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...