Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Juggling four languages daily (how to stay zen when a pink flamingo becomes a pink Flemish!)
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.