both in daycare and at the maternelle, with his female classmates; he's cute and kind, he's taller than everyone else and very protective toward everyone; on top of it, he applies strictly the rule thta says that in love wins the one who fleed! Girls just drop like flies. I cannot recount how many times we'd be strolling at a nearby shopping street and, all of a sudden, from the opposite siedewalk, I would spot a little girl waving and screaming "Miloooo! Miloooo!", to which Milo would react with total indifference, making sure it's clear he has not seen nor heard the girl! If the girl happens to be on the same sidewalk and dares to walk up to him and say "HI," he'd reply dryily: "Arret de me parler!" (Stop talking to me!) and walk even this point Zeno would step in and offer his best smile to the older, broken-hearted girl, he would pull one of his funny smirks and make her laugh while I jocke with the occasional mum, eventually taking the hands of the girl and beginning some playful dance; in a few years I can see him whispering: "Let me explain you about my brother, he's not like you and me..."

A few days back, upon arriving at Milo's school in the afternoon, one of his classmates ran to me and asked if she could marry Milo! Amused and surprised I told her that it was up to him; at that point Milo arrived and she basically cornered him, telling that they had become engaged that very same day, they were in love and they wanted to get married; I just looked at my boy and said: "Ah si, Milo?" providing him a way out, should he need one... but he was already blushing and said yes, the kind of yes one says when pulled by the hair!

The next morning as soon as we arrived at school, he tracked the poor girl down ans greeted her with the harsh news: " Je ne suis plus d'acord pour me marier"( literally: I don' agree to marriage anymore). That is how he set the record straight! The girl looked at me in disbelief, and all I could do was giving her a symphatetic gaze while squeezing my shoulders, denying any responsibility...deep inside I was releived: he is still MY little boy...but for how much longer?!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Multilingual Living

The latest issue of Multilingual Living has just been released and it' s a bomb!
Corey Heller and Alice Lapuerta are doing a fantastic job at gathering extremely valuable content from experts and volunteers from around the world and packaging it in a sleak, useful and stimulating manner; I salute their efforts on a purely volunteer basis and overcoming among other obstacles that of a few time zones, as they operate respectively from Seatle, USA and Austria!
I contributed an article on the way multilingualism is being cherished in Milo's kindergarden.
Check it out at the BBFN site!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Back issues (again)...

I have been dealing with a hernia in my lower back for the last two years, alternating bearable periods with unbearabl ones. This summer I reached the last drop of unbearableness, and upon our return to Paris from the holidays I have been finally operated. The operation per se is rather common and not particularly complicated...the immediate afterwards I do not wish to my worse enemy...and then I had to simply lay in bed and rest as much as possible, not an unwelcomed recommendation, but one that has once again deprived me from my blogging activities, not to mention complicated unnecessarily our daily life and organization; the good news is that I am doing much better, the pain is gone and I hope to resume to a normal life very soon. With lots of insights on my blooming MTKs!

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Nanny Horror Picture show (is finally OVER!)

I blogged in the past about Milo’s garde partagée with another little boy, a very frequent solution for the Parisian working parents who are often denied day care because there simply aren’t enough.
Milo’s garde lasted almost 2 years, and ended when Zeno was born, I went back to work and the nanny refused to look after Zeno as well. Milo was then 2 and a half, so he went to a private day care for 6 months, before starting kinder garden. Despite the abrupt conclusion of this first experience, we enthusiastically tried the same system with Zeno, together with a neighbour family living in the same building, parents of a little girl same age as Zeno. We got along well and there were all the premises for a successful venture (especially since living in the same building made things MUCH easier from a logistical point of view). This time around bad luck stroke in finding the right nanny. We changed 4 nannies during the first 5 months, which was simply traumatising (for us, as the kids did not seem to mind the carousel of care-givers), and I will spare you the appalling reasons for which we had each time to start from scratch. Those were awful months where I spent ALL of my free time dealing with this: making phone calls, arranging interviews, dedicating time to trials, consulting with the other mum at least 5 times a day on any of the above, getting to know someone new, opening our house and life to them to just, after a few weeks, throw it all away.…I was exhausted and was getting really hopeless.
Nanny number 4 seemed finally a decent bet: in her early 40s, gay personality, mother of 4 older children, hence all of the experience we could possibly desire. After a good start, the lady, nevertheless, took some serious risks during the first few months, despite the fact that we had discussed in detail our expectations as well as undesired behaviours. But, above all, she begun collecting mysterious illnesses at the rate of a week per month, never justified by any doctor. Every time she did not show up, it would devastate our work week: the Belgianite and I had to take time off alternatively and repeatedly, to the point that it was getting simply ridiculous; I was paying dearly someone, to end up being with my kids! I burned my holidays for the year by April and things at work were getting tense. Not to mention, I was a nervous wrack! It was just not worth it. So, after 13 months, we called it the quits and decided to put Zeno in the same day care Milo went to. This took a lot of consideration and pondering, as we did not want to leave the other family abruptly (they, however, had 2 sets of grandparents nearby that could always jump in when needed). We observed the firing procedure and gave them a month notice. The news were far from being well received.

The bitter-sweet aftertaste of this experience is due to the fact that none of these people (the nannies and the parents) we were in very close contact with for over 2 years, seem to have understood the amount of stress this whole ordeal has meant to us; it also baffles me that keeping in touch does not seem to be on their agenda. Our kids have grown up together, shared daily life, games, meals, important milestones of their early development. These nannies have seen them crawl, then walk, then talk, have received much of their affection (not to mention much of our money...). But for the nannies it is just a job and for the other families we were probably just a mean to save money. This coldness, in retrospective, is quite disturbing.

Perhaps the system is just too complicated to guarantee everybody's happiness; despite what I have been reading on parenting magazines, in reality all the people I have met that had engaged in the garde partagée have experienced some level of frustration and discomfort. I was ready to pay that price (a little). but I wasn't expecting all the doors to shut closed once the adventure was over. Is it the big city individualistic attitude? Is it a facet of culture shock? The French distance vs. the Italian relational bonanza? One thing is certain: I am done with it!

I feel very reliefed we found a way out eventually and I’m very comfortable with the new arrangement. Zeno adapted in no time to the new day care, loving the plurality of interaction and all of the additional activities. His French is skyrocketing too (the last nanny was a foreigner and her French was not very easy to understand.)

In the meantime we met Sofie, a bright, young motivated student who has a gift for dealing with kids. She picks up Milo and Zeno from school during the week and plays with them until I get home. Milo and Zeno fell in love with her instantly, it all flows naturally. I say we deserve her!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Multilingual dreaming

Milo is starting to recall his dreams in the morning; usually he would tell them to me, while cuddling in our big bed for a few minutes before getting up for breakfast, and he would tell them in Italian…like last week:

Milo: “Ho fatto un sogno stranissimo, mamma: Zeno ha preso il mio doudou e l’ha buttato nel mare. Poi papa é entrato in acqua e l’ha cercato. Ma…alla fine sono andato io a cercarlo e l’ho trovato, l’acqua non era profonda.”

(I made a really strange dream: Zeno had thrown my teddy bear in the sea, Papa went to look for it, and then finally it was me who found it, in the shallow waters).

This morning for the first time he told us of his first bilingual dream:

Milo: “Ho sognato che chiedevo a papa:
“Papa mi dai un cerotto?”
E lui mi diceva: “Wacht en betje! Ik moet geven medicament van Zeno!”

(In Italian: I dreamt that I asked papa for a bandage and he replied (switching now to Dutch): Wait a little! I am giving Zeno his medicine!)

Let’s leave aside any interpretation and let’s stick to the linguistic issues!
He totally imitated the Belgianite while relaying his line; he seemed amused and proud to have remembered his dream and when we asked him to say it one more time, he repeated it exactly the same. We cracked up at his cuteness, but also felt somewhat reassured: his multilingualism must be pretty deep anchored if his unconscious releases it so faithfully in his dreams.

I made me remember that when I moved to the USA at age 19, with a very shacky English baggage, it took me about 3-4 months to gain fluency and I felt so consciously the day I recalled my first dream in English.

I haven't had time to research this but I wonder f there is any scientific study conducted on the way languages we speak are reflected in our dreams. Any clue, readers?

French mistakes

Yesterday we ate salmon and I explained Milo that the salmon is a very strong fish that likes to swim upstream. This morning he was eager to share this new bit of knowledge with his nanny Sofie, but he lacked some vocabulary. I heard him say:

“Tu sais, Sofie, le salmón (instead of saumon) est un poisson très fort, et…et…l’eau vais comme ça et lui il nage comme ça (he mimics with his hands the fish going in the opposite direction of the water)”.

Sofie was changing Zeno’s pamper, an activity that requires much attention as Zeno makes it as easy as trying to put a diaper to a wild octopus…so between that and Milo’s metaphors, she was not getting at all what he was talking about, which frustrated him. So I decided to jump in to give him a little hand, and I said in French:

“Oui, Milo, le saumon est très fort et il nage contre la courant …”

Sofie got the picture and once she managed to put the octopus down, she picked up on the conversation. I was then summoned by the Belgianite in the bathroom, to learn that it’s ‘le courant,’ i.e. masculine and not feminine, as I pronounced it (I admit I was uncounsciously translating from the Italian ‘la corrente,’ which is indeed feminine).

As much I am fluent in French, I am aware that I still make the occasional mistake…should I be more restrictive with my use of French around the kids ? Somehow I feel Milo already has a strong enough base, and in terms of the pronunciation, he does not hesitate to correct me if I miss a nasal « e » or « oi » sound ; however I hear the Belgianite, we need to be careful not to pass on our mistakes!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Summer update

Zeno is literally exploding linguistically: on one hand he repeats almost everything he hears, in any language; on the other he is visibly trying to make sense out of his (multi)linguistic surroundings.

On his second birthday we sang 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY' in Italian, then in Dutch and finally in English (we left the French for his friends at the day-care). The next day he was singing to himself: "Atta-nanna to youuuuu, atta-nanna to youuuuuu!"

He is producing a few mixed sentences:
capelli mouillées (IT/FR)
ancora bigol (IT/DU)
merci mamma (FR/IT)
guarda Milo: cassé (IT/FR)

but also some good ones in any of his three languages:
"guarda mamma, vieni: dudu caduto!"
"pas ca, pas ca, fini!"
"piace podódoio” " (for non mi piace il pomodoro= I don't like tomatoes)
and the everlasting: "Cos'é mamma? Cos'é?" (What is it?)
"Dov'é Milo?" (Where is Milo).

His exchanges with Milo are 70% in Italian, with the rest in Dutch, if they're playing next to Papa, or in French at the park or during the day with the nanny.
Milo is clearly setting the language and deciding when to switch; Zeno tags along.

He obviously understands it all, but he is finally trying to sort each word and put it in the right linguistic basket.

Milo's encounter with another set of American friends reinforced his interest in English; they brought him some CDs with kids’ songs and we've been listening to Old MacDonald and other great classics! He made less of an effort to speak, this time, but he picked up several words and showed off a laconic thank you and goodbye a few times! I'm thinking of finding a playgroup for him in the fall, but it has to be something he can attend without me, otherwise he won't speak up.

School is over and my little MTKs are spending now their days with their new babysitter, a Franco-Spanish languages student. We could not find a better fit! She's intrigued with the Italian spoken by the kids and at the same time Milo is intrigued with her Spanish. So they feed each other language items all day long, using French as a common base. Milo has been asking me, on her days off, how we say this and that in Spanish! But yesterday, on my day off work, at some point he said full of melancholy: "I feel like speaking in French to Sofie…”

His meta-linguisitic awareness keep blowing me away: yesterday I was cleaning up the toys in the kids’ room and Milo spontaneously joined me to help; he was trying to tell me something but I was so absorbed in the task (and tired) that I did not realize I replied in English:

Milo: “ Mamma…”
Me: “…yes?”
Milo: “ Mamma!!!”
Me: “…yes?! What?”
Milo: “ Mamma: ti voglio parlare in Italiano!” (I want to speak Italian with you!)

So later I randomly asked him:
Me: “Milo pensi che ci parleremo in Inglese un giorno?” (do you think one day we’ll speak English with one another?)
Milo: “Non credo…a meno che non ci sposiamo, ma tu sei gia’ con Papa’…non possiamo sposarci.” (I don’t think so, unless we get married, which we cannot because you are with Dad)
Me: “Ma Milo, le lingue non c’entrano con l’amore…” (but languages have nothing to do with love…)
Milo: “Ma si, sposiamo le lingue!” (yes, let’s marry the languages)

I just left it at that, it was too cute and intricated to get into…It’s pretty obvious that Milo thinks that the Belgianite and I speak English because we are in love!

He’s been very playful with languages and has increasingly accepted me speaking French, to the point that we have a little game when I prepare dinner: he plays a traveller arriving in a restaurant, and I’m the French chef. So I greet him, ask him where he’s been and if he’s hungry and he tells me all about his recent trip to Italy to visit his grandparents. All this in French and with an obvious acting tone to it, both of us enjoying the role playing. Then I offer him to stay for the night, if he does not mind sharing the room with another fellow traveller, little Rascal Zeno (who in the meantime gets the gist of the travelling conversation and shows up with his back pack, thinking we are about to go somewhere!).

Apart from these occasional playful moments, Milo is strict with using Italian with me; on rare occasions he has been using French to tell me something related to school, which apparently is fairly common with bilingual kids. He code-switches automatically within the conversation. I let him express his thoughts and then I simply rephrase them in Italian, but so far it must have happened only a handful of times.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Watermelon qui pro quo...

Walking home from school in a warm mid-june afternoon:

Me: Cosa avete mangiato oggi a pranzo? (What did you have today for lunch?)
Milo: Il pollo, il riso e la pastecca, ma non l'ho mangiata, non mi piace. [Chicken, rice and pastecca (from the French 'pasteque') but I did not eat it, I don't like it.]
Me: Si dice anguria... (We say watermelon)
Milo: Quale? (What?)
Me: In Italiano si dice 'anguria,' non pastecca. (In Italian we say watermelon and not pastecca)
Milo: Ma si, la pastecca! (Wathever, pastecca!)
Me: Ti piace dire pastecca? Ti piace quella parola? (Do you like saying pastecca? you like the sound of that world?)
Milo: Ma no, ma se ti ho detto che non l'ho mangiata che non mi piace!!!! (But Mum, I just told you: I did not like it and I did not eat it!)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Language of Love

Milo: "Mamma, ho detto thank you a papa', ma non sono innamorato di lui!!!"
[I said thank you (in English) to papa, but I'm not in love with him].

Friday, June 06, 2008

Should I learn Dutch?

When I first met the Belgianite at an international media conference in Cannes, France, we spoke English to each other, the only language in each’ linguistic arsenal we shared. It remained our common language over the years.

We moved to France a few years later and I had to work hard to improve my very rustic French. I can now say I feel much more comfortable and can proudly declare myself fluent in French as well; the Belgianite was already fluent in French when we met, but somehow we use this language only socially, when in presence of other franco-phones, out of politeness; as he often says, we don’t recognize each other in French!

When Milo was born we decided to adopt the OPOL method; so I begun speaking more Italian at home to Milo and the Belgianite unveiled his Nederlands-spoken persona, while keeping English for each other. Thanks to his French basis, personal acumen, constant exposure to me speaking to Milo and encouragement from my family, the Belgianite achieved also a pretty good understanding and fluency in Italian; you’d think that it would gradually become the family language, but the Belgianite is a jazzy cat, no pop material, and so, as much as he is captivated by the Italian language, culture and lifestyle, he does not like speaking Italian with me, for the same reason that we fell in love with each others’ English speaking facet (...and/or for fear of being corrected when making mistakes?). However, Milo quickly grasped on his fluency and sometimes addresses his dad in Italian (mainly out of lazyness, when he does not know the corresponding vocabulary in Dutch); the funny thing is that the Belgianite does not realizes that on these occasions he replies in Italian!

I never really needed to learn Dutch, in the sense that during trips to Belgium and with the Belgianite’s friends and family I can communicate easily using French and English; and even when I would tease the Belgianite and ask him to teach me the bad or loving words in Dutch, he never really felt at ease or particularly motivated. To this day, I still have to hear an
“Ik houd van u” (I love you): I never got it in Dutch! And when I did whisper that to him, he replied with a smirk: “You sound weird.” (I told you he’s atypical! That does not mean that he’s not affectionate, on the contrary, but curiously he does not like to use any other language but English with me).

I instinctively find Dutch a difficult language, with many unfamiliar guttural sounds and little common roots with any of the other languages I speak; I tried several times to actively learn vocabulary using some kid books we have that labels pictures in both Dutch and French, but got discouraged by terms such as 'gelukkige verjaardag' ( happy birthday, try singing that without twisting your tongue), 'vreugde' (joy), 'brandweerlieden' (fire men), to name a few…
Nevertheless, daily exposure and repetition worked wonders, forging a very useful mini-baby vocabulary which I manage to use with the monolingual toddlers each time with meet up with Belgian friends.

So far so good with our intricated linguistic arrangement….however, Milo is developing quite fast his Dutch fluency and I realize now that when he has a lenghty conversation with friends or the Belgianite, I grasp less and less. I hate having to ask: "What did he say?", he being my very own son! I mean, the way things are I’m headed to miss out on about 30% of my son(s) verbal output in the coming years and I don’t like it.

On the other hand I wonder if the kids would appreciate it at this stage: I still remember a few months back I once addressed Milo in Dutch saying one of those little sentences I know: 'zit je niere op je poop' (sit well on your butt); he looked at me in disbelief, his look meaning something along the lines of: "Are you totally insane? What the heck are you doing, you awful OPOL betrayer?!?!” He clearly was not amused by it.

So here is the big question: should I set myself to formally learn Dutch, once and for all?
The poll for my dear readers is open on the right-end side bar, feel free also to express your opinion in the comments section. Tot straks (catch you later)…

Monday, May 26, 2008

English definitely peeking through and other episodes

Yesterday in the park, Zeno got scolded by the park guardian for stepping over the flowers bed.
Milo suddenly asked the Belgianite (in Italian):
Milo: "Papá come si dice in Olandese 'guardiano del parco’ ?" (Papa, how do you say in Dutch park guard ?)
Belgianite: "Dat is en bewaker" (the literal translation of bewaker is someone waiting rather than watching over)
Milo puzzled: “Ma no, papa, ho detto IL GUAR-DIA-NO!!” (I said THE GUARDIAN, papa!)
Belgianite: “Ja, Milo, dat is en park bewaker!”
Milo shrugs his shoulders as if saying to himself “bullshit!”

This has happened often lately; Milo’s Dutch has improved a lot, but he realizes that he does not know certain words , so he asks his dad the translation, often from the Italian. However he is very sensitive to the literal meaning of the words, and from one language to the next it might not be always the same…

One evening last week during dinner, we were doing our usual mix of languages: me in Italian with the kids and the Belgianite in Dutch; during a rare pause we exchanged a few items in English and Milo, very pensive, looked at us and said:
“Mamma e papá, perche voi parlate in Inglese?” (why do you guys speak English?)
It’s not the first time Milo has asked us an explanation to this strange arrangement. His meta-lingusitic awareness has been incredibly sharp form very early on; lately one morning he also proceeded to claim: “Noi abbiamo tre paesi e tre lingue: a Parigi in Francia, parliamo Francese; in Belgio l’ Olandese e in Italia l’Italiano” (We have 3 countries and 3 languages).

Going back to our dinner discussion, I proceeded to explain him:
“We speak English because when Papa and I met many years ago, we spoke English to each other and it remained our language.”
This time Milo added a new dimension to the discussion:
Milo: “Ma perché parlate Inglese quando potete parlare Italiano e Olandese?”
(why do you speak English while you can use dutch AND Italian?), meaning he figured it out that we do have a certain fluency in each other’s language (especially the Belgianite in Italian, since my Dutch is still very rustic and childish).
Chapeau Milo! I aknowledged his point but explained him that English was easier for us; I asked him, as I did in the past, if it bugged him that much that we spoke English and why. He said he preferred us to speak Italian and Dutch, simply. But when I proposed him to speak French at home (as a provocation, I did not really mean it), he firmly replied "Ahh no ! No francese!” French has become for him clearly the language of school, friends and the park, it has a clear geographical and social delimitations.

Milo feels frustrated when he cannot understand us in English. He has developed by now a pretty basic understanding (he associates it with Dutch, mainly); when some American friends visited recently, he would reply to the basic questions in Dutch. However he is lacking vocabulary, as we never actively addressed him in English; and he is definitely intrigued by it. He is requesting more and more to watch some of his favourite DVDs in English ('Cars' is an all time classic chez nous) and he asks me the meaning of some words/phrases he catches. He also has several books in English and he asks me to read them in Italian first and then in English. Sometimes he jumpstarts a role-play mode and wants to speak English, but not as Milo, he needs to project himself in another I play with him, such as when he pretends to be a sailor leaving for a long trip..

Milo: “Good bye, mamma, good bye!
Me: “Good bye Captain Milo, have a nice trip!" I tell him, speaking very slowly and repeating several times the sentence.“Where are you going Milo?”
Milo: “America!”
Me: “Wow, that’s far away…”
Milo “Yes, far away! Zeno…come…met (‘with’ in Dutch) the boat to America !”
Me: “Are you going with your boat?”
Milo “Yes, with the boat!”

I can sense that he’s proud and happy to finally crack the code and use also the language that has been for so long just mama and papa’s; but there is also a genuine fun element in learning another language. The Belgianite has been weary and feels we should wait until he gets to learn it at school. I instinctively feel that we are just responding to a demand coming from his essence; I am not imposing the 4th language, it belongs to our environment and it’s only natural that Milo shows interest; he sees that it’s useful to communicate with some of our friends and I simply nourish his hunger for vocabulary and understanding. And I’m happy he’s the first one to make it a game, by entering his English speaking persona of the sailor.

Milo’s best friend at school is also bi-national, his dad being French and his mum English. Victor is not fluent in English but he understands it fully, while he replies to his mum mainly in French. One day Milo came back from school and told us repeatedly that at lunch Victor and himself said several times “Seventy-four” (in English). We could not figure out what they were referring to exactly but clearly they were playing with English…

He has also developed a fun relationship with Spanish, which is very accessible thanks to his Italian. Since our trip to Valencia this spring, where he met some of my friends and kids his age, he’s been intrigued. I bought him some books ad a CD with Spanish kid songs, which had become an all time favourite. He learnt a few sentences (pescado frito, buenas noches, despiertate, levantate, quieres mantequilla para desajunar); he is aware that it’s another language all together (and in his class there are 2 franco-spanish kids) but there’s this playful aura around it. There also, I do not push any structure, I let him play with is and retain what he likes, but I admit I am deeply very pleased with his ease and curiosity for it.

Mr. Zeno, in the meantime has fast reached the old age of 23 months, and the last 6 ones have been very eventful for his language development. He went through 3 distinct phrases: he begun speaking quite a bit in French, since he was looked after a nanny during the day.
"Are you hungry Zeno?" I would ask him in Italian back in Janaury.
“Ouiiiiiiiiiii! Faim, faim!" he would reply enthusiastically in French.

Then my back got worse again and the Belgianite took a lot care of him directly over a period of time. I was there but could not hold him in my arms standing up, nor carry him anywhere. This coupled with a few trips to Beglium that I could not make, translated in a rapid development of Dutch. For a while all we heard from little Zeno was Ja, brook, kjek,broot, etc.

The during the spring holidays we went to Italy for a week, and there Italian took over as his primary language, although he has not lost the Dutch vocabulary. In the meantime he has joined a daycare, where they tell me he’s speaking primarily Italian, although his comprehension of French is full. For the moment it seems that, at a first comparison with Milo at the same age, he concentrates on one language at the time and is not as versatile in switching from one t0 the next. At the park last week he was fascinated with a tiny dog in a lady’s lap. “Cane, Cane,” he kept on screaming! The lady replied in French: "Oui mon cheri, c’est un chien, c’est ca!”
“No, CANE!” replied Zeno, firmly…

Milo addresses Zeno 80% of the times in Italian and 20% in Dutch, almost rarely in French. Zeno replies accordingly. The interactions between the 2 little multilingual rascals are often hilarious. Luckily they get along great and love each other, and the level of complicity is already amazing.

One night Milo did not want to go to bed and kept on coming up with excuses, one of his favourite being the fear for wolves. After having reassured him about 375 times that there were no wolves in the house, we sent him to bed rather sharply, menacing him to close the door of their room if he would dare to get up again. Few minutes later we hear his angelic voice calling out:

" Mamma e papá, Zeno dice di avere paura dei lupi!" (Zeno says HE's scared of wolves)
We giggled and decided not to reply.
then Zeno confirmed:
"Neno lupi...neno lupi" and then he added: "Milo paura!" (Milo is afraid) that point big brother set the record straight:
"No, sei tu TU che hai paura dei lupi!" (YOU are afraid of wolves, not me!)

6 things I enjoy doing (MEME)

It's been a long time I have been tagged for a meme...altough I often resist because I try to focus and writing only about my kids' lingusistic development, I will give in to the temptation this time and reply to Vera's request:

1/ Taking Milo to school and picking him up
2/ Writing
3/ Talking on the phone, especially with far away family and friends
4/ Going as a family to an expo
5/ Weekend brunches in an open air retaurant or pic-nics
6/ Doing little creative projects with the kids (drawing together, etc.)

I wrote them spontaneusly and as I re-read them I realized how dull I must come across and how far I've come...only a few years back my list it would have been something like this:

1/ Traveling to far and unknown countries
2/ Meeting new people from all over the world
3/ Attending art vernissages, receptions, parties, events
4/ Working in an international environment on iternational projects very late hours
5/ Spending a weekend at a spa taking care of myself
6/ Reading, going to art expos, attending concerts, etc.

It's not that I do not enjoy these things anymore, but times have changed, and I don't have the time to indulge in most of them...but, honestly, I like that my list has changed and I hope it will keep on changing!

And who am I tagging now ? Lilian, Dalian , Giovanni and Santi !

About this blog

I disapper from time to time and it’s not out of lazyness or lack of material, on the contrary. But real life simply takes over sometimes, and at the end of the day I have no more energy to type up the numerous amazing episodes of Milo and Zeno’s multilingual development. I try to take hand written notes and I hope one day to resume these six important months during which they both said so many fantastic things. Unfortunately I have had again my share of back pain, and between work and a missing nanny, we’ve been running around much of the time. I hope to keep coming back posting regularly. Thank you to the faitful readers who keep coming back and solicitating me, it really touches me! I also would love to hear more about YOUR multilingual kids and experiences ! Do write me at

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

New year's multilingual thoughts

We spent some time in Italy during the holidays, and Milo seemed much more relaxed than usual, as if the fact that he had to deal with just one language (the Belgianite speaks mainly Italian when we are there, even with me) released him from some tension. He picked up on a lot of vocabulary and impressed all of the family with his conversational skills!

However, he did spoke in Dutch to Zeno on a few occasions. They were pretending to be at sea and I heard Milo saying: " Kijk!, Zeno, een kleine haai!" (Look, a small shark).

He also would sing his French Xmas songs by himself from time to time. So his two other languages remained active, and at the same time he fully enjoyed the full immersion in Italian.

He's very adorable and responsible, perhaps an innate characteristic of first borns; while traveling he kept on checking on Zeno (Are you comfortable Zeno? Everyhting ok?)

Zeno on the other hand is exploding linguistically, he adds a few words every day, mainly in Italian and French. He seems to be extremely attentive to what Milo says, and repeats it all. He has a rather nasal way of pronouncing certain words, especially starting with labial sounds. I remember Milo also took some time before pronouncing correctly certain sounds, and he still does not have a rolling "r" in Italian (and probably never will):
  • he says fommaggio instead of formaggio, while in French he says impeccably fromage;
  • he has a hard time with the sound "st" (in French he'd say ouittiti instead of ouistiti, in Italian la ttazione instead of la stazione)
  • he has a hard time with the sound "sw" in Dutch (Watte Piet instead of Swarte Piet).

Zeno also has a fantastic ear for music, as soon as he hears a tune, he's gotta dance. He's the 'Happy Feet' of the family!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Meta-linguistic awareness

Milo is becoming increasingly aware of the existance of different languages, not only within his entourage. And he's curious to find out who speaks what:

  • Yesterday I was on the phone with one of his baby-sitters. Once I hung up, he asked me
    Milo: "Who was it?"
    Me: "It was Sabine."
    Milo: "She speaks French, right? She does not speak Italian..."

  • Another day:
    Milo: "Who did you have lunch with today, Mum?"
    Me: "I had lunch with my colleague Frederique"
    Milo: "Avete parlato Francese?" (Did you speak in French?)

  • The fist day of school after the holidays, on the way to school we were reviewing the nice two weeks we just had in Belgium and Italy, and Milo was keen to retell his teacher all about it; it seemed to me he was already mentally translating some of the stuff we were talking about. In fact, when I reminded him of the visit of the Befana, which on January 6th filled his sock with sweets and candies, he asked me:
  • Milo: "Come si dice Befana in Francese?" (How do you say Befana in French?)
    I had to think about it a second.
    Me: "I'm afraid it does not exist in France, Milo, you'll have to Befaná!"