Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The amazing wonders of built-in meta-grammatical awareness

I try to read books daily to my kids, and in a perfect world,  I should read only in Italian to them. The reality is that, when I come home after a long day at work, tired and famished, and they ask me to read one of the many French books they love from their library, I just read it in French: my brain, on certain evenings, refuses any collaboration, and if I try to simultanously translate in Italian, I sound like a foreigner! The kids don't mind it, but while Zeno keeps interrupting me with 1000 questions about the story (that is, focusing on the content of the story), Milo cannott help correcting the occasional pronunciation mistake I make (a nasal vowel, a missed liaison...).
Tonight , though, he went a step further and he simply blew me away! I was trying to read the following sentence:
"Ils entrent dans la salle..." which means they enter the room; while the final 's' is normally not pronounced in French words, in this case it needs to be pronounced because it provides a liaison which helps the listener capting the plural nature of the verb.

So I stumbled a few times around the sentence: "Il rentr...ils rentre?" and Milo shed the light for me:
"Si dice Ils rentr, mamma: se fosse stato uno solo avresti dovuto dire il rentr, ma siccome sono due..." (You read it ils rentr, mama; if it was just one person you would have read it il rentr, but since it's two persons here...).

The kid is still in kindergarden (he will turn 6 soon, and start primary school in September), and while they work a lot at school, grammar is definitely not on the program yet!
How could he come up with such a logical and grammatically oriented explanation for something he knows only by ear, in theory?
I'm stille in awe!

If you're in Paris , go DULALA!

I had posted previously about a brilliant association here in Paris organizing language playgroups for multilingual families: it was called the Association des Familles Multilingues. It recently changed name, website and enlarged its scope: it's now called D'Une Langue A L'Autre (DULALA), if you are based in Paris or simply French-spoken, take a look at their sleek website! I recently joined their Research Committee and it's great fun to interact with the founder, Anna Stevanato, a fellow Italian woman who's a linguist and specialised on bilingualism, as well as the other members.

It's exciting to see how much has changed here in Paris in the last 5 years, that is ever since I started wondering about multilingualism: not only parents have now access to a plethora of information on the web as well as associations such as the Cafe Bilingue and DULALA, but the general media is also finally recognizing the changing demographics of France's capital and are investigating on the matter. If you understand French, listen to this (very French indeed!) podcast from Europe1, one the top French news radios, entitled: "Je veux que mon enfant soit bilingue!"

Friday, April 02, 2010

An Easter kind of Carnival...

It's almost Easter, but before you dash out painting eggs with your kids and hiding chocolates for them in the garden, take the time to sit down and browse through a whole range of great blogs, and discover what's new in their multilingual venture! Welcome to the March/April 2010 issue of the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, initiated by Letizia, founder of Bilingual for Fun, and hosted every month by a different blog on multilingualism.

It's my first time hosting it and I truly enjoyed discovering new blogs I wasn't aware of, but especially realizing the variety of motivations and circumstances that committed all these families to a multilingual journey!

For instance, Sarah at Home Educate in Italy this month writes about the [inevitable] necessity to correct our children when they make mistakes in the minority language, and how this might hurt their sensitivity and  inhibit them to keep speaking the language. Find out how she overcame this by finding creating ways to get the message across without damaging her child' confidence: a great lesson in multilingual as well as emphatic parenting....

Smashedpea over at Intrepidly Bilingual tells us about a rather common phenomenon among young bilinguals:  her youngest child mixes a lot between English, the dominant environmental language, and German, her native language, currently being learnt also by her not-for-long monolingual husband.

Lauren at HoboMama is raising her child bilingual in English and German, while not being a native German speaker. This month she unveils her plan to be more consistent in her own learning of German, in order to summon up the courage to speak German with natives!

Jan at BabelKid considers how her daughter seems more comfortable counting in English (the environmental/school language) rather than his native German.

And German is once again the language of honor at Mummy Do That, where Steffi lists her favourite German children books.

Eve at Blogging on Bilingualism analizes the benefits and pitfalls of dual citizenship, for herself and for her children. In her case, the French/American citizenships opens up wider options for her kids' higher education.

And Sarah of Bringing Up Baby Bilingual profiles a fascinating Trinidanian English spoken family, where the mum has self taught French, and has chosen to raise their 2 year old child bilingual English/French.

Which leads to my post here below on what do we consider as a maternal language when we are raised bilingual, and how does that define our identity.

Here we have it once again: different families, in different countries, with different projects, all sharing the need or the desire to raise their kids in one or more languages. Each Carnival gives me more confidence that our children's generation will be, by sheer numbers, equipped with more tolerant leaders, more apt at dealing with the issues of the world!

Should you wish to receive updates or to host the future Carnivals, you can sign up here.
Happy Easter everyone! May the hunt begin!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Who you really are: a post about national, linguistic and cultural identity for multilinguals.

This post is meant as an entry for the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism which I will be hosting on April 2nd.
Come back in a few days to check it out!

When our sons were born, we found ourselves having to deal with a complex linguistic situation, being both parents native speakers of different languages (Italian and Dutch), living in a third country (France) and communicating in a fourth language (English). After some research, we opted for the OPOL method, and, 6 years later, we can honestly say it has worked well for us. Although the Belgianite and I are both multilingual, it was natural for us to decide to use our respective native language with the kids.

However, what happens when the parents are bilingual from birth?

Consider Elena, a bilingual native Italian/French speaker: she is married to another bilingual native Spanish/English speaker. The couple resides in the UK. Their 6 months old daughter has all the chances of growing up quadri-lingual. Elena has opted for speaking Italian in the mornings and French in the afternoons, yet she wonders if it is going to really work.

I attended recently a conference of the Café Bilingue here in Paris, where Ranka Bijeljac-Babic, a CNRS researcher, specialized on bilingualism, shared some of the latest research projects on bilingual kids (I am writing a separate post on this conference). Several bilingual parents like Elena asked the same type of question: did they really have to choose one of their native languages? It is easy to relate and understand their resistance to this notion of having to choose. They grew up with 2 languages, each expresses a strong aspect of their personality and is linked to a cultural patrimony that these parents desire passing on. To choose between one or another is like asking them to get rid of one of their arms or legs!

However, specialists seem to be wary of one parent carelessly addressing the child in 2 (ore more) languages during the first 3 years, that is in the delicate phase when the language structure is building itself. The advantage of OPOL is that the child has a clear and well defined identification to a specific parent for each language. This schema provides the necessary linguistic boundaries so that each language can build itself consistently, progressively and separately.

But a careless OPTL (One Parent, Two Languages – note, I am making this up!) can be potentially harmful and lead to all sorts of problematic situations.
The fact that you are bilingual, Elena, is a richness, and you have all the due motivation (and right!) to pass on your cultural heritage, and to stay true to yourself. Moreover, since you probably speak French and Italian (and obviosuly English) on a daily basis, your child has already "heard" you while she was in uterus: research shows that 7 months into the pregnanacy the auditory system of the foetus is complete, hence your baby has grown accustomed to hear you speaking these different languages.

However, since your child is also confronted to 2 additional languages (Spanish from your husband and English from the environment), you have to consider the child and the potential difficulties she might have in dealing with such a complex linguistic arrangements. For bilingual/multilingual children, language acquisition is indeed more complex. The baby has to differentiate the languages (s)he hears, avoid interferences and learn that language is arbitrary.

Here in France pediatricians and speech therapists would strongly recommend you give up one of your 2 native languages. They have an expression I have heard several times, which I find irritating: "faire le deuil d'une de ses langues maternelles," that is, literally, mourning one of your mother tongues. I personally find this unnatural. I think your project is doable, but you need a well defined family language strategy, and loads of motivation, perseverance and patience. Think of the child: try to make things flow. You could, for instance, intensify the presence of other Italian and French speakers in your daughter’ routine. Ideally, you should find a care giver (a nanny, baby sitter) who would speak one of your 2 languages only, let’s say French, and you would only speak Italian. At least until the age of 3.

Alternatively, you can look into language play groups; on top of the different timings devoted to the 2 languages (Italian in the morning, French in the afternoon), you could also link each language to specific moments/activities/places: the bath, the playground, etc.

Finally, don’t be afraid to explain to your child from early on that you speak 2 languages, and why; to tell her your story, to show her on the map these 2 countries. Do not underestimate the meta-linguistic awareness of [multilingual] children!

I find Elena fascinating because she represents a preview of my children’s adulthood: when (if!) they will become parents themselves, they will be confronted with the same issue: will they want to speak Italian, Dutch or French to their kids? Unless their future partner will be a native speaker of any of these three, inevitably some of these languages (and a facet of their personality?) will be lost…

But even before getting to their future parenting issues, I have often wondered and written about their national, linguistic and cultural identity. And, alongside, dwelled on the notion of mother tongue: in Elena’s or my children’ case, we are obliged to use the term ‘mother tongues’:
"Mother tongue: the language a human being learns from birth.” [Language, by Leonard Bloomfield]
“Mother Tongue: the language that the speaker speaks best. In either case, a person's first language is a basis for sociolinguistic identity.” [The native speaker: myth and reality, by Alan Davie])
I have heard people claim: your mother tongue is the one you feel at ease counting in! Plausible: my mother tongue is Italian, I grew up monolingual and learnt languages as an adult. When it comes down to complex calculations (and mind, counting the rest from the baker for me qualifies as a complex calculation!), indeed, I have to resort to Italian. I still manage to do simple operations in English, but God forbid in French! On the other hand, I seem to have a hard time giving out my (French) phone number in English and Italian. But when I have to type in the pin code for my (French) credit card, it's definitely in Italian that I mentally recite the digits.

However, Milo (6) and Zeno (3 and ½) can both count easily in French, Italian and Dutch, so will the same ‘rule’ apply to them? Probably not. What language does Elena resort to for counting? I’d like to know!

“Your mother tongue language is the one you dream in!” I’ve also heard. Milo is a sleep talker and I have heard him on more than one occasion dreaming in French or Italian. Which makes sense!

Nav recently left in a previous post an intriguing related question: “Which language do you think on, when you are not conversing?” I started paying attention to my inner discussions, and I realized that the language varied with the environment or situation. At home it’s mostly Italian. On the way from school to work in the morning it’s French. But at work, or on the way home at night, it’s mostly in English. Basically, it depends upon the language I have been using actively moments earlier. Since I speak these three languages daily in both my personal and professional environment, I happen to think in all three as well.

There is another mother tongue indicator which is pretty infallible: anger! When I am truly upset, words pour out of me in Italian! Milo and Zeno as well, when they fight, it’s in Italian. Will it stay that way over time?

All in all, we, multilinguals and parents of multilingual children, "have to stop thinking that something more complex is necessarily less efficient," as a VP of a top French corporation recently oddly stated. With the rapidly changing demographics of our children' generation, so will change the way we define items like mother tongue and national identity.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

If you can read this, you're just...normal!

"I cdnuolt blveiee  taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the
ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the first and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a  taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig, huh?!"

I wonder if it works in every language! Any volunteers to draft a paragraph like this in any other language?!Please email them at:

Monday, January 25, 2010

My new Dutch tutor!

It was bath time ("bagnetto time") last weekend, and, out of the blue, Milo addressed me in Dutch:
"Brrr...mijn pijama is koud! Waarom heb je het niet op de radiator gelegd, mama?"
It was one of those shivering moments, when you realize something eventful is taking place but you are not quite sure what exactly,  nor why! I kept my cool, I looked behind my shoulder to check if, by any chance, he was addressing anyone else, but no: it was just me and him in the room! I had somewhat understood what he had said: the pajama was cold, why didn't I put it on the radiator, as I usually do in the winter months?
Bemused, I quickly tried to come up with an answer in Dutch, but simply did not have the words.
So I replied in Italian:
"Non lo so, tesoro, me ne sono dimenticata..." (I don't know, I forgot about it - I know, pretty damn dull!)
Milo insisted: "Volgende keer, vergeet het niet, alsjeblieft!" (next time don't forget, please!)
The little dude was obviosly in provocaton mode: the honey-combed voice confirmed my suspicions!
 I took a deep breath and tried my very best guttural sounds:
"Waarom spreche Nederlands met mama, kleine sloeber?!" (Why are you speaking Dutch to me, little rascal?)
"Ik weet het niet...dat is zo!" (I don't know..I feel like it)
"Si, ma se poi io non ti capisco?! Come la mettiamo?!" (What if I don't understand you?)
"Ik zal het je leren!" (Don't worry: I will teach you!)

And right there I felt my heart sqeezing with joy, pride, surprise, it was an unbelieveble milestone of (multilingual) parenting that I will never forget! I should have just hugged Milo right there and savor the moment, I should have known better that silence is gold, sometimes...

...instead, I had to add:
"Vuoi davvero che impari l'Olandese, eh?" (You really want me to learn Dutch, don't you?)
To which he replied , angel-like, still in Dutch:
"Papa heeft Italiaans geleerd!" (Papa has learnt Italian!)

That's when I made a mental note to never, ever forget to warm up his pajama again!

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Italian brothers...

Zeno: "Mamma, mi canti 'L'Italia Tedesca' ?"
Me: "Cosa? Che canzone è?"
Milo: " Vuole dire la canzone dei Fratelli dell'Italia..."
Me: "Ah, Fratelli d'Italia...l'Italia s'è DES-TA, non tedesca!"
Zeno: "L'Italia sedesca!"
Milo (singing): "Frateeeeelliiii d'IIIIItaaaaaliaaaaa..."
Me & Zeno: "...l'Itaaaaliaaaaa s'è deeeestaaaaa...."

The dialogue above concerns the Italian national anthem, which I have sang to my children since they were babys on and off, on various occasions.  I learnt the national anthem as an adult, as it is not sang in schools, but rather at football games in stadiums (which, by the way, I never attended!). But since I moved abroad , to the US first and to France next, I became sensistive to this artistic symbol of my country: I find it a beautyful song (despite an occasional recurring debate in Italy concerning the need to swap it with some aria by Verdi or Puccini), and its choppy-rythm version has served several times as a perfect diversion from a tantrum or a difficult situation with my 2 little princes! Moral of the story, they learnt it too, over time,  and they enjoy it just like any other song, although, due to it's aulic Italian (it was written in 1846 by Goffredo Mameli) they don't understand all the lyrics and I always get the odd question ("Chi è Scipio? Perchè Roma aveva una schiava? Chi era la Schiava? Perchè sono pronti a morire?"). I think on some level they think the song is about them, since it talks about Italian brothers! They feel concerned!
While the identification with the French culture and its symbolysm has inevitably begun (Milo's drawings of boats and airplains always showcase a French flag), my two boys also identify strongly with their Italian side. A few weeks ago Zeno was watching a DVD cartoon in French, and after a while he asked me to switch it to Italian, "...perché noi siamo Italiani!"
Also, last weekend in Milan upon landing at the airport, he marveled at the fact that everyone spoke Italian! ("Mamma, ma parlano tutti Italiano qui!").
They are very aware of their Belgian identity as well, we have both flags in their room, they can spot Italy and Belgium on the map,  and they know that they are italo-belgian, but the Belgianite being less fanatic of anthems and symbols, the most Belgian behaviour they have assimilated so far is the addiction to quality chocolate!
I wrote recently on the public debate on National Identity that has taken (dangerously as well as corageously) place in France in the last few months, and one of the measures that came out of this debate is to make mandatory the regular singing of the French national anthem ('La Marseillese') in public schools. So, I guess that's the next song they will learn.
I still have a hard time, though, projecting the way they will feel once grown up, in terms of national identity. Will the amount of time we will have spent in France be a key factor? Will this early identification with Italy  provide a strong root? Will they have the TCK syndrome, at ease everywhere and nowhere at the same time?
I guess, for the time being, the best I can do is teach them also the European anthem, the beautiful 'Ode to joy' (Beehtoven's 9th Synphony) . I'll choose the Latin lyrics, though!