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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What a really great way to say a lot of things that I have such a hard time expressing as one of those kids. You've crystallized a lot of my fear for K., the other two already big and seemingly quite comfortable with their multilinguism and multiculturalism, but this little one so brand new and malleable still; while I appreciate the feedback I get from parents who, like you, became a part of multilingual families, none so far, probably because it's hard to see what the problem could be having never experienced a form of it themselves or through their children, has understood what is is to be a third or more culture kid and the difficulties that can be involved in that, so it's a bit aggravating to be told that it will all be fine all the time.
Thank you for this Jamie. xo

Hilda said...
May 2, 2010 at 3:35:00 PM GMT+2  

I must add that in all of those brilliant books we read about raising bi-lingual kids, not one discussed possible problems - the holes in vocabulary, the trouble spelling, even the basic problems which are fairly common much less the more serious problems like we saw.

Clem was able to glide through life happily, mastering the languages and simply ignoring what didn't insterest him, making his own rules, ignoring his teachers. And doing well at what he loved. But he lived his languages differently and mastered them one at a time at just the right ages. Simon had the heavy-duty changes happen all at once and at the wrong times in his development. All of that is so important.

Jamie said...
May 2, 2010 at 5:48:00 PM GMT+2  

Thank you so much for this post, Jamie. You described so much of how I felt as a kid, taken from one country to another, understanding but not participating, feeling safe as an observer but not "at home" anywhere. I'm so glad you were able to understand all this for your son. Thanks for sharing. You've helped me understand me.

Rambling Tart said...
May 2, 2010 at 8:11:00 PM GMT+2  

Such a wonderful, thought-provoking post, Jamie. Thank you.

Bina said...
May 2, 2010 at 8:48:00 PM GMT+2  

That's quite a bit of insight, Jamie and you have written very well as usual. I'm happy you could figure what the problem was for your son.
Growing up as a child of expats I can identify with some of this. While I could mostly adjust to those changes, I never quite could "fit in".
Even though I speak my mother tongue very well, I grew up speaking English outside the home. And I always end up doing my "thinking" in English!

My daughter has grown up speaking 3Indian languages along with English, and now she's added French to that! Yet, language gave her problems of a different kind in school some time back. So we ended up moving here to a better school and she's doing well now.

Yes, children react differently to same situations and it needs our being to pinpoint where the problem is. Not always an easy thing to do.

May 3, 2010 at 4:08:00 AM GMT+2  

Well written and very informative artice. Hope your son is faring better.

Unknown said...
May 3, 2010 at 2:22:00 PM GMT+2  

THANK YOU for this post! We are a German/American family living in France. If all goes well, our children will be trilingual. My sons are very young (only the oldest is of speaking age - and he already understands and speaks all three languages to varying degres) but already I am concerned about the effects of all these languages/cultures on them. Everyone is always pooh-poohing my fears, telling me that my boys will "belong to the world." But as a long-time expat who misses the idea of an unqualified "home," I know that belonging to the world is not so easy. Thanks for confirming that my concerns shouldn't just be swept aside, and for telling me of signs that I should keep an eye on in the future.

Barb said...
May 3, 2010 at 10:55:00 PM GMT+2  

I don't know how V would identify herself in the future but for now, she's French first, Chinese 2nd. She understands both French & English but preference is French even though she speaks English too. She has recently shown interests in learning Mandarin. With her personality, I know she'll have no problem in adapting to new environment easily. But will mastering of language be a problem for her in school, it's a different story.

I grew up in multi-languages country but was raised in a small village back then that mainly spoke my Chinese dialect until I was 6. At 7, I discovered to my surprise that my friends in school don't speak the same dialect as me even though we are both Chinese. LOL! Within 2 weeks to a month, I adapted to their language and soon made lots of new friends.

May 4, 2010 at 3:51:00 PM GMT+2  

Oh Jamie, when you said that all children are not the same, you have hit the nail right on the head.I have experienced the same problems with my own. Even when we were in India, we were constantly moving places. But Rengoni, who was quite young at the time would quickly embrace every language that she came across. Agastya was too young at that time, and we thought he would be the same once he started to speak.

We came to the UK when Rengoni was 3 and Agastya was 2. Again, Rengoni just lapped up the language and was immediately comfortable with it. Agastya, who, by that time was easily conversing in our mother tongue,sadly, did not respond in the same way. When he started to go to the nursery at the age of 2 and a 1/2, his speech seemed to change drastically, he began to stammer.The simple act of pronouncing his name was a big struggle for him, and we were really scared.He was struggling so much and it affected his behaviour too, probably with the frustration of it all. I began to do a little research on my own. Till then, we were speaking only Assamese at home, thinking that they will learn English at school anyway. There were suggestions that some children did not respond well to multilingualism. After that,we thought we would try to keep it to a single language, and just so that he does not feel uncomfortable with his peers, we started to speak only English at home. In a matter of months his stammering was gone, and he was his happy bouncy self again. It has been six years since then and not once has he gone back to stammering. And I am surprised that he now learns other languages with ease. Maybe because he has a base language now? Or maybe because we didn't let him go on with the confusion of different languages just when he was learning to speak?

This time, when we went to India, he even manged to pick up so many sentences in Assamese and Hindi; and he is doing so well with his French, in school, too.

Sorry about the longish comment, but this is something so close to my heart, something I've been through.

sunita said...
May 11, 2010 at 1:24:00 PM GMT+2  

thank you for writing about this. have been having issues with my 3 year old. we are a bilingual family (russian and english) and I never thought that her not processing information might be linked to the multiple languages. EVERYONE has been "oh it is so good for her, etc etc". this gives us something new to consider in trying to figure out why she cannot process commands quickly.

Anonymous said...
May 29, 2010 at 5:40:00 AM GMT+2  

As strange as it may seem, it is rather comforting to know that others have had or are having the same problems. Maybe it is time I wrote that other book on raising bi- or multi-lingual children, the one that explains the flip side of "it's all rosy and positive." Thanks for your comments.

Jamie said...
May 29, 2010 at 2:26:00 PM GMT+2  

Thanks for this fascinating insight - although all three of my 'home' countries are English speaking, it's the national identity issue that makes me stumble, and I'm sure it affects my two children also. I was born in England, grew up in Australia (and consider myself Australian), and have lived in the USA for years.

My teens are for the most part American, but with major differences since their Dad is English/Irish, and I'm Australian, same language (apart from colloquialisms and syntax) but with major cultural differences.

I love to hear and speak other languages, and have raised the kiddos to do the same, but our base language is some variation of English.

Sue McGettigan said...
May 31, 2010 at 10:23:00 PM GMT+2  

Very insightful post.
I have had similar experiences myself growing up in Mauritius from Indian parents, moving to France for 4 years and living in the US for the past year now. I currently speak 5 languages and still don't understand what my preferred "thinking" language is. I tend to switch between different languages when I speak to my sister in Creole, taking words primarily from English and French, thus creating our own lingua franca. Traveling as an international student, I had a hard time explaining and understanding my own cultural identity. In France, I was Mauritian but in the US I was French and people expected me to "live up to it."
I am 23 myself and over these last 5 years, I've felt my cultural identity and perceptions greatly challenged and constantly changing. I can't even imagine the impact on children who haven't started speaking yet. Babies always seem to have a lot going on in their heads without so much being able to express everything. As glamorous as it is to be "a citizen of the world" there is also a flip side of "it's all rosy and positive."
Thank you for putting these familiar thoughts into words.

Yovadee Chetty said...
June 2, 2010 at 4:13:00 AM GMT+2  

That is an interesting blog. I was brought up bilingual with an English mother and Welsh schooling. I have since lost the Welsh language but have gained French and German.

My 6 y.o. son was born in Asia, has lived in Germany most of his conscious life and is bi-lingual with a smattering of the local dialect on top of true German.

Having read your article I asked him outright which of the two languages was the one he felt was his cultural language. At first he said, "both" but then he said, "No English. I can speak both but I am English" This from a child that has stepped foot only 6 or 7 times on English soil in his life.

Expat Germany said...
June 11, 2010 at 5:02:00 PM GMT+2  

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Maria Mcclain said...
June 16, 2010 at 3:12:00 PM GMT+2  

Thanks for this great reading. Myself one of those who learned many (9) languages starting very young with three and at 7 a fourth was added due to moving to Indonesia. Living in many different countries, learning the language, feeling quickly at home, but never finding a place to settle down to be at home. Now living in France for 8 years, but not feeling at home in that country either. My house - yes, that is my house with my personal belongings, but that house could be anywhere in the world. Recently I adopted three children (siblings) from Kazakhstan. My husband and I decided to, for now, only speak French with them, so they learn that language as fast as possible as the two eldest will go to kindergarten starting September with a basis of French. English and/or Dutch will be introduced later once they speak French. After reading this article I am happy to decided to have them focus only on one language for now, and this indeed should help them settle better in France and feel at home in their new country. Although I should add that singing with them is not done in French as the French songs are not part of my "culture". I hope for them that they will be able to have a language to call their own, something I don't have, as it will help them settle down and adapt to this new life with their own mum and dad.
PS Do write that book, there are plenty of examples out there you can use.
PS2: I do have a blog (, but somehow do not manage to leave comments.

Isis said...
July 28, 2010 at 8:37:00 AM GMT+2  

This is a topic close to my heart because I am at the tail end of a speech therapy course, and will be working in a very multilingual community. Your perspective as a parent has added so much insight! Where I come from, the language situation is very complex and it is very hard to find a true monolingual in the country. Often, it is tough for speech therapists here to distinguish between a real communication disorder from a child who is typically developing, but facing second language or cultural issues.

It is unfortunate, but I do agree that many educators do not recognise the difference between a learning disability and a second language difficulty. I wish that schools were better equipped to understand these issues and offer support instead of marking these children down. As our world keeps shrinking, I am sure that the number of bi/multilinguals will continue to grow! Thanks so much for your sharing. It has really made me feel a lot more passionate for this area of work!

Rachel said...
October 8, 2010 at 6:57:00 PM GMT+2  

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