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