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.