Archive | Multilingual RSS feed for this section

My Multilingual Mothering Story

17 Nov

I’m often asked how I managed to learn so many languages and how I keep them apart. Well I must say a big part of my abilities come from my mother’s motivation during my childhood. She was a busy woman, but very strong in her belief that she was giving me an enormous gift, that today, I can thank her for from all my heart.

I decided to write this to encourage mothers not to be afraid to speak several languages to their children, if they are bi-or multilingual and wish their kids to become part of a true multicultural world. I realized very early that having several cultures and languages is enriching. There is nothing better in life than understanding other cultures from the inside, including their sense of humor and their way of thinking. The more languages you speak the more you are able to find yourself in the right place and situation.

My multicultural experience started when I was 3 years old. Another language and culture entered my life. Thanks to my mom I kept up my first language. I spoke both languages at the same time, adding on the new one like a parallel world on the top. My brain got more and more flexible and I learned how to separate them. The third language followed when I was 10, just learning it at home.  Actually that kind of passive learning was not bad either. I only realized it later when all the vocabulary I acquired was stored in my brain, and when I needed to speak it four years later, it seemed to flow out of nowhere. I started learning the 4th language at 15 years of age, the 5th at 20, the 6th at 23, the 7th and 8th at around 30, and today I’m learning my 9th one.

When my brother was born, 20 years ago I decided to help my mom with the difficult task of raising a bilingual child, understanding that with age one gets less motivated for all the extras about child upbringing. I wasn’t there all the time for him but my mom came up with other tricks to keep her language alive.

My own personal experiences strongly influenced my multicultural mothering choices from the moment my daughter was born. So when it was her turn I knew what to do but I had to choose between the languages I knew and chose to limit myself to 3.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was prepared.  I was lucky because we had the chance to move from France to Sweden before my daughter turned 2. At kindergarten she was immersed in one language, her father spoke a second and I kept up the third. She hardly spoke before the age of 3, but when she did she had a lot to say in all three languages simultaneously. I was optimistic and believed that the order and structure of each would come in due time.

Things became a bit more complicated when we moved to China four and a half years later. Two more languages were added: English and Chinese. The latter was added by a “storm” as it was a phenomenon moving from a Swedish to a Chinese kindergarten. A year later, English was smoothed in at an international school, even though she was part of the French section.

Today my daughter speaks five languages, not all very well, but I make sure I keep them up to a certain level. She will work out which she wants to continue with later, on her own. The most important job has been done though and I’m sure that one comes out of such experiences only stronger, not weaker as some people tended to think in the 70’s.

We live in a new era, in which we need to communicate with and understand each other more deeply to keep this world peaceful and to preserve the planet.  That will be the task for the multilinguals we are educating today.

Svetlana Furman is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering. She is an independent business consultant living between Paris and Stockholm, where she just moved back to, after spending over 3.5 years in China. 

Her 9 year old daughter is attending the Lycee Francais of Stockholm.

The Birth of this Blog

10 Sep

I remember it clearly – my husband was asleep, so were my kids, well at least for the next half-an-hour before one or both would wake up and need attention. It was my chance to read for a few minutes before bed.

I was on a wave, jumping from blog to blog – devouring the stories. When I hit Literary Mama, I stayed. Before I knew it, it was 5am. The swollen eyes the next morning had nothing to do with my usually non-sleeping twin toddlers. Instead of catching up on much-needed sleep, I was reading and forwarding links to my friends. Honest Voices: A Review of Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering a book review by Literary Mama columnist, Avery Fischer Udagawa caught my attention. It was the first time I’d read anything about multicultural parenting.

Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, is a collection of stories by mothers in Japan, Israel, South Africa, the US and so on, raising bi / multi – cultural families. Avery herself is American married to a Japanese man. They live in Thailand with their two children.  Like Avery’s children, mine were starting to say words in different languages, speaking to me in English, to my husband in French and to their ayi (nanny) in Mandarin.

I particularly appreciated Avery’s reflection on the patterns in her writing about parenting, which she described as a “nagging tendency to dwell on the positive and project certainty. The reality, as my family has learned, is often more complicated.”

I forwarded her piece to a group of my own mum friends, all of whom could relate in one way or another, and suggested we write our own simple stories of Multicultural Mothering. The positive response drove us to create this blog. Most of us are neither writers nor bloggers, and yet we enjoy reading about each other’s experiences, discussing them, celebrating our friend’s successes, and above all finding support in each other.

Here’s an excerpt of Avery’s review of Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering.

“Life among four worlds — America, Japan, Thailand, and the expat world — brings many benefits. Our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter enjoys a Wee Sing song with greetings in several languages not because the words are foreign, but because she actually uses them: hello with Mommy, konnichiwa with Daddy, ciao with our Ecuadorian neighbor, shalom with a teen at the international school. We slip in sawat dii kha, which she uses all day every day with Thais. I love to think that these words are all hers, and that I grew up in Kansas but can hear a child speak Japanese in a mall in Bangkok and realize that it’s my own offspring. My husband and I were thrilled recently to welcome a second child to our mélange of worlds.

But life abroad is not simple. Our preschooler sometimes has to be prompted by my husband to use his native Japanese here, while she readily uses my American English, except when it’s Thai-accented English, which she believes she should use with Thais. Like us, she is least fluent in the language of our host country, though she was born here. I wonder sometimes about her future: Where will she call home? Will she feel chronically displaced? Despite all of the people, places, and words she knows, will she feel cast adrift?

These are questions specific to people raising children among cultures, and ones I seldom see addressed in parenting books. I am happy to report that Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering is an exception to this rule. This collection of 21 essays by mother-writers in expatriate, international, adopting, and/or diversity-seeking families offers the kinds of stories I hear and tell daily, about parenting in multiple languages, juggling identities, and rearing children in terra incognita. It also addresses challenges of parenting among different worlds, including some much more daunting than my family and I have faced.”

—————

I am yet to get my hands on a copy of the book. It will be soon I hope. Read Avery’s full review here.

The Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering Facebook page

—————–

I live in Chengdu with my husband Maher and our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul.  I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until Our Little Yogis became the teachers.

Benefits of Being Bilingual

8 May

“Language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is the shaper of ideas… We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” (Benjamin Whore, 1897-1941)

Back before my daughter was born, which in some ways feels like a different life, I used to teach CEGEP (community college). In one of my courses, we talked briefly about knowledge and how language shapes it.

“How many of you speak at least two languages?” I would ask, as an introduction.

Every hand in the class would go up. Not only do I teach in bilingual Montreal, the school where I work is in a very multicultural neighbourhood where many students are first or second generation immigrants.

“How many of you speak at least three languages?” I would ask. Always quite a few hands would go up, sometimes most.

“How about four? Five?” Usually, at least one or two students in my class spoke five languages.

Then I would ask them, “In what ways does learning a second (or third, or fourth…) language contribute to and expand your knowledge of the world?” We would discuss. We talked about how translation is more complicated than just substituting a word from one language for a word in another. How languages are shaped by culture and context. I gave them some real examples of mis-translations to illustrate the point. For example:

“We take your bags and send them in all directions.” (In a Danish airline ticket office)
“You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” (In a Japanese hotel)
And my favourite:
“Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.” (In an Italian laundromat)

Or did you know that Puijilittatuq is Inuktitut for: ‘he does not know which way to turn because of the many seals he has seen come to the ice surface.’? I guess we don’t have a concise expression for that in English because… we probably don’t need to say it very often!

Not only does knowing more than one language help you to function in an increasingly globalized world, it also expands your understanding of culture and language and the way the world works.

I was interested to see that apparently there are  10 Proven Brain Benefits of Being Bilingual. This article brings up some interesting points, some of them surprising (did you know that bilingualism apparently staves off dementia?). This makes sense to me though, because learning a second language doesn’t just mean memorizing more vocabulary; it means expanding your understanding of the world. I guess it makes sense that that makes your brain work harder, keeping it in good shape.

For all of these reasons, I’m happy to be living in a bilingual city and that my little munchkin has been being spoken to in three languages since the day she was born.

Many months ago, I wrote about speaking to someone who had taken a course in bilingualism. She said that it could actually be best for both parents in bilingual homes to speak both languages to their children, rather than taking the traditional approach of having each parent speak one language.

However, I eventually asked for more information about this theory and after reading through a stack of academic articles on bilingualism didn’t see anything direct or convincing about it. So we switched to the traditional approach- I speak English to M, and E speaks French.

We both slip up sometimes- I find it almost impossible to speak English in completely French settings, and E finds the same in English settings. But we do our best.

And E’s parents speak Italian to her… except when they forget and slip into English or French. Ok, so none of us are perfect. But we’re trying. And the important thing, I think, is that my little one is hearing two different languages on a daily basis and three on at least a weekly basis. I’m very curious about how this is shaping her perception of the world around her.

Last week I was invited to an event and brought M with me. Most people there were Latin American, and there was more Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese being spoken than French or English. Everyone wanted to see M- she got passed from person to person, and was spoken to in rapid Spanish and Portuguese all evening long. She didn’t seem surprised about it, and reacted to the people talking to her in the same way she reacts to anyone else. It made me wonder: what is going on in her little head? At this age is facial expression and intonation more important than actual words? Are Spanish and Portuguese similar enough to Italian that she actually can understand a little bit? Or is she just so used to hearing different languages that it’s no surprise that a few more might exist, too?

M is 13 months old now, and babbles incessantly, but she doesn’t speak many real words (that we can understand, anyway). I can’t wait until she starts talking, mostly because I’m curious about which language will come out. Will she automatically speak English to me and French to E? Or will she mix everything all up? Remember some words in one language and others in another?

I’m happy that M will know more than one language for the benefits to her brain explained in the article mentioned above (what mother doesn’t want her child to be creative, intelligent and environmentally aware?!). But also I’m happy that she’ll have a window into different cultures, different ways of seeing the world, different ways of structuring information. One of the benefits of ‘multicultural motherhood’ is the ability to give this gift to our children.

What Does Bilingual Mean?

18 Mar

“What does ‘bi-lingal’ mean?” my daughter M asked me as I dried her post-bath hair last night.

I gave her the first definition that came to mind. Someone is bilingual if they speak two languages equally well. I pointed out that the teachers at her school were all equally proficient in Spanish and English.

“Like Mrs. G always talks to Mrs. M in Spanish, and she talks to us in English!” M exclaimed.

“Yep. And Mrs. K speaks to some parents in Spanish and some parents in English. Do you speak some Spanish?”

“Yes,” M agreed. “But not much.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish yet,” I confessed, “but I do speak English, Bangla, French and Italian. That’s called ‘quadrilingual’ for 4 languages.”

Yes, pero...We live in El Paso, TX,  less than 20 miles from the US-Mexico border. There are two main communities that I’ve observed living side by side: the local Mexican-American population, and the army community, made up of soldiers between deployments and their families. The latter group is fluid, moving every year or two. Many army spouses are from countries other than the US, met during soldiers’ international travels. Spanish and English are the languages most often spoken on the street, but I hear plenty of German when I go to the girls’ school to pick them up or onto Ft Bliss, the local base. I used to hear a lot of Korean at our last base, but I haven’t noticed a ton here.

I expected that the richness of the language landscape here would lend itself to an appreciation of the benefits of bilingualism. I was shocked, therefore, to learn the there was no Spanish used in the bilingual classrooms at our daughters’ public school. In this school district, “bilingual” is simply code for “English as a Second Language” or even “Spanish monolingual.” The only Spanish-English dual immersion school programs are “on the other side of the mountain” in the more affluent Caucasian neighbourhoods to the west.

I once toyed with the idea of getting a PhD in code-switching, the interweaving of two or more languages by people equally comfortable with all the languages in use. After having lived in El Paso for 6 months, I think a more fascinating topic is the relationship between people’s language usage and attitudes in multi-lingual communities.

Although my husband and I are members of the army community, our dark skin makes us blend into the long-term El Paso community. The language use I’ve observed in local places of business has been an eye-opener. At shops that are part of national chains, the initial welcome from the staff is in English, but the next utterance is in Spanish. If the customer responds in English, the conversation switches to English. If the customer responds in Spanish, the remainder of the conversation continues in either Spanish only, or Spanish with some English words. If the customer is fair-skinned, however, Spanish doesn’t make an appearance. The contrast was noticeable when my very fair mother-in-law visited. When we go to local mom-and-pop establishments, though, conversation is in Spanish exclusively until my husband forces the issue by holding to his English, or my mangled Spanish causes the store employee to take pity on me.

I hope that my daughters learn the utility and beauty of bilingualism from their classmates before the narrow-minded perspective of the local school system imposes itself on them. I want them to know that being bilingual is a strength, and something to be admired. It doesn’t equate to not speaking English.

You’ve heard the joke, right?

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language?
American.

Not if I can help it.

Sadia was born in the United Kingdom to parents who were born in Bangladesh back when it was still East Pakistan. At the age of 8, she moved “back” to Bangladesh with her parents, where she lived with one foot in her local extended family culture and the other in the expatriate world. She found her way back to the life in the West pursuing degrees in California and Texas. Since that was far too simple an identity for one person, she mixed things up by marrying an American soldier of Mexican-American and Scots/Irish/French-American descent. Their identical twin daughters, M and J, are now 5 years old, and would probably identify themselves as Twin-American above all else.

There’s No Such Thing as Half Italian

10 Mar

The other night, while guiltily attempting to enjoy the silence of a first-ever empty house, I settled into my sloppy, toy-covered living room with the remote and a fleece blanket. I was thrilled about the opportunity to watch adult television, at a normal volume, without the worry of tripping noisily over a toy, or sneezing, or breathing. The silence, though a blessing in the face of recent stresses, was ill-placed. I’ve never been without my children in the evening, and it was downright disquieting.

I sought to distract myself with some enthralling entertainment, something into which I could dive headfirst, something that would help me forget I was alone.

Redemption came in the form of PBS pledge programming. I’m a sucker for PBS pledge programming. PBS is responsible for my love (turned lust, and then safely back to love) of Harry Connick, Jr., Cirque du Soleil, and musical theater, to name just a few. Needless to say, I was more than ecstatic when I noticed an Il Volo concert has just begun.

Who are Il Volo, you ask? Well, they’re a motley crew of young adult tenors brought together, in 2009, by an Italian talent competition. And they’re wonderful. As soon as you get past the, ahem, motleyness.

I sat, legitimately absorbed by the concert (to the point where I spent two hours arguing with myself over the practicality of buying tickets to an upcoming show), their shaky but charming English, and their beautiful, yet very distinct, voices.

During one of their songs, a song about mothers, black-and-white family video reels played on a screen above the stage. Grandmothers and grandfathers, whom I imagine are no longer with us, smiled, laughed, drank, and ate at large, food-covered family tables. At the end of the song, each young man presented a single rose to his teary-eyed mother before kissing her gently on the cheek. I have to admit, I got a little misty.

And that’s when it hit me.

This is me.

I am half Italian. But as anyone who is half (or more) Italian, knows, there is no such thing as half Italian. This culture, much like an allergic reaction, has a way of spreading over your body, your spirit, your life.

Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (...

I have had a love-hate relationship with my Italian heritage for as long as I can remember. I love (and hate) the importance of family, I love (and hate) the emphasis on food, I love (and hate) the stereotypes, and I love, no, well, just hate, the portrayals in the media. The Godfather, though I could sit, mesmerized, for the nine hours it takes to run on network television, rather disgusts me. Just about everything filmed in New Jersey raises my blood pressure. And Mario and Luigi? Well, they’re okay. I don’t mind them.

Anyone who reads me regularly, or maybe even sporadically, knows I have a chip on my shoulder about Jersey Shore. Do you want to know why? Really why? Because they’re whom I’ve been running so recklessly to avoid, to avoid being, my entire life. And there’s also that kid from Rhode Island, whom my cousin, and several other acquaintances, know. Personally. What can I say? Small state. The proximity, coupled with their, uh, antics, create a perfect storm of emotional turmoil for me. That and the tanning.

I’ve tried to deny my maker on several occasions, tried to walk away from the gold chains, the accents, saying things like “fuhgeddaboutit” and “sangwich”, and the unnecessarily large holiday spreads, but I’ve only been marginally successful.

Now that I have children, who are now a quarter Italian, a smidge Armenian, a pinch Polish, and half Egyptian, I can’t help but sit here and wonder what we’ll make of that soup, which veggies will float to the top, what direction we’ll take, and how they will ultimately identify themselves. Because though there’s a lot I’d like to forsake about my own culture, I can’t (and won’t) let it go.

I secretly love it when my soon-to-be 81-year-old grandmother hauls off and starts shouting the names of saints when she’s angry, or sits me down to impart some generations-old wisdom. Each time, the conversation begins with her trying to accurately translate some epigram, awkwardly explaining it, then ending with, “That’s what my mother used to say, Steph, but it sounded better when she said it. It sounds better in Italian.”

I know, Gram. I know. It does sound better in Italian.

Fuhgeddaboutit.

Stephanie is a former behavioral health professional who gave up the glitz and glamour of human services for stay-at-home motherhood. She is the proud, but exhausted mother of a feisty two-year-old boy, one-year-old fraternal twins, a husband with a rotating work schedule, and three cats. She can be found sharing her tales of woe at Momma Be Thy Name, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Because Misery Loves Company

Lei La the Lao Wai

16 Feb

This evening my children and I spent a couple of hours running and playing at a neighbouring housing complex. A friend joined us. While the children were playing on the slides and mini monkey bars my friend stayed close to them, allowing me to respond to a text message on my phone.

A little girl accompanied by two men came over to play. Through the chatter, I heard Rahul say, “Ni hao shu shu,” (hello uncle), as he typically does when a Chinese man engages in some form of communication with him, or if he instigates the conversation himself.

Leila chimed in with her Ni hao!

One of the men asked how old the children are. My friend responded with the whole “They’re two and three months old, they know mandarin, yes they’re twins, not only that, they’re dragon / phoenix twins,” spiel.

“These foreign kids are the same age as you. Why don’t you play with them?” the man asked the little girl. He was beaming, bouncing internally, and obviously over-excited by the situation.

The little girl joined Rahul and Leila.

At one point the man shared the bars with Leila to stretch is his hamstrings; still smiling, he asked her, “Ni shi bu shi lao wai?” (Are you a foreigner?)

I was stunned.

“Lei-la,” she responded.

My daughter’s dignified response, albeit due to her ignorance impressed me.

Should I intervene? I wondered.

“Ni shi bus hi lao wai?” he repeated.

I couldn’t believe it.

“Lei –la,” she enunciated.

My friend, who is of Chinese heritage and fluent in the language explained that she is called Leila.

I wanted to say something; at least ask how he expects a two-year- old without the slightest notion of this concept or of the word at all, to respond. I mean he insisted.

But his “blissful” demeanor made me think that he obviously didn’t think it strange at all to ask this of a two year old, let alone ask it.

Or was he making fun of us because he thought I had no idea what he was saying? I have no idea.

I joined the group and a few minutes later Rahul and Leila were chasing me around the play area. The man told the little girl to join in, to chase “the two little foreigners, and the big foreigner.”

We ran and played.

———————————-
I’m Zambian; I live in Chengdu, China with my Lebanese husband Maher and our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until our little yogis became the teachers.
Our Little Yogis:(http://natashadevalia.com)

Two Articles on Bilingualism

12 Jan

We flew from Beirut to Abu Dhabi (“adi badi” as Rahul calls it) on Etihad Airways, the United Arab Emirates carrier, a couple of days ago. It was the first of 3 flights that would take us back to Chengdu.
A pretty, blond flight attendant with bright red lipstick guided Leila up a step and onto the plane. “Oh, they are so small,” she said, to no one in particular.

“They’re two,” I responded, not entirely sure what she based her judgment on.

A few minutes later, she walked by, offering us newspapers. For the first time since I’ve flown on a plane with my children, I bothered (dared) to take one. 4 out of 6 newspapers were in Arabic. I randomly picked The National, an English language UAE paper.

Well into the flight, Rahul fell asleep in Maher’s arms. Leila and I were hanging out. She was flipping through one of her books, so I pulled out the newspaper. The title action photo shot of a leopard pulling off a man’s scalp in Assam, India, was bewildering. The caption mentioned that they caught the leopard.

Overleaf was a picture of a baby, and an article about bilingual brain development. In the UAE people speak both Arabic and English, some also speak Hindi and Tegalog among other languages, because of the Indian, Filipino, and many other communities living and working in the UAE.

Universal translators, by Manal Ismail talks about the possible effects of bilingualism on babies brains. It discusses how cognitive performance in children up to five years old might be less developed in a bilingual child than in a monolingual one; but that by age five there would be a likely catching-up and overtaking phase. The article ends with the hypothesis that exposure to a second language “early enough” (that could range from up to 12 years old to up to 16 years old depending on the research) stimulates the right brain; the side that governs creativity. So the research is on by a professor at the American University of Sharjah to see if indeed bilingual children can be more creative than monolingual ones.

It took me all three hours of the flight to get through this, and the follow-up article about how that professor plans to implement a bilingual policy at a school in Berlin, and then try the same at a school either in Dubai or in Abu Dhabi.

My first interjection came from Ivana, the talkative Romanian flight attendant with bright red lipstick. She delivered us a tray of food, and attracted by baby on my newspaper, she peeked in. She asked what the article was about, and we plunged into a fifteen minute conversation about parenting. She is studying bilingualism and other topics in Child Psychology and Development at a University in South Africa, by correspondence, and claimed that babies can easily manage 5 languages. She lives in Abu Dhabi with her South African husband, for his work.

Rahul was asleep and Leila was still entertaining herself. Ivana and I went back and forth. That I was able to have such a conversation astonished me, and made me realise how things are evolving for us.

Ivana wants to have children. She can’t fly if she’s pregnant, so she’ll quit her job soon. The main reason to leave her work though are the long haul flights – 14, 16 hours to Sydney, Toronto, Chicago; they’re too tiring. She sometimes stays up 24, even 48 hours.

“I think I’ll be able to handle the nights as a new mum, after my job here.”

She inquired about IVF, and then went on to share parenting tips from her studies, observations, and from her magazine purchases in the UK! They were mainly along the lines of allowing children to be who they are; embracing their personalities and understanding that not everything our children do is reflects our parenting. I confirmed. My 2 same age children react to situations differently, even though I do almost the same things with them. They eat, sleep, fly, talk, play, and think differently.

She’s been watching the children on her flights for the last 2 years. Some sleep all the way, some are hyper-active, others read or watch movies, some eat, others don’t…

She said the Australian, British, and US kids often aren’t potty-trained until two, even three, whereas where she comes from, children are put on the pot from 6 months on.

I was amazed by all the “research” she’s doing. I didn’t know a thing about babies before I had my own.

It was obvious that Ivana really wants to be a mum, and I bet she’ll be a good one. She’s confident, excited about it, and full of energy. Already a solid start. Her main point, which I agree with fully, is to do it your own way; to take the tips, and then to adapt them to your own personality.

I was happy for the pleasant conversation, and momentary bonding.

When another, slightly irritated flight attendant called Ivana away, I returned to my food.

I changed Leila’s diaper. She fell asleep.

Rahul woke up.

Ivana had a short conversation with Maher and Rahul in French about their meal, and then an upbeat one about fashionable purses and shoes with 3 sisters in black outfits and hijabs (head coverings worn by some muslim women) across the aisle from us.

In the mean time I managed to read my articles.

The professor plans to have classes in both English and Arabic. So if they teach math in Arabic one day, the next day it will be English. Did you go to a bilingual school, or do your children go to one? Is this how it works at other bilingual schools?

Related article- Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language

Related site- http://www.multilingualliving.com/

——————
Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband and twin toddlers. They just returned after spending 3 weeks in Lebanon for Christmas and New Year with the children’s great-grandfather, grandparents, and uncles from their Lebanese side. They spent their time in a 200 year-old stone house, playing with dogs and eating way too much delicious food. Catch more of Natasha’s stories at Our Little Yogis, http://natashadevalia.com

Between Worlds

20 Nov

I was born in Crete, Greece and raised in Maryland, USA, on a beautiful, 86-acre, off-the-grid homestead. My parents, products of the hippie era, were inspired by the simple, self-sufficient lives of the Cretan villagers, and we had no electricity or indoor plumbing in the hand-hewn house where I grew up. Instead of a TV, we had a trapeze in the living room. It was a paradise for kids, and I grew up with an innate love of nature and a keen sense of responsibility for the health of our Mother Earth. My parents strove to awaken in us an awareness of the effects of our actions and to provide us with an alternative to the modern lifestyle of rampant consumptive greed. They supplemented our public school education with frequent journeys overseas, and by the time I was 18, our family of four had toured nearly 25 countries, mostly on tandem bicycle.

As an adult, I continued to travel widely and for longer periods, eventually spending nearly seven years in India and Nepal studying the Tibetan language and practicing Buddhism. Before long, as hormones would have it, I fell in love and married into another culture, another race, another language, another dimension. Tsultrim and I come from wildly different worlds—he a monk from a tiny village in Tibet, I the product of an American subculture of left-winged eco-hippies. We were married in 2003, first on the black market in Nepal and later in our flower garden in Maryland. During eight tumultuous years of marriage, we have made nearly that many moves across the planet, from my country to his and back again, one of us always suffering from culture shock and social isolation. The learning curve has been, and continues to be, incredibly steep. Yet for some reason—no doubt our stubborn Taurean personalities and a fat load of karma—we’re still together, still laughing.

Along the way, we have been blessed with two gorgeous kids—our daughter Clara, aged 4 ½, and our son Tashi, aged 17 months. Admittedly, part of the reason I wanted to have a second child was to give our first-born a companion, someone who would truly appreciate the complexity of her multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual situation. I worried that she would be friendless and alone in her ever-shifting world, with no one to share the long airplane rides, discuss her weird parents, or understand who she really was.

We traveled in Asia during both of my pregnancies, but I drew the line when it came to their births—those were occasions when I truly needed my own family, culture, and language, everything that I equate with the safety and comfort of home. Both our children were born in my parents’ new home in Oregon, USA, gently lifted onto my chest by the loving hands of homebirth midwives. I love to think that Tsultrim’s graceful presence at the births of his children purified generations of Tibetan tradition, in which men have avoided (and been excluded from) the ‘filthy’ scene of childbirth.

Shortly after both births, we returned to Tibet bearing the new baby, washing our cloth diapers in the freezing winter water and soaking up the salt-of-the-earth goodness of Tsultrim’s beautiful family. These journeys were terrifying and traumatic for me, the fretting new mother of an infant, and with each passing year I have yearned more and more intensely for a stable home, for roots in nurturing soil, for a solid community of like-minded mothers and the support of my family. The carefree wanderlust of my youth has long since faded away, leaving in its place an anxious, fearful woman rapidly approaching her 40th birthday, still without a place to call home and no prospects for one on the horizon. The Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment and impermanence do little to ease the ache in my heart, the pull to plunge my fingers into warm brown earth. We are settled in the Chengdu mega-metropolis for the (un)foreseeable future, not living the lavish life of the typical expat but camped out in my brother-in-law’s apartment, while Tsultrim tries his luck at selling construction supplies in the booming Chinese economy. We all sleep in a row on the floor of our single bedroom, our clothes and medicines and children’s books stuffed into a few small shelves. Clouds of fog and smog hang heavy in the Chengdu sky, and miles of constipated highway snake around us in every direction.

Even as I celebrate our children’s immersion into diverse cultures and languages and watch them grow and thrive in each, I wonder how I will share with them the lessons of my childhood, the deep reverence for the natural world that comes with being of and near the earth, season after season, year after year, in a place called home. Can a family of nomads engender a sense of place and belonging in its children? More importantly, will there ever be a place where we all feel at home, such that we can live a gentle, carbon-neutral existence on this fragile planet?

Oh Boy!

20 Nov

“Rahul is a sweetheart! He let Leila have the train,” I declare proudly as he hands back her toy upon request.

“Thanks Rahul.” I continue.

“Afu BOY,” he quickly corrects me, worried. (He calls himself Afu; the Sichuanese version of his Chinese name.)

“Yes. Afu boy.” I confirm, without going into how he can also be a sweetheart!

“Leila girl,” he double-checks.

“Yes. Leila girl.”

He looks up, eyes shining, up to something. “Afu GIRL!”

“Afu girl? Nnnnnno, Afu boy!” I reply with a chuckle.

He bursts out laughing.

The 4 of us are downstairs, L on her train, R on his duck-car, ayi (meaning aunt, what he calls their nanny) and me.

He continues with some powerful declarations of identity: “Afu zizi.” (A cute way for children to say penis in French.)

“Leila kiki.” (A cute way for children to say vagina in French.)

“Yes honey, you’re right. You have a zizi, and Leila has a kiki.”

Then he goes wild: “Papa zizi. Mama kiki. Ayi kiki. Shu shu zizi.” (Shu shu is uncle in Mandarin, what the children call any young man they need to address.)

Our uncontrollable, loud laughter attracts some attention.

“It’s a good thing the Chinese people don’t understand him,” ayi says between squeals of laughter; her face red as a tomato.

———————–

Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband Maher, and two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. She was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can read more of her stories at Our Little Yogis (http://natashadevalia.com)

 

Only French

19 Nov

By Pascaline: Born in Greece, I grew up in a bilingual French / Greek environment. I lived between Greece, Africa and France. My husband, “I”, French of Lebanese and Syrian origin is also multilingual: French/English/Arabic, and has lived in France, Africa and Canada. We are both what some people call, “Third culture kids,” our parents being expats for most of our childhood. In 2008 when we decided to move to China, we became expats ourselves.

In January 2011, I gave birth to a baby girl, N.

————————————————

“What languages do you talk to your baby?” I am often asked after introducing our family. Immediately, I feel awkward,”We speak French.”

“Only French?” is the standard reply.

I feel guilty.

My husband and I speak 3 languages fluently. We both speak French at home. I speak Greek with my family; he speaks Arabic with his. We speak English with our friends; we live in China, so Chinese is always around.

So, “Only French?” makes me feel really guilty.

Am I a denying my daughter precious knowledge?

Long gone is the time language specialists believed that having more than one language around babies “pollutes” their abilities and results in poor command of the language. Complaints or disadvantages ranged from: the bilingual child speaks later and less than others of the same age, he will have difficulty in his language development, and he will never be able to speak one language properly.

Today the (same?) specialists say that bilingual children are more creative, more open and flexible than others. Being bilingual is to be equally comfortable in both languages and have references in two cultures allowing to understand and accept differences.

So many advantages, so why is it so hard? Let’s be honest, to raise a child with two or more languages requires hard work. It’s easy to give in to pressure from the majority language – French for us – and forget the minority languages (Greek and Arabic). Both my husband and I learned our second languages in an unusual way.

My husband learned basic Arabic from listening to his mother – since he was a baby – talking to her friends on the phone or over cups of coffee. At first, he had a basic understanding, and then by interacting with people who speak Arabic, his ability to understand and speak has developed more naturally.

I was bilingual until the age of 7; my mother spoke Greek to us. When she passed away however, French became the only language at home. I completely forgot Greek. At the age of 12, we moved to Greece and I had to take Greek classes – beginner’s level. Despite that, I discovered that it was easier for me to learn Greek compared to my French classmates, I didn’t remember a single word from my childhood, but I was able to speak and write faster than the others, and I didn’t have a French accent!

I want to talk to my daughter in Greek. I want her to learn about Greek culture (and no it’s not only about the lousy financial situation, riots and paying of taxes for many generations). I want to find those sweet Greek words and I want to sing those Greek lullabies from my childhood. Later, it will be up to her to choose: to either develop it, or to drop it. But at least I would have given her the basis for a good start.

A close friend told me that in order to maintain the minority language to a satisfactory level, we have to offer the child a rich and stimulating environment in that language – books, songs, friends.

I bought Greek children’s books, but I always pick the French and English ones. The animals in the Greek books look at me strangely.

When I play lullabies for my daughter, even the Spanish songs sound better; the Greek ones are awkward.

Greek family and friends? As most people living away from their countries, we see them once a year, not long enough for our daughter to learn anything. And where we live now, we speak English with our friends.

So we have the books and the songs and a few friends, but with a common family language (French) and a social language (English), where can poor little Greek fit in? She hears a lot of French, some English, and some Chinese, but we speak only French to her.

And I still feel guilty.

Greek just doesn’t come naturally.

How did you introduce a minority language to your kids? How did you deal with it?

Related article – Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language