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.