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