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...

3 comments:

giovanni said...

Zeno two and a half... but it was like yesterday that he wasn't even born... Il tempo... E la lingua... A family language may be needed, I don't know, it raises questions about identity, the "mode" in which you express emotions, analyze, relate to each other. How important is it to have a common language? Can't you have two or three common languages? After days and days of skating I lost all languages stored in my head -- the only "language" left was that of images, senses...

Clo said...

Giovanni, I think in the long term we will have at least 3 common languages, that is Italian, French and english (I am afraid I will never be decently fluent in Dutch...). But in the meantime, we need to stick to OPOL (One parent one language)and that is the price to pay. As you will read later, I met similar families who ended up with different strategies.

santi d said...

Hi Clo! It's interesting to read that you were thinking if the language at your home would be otherwise.

I never thought about having a more harmonious way of being together. Our family has been multilingual since forever, that's our natural being and it's our way to be in harmony.

Since our move to Munich 9 months ago, our family turns into quadralingual. Joseph (and later Louise) goes to a French school, which is bilingual French-German. Parents, teachers and pupils at school are at least bilinguals. Being part of a community who are bi/multilinguals makes us feel 'normal', especially after 4 years struggling for our multilingual identity back in Chicago.