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.


aelle said...

There's actually a gay activism club called 'les Flamants Roses' in the north of France ;)

I'm impressed by how well your kids are doing with their 3, almost 4, laguages. No wonder they amaze people around you!

Jan Exner said...

I'm pretty sure the kids have no trouble at all keeping up with 4 languages. Adults might, but not children.

The conversation sounds a lot like what we have, and we also get a lot of weird or interested looks in public.

Also I think "pink Flemish" is pretty close to reality, isn't it :-)

Anonymous said...

I loved that post! I wish I were there to hear such conversations. I agree with Jan. Your family seems to have it under control and doing so with great success for the goals you have set. We have similar types of "mixes" but only with two languages, so I assume you are having more fun! ;)

Rachel said...

i'm so impressed with your family and their multilingualism. forget the crazy looks, your kids will thank you later when they speak 4 languages more or less fluently. and in the end, if they're missing a word or two in one of the languages, they can certainly improvise by using another word or describing it. kids are resilient and their little brains are like sponges. i wouldn't worry about them being confused. bravo to all of you!

giovanna said...

Nice nice post!
I start to feel more or less the same when our family goes out. People's reactions are weird. But what puzzles me most and really puts me in a confused state is when some outsider, looking at us, approaches us in a different language than the one I expect him/her to speak. For instance today in Paris while I was talking to Aislin and Marc(my dutchy) in her creche, the father of one of the children turned and started talking italian with a big smile... I was so distracted and puzzled I could barely answer, it took me at least 10 seconds to formulate an answer cause I couldn't chose which language to use anymore and for some weird reason my brain stopped working. I presume you know the feeling pretty well...

Anonymous said...

I bet the real fun is when the kids do produce their perfect [insert language here] against all expectations. It always amuses me when someone I know switches mid flow from foreign to colloquial accentless English.

HeatherV said...

sounds like a conversation that my friend and I have with our kids. She is Dutch, I'm American and we are married to Italian men. We speak to our husbands in Italian, to each other in English and our children speak in a mix of English and Italian using whatever word comes to mind first. (and my daughter's friend even tries to speak Dutch to us from time to time). The locals in our small town think we are nuts!
Loved this post!

Anonymous said...

Hi Clo, very nice and funny post, thank you for sharing. It reminds me when a salesgirl in a Lush shop in the centre of Rome was struggling to speak English to my daughter, just because she had heard the little one speaking English to me. After a while the girl turned to me - I was talking in Italian to the cashier - and, panicking, she asked if the child could understand Italian, heaving a big sigh of relief when I answered that certainly she could! But I wonder: we where in the very centre of Rome, where tourists from everywhere are a lot more than the residents, shouldn't it be mandatory to speak at least enough English to sell a bar of soap??