Thursday, November 26, 2009

It's Carnival time!

Check out the multilingual blogging carnival, a monthly get-together for all interested in bilingualism and in raising bilingual children and an opportunity to share experiences, info and best practices.

Organized by Bilingual for Fun, this month the carnival is hosted by Jan at Babelkid. Enjoy!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Zeno and his gift for synthesis...

Milo and the Belgianite were having this lenghty conversation in Dutch about a kite-surfer who lost his kite during a lesson; they kept going back and forth and, at some point, I lost track of it and could not understand anymore.
Zeno was playing alongside with his Lego.
I snuck up to him and whispered:
"Zeno, cosa ha detto Milo?" (Whad did Milo say?)
and he replied:
"Ha detto kite-surf!" (He said kite-surf)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Juggling four languages daily (how to stay zen when a pink flamingo becomes a pink Flemish!)

We spent a couple of days on the Cote d' Azur last week, to escape the first winter blues and to take a little deserved break. I purposely focused on our family exchanges and listened carefully to my kids, to what they were saying and how they were saying it. And for the first time I could grasp the depth of the puzzled looks we often generate when communicating in public places: I have indeed noticed in parks, on trains, at restaurants, bystanders after a few minutes stare at us or raise the one eye-brow, after having tried to decode our linguistic arrangements. Some give up and keep their puzzled look until we leave. Some brave ones manage to ask the question: "How many languages do your kids speak?"

This has been inevitable ever since our boys have been around. I, as an Italian native, could not speak anything other than Italian to them. But today, five years later, I sometimes address them or reply to them in French. The Belgianite, man of the North, stuck to his native Nederlands (Dutch). But since he learnt Italian in the meantime, he often does not realize being addressed by the kids in Italian (and replying in Italian as well). And the two of us having met in English, we have kept speaking in English to each other, despite having settled in Paris, France.

A random restaurant conversation can go something like this:

Me to Zeno (IT): "Zeno, vuoi mangiare lo steack haché con le patatine?"
Zeno to me (IT): "Siiiii, tante fritjes!"
Milo to me (IT): “A me solo fritjes, niente carne"
Belgianite to Milo (NL): "Nen, heeft u teveel frietjes gegeten!"
Milo to Belgianite (NL): "Maar ik houd slechts van gebraden gerechten"
Me to Milo (IT): “Non vuoi mangiare del jambon, allora?”
Zeno to me (IT): “Ioooo, iooo il jambon! Anzi, salame! Io voglio il salame!”
Milo to Zeno (IT) "Ohhh Zeno, ma mangi sempre il salame tu!"
Zeno to Milo (IT): “Se vuoi ti do due patatine!"
Zeno to me (IT): “Mamma…mamma….”
Me to Zeno (IT): “Sssshhh, non gridare!”
Me to Belgianite (ENG): “What are you gonna have?
Zeno to me (IT): “Mammaaaa…MAMMAAA!!! Mi hai interromputo!”
Belgianite to Zeno (NL): “Hoorde u wat de mamma's zeiden? Gil niet!”
Me to Zeno (IT): “Si dice interrotto, amore; cosa c’é?”
Belgianite to me (ENG): “I'm hesitating between the fish soup and the aioli"
Milo to Belgianite (IT): “Fish...hai detto fish papa'?”
Belgianite to Milo (NL): “Ja, fish betekent vis”
Milo to Belgianite (NL): “Ah, ja, de vis! Leker vis!”
Me to waiter (FR): “On peut avovir de l'eau petillante, s'il vous plait?”
Zeno to me (FR/IT): “Moi j'ame l'eau petillante! Con le bollicine!”

The waiter in the meantime has started to make drawings on his note-pad and is getting a headache! As much as our family multilingualism has become a natural status for us, I am realizing for the first time how, in the eyes of the observer, we are simply crazy. And no matter how much eventually the kids showcase a perfect French (or Italian or Dutch) diction and competence, we often receive the odd remark: "Aren't they confused with all these languages?"

I have asked myself the question several times in the last five years. And despite being reassured by the studies and literature on multilingualism, which are slowly becoming available to the general public, I cannot help wondering sometimes if we aren't overdoing it. A very nice lady recently commented on the positive effects that such a mental gymnastic must have on the brain, in the long term. I surely hope so, while on most evenings, by the time I go to bed, I am myself lost in all these languages and sometimes, under stressful conditions, I do not find my words in any of them.

The boys, however, seem to be doing fine: they have perfectly integrated all these languages, which was essential for us. We are also lucky that in our complex arrangement, our countries of birth are neighbouring France, our country of choice. Hence, frequent trips to our native Italy and Belgium have certainly contributed to the successful development of our respective languages for Milo and Zeno. Their schooling in French public schools guarantees a solid command of their French, which to this day is impeccable.
Of course their output in Italian and Dutch is not 100% perfect: in Italian they often create odd versions of the past participle tense of irregular verbs (interromputo instead of 'interrotto,' prenduto instead of 'preso,' etc.), and they sometimes make literal translations from the French (“Ho visto un fiammingo rosa,” instead of ‘fenicottero’(pink flamingo), translating literally from the French flamant rose – but actually translating flamand=Flemish!). But they have a good vocabulary and a solid grammar structure (they conjugate the subjunctive form correctly at 3 and 5, while it’s not the case with most Italian adults!), and once corrected, they immediately integrate the proper word. In Dutch their vocabulary is certainly limited and they do make up a lot of words from the French and the Italian, a phenomenon which, however, inevitably phases out with each trip to Belgium.

But no, they are not confused: they know perfectly well who speaks these languages and with whom they can use them; they are even intrigued in learning new ones.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Prunes scientifically proved to be helpful in English learning

A qualitative study conducted this month in our household has proved that the regular consumption of dried prunes is beneficial to English learning.

The study was conducted on a sample of two male specimen aged 3 and 5, regularly exposed to passive oral English and fed with dried prunes.

The following conversation was witnessed earlier this week:

Zeno (savouring a bowl of dried prunes): "Mmmmh. Delicious!"
Me (eyeing the Belgianite in disbelief!): "...!!!!!"
Milo: "Ti piacciono le prugne, Zeno?" (do you like prunes?)
Zeno: "Si! Tantissimo!" (Yes, very much)
Milo: " Mamma, come si dice prugne in Inglese?" (Mum, how do you say prunes in English?)
Me: "Si dice prunes"
Milo: "Zeno, devi dire prunes is delicious!"
Zeno: "Prunes is delicious!"
Me: "Braaaavi!"
Milo: "Good!"

For details on the miracolous prunes' specific brand, please email:

Thursday, November 05, 2009

English pops up...

We lit some candles on Halloween night, and we were peacefully observing their flickering lights in the dark after dinner, when Milo whispered sweetly:
"That's so cute!"
Literally. In English! This has been happening more and more frequently: from the "What's up, dude-mamma?" thrown in at the oddest times (thank you Carlo B. for teaching my kids!), to the occasional "Come on!", Milo  surprises us with a willingness to express himself which we found very moving (Zeno then repeats it out of emulation of his beloved big brother, but to his advantage since he's 2 years ahead of time!).
From time to time he misses the  shot (I asked the Belgianite if he could pass me a spoon and Milo asked me: "Is that a sponge?" since 'sponge' in Italian is 'spugna'!), but for the most part he gets what we are talking about and he's taking more and more action!

Therefore I updated  again our Family Language Diagram, which is getting more and more cluttered by the month:

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The debate online

For those of you francophones interested in the subject, here's the official website of the
French Debate on National Identity.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

National Identity debate

French Immigration minister Eric Besson has declared on Sunday that he will re-launch a nation-wide debate for the next couple of months on national identity. He wants to re-assess and re-define 'what does it mean today to be French, what are the values that unify the French people, what is the nature of the link which makes them French and that they should be proud of.' (Good luck!).
The theme of national identity was a pillar of  Nicolas Sarkozy' electoral campaign, and keeps on re-emerging throughout his mandate. Immigration has profoundly affected the French society in the last 40 years. In 2003, after having doubled in 8 years, France has seen 256 600 'regular entries' and 82 000 political asylum request. This is without taking into considerations children, illigal immigrants, second and third generation immigrants. The French national institute of statistics INSEE estimated that 4.9 million foreign-born immigrants live in France in 2006 (8% of the country's population). The number of French citizens with foreign origins is generally thought to be around 6.7 million, according to the 1999 Census conducted by INSEE, which ultimately represents one tenth of the country's population. (Ranked by the largest national groups, above 60,000 persons).


Mouvements of this amplitude unfortunately at some point translate into fragmentation and ghettisation of the population, of these new citizens, a substantial majority of which often arrive in desperate conditions from far and empoverished countries. That is why the government sees at risk its national unity and keeps re-launching the debate on national identity.

As an Italian native residing in France now for 8 years, I am often amused by the different approaches of these two countries to the issue of immigration. For instance, France embraces and professes laicism, while tolerating the observance of religions privatly. But you can be sure that you will never see any religious symbol in a French public school. A huge mediatic debate took place in 2008 when the European Court supported the French justice for having suspended in 1999 two muslim students from their public school, who had refused to remove their foulard at school. The very same Eric Besson is currently expressing strong views against the burqa in public, claiming its wearing is antithetic to the essence of French values.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the national birth rate is barely 0.8% and any population growthis entirely due to immigration (negative natural balance of -7 000 individuals in 2007), and in the classrooms we hardly have any Italian students, but a plethora of Roumanians, Albanians,  Marocans,  Chinese, Ukrainian, Filipino, Polish, Indian (source: Caritas/Migrantes, Immigrazione Dossier Statistico 2008); the gouvernment is currently having violent and animated discussions following a proposal (supported even by the Vatican) by the Vice Minister of Economic Development to introduce an hour of Islam teaching in the Italian public schools, where the teaching of "Religion," that is the history of the Catholic religion, has been the norm. The distance of these two particular examples doesn't stop to puzzle me. And yet, what ensures a proper integration? Where do we set the limits exactly to the right to observe one's faith or to live his/her own traditions democratically and the respect toward the local customs/values like laicism in France? To what extend do we need laws and to what extent do we need to reform our civic education?

One of the initiatives that the French ministry of immigration insists on, is the requirement of a certian level of fluency in French for immigrants upon entering the country, and the organization of free courses for new arrivals. I think that is is a fair requirement; language is an essential tool for integration and for human interaction and allowing the new-comers to better understand and better express themselves is definitely a step forward toward a successful integration. Yet, to get back to the original theme of this post, do immigrants need to adhere to the national identity definition as well? Is it necessary for them to feel French? Is it even possible? As long as I will live here, I will always feel Italian. Even though I pay my taxes in France, I abide by the French laws, I embrace the local lifestyle, customs and traditions (I looooove champagne! And oysters!), I respect and recognize the French authorithies, I cannot possibly feel French! I ask this question to every multi-lingual/expatriate/international profile I encounter: what do you feel, in terms of nationality? And more often the not, the answer reflects the place where we have spent a substantial part of our youth, regardless of the mother-tongue or the nationality of the parents.

As immigration evolves, as third culture kids increase, as the new generation of multilingual and multinationals spans borders and melts the pots, does it still make sense to talk about national identity? When foreign-borns in a country like France will reach 50%, will it still make sense? Will it still be needed?

And regardless of immigration, if we consider just the geographic vastity of a country like France and its richness in regional climates, cultures and customs, can we still talk about national identity? Because the way someone from Marseille might feel French is quite different form the definition you would get from a resident of Neuilly-Sur-Seine (the chic suburb of Paris) or a Breton, for instance. Let us not forget that regional dialects were suppressed (unfortunately) shortly after the French Revolution. Abbé Grégoire is  notorious for writing his "Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language," which he presented on June 4, 1794 to the National Convention. According to his own findings, a vast majority of people in France spoke one of 33 dialects patois and he argued that French had to be imposed on the population and all other dialects eradicated. Suddenly, not only Occitan, but also Catalan, Basque, Breton, and several other ancient languages were discouraged and actively suppressed. School pupils were punished well within living memory for speaking their native language on school premises. Regional identities were sacrified for the benefit of an alleged national one...but did it ever exist?

I already wrote about national identity here, and I also wrote a brief article for the (*sigh!*) last issue of Multilingual Living, which should be issued soon (will post when it will be out and about). The debate in France promises to be a...colorful one! Stay tuned for further reporting...

PS: Eric Besson has evoked the possibility to have the young French students sing the French national anthom at some occasion thoughout the school year, as a way to restore national pride and belonging.
I'm working on a post on the role of national anthoms today for multicultural communities. See the new poll  on the right-hand side and feel free to take part!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The "r" issue

Milo is now 5 and a half and his pronunciation in Italian is flawless, except for the "r." From the very beginning, he has had a hard time rolling it properly. He adopted different strategies in different phases: when he begun speaking, he would skip it (saying fommaggio instad of 'formaggio,' for instance). Then, for a brief period, he would pronounce it the French way; but that did not last long. He has now developed a way of pronouncing it softly, without rolling it. He'd say: "Ghiazie, mamma!" instead of grazie.
In technical linguistic terms, this is called the approximant labiodental i.e. a consonant represented by the symbol [ʋ] in the international phonetic alphabet (IPA). The phenomenon is apparently widespread among monolingual Italian kids, and is usually left unaddressed until the kid reaches the age of 7-8. After that, a few sessions with a logopedist (i.e. speech therapist) can rectify the situation, if needed.

This summer my dad tried stubbornly to train the kids:

Grandpa: "Prova a ripetere....quattro!" (try to repeat: four)
Milo: "Quattio!"
Grandpa: "RRRRoma!"
Milo: "IIIIoma!"
Grandpa: "Carote! Carrrrote!
Milo: "Caiote!"
Zeno: "A me non mi piacciono le caiote!" (Me I don't like carrots)
Grandpa: "Si dice: A me non piacciono" (you should say: 'I don't like carrots')
Zeno: "Si, ma a me non mi piacciono le caiote!" (yes but I still don't like them)
Grandpa: "Concentratevi bene, ragazzi: crosta! Crrrrosta!" (concentrate! Crust!)
Milo: "Chiosta!"
Zeno: "Cos'e la chiosta?" (what is crust?)

...and so on. Milo became rather self-counscious and frustrated, eventually we summoned my dad to leave him alone but, despite my several efforts to reassure him, he remains aware.

Last night Milo asked me to spell for him the word inverno (winter), as he wanted to writer it over a drawing he had made.

Then I heard him say: "IN-VE-NNO! Eh gia', non riesco a dirla tanto bene la"r"...pero' la so scrivere benissimo, vero mamma?" (I can't pronounce the "r" very well, but I can write it just fine, right mum?!)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It's never too early to become multilingual!

My friend Martina left me an interesting question in the comments to my previous post:

"We are a one-language family (Italian) but we would like our 1 y.o. son to learn English asap. What do you suggest? Letting him settle his Italian first (he already says around 20 words and he understands a lot) and then start him in an english Kindergarden at 3 y.o or start sooner? Some have told us to start not too soon to avoid him getting confused..."

As many experts often have written, there is no unique, failure-free recepee to grow our children multilingual. Each family has to find a strategy that works more or less painlessly for them, and stick to it! Determination and motivation are certainly fundamental ingredients when we decide to embrace a bilingual lifestyle.

One thing that I would like to stress for Martina , is that it is neve too early to start! On the contrary, research has shown that the first three years of life are the most fertile ones for children to learn multiple languages at once. Tracey Takuhama-Espinosa in her book "Raising Multilingual Children," describes 3 windows of opportunities, the first one being between 0 and 9 months, and second one between 1 and 6 years of age, during which languages are learnt with an ease that is progressively lost, and with the capability to reproduce sounds like natives (while, at a later stage, we develop accents). Infants exposed to multiple languages regularly do not get confused: if it is part of their environment, they just develop simultaneously the proper linguistic codes to reproduce the languages they hear.

So, Martina, if you wish your son to grow bilingual, you need to find a proper vehicle to introduce English in your son's life: whether it is a bilingual day-care, or an English mother-tongue baby-sitter who spends time with him regularly and addresses him exclusively in English. You can then complement this activities with play-groups with other English speaking children, or by playing little songs in English at home, or, later on with little trips to the UK. But regular interaction with an English speaker is the key for your son to start assimilating the sounds, the grammar structure and the vocabulary of another language.

Unfortunaltey it is rare to find pediatricians or other child-care professionals who are properly informed on multilingualism, in mono-cultural countries like Italy or France, for the matter. However, you will not let them discourage you with your project; there are a numbers of books on bilingualism and resources available on the internet (check out the Multilingual Help Desk on the right-hand side bar). But remember: you need to find what works for you!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Almost-quadrilingual family check up!

This year I haven't mananged to blog much, real life with its inevitable intense course just took over, yet so much happened linguistically in our family.

The main developement is that at age 3, Zeno is an official 'speaker:' he makes full sentences in Italian, French or Dutch, depending upon the need; he does not mix anymore, nor screams! He finally feels he can express himself, and he feels listened to and understood.

Milo and Zeno's development of their 3 main languages has been constant and solid. Incidentally, their personality shifts a little with each language too, which is something very peculiar to witness. They tend to be softer in Italian, and a little rougher in French, the language of play and school mates. Milo also has a new trilingual Dutch- speaking class mate (Dutch dad, American mum), and we are excited at this new opportunity of interaction, to further strenghten his Dutch vocabulary.

Milo has increasingly been paying attention to the English exchanges of us, parents, and has been delighting himself in detecting the meaning of words and expressions, sometimes by asking directly ("Mamma, cosa vuol dire "It's ready!" ?), some times just by using his own deducing skills and by replying to me in English at the oddest moments "Thank you, mamma!"). American friends visiting us have increased his curiosity and need to grasp the language in order to express himself. I still feel reluctant to introduce a formal training in English; I have been thinking about play groups , or watching DVDs together more consistently. But, honestly, I have my time filled just by handling the Italian, the French and the Dutch and making sure the kids learn the same vocabulary in all three languages harmoniously...for the moment their English learning activities it's just their daily passive exposure to my conversations with the Belgianite, an occasional conversation, a book read first in Italian then in English, etc.

Another language has been tickling the fancy of my two mini-polyglots: Spanish. Ever since we took a trip to Valencia last year to visit some friends, they have been very curious. We have DVDs, CDs with songs, books and we know a few Spanish speakers: one of Milo's classmates Mum, one of our baby-sitters, a neighbour, etc. Milo often asks me how do we say this and that in Spanish and loooooves singing some songs (the current favourite is dancing hit 'Cada vez que te veo"!)

Zeno is still very much in emulation of his brother and benefits of much of his curiosity. His French last year has developed flawlessly; he occasionally makes up words with the Italian or Dutch roots when he does not know the equivalent in French, but in general his mixing habit have progressively melted away. And frequent trips to Italy and Belgium have helped tons. He has definitely a musical ear: when he hears music, even at a distance, he's captured and feels an irresistible need to dance and move. This, I am convinced, is another ingredient for success in multilingualism; he differs from Milo in this who has built his personal multilingualism on priviledged individual attention. Zeno lacked at least 50% of the time we spent reading and talking alone to Milo, but his musical hear supplied for that.

He started kindergarden this year, he's in the same school as Milo and I am often moved when I pick them up in the evening and they tell me : "We have seen each other at the cafeteria today and we said CIAO CIAO to each other!" Surprisingly, their main language of interaction is still Italian, although I assume this year French will rapidly take over, and Dutch is also used when playing with Dad .

As for my Dutch learning, I am slowly getting there, a word at a time! Despite my doubts in a previous post and the impressive results of the poll on the right hand side bar, where 84% of you advised I should learn Dutch formally, I never took a course (so far!). "I just don't have the time," seems to be the most plausible excuse! But...I am listenting. Just as my kids are listening to English every day, I am listening to Dutch, and I am understanding more and more each day!
Sometimes, when I am alone with the boys, I try out on them a little sentence in first Milo would look at me bewildered and would ask me shortly to just speak Italian! Now they are growing more tolerant of us crossing boundaries (The Belgianite speaking Italian, me speaking French or Dutch) and they just limit themelves to correct my (pitiful) pronunciation. The last time I was even congratulated: "Not bad mum!" (I was talking about balletjes, some meatballs they love to eat in Belgium).

I always thought that our little crazy family one day would settle naturally on one lingua franca...maybe Italian, on really good days...maybe French, on more realistic ones...or English, if I felt particularly daring! I am now witnessing a gradual softening of the OPOL practice and am starting to feel that, perhaps, our 4 languages are such an essence of our nucleus, that they will all be used by all members at some point, and I must admit: I like this scenario. It's who we are, it's how we are. That we might be able to express a certain feeling or opinion in a certain language because we think it captures its essence, and we might be understood bt the other members of the family, is a huge luxury and freedom.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Learning through playing

One of the tools that we, as parents of multilingual children, have to foster and strenghten the minority language in our household, is to set up play groups with families who speak the language we need to reinforce.

Setting up a playgroup can greatly vary in difficulty depending upon the location: large, cosmopolitan cities might provide more opportunities than smaller urban centers, however on the internet we can find all sorts of websites helping us locating families near us with the same lingusitic needs.

Anna Stevanato Le Marchand, a fellow Italian mum here in Paris, has recently founded an organization to help multilingual parents in this direction: the Association des Familles Multilingues organizes playgroups in Italian, Spanish and English for kids aged 2 to 7.
German and Russian playgroups are also in the planning. The objective is to have kids strenghten and practice their second language in a playful atmosphere and outside the family environment. The results and the progress are often outstanding!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Multilingual kids despite it all - survival of the fittest

This post is about a few families I have had the chance to observe, where the kids turn out multilingual despite the counter efforts of their parents.

When Milo was born and I started digging into multilingualism, I developed a true passion for the subject. A passion that was primarily alimented by the call of blood, that is by the desire to succeed my child linguistic development. I naively thought that all parents in our situation, that is having to juggle more than one language, would feel the same preoccupation and would feel compelled seeking information on the topic. But along the line I met very relaxed multilingual families who worried more about other aspects of their childrens' life, and lived their multilingualism as a casual expression of their family, like hair color or size, rather than a very specific asset.

One lesson quickly learnt was: not everyone considers multilingualism as an asset, and not everyone is willing to go the extra step to ensure success.

But then I also met a few expat families with obvious integration difficulties, where the mothers were unvoluntarily inhibiting their kids' multilingualism.

Story #1 pertains an American family who's dad is a multilingual originally from a middle-eastern country. When the kids reached age 3 and 5 the dad was expatriated to France for his travel-intensive job. The mother did not speak French at the time and found herself in a new country, with two small children and often alone, as the husbands travelled frequently. The kids were scholarized and underwent a certain degree of culture-shock; but eventually picked up French, while the mother for years kept feeling unhappy and bashing everything French, hanging out almost exclusively with anglophones, creating a piece of America in her household where only US TV, media and food were allowed; the kids were obviously for a long time torn between the curiosity toward the environment and the desire to play with their new French classmates, and their mum's refusal for the new environment. They eventually became perfectly fluent and are today perfectly integrated, although they continue living the American way at home.

Family #2 comes from literally the other side of the planet, let's say Australia. The father speaks also French and has been expatriated in France for a two years period. The mum had a very similar reaction of the previous mum: instead of taking the opportunity to learn another language and discover together with her children another country, she locked up. As a consequence, her first child refused completely to utter a French word. He attended the French public kindergarden, and at his second year his teacher had still not heard his voice. When asked about it (in English) he would say that he simply would not speak French. The smaller child apparently is impermeable to his brother's stuborness and is starting to babble away in French.

Part of me can understand the hardship of these mums had to endure: it's not easy to find yourself in a new place where you do not speak the language, with small children. I lived through that, although before having kids, and I know how depressing feeling isolated can be.
However, as parents I feel we have an obligation to make an effort at some point and start trying to grasp this new environment. If we do not do it, how can we expect the children to adapt, to ease into the world?

So these mums did not choose a family language strategy, refused to embrace te environmental language, kept of bashing the outside French world, were consistent only at keeping a strictly monocultural environment at home, and despite this counter psychological efforts, 3 out of the 4 above mentioned kids turned out perfectly bilingual, in French and English. Which only confirms that the environmental language at some point sneaks in and takes over, whether we like it or not!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How things change: Family Language Diagram (updated)

I just updated our family language diagram and was startled by the changes that have occured in only one and a half years! (See the original diagram in the right-hand side bar).
The first diagram was depicting especially the desired situation, while this one is a more concrete and objective picture of what goes really on in our family. Although the Belgianite and myself are returning strictly to OPOL, the circumstances and social interactions are such that all of the other languages are inevitably spoken by us around the kids as well.
The good new is that Milo (now almost 5) and Zeno (just over 2 and 1/2) seem to be developing their main three languages very harmoniously and clealry. I am constantly reassured by Milo's maitresse and by Zeno's day-care personnell about their excellent proficiency in French; their Italian is up to the standards of kids their age, with tiny mistakes every once in a while (past participles, cannott roll the 'r' fully), but similar to their same age Italian counterparts; as for the Dutch, I am the last one to be able to judge, but the Belgianite assures me they are up to speed and have no trouble whatsoever in communicating when in Begium. Milo has been indeed more and more disciplined in addressing his dad in Dutch direclty, even in my presence.
One thing they do not like, though, is us transgressing the rules: they do not like me reading a book in French or Dutch. There are some books they accept in English, though, but for the most part they want Italian from me.

Zeno's meta liguistic awareness is also coming along. Little conversation witnessed yesterday:
Me: "Allora, in che lingua lo volete vedere questo DVD? C'è in Francese, Olandese , Inglese e Spagnolo" (which language do you want to watch this DVD in?)
Zeno: "In Francese! In Francese!" (French)
Milo (whom, up to this point, amused himself by watching this particular DVD in Spanish, for some reason, but is sensistive to his little brother's request): "Sei sicuro, Zeno?" (are you sure?)
Zen: "Si, in Francese" (yes)
Milo: "Ma lo capisci il Francese, Zeno?" (but do you understand French?)
Zeno: "Si, si." (yes)
Milo: "Alla crèche parlate Francese?" (do you speak French in daycare?)
Zeno: "Si, in Francese." (yes)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Multilingualism Literature

SmE from Tampa Bay, Florida as well as Hanna, a young Swedish mum residing in Brussels, have been asking me for books to advise on multilingualism. I don't have a long extensive list, but I did come across some useful sources in the last few years and I'm happy to share them.

When pregnant with my first son, I begun my quest for information on multilingualism, as in France I could not find much support from the childcare specialists nor the pediatricians. Thanks to the Internet, I stumbled across some amazing blogs from other multilingual families. Then we found out about the BBFN, which then produced Multilingual Living magazine. I also corresponded by email with some pediatricians from Canada, Belgium and Switzerland (all multilingual countries). Finally I read a few books. Among all of these sources, I was able to draw some conclusions and come up with some sort of family language(s) strategy, a concept which I think is very important and at the same time should remain flexible, suiting the family evolution.

There are two books that were particularly helpful in the process: the first I read was "Raising Multilingual Children," by Tracey Takuhama-Espinosa; although I found it more taylored for an American readership (whether in the USA or abroad), it offered a very broad and well organized vision of all the elements that can contribute to a successful multilingual child, from an academic/pychologic/linguistics as well as personal point of view (Tracey is married to an Ecuadorian, and with their three children they have lived in the US, Japan, in Ecuador and in Switzerland; her personal experience is very refreshing throughout the book). The book is very pertinent for a bilingual family as well as a multilingual one (trilingual or more). The author identifies specific time windows of opportunities from birth to old age, which should be used purposefully in passing on the family languages; she also introduces variables such as the child personal aptitude, the siblings ranking, gender and even hand use as all having a strong influence on the end result, that is given that a proper strategy, motivation and consistency from the parents have been in place, wisely mixed with the environmental opportunities to strenghten the language skills. Although I never found my particular family scheme quite spelled out in the book, I did retained several notions that helped me considerably throughout Milo's first 4 years.

Another book which was very fulfilling and provided an endeless array of case studies is "The One-Parent-One-Language Approach, Language strategies for bilingual families," by Suzanne Barron Hauwaert. We did choose the OPOL method and if that is your case, this book is THE source on how to apply it, but not only: where did it came from, the pre-school years vs the schooling years, interaction between family members etc. All brillianty supported by surveys and case studies, making it all very accessible and full of common sense. The author is coming out very soon with another book on siblings comunications within multilingual families, which I'm very eager to read.

If you are starting out with your first child, there is a book which I would recommend that has nothing to do with multilingualism, but that has been of immense help to me: "How to parent," by Fitzhugh Dodson, a 1970 classic on pedagogy (I read it in French and I love the prophetic title in the French translation: "Tout se joue avant 6 ans," that is all is defined before age 6). There are a lot of hands on advices on how to anticipate the challenges linked with each age, and how to maximise the potential of the child at each stage. There's a lot of attention to language. And despite the fact that it was written almost 40 years ago, I did not sense at all a generational gap, it all makes perfect sense for our contemporary crazy life.

Another good source of information is the editor Multilingual Matters, which issues a quarterly newsletter called the Bilingual Family Newsletter, collecting several case studies and providing answers from experts. You can dowload a free past issue sample from their site.

Finally, the last issue of Multilingual Living is focused on trilingualism. If this pertains to you, check out Alice Lapuerta's interview to Xiao Lei Weng, author of the lastest book
on trilingualism "Growing up with three languages." Haven't read it yet, but I loved the interview!

Should you readers have any particular book you found helpful that you'd like to share, don't hesitate to write me at , would love to know what you guys are reading!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tid bits

Zeno (2.8) at his daycare
A little girl tells him:
"Mon cousin s'appelle Ilan" (My cousin's name is Ilan)
Zeno replies: "Mon cousin s'appelle Spider Man!" (My cousin's name is Spider Man!)

Milo (4.10) on the metro

We were flipping through a magazine on our way to a movie when we saw
this picture, illustrating an expo on Darwin and the Evolutionary Theory.

He looks at it curiously, and so I explain him the theory in very simple terms. He looks at me with a smirk and says:" Nooo, non funziona mamma: quest'uomo da piccolo era un
bebé, non una scimmia!" (It does not work like this: this man ,when he was
little, he was a baby, not a monkey!"

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's all about trilingualism!

The new Winter issue of Multilingual Living is out and about!
You can subscribe to it on the BBFN website, and learn all there is to know about trilingualism.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Meeting a mirror multilingual family

This weekend we went to the birthday party of a charming Italian boy who lives in our neighborhood. The parents are both Italian and they have been living in Paris for a decade. Italian is spoken at home, and French at school. The boy is perfectly bilingual and shows no French accent when speaking Italian (the family frequently travels to Italy for holidays or long weekends).

At the gathering we met several other fellow Italian women, one married to a French man, another to an Indian man and... even one to a Flemish! We were exstatic to have found a mirror family! The mother is Italian and the father is Flemish. They have two lovely girls, younger than my kids (6 months and 2 and 1/2). The main difference (linguistically speaking!) is that they speak Italian at home! Italian is indeed their family language. The father speaks Dutch with the girls, but only in one-to-one situations. So far they haven't had any problems and their first girl seem to be fluent in both Italian, French and Dutch (they also travel regularly to Belgium and Italy). What triggered the choice of their family language was that the father already spoke Italian when they met and they lived in Italy for a few years.

The Italian-Indian family was also very intriguing. Their three gorgeous kids (aged 9, 7 and 2) speak fluently Italian, French and Marati, the father's language. The father is also fluent in Italian, which ends up again being the family language. The kids pick up on Marati on summer trips to India.

Languages and cultural affiliation took up much of the conversation that afternoon; there was an ease in recognizing each other, we all shared, as parents of multilingual kids, the same pride and concerns. The kids all played harmoniously and happily, speaking...all of their languages!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Olympic pride and hints of national identity

Last summer we watched the Beijing Olympic Games; we were vacationing on the Italian Alps and every evening, coming back from a long day spent hiking, we enjoyed chilling out by watching some great sports event. It was useful also to introduce Milo and Zeno to some sports that are not frequently accessible and televised, like swimming , martial arts, volleyball etc.

As we were in Italy, RAI broadcasted primarily the competitions featuring Italian athletes, therefore I was enthusiastically cheering for someone at any given event; the Belgianite had not much chance to support his country, and so he'd fall onto the USA. The kids were amused, and rivaled at recognizing each flag.

On one swimming sprinting event in which both Italy, Belgium, and France were competing, Milo spontaneously picked....France, leaving us speechless and, yes, feeling somewhat betrayed! It wasn't just out of imitation of us, I sensed that in the French flag he saw a symbol in which he identified at some level (the French flag is not as visible in France as the American one is in the USA, but we do see one from our apartment, and there is one at the entrance of Milo's school), the same way he's keen to recognize Sarkozy on magazines' covers, ever since I pointed out to him that he's France's President and his picture does reign in his school main hall).

Another related episode concerns a Spanish song we have been singing all summer in the morning: "Buenos dias, hermanos, pasatelo bien hoy" (good morning brothers, have a nice day). One day I was trying to get Milo and Zeno motivated to get in the bat thub and called them 'hermanos' (brothers in Spanish); Milo immediately replied: "But we are not Spanish!"

The notion of national identity in multicultural kids is truly fascinating, and scarce research is available. I posted before about TCKs and the way they are true citizens of the world, at ease everywhere, and at the same time often lacking specific roots... and I often wonder whether my kids will inevitably feel a stronger affiliation to France and the French culture, or if they will also have some emotional root in my native Italy. My main concern not being one over the other, but rather the concretization of a sense of root, which, I imagine, on one hand will depend greatly upon how long we will live here and how often we will move.
National identity is not just limited to a passport, a flag, a spoken language; it's a tightly-knit, complex bundle of sounds, music, flavours, traditions, scents, values we feel part of...and this is the fiber of the patrimony I'm keen on passing on, and that I wish my kids one day will also identify with. Because..."A country's culture and language have a habit of seeping in through an expat's pores. But becoming a parent, brings home the need to remember your national identity."(Expatica website)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

When translating is an inevitable part of the game

During the Christmas break we visited with family in Italy and Belgium. Milo brought along his kindergarden school book, a scrap book where his teacher keeps his drawings, classroom work and text of songs and poetry he learns. He was eager to show it off to his grandparents and, although rather shy when asked by me to sing these songs, he gave a full show to the Italian side of the family. What was truly impressive was that, while singing in French, he was also simultaneously translating the lyrics in Italian for his audience, adding also some explanation remarks! It would have been an exhausting exercise for any adult, but he seamlessly sang his way though dozens of French Christmas carrols!

* * *

Last night we were playing a game at the dinner table: Milo and I prepared a veggie soup and the Belgianite was to guess the secret ingredient, which was 'white beans' (fagioli in Italian and witte bonen in Dutch); we often play these type of games, where we both give the respective version of an item, plus the English version. the conversation went something like this:

Me (in English to the B.): "So, what do you think is in the soup, papa?!"
Belgianite: "Broccoli...potatoes?"
Milo (in Dutch to the B.): "Nen Papa, daar arent potatos in de soep!"
Me (in It. to Milo): "No, no, niente patate!"
Belgianite: "Wortelenjes?"
Milo: "Ja, ja!"
Me (in English to the B.): "And what else?!"
Belgianite (in Dutch to Milo): "Uien... knoflook..."
Milo: "Nen!"
Me (in It. to Milo): "Si Milo! Ti ricordi? All' inizio abbiamo messo le cipolle e l'aglio..."
Milo (in It. to me): "Ah si, mi ero dimenticato!"
Belgianite: "Green beens?"
Me (in English to the B.):"No! By the way, how do you say green beens in Dutch?"
Belgianite (In English, to me): "Groenen bonen. There is also a type called princes bonen"
Milo (in It. to me): "Cosa sono?"
Me (in It. to Milo): "I fagiolini, quelli verdi e lunghi..."

Milo was dying to suggest his dad what was the missing ingridient, and so I defyied him:

Me (in It. to Milo): "Puoi solo dirlo se lo sai in Olandese!" (You can only say it in Dutch!)
Milo hestated a little than said: "Dat is the kleine fagiolini!"

Me: "I fagioli! Sono i fagioli!"
Belgianite: "Ah, Milo, dat is the witte bonen!"

* * *

Recently Milo has asked me to watch a DVD ( which he has seen a half a dozen times in English or Dutch) in the...Spanish version. He was amused to recognize quite a few words from a CD we used to play last year with Spanish children songs...but especially, at the crucial points of the story, he would turn to me and say: "Perchè, mamma, in Inglese dicono Santa Claus e in Olandese de Kerstman !" (In English it's Santa Claus and in Dutch it's de Kerstman), somehow feeling I needed to be filled in on the plot!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Wishing for a family language...

Perhaps it's the Siberian cold that has been enveloping Northern Europe in the last few weeks, or perhaps it' s the post-holiday depression syndrome, but I am starting this new year with a lot of doubts and few ideas about my little multilingual family.
Don't get me wrong: I feel generally lucky as no major problem is really the matter. Milo is now 4 and a half years old and fully trilingual, and Zeno, at 2 and a half, is tagging along with honor. The trips to Italy and Belgium during the holidays were fatiguing for the Belgianite and myself, but I realize now how important they are for the kids, a unique opportunity to cement their language structure in Italian and Dutch, to increase their vocabulary and provide that environmental extra stimulation we lack in Paris. Zeno's vocabulary skyrocketed in the last few weeks, and his mixing, although still in place, has significantly reduced.

However, once back in our Parisian routine, I cannot help but wandering if, by sticking stubbornly to the OPOL method, we are not missing something of a more harmonious way of being together. Our dinners, for instance, have become something rather erratic, filled with interrupted conversations, attempts at translating, misunderstandings and so on. The kids are visibly intrigued but bugged by the Englsh the Beliganite and I use to communicate. And so each time we begin talking, they either ask us what are we saying or they interrupt with another subject. When the Belgianite addresses the kids, half of the time I don't understand him (my fault!I should have studied Dutch earlier, I know!). Things are not dramatic, but sometimes I really wish we had a family language. If given the choice then, I would lean toward Italian, since it's the language which is understood and spoken by every member.

I tried to visualize us speaking Italian at home, and realized that Dutch would be gradually heavily sacrificed; the kids are less exposed to it, due to the few hours they manage to spend with the Belgianite. Another feature that would disappear would be the passive English they have been absorbing over the years. Although we never address the kids in English, it is spoken daily around the house and the kids' understanding is evident. Right before the holidays for instance, Milo insisted on singing 'Jingle Bells' in English in his kindergarden chorale, by himself in front of the whole chorale! Apparently he was appalled by the French version! The teacher was quite amused when she told me!

When I heard this, my motivation to continue with our current quadrilingual setting refueled. I tell myself that, in any case, the situation will eventually evolve: we might see the day where our kids refuse speaking anything but French; or English might indeed raise to the status of lingua franca. Or, indeed, we will continue with our schizophrenic switching back and forth during our dinners, until the day it will simply feel the most natural way of communicating...