Our first day back in Chengdu after a month away.
Leila hesitates before descending a slope.
Leila: Mum. [Re] Member me, I fall down here?
How the hell did you remember that? I remember Leila! A few months ago, you fell down this steep slope.
Leila: I cry mummy.
Me: You’re bigger now. You can do it this time.
Maher buys bread at a bakery / café. We wait outside, with Rahul asleep in the stroller.
Leila: [Re] Member me, yesterday, I eat cake with you here. Inside.
Me: Oh yes
now I remember! You and I came here one afternoon. Many months ago. We shared a piece of cake. You chose it. We sat there. (I point at the corner table.)
Leila: Big cushion, mama.
Me: Yes that’s right! We put a big cushion on the chair so you could reach the plate.
Leila: No Wrahul, No papa.
Me: That’s right, it was just the two of us. You and I, together. Rahul was at home with papa. And before we left, you chose a cake for them. And the ayi
(aunt – woman behind the counter), packed it in a box.
As we walk by our favorite Japanese restaurant.
Leila: Hey mum! Wemember me, Wrahul, you, papa, Imad, Pascaline, Liu Yan, Marwan go here to eat. We sit down. We eat a lot.
Me: Yes my love, we ate here many times. We sat together and ate lots of noodles, fish, and spinach.
Leila: Many times.
Leila looks at the weighing scale.
Leila: Wemember me, I baby, I lie down here. And Rahul also.
Maher: Oui, bien sur mon bebe, je me rapelle!
Leila: Wrahul cwy, Leila cwy.
Maher: Oui c’est vrai, quand vous etiez tout petits vous pleuriez quand on vous pesait.
At a fountain in our housing complex.
Leila: You wemember me, Leila and Wrahul sitting here, on the step. Wrahul stick. Leila eating.
Me: Yes I remember baby girl. You were sitting next to each other. Rahul was playing with a stick.
Maher and I live in Chengdu with our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until Our Little Yogis became the teachers.
“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)
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
By Maro: I speak English, French, Spanish (although it’s getting rusty), and not as much Italian as I should. I grew up in small towns not far from Ottawa, first on the Quebec side and then on the Ontario side, but my background and extended family reach from Armenia to Hawaii. My husband, Eric, was born in Montreal to Italian parents. He speaks English, French, Italian (although he denies it, since he doesn’t think his grandparents’ dialect counts), and a bit of Spanish. We have a baby girl, Myriam, who was born in March 2011. She’s working on her consonants these days- baba, dada, ida, lida, nana… but I’m not sure which language, exactly. I’m not sure she knows, either.
My name is completely Armenian, but I’m a mishmash of places and cultures: only one quarter Armenian, another quarter Italian, and the other half Anglo-Saxon American. My father, half Armenian and half Italian, was born and raised in France, so I have French roots (and a French passport), too. My parents met in the U.S. but immigrated to Canada before I was born.
When I was 18 I moved to Montreal to go to McGill University. During my twenties I spent a lot of time studying, working, volunteering and traveling in various places including Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, Madagascar, Zambia, Italy and France. I also spent some time working as a Naturalist in northern Quebec, and planting trees in British Colombia. I was, as some friends affectionately called me, a globetrotter.
Now my husband and I are back in Montreal, fairly settled and stable. We have family here, we have wonderful friends, and we both love our jobs. We’re even talking about buying a house, which seems a very adult and stable thing to do. Although wanderlust still strikes and we talk about living and working abroad at some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future, for now we are very happy in this vibrant and bilingual city. Montreal has become home.
One of my sister’s friends, who studied bilingualism, told me that although the traditional method of raising bilingual children is to have each parent speak one language, it is not necessarily the best strategy. Apparently children actually become more fluently bilingual when each parent speaks both languages, as long as they stick to one language at a time and don’t mix them up. Otherwise the child tends to be stronger in the language of the parent he or she spends the most time with.
I have never heard anyone else state this theory, but I’m really hoping that it’s true. I’m hoping that Myriam will grow up multilingual and not just confused.
The plan was that Eric would speak to Myriam in French and I would speak to her in English. However, living in this bilingual city has made us so used to flipping back and forth between languages that we’re finding it hard to stick to this plan. It doesn’t help that both of us are fluently bilingual but more comfortable in English than in French.
Eric usually speaks to her in French, but we speak to each other in English in her hearing. I speak to her in English, except that often I find myself speaking to her in French. Myriam and I spend a lot of time with other mama-baby friends, most of whom are francophone. So during our social activities I’m usually speaking French, to my little one as well as to my friends and their children.
It doesn’t end there. Myriam’s Nonno speaks to her in Italian, except that sometimes he forgets and switches to English. Her Italian great-grandparents speak to her in Italian dialects that probably no longer exist except in North American immigrant communities. Once in a while I spend time with Spanish speaking friends and catch myself speaking Spanish to Myriam.
Every night as I put my baby to sleep I sing her lullabies in English, French and Spanish. I should probably learn and include an Italian lullaby, just to be fair. Sometimes I wonder how long it will take before she realizes that lullabies have words and meaning. She probably just thinks that I sing a variety of songs because they sound nice. Maybe we should be more scientific about our method of raising a multilingual child.
Myriam is, in general, a happy and good-natured little person. But she studies things seriously. When she meets someone new, or happens to spot someone interesting while we’re out and about (in the subway, in the market, in the park…) she stares at them unabashedly and unflinchingly. I don’t think there are many people who could beat her in a staring contest. The people she stares at usually either coo and smile and gush about how adorable she is, or else look away uncomfortably and pretend they haven’t noticed her unblinking focus. I’m not sure if she’s trying to figure out the Meaning of Life, or if she just likes making people squirm. But I feel confident that if she has this level of focus and concentration at 6 months of age, someday soon she’ll be able to understand what we’re saying to her, whether it’s “go to sleep”, “fait dodo”, “duermate”, or “vai a dormire”.