Sunday, May 02, 2010

Posted by Jamie

Language is more than Language...

I should’ve known better. Both of my parents were raised in bi-lingual homes, their Yiddish-speaking Russian grandparents an important presence in their childhood homes, in their upbringing. They both studied Hebrew as well, lessons every afternoon, from an early age. But we were the lost generation, the first generation to lose that second language, raised strictly in English, second-generation Americans raised by parents who wanted to see us totally and completely assimilated. Looking around me as I was growing up, I saw, I heard only English. And took it for granted that that was the norm. One family, one language, fitting in.

Yet the more I have traveled, the more I realize that those of us raised with one language are the minority. When I moved to France, I looked around me and said “Wow! So many people who are perfectly bi-lingual! I feel so out of it!” Then we had two sons and moved to Italy with our now bi-lingual French-English home and that’s when it seemed to me that all of a sudden I was surrounded by tri-lingual families, English-French-Italian. And when we proudly added Italian to our list, I noticed just how many kids had a fourth language, Spanish, Swedish or German, as well. It seems that speaking only one language is not the norm, but rather the exception.

When we started out on this long and exciting journey that was raising multi-lingual, multi-cultural kids, we did our research and followed the simple rule, the rule that seemed to work: One language/one parent (for example: mom always speaks English, while Dad always speaks French) or one language/one place (for example: everyone always speaks English at home while French is spoken at school). Simple and it worked for us. Our sons could understand and eventually speak both languages, easily sliding in and out of one or the other as the situation called for and understanding that different people spoke different languages depending on where they lived. And when they were moved to Italy, they simply sponged up that third language with only a slight learning period and minor trouble. Perfect!

Yet, it couldn’t be quite that simple, could it? Little by little we realized that the boys, 2 years apart, handled the situation differently. Clem, the elder of the two, had already been well entrenched in and pretty well spoke both French and English when we moved to Italy while Simon, only a year old, may have understood but hadn’t begun speaking yet at all. When the boys were 5 and 3 and we decided to put them both in the Italian pre-school, Clem already understood a smattering of Italian and happily jumped into his new circle of friends waving his arms and repeating the same 5 sentences over and over again, just to make contact, until, little by little, he added to his repertoire. He also had almost 3 years of pre-school tucked under his tiny belt so felt completely at ease in his new surroundings. Simon, on the other hand, hadn’t mastered any one language completely yet, had never been to school and knew no Italian, so everything was thrown on his tiny shoulders at once. Needless to say, Simon uttered not one word for his entire first year of pre-school until the day he could speak Italian fluently. And then only to communicate. The strict minimum.

At home, on the other hand, he seemed to have mastered everything. His vocabulary in all 3 languages was wide and impressive, having adult multi-syllable words at his disposal and often correcting or translating for his older brother. While Clem, 2 years older, was a chatterbox and one of those perfectly normal kids who went through a few years of asking non-stop questions, all the Who? What? Why? and Hows? Simon never asked any questions of anyone. But then, why should he have? He seemed to have all the answers, following his older brother around and answering all of his questions, both the sensible and the nonsensical. He grew to love documentaries on tv, history, archeology and even politics, and could discuss these subjects with ease. He loved museums and traveling and discovering.

As time went on and their school years flew by and we eventually moved back to France, we saw a growing problem with Simon: trouble at school, bad marks when he knew his subject, grades all over the place, up and down, but never quite bad enough to have it suggested that he repeat a grade. Even his grades in English and Italian classes were lousy! And misery. Depression, Feeling small and insignificant and just plain miserable yet with a growing anger towards his teachers and a feeling somewhere of injustice. We took him from specialist to specialist, speech therapist to psychiatrist to psychologist to educator and we heard over and over again “Be patient. He’s a smart boy. He’ll find his footing and get over it.” And still things got worse. Inexplicable bad or mediocre grades, teachers’ reports describing a boy morose and silent or disruptive and insolent. A refusal to study, a shrug of the shoulders, a roll of the eyes and “What’s the point? They give me bad grades no matter how much I work and how well I know the subject!” And a boy not happy, hiding his emotions, rarely laughing and enjoying himself. So when things reached disaster point in high school, we hired private tutors, Math and Science, then History and French and Philosophy. And they loved him! They said he was personable, engaging and engaged, interesting and smart, took the initiative and asked lots of questions. Around the house he seemed to come out of himself, was happier, and talked more. His language even evolved from one word grunts to complete sentences! Well, we had always known he was smart, very smart, but why this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine? Why one person at home and another at school?

Until this summer. He finally finished school, succeeded in passing his Baccalaureat exams and, whew, 15 years of misery ended and a weight lifted from his shoulders. And we finally found professionals who understood there was a problem, who finally listened and discussed. And tested. And we were struck by the results and the interpretation of these results.

The psychologist who did the testing sat me down next to Simon and handed me the brown Kraft paper envelope that held, we hoped and prayed, the answer to all of his misery and all of our questions. “Your son,” she explained, “speaks 3 languages, but he has never chosen one over the other. He has no first language, no language he has chosen to call his own.” And she continued to explain: With a language comes a culture and an identity: When one embraces a language, accepts it as one’s primary language, one embraces the culture that goes with it. One accepts an identity through which all else filters. Along with a primary language comes all the baggage, the nuances of expression, tone of voice, responses and reactions. And all other languages are seen, translated and understood through that first language and through that culture. On the practical surface and in a school context, this meant that Simon was constantly swimming between one language and another not only to find the right word, the appropriate expression, but the tone, the meaning as well. We knew that he had trouble processing information and then getting it out, expressing himself, but simply never understood why. Information went in but then got all jumbled up as it passed from language to language, word to image and back to language again, from verbal to written. It became garbled and he just had never developed the tools to transfer information easily and clearly from one part of his brain to another. We now understood why. So he transferred his energy to form rather than content: spelling or sentence construction rather than substance. What information he had came out as if spit onto the page. To his teachers it was obvious that he did indeed know his subjects but he was constantly penalized, punished for not expressing himself “as he ought”. Vicious cycle: bad grades even if I study and I know my subject so why study?

On a higher level, this caused another problem, social, cultural, because here, in France, he never felt comfortable, at home. He had become the proverbial Man Without A Country. Somewhere early on he had rejected the notion of “being French” most likely because the culture, the language, the school system had been forced on him and forced when he wasn’t ready and then he had been punished over and over again for not being “French” enough. So his anger grew, his sense of injustice, his feelings of persecution. And he turned that anger onto school. At the same time, he so badly wanted to identify himself with his American side, America, that land of gold, of sunny vacations, cop shows, the Marx Brothers, peanut butter sandwiches and brownies, but didn’t know how and just wasn’t in the right place to do it. So even that he kept buried alive somewhere deep down inside, feeding his discontent. Which led to a total rejection and disdain for anyone demanding that he “be French”, namely his teachers and the school system he found himself in. Vicious cycle 2: rejection of the culture he was living in leading to his sense of rejection by the system itself (his teachers) which made him even angrier at the system he was in and further rejection.

Hilda wrote a very lovely article in these pages about being a third culture kid, about fitting in, children for whom home is everywhere, home is nowhere. Our children, the children growing up multi-cultural, multi-lingual, the children of expatriates or mixed marriages or those who simply move around the globe, have an uncanny ease sliding from one place, one society to another, an actor’s ability to change languages, change personas as easily as they change clothes, an adult’s understanding of how the world works and that people are different everywhere we go, different but the same, and all it simply takes is a change of vocabulary, way of holding oneself, of dressing, of eating. Yet language is more than language. Children do indeed sponge up language after language after language and it is a joy to behold, but as we have learned so painfully, it goes well beyond that simple “Does he understand? Can he speak the language? How wonderful that your children will grow up multi-lingual!” It is a delicate balance of place, time, age and change. It is giving your child an understanding of just exactly who he or she is, their place in the world. It is finding a school where they will be accepted and their differences made to feel truly an advantage not a disadvantage, a weight, something to punish. Teachers as well as parents need to understand that not all kids are the same, that they need to be able to express themselves as they can and be helped along the way with the rest.

And more than anything, these children need to feel a sense of security and an even stronger sense of home.

This post was written by JAMIE

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