Only French?: A Guest Post by Pascaline

(As part of the series: A Monday Morning Guest Post in Multicultural Mothering)

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.

——————————————- Only French? ————————————————–

“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 Childrens 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
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/health/views/11klass.html?_r=2:

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7 thoughts on “Only French?: A Guest Post by Pascaline

  1. D is out of town for a few days, what means a lot of free time after 8pm, when J and C are supposed to go to bed. I was thinking of J, my older daughter, and the way she’s managed to communicate… I started searching in the web some information about bilingual children, just wondering when will C start talking, and I found this blog, I didn’t know Natasha was writing such a nice blog! Congratulations Natasha!
    And then I read your post. And it was me who felt guilty. I was one of those persons asking you about greek. Me!!! With my poor spanish, I don’t even feel confortable in English! And I realised that it’s not only a matter of languages, at all. Even if you spoke 3 or 4 languages at home, it doesn’t make it a multicultural home. It’s much more than this. It’s about the things you tell her from your country; it’s about the different kinds of food I’m sure you cook; it’s about your worries about the big greek crisis, and your interest in all what is happening there; it’s about the mussic you enjoy singing and dancing; it’s about your childhood memories… All these “little” things! They really make a multicultural home. She’s growing with all this around and it is wonderful.
    I arrived here a few months ago. I’m spanish and so is my husband and my whole family. Even if my daughters would learn a perfect English here, do you think they would feel identified with either american or british culture? Not at all. So it’s not a matter of languages. Or at least not just it. Don’t feel guilty, Pascaline. You’re a really sweet mother and N is very lucky just having such parents as a reference, no matter which language you speak to her. It’s a great present for her, never doubt it.

    • Waouuu.. you were looking on the web and you found this blog? it seems like Natasha is becoming famous…
      Thank you for your interesting comment Julietta, you are right, it’s so much more than just languages..
      Now when people ask me about speaking greek with Nayla my answer is much more relaxed and even joke about it! No more guilt!
      You should consider joining the blog and share your story, a lot of people have been in your situation, I’m sure it will help you find answers like it did for all of us….

  2. Thanks for your touching post Pasca!

    It’s easy for me in the sense that English is my only fluent language so that’s what I speak with L and R. Maher is most fluent in French, (and I cover English already!) so that’s what he speaks. He could speak Arabic as a second language, but it doesn’t come naturally for him either, so he’s not speaking it.

    If I could say something – I wouldn’t stress out about the Greek; I would let it come naturally one day, if it does. N has a lot of exposure to other languages, and cultures. And she’s close to your family by way of a much stronger bond than language.

    My parents only spoke English to us even though they spoke Gujrati between each other and with some friends. I don’t know the exact reasoning behind it, but it had something to do with moving “forward”, and they probably just didn’t worry about it too much. There was also some resistance from us. We might have gained something from knowing it, but we’re ok like this too. We all travel to Gujrat and we are close to what family still lives there. We are obviously not from there though (both from our perspective and those we meet over there), and I doubt it would change that feeling too much, regardless of our language ability. We still love to travel there, meet the people, eat the food, listen to the music, wear the clothes, and dance.

    Nat

    • I’m always admiring the rich environment in witch you and Maher raise R and L, I didn’t even notice Arabic was missing !
      Your comment helped me relax a bit on Greek and realize that Nayla is already growing in a multicultural environment, languages will come naturally later, maybe along with her curiosity for the different cultures

  3. Without having any science to back it up, I think kid’s growing up in a language rich environment (regardless of how many languages or to what level) will always have an advantage. Soon enough I am sure you will be amazed at the words that will come out of little N’s mouth! Babies and toddlers absorb absolutely everything. Our daughter’s first word was Chinese- “yazi”- though my husband and I speak only English (and now she babbles in a made up language and calls it everything from Chinese to German to French). The other day she surprised me by whispering on the train, “That man speaks the same language as we.” In that statement alone she shows me way more understanding of the nature of language than I could have ever expected- all with very little active effort on our part.

    • That’s very cute!
      Thank you for sharing this. I’ll definetly remember this next time someone says ” only French?”
      I loved your “yazhi” story. Nayla is very responsive to her Chinese ayi too. I have been trying to teach her some basic signing but her first signs were with her Ayi! She, very patiently, showed her only one sign for a couple of weeks and when Nayla signed it back she then showed her two signs and so on so now they have 15 mn long “talks” where ayi says the word and Nayla signs it…

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