Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mother (or Mama) Tongue

I've always wondered, how do you say the state of being bi-lingual?  Bi-lingualness or bi-lingualhood?

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, well that one there is right on the borderline, I tell ya.

And who's they?
One of the benefits of having a family blended of different nationalities is that you have the possibility of having diversity within your own family and can expose your child to different cultures and languages.

I was raised in the US by a French immigrant father who was born of Russian-Polish immigrants and a 3rd generation American mother whose roots were in Ukraine.  My mother's family were well assimilated to the US and with the exception of a distinct fondness to serve sour cream with just about anything, my mom's family were as white-bread American as you could get, well actually they were more seeded rye, being Jews and all.

But my dad's family were definitely immigrants, they spoke with an accent, people used to swoon at my dad's French accent and I used to love to hear my dad, aunt and grandparents talk in French to one another, it was and is such a beautiful sounding language, it is so true what people say about French (French, not the French), even saying something completely disgusting like you have to take a dump sounds beautiful.
J'ai de la merde
Ooh, la-la!

I spent my entire childhood and young adulthood being exposed to the French language on a daily basis and while I could follow the gist of a conversation more or less, guess how much French I speak?


Well except for things like je voudrais le croissant, le cafe, du vin but then again when it comes to ordering food or drink, I am a true citizen of the world and can manage in any language and if I can't I will just start waving and gesturing furiously (but I do tip well).

So if French was spoken all around me, how is it that I didn't pick it up in any kind of real way?

Well, because that is the way my dad and grandparents wanted it.

When they came to America in 1950 after surviving WWII in Vichy France, after the hardships and fear of the war years, after learning of the devastating losses of the Holocaust and the loss of most of their families (or in my grandmother's case her entire family), all they wanted to do was high tail it to the amber waves of grain and envelop themselves in America's promise.  They wanted a new life, one free of fear, deprivation, hunger, death.  They wanted to wrap the American flag and the American dream around them like a blanket and keep it forever close, to lose themselves in backyard barbecues, bridge games and the swimming club.  They wanted to BE Americans and even more than that, they wanted their kids to BE Americans.

They didn't want us to carry the old country with us, but instead be American kids with all the freedom and promise that provided in the America of our youth.

Unlike my own immigrant experience which involves two different countries, America is fraught with nostalgia, with family, with friends, lots of people that I love and treasure, and oh yeah, the good shopping.  Sephora and Nordstroms and Target, oh my!

Back to my dad and grandparents -- I think that they wanted to leave the pain of the past in the past And I think they viewed the language as too solid of a bridge to the past and although I don't think they exactly planned it this way, they did not encourage us to speak or pick up French.  Sure, once in a while my grandmother offered to teach us, but they never spoke to us in French, so we never learned how to speak the language and it didn't seem like something they ever regretted.

Plus, this way they had the added bonus of being able to talk about us in front of us and most of the time we didn't catch on.

And when I first moved to Israel, I told myself that even though my language skills sucked and I did most things in English, in cafes or restaurants I would always order in Hebrew and not ask for an English menu, so for the first year and a half I lived in Israel I ordered the first thing I could understand on the menu which meant that the mainstay of my diet was the dreaded bagel toast (a kind of grilled cheese sandwich (not a real bagel) with feta cheese, it really was yummy the first 2000 times I ate one.

After a while I wanted to try the Greek salad and not be hemmed in by my crappy language, so I had to expand my horizons a little.

But when Leo and I married the situation was very different.  For one I was moving to the Netherlands where English was not the first language of the country (although to be honest it is a very very close second - the Dutch love speaking and showing off their very good English skills).  I have met very few Dutch people who do not have at least a rudimentary command of the English language, and most are pretty well fluent as English is the language of international commerce and you hear English being spoken on the streets by Dutch people nearly as much as you hear Dutch.

So when I became pregnant with Maya of course we agreed that we would raise her bilingually.  We bought some books on the subject of how to do it and most of them agreed that the way to raise a bilingual child was to always ensure that you as a parent spoke only your own mother tongue with him or her and as the child gets older you stimulate them to speak your language with you.

In many ways it was an easy choice for us, when we had Maya I was only in the country for two years and I had put absolutely zero effort into learning the language.  I worked for an international company where the official language was English and what little vocabulary I could use was always blown to bits the second I opened my mouth and people heard my accent and immediately pegged me for an American (or sometimes a Brit - apparently to the Dutch all English speakers sound alike) and immediately started speaking English to me.  Being a native English speaker in a country where English is widely known and used by it's population (as is the case in both Israel and the Netherlands) is a real barrier for picking up the language.   It's very tough to learn the language because English is so readily used and the main reason why it takes English speakers much longer than other nationalities to learn the language (it's not just that we are lazy).

What I am getting at is that neither Hebrew or Dutch came easy to me but after many years in each country I absorbed enough to start speaking and people have always been kind about my mistakes.

I muddle through.

So when Maya was born, Leo and I stuck to the plan (as if I had any other choice) and I spoke only English and Leo spoke only Dutch to her.  It was easy to stick to this as well because Leo and I have always spoken English together so English is more often than not the language of the house.  Even after I could speak Dutch, we never really made the switch because it is unbelievably hard to switch languages after you are used to speaking in one language with someone, plus Leo is a Dutchie through and through, he'd much rather show off his great English skills than have to suffer through my mediocre Dutch ones.

We have many friends who have also raised bilingual kids using this method to varying degrees of success.  My husband's brother and sister both living in Israel and married to Israelis have tried to speak Dutch to their kids and although they understand some they have never really mastered speaking (except my nephew but he put a real effort into speaking).  It didn't just come naturally the way it did with Maya.  I do think the differentiating factor is that both of them speak Hebrew with their partners (and their partners do not speak Dutch) which means that Hebrew is the language of the house which means it was probably much more challenging for their kids to pick up and use Dutch since without thinking they roll into Hebrew).  I do think Leo and I sticking with English as our primary language has done wonders for Maya's ability to feel completely comfortable in both languages.  Our nieces do understand Dutch or at least most things but do not speak it at all.  With Leo's parents for many years there was a language barrier in that when the kids were toddlers it was tough for my inlaws to babysit at night for them as if they wanted something my inlaws couldn't really understand them and while they always found a way in the end, it was always kind of tough as there was always a quasi-language barrier.   As they got older and understood more Dutch it was easier and now they are starting to learn English in school so there is more commonality and between broken Dutch and broken Hebrew and English they all manage quite nicely.

But I didn't want that for Maya and my family.  I wanted there to be no language barrier with them.  It was hard enough being so far away from them and them only seeing Maya once or twice a year (if we are lucky), having a language barrier would guarantee no relationship prospects.  So Leo and I were much stricteer and put a concentrated effort into ensuring that Maya would grow up with two languages.

And I am very proud to say that Maya is absolutely 100% comfortable in both languages (although her Dutch is stronger than her English since she has more exposure to Dutch through school). She speaks to me in English and Leo in Dutch, always, always.  She has no problem moving back and forth in the language, if she asks me something and I tell her to ask Leo, off she runs and she spits out the same question in Dutch and then comes back and tells me the answer in English.  

With Maya we have not experienced any resistance at all to English at any time during her life.  Many bilingual kids at Maya's age flat out refuse to speak the second language and I have seen many a blended family struggle to keep their children speaking two languages.  Until 2 years ago Maya didn't even understand that she was speaking two different languages.  We never told her but just naturally followed our own mother tongues and she just naturally picked up both Dutch and English and figured out for herself completely intuitively what language she needed to speak with whom.  She just thought there were two ways to say everything for a long time and she just knew how to choose which one depending on who she was talking to.  Completely innate and intuitive.

The human equivalent of Apple.

To be perfectly honest Maya's Dutch is a lot better than her English, but that's natural because she is exposed to Dutch much more.  She has a richer vocabulary and speaks more grammatically correct Dutch and her pronunciation in English is not always great as the sounds your mouth makes in English are a lot different than Dutch and you have to train your mouth to do both.  And while I do correct her and she usually then will pick up the right pronunciation, sometimes unless you are used to hearing her talk her diction can sometimes be tough to understand.

Dutch and English both have Germanic roots which means there are a lot of words which are exactly the same just with a slightly different pronunciations but there are also a lot of words that are the same as English words but mean something slightly different.

For instance in Dutch the word of doesn't mean of, it means "or" and Maya often slips and says, "do you want this of that."  

It gets worse.  The word over in Dutch means about so Maya is constantly saying "I don't want to talk over school."

And it goes on and on, so it must be confusing to her, but still she is great in how she so easily goes back and forth, she can literally be talking to 4 different people and zip back and forth in lightening speed between the two languages without even thinking about it.  If I say, "Maya tell daddy dinner is ready", without missing a beat she says "Papa eten is klaar."

She is rigid about what language she will speak with what people.  If I speak Dutch to her, she immediately interrupts and scolds me by saying English, except she draws out the syllables so that I am absolutely sure to know she is not pleased with me, it goes ENG  ----LISH!  Leo doesn't often slip into English with her except when we are around other English speakers or in the US and then Maya doesn't scold, but gives him a blank stare.  She also gives that stare to Dutch people who don't know her very well who well meaningly speak English with her because they hear me speaking English to her.  She has perfected this glance so well, it could be bottled and sold.

She is even rigid about what she calls us if she is talking with us or about us depending on what language she is speaking.  Maya always calls me mommy rather than the Dutch mama and she calls Leo papa rather than daddy.  But if she is talking to me about Leo she will always call him daddy and if I say papa, because that is who he is to her, she will correct me tell me to say daddy.  Once in a while I refer to myself as mom rather than mommy and she corrects me then too.

I am mommy and daddy is papa but if she is speaking Dutch then I am mama and if she is speaking English then papa is daddy.

OK, I am confusing myself now.  But Maya is rigid in her thinking due to her autistic mind but I do think this has served her very well in being raised with two languages.  Mommy speaks English and Daddy speaks Dutch, that is HOW IT IS.  And there can be no alternative, because that is not how it is.

I find that rather ironic to be calling autism a blessing when talking about speaking since so many people on the spectrum have such struggles with the spoken word.

Not only is my autistic daughter verbal, she speaks, she expresses herself well verbally, in two languages!


  1. Thank you for this post. My ASD son was late talking, we live in the UK my husband speaks English and I speak Spanish. To help my son get understood in school, I stopped speaking Spanish and kept up with English. He has emergent language now. My daughter I usually speak to in Spanish, but if I'm speaking with both of them I confuse myself and speak in the wrong language to the wrong one. I hope to speak more Spanish to my son now that he is able to express his needs and desires a little more, I would *love* for him to be bilingual. My family in Mexico is such a *huge* part of my life, I would hate for him not to be able to interact with his cousins and everyone. :)

    1. Sorry for the late response, somehow I missed these comments. This was precisely why we chose to go the two language route at home as I didn't want a language barrier between Maya and my family in the US. Now that your sons language skills are better you could try to introduce him to Spanish.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. This was lovely to read...I teach Icelandic for foreigners and well have a son with autism... language is all I think about.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you will stop back.