Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bilingualism

(Belated) Easter present hunt

One day last weekend Anna came out with this and it got me to thinking: I wonder what it must be like to have only Scottish relatives... everyone in your house would speak the same language all the time... weeeeeird!

All of my children have heard a minimum of two languages every day of their lives, the first few years it was English and French, latterly English and Danish: and with a succession of visitors adding German, Italian, Norwegian, Georgian, and Polish amongst others to the dinner table (and that's without even mentioning Scots). TV, of course has added Swedish, Icelandic and Spanish to that as well. I'm not sure I remember the last time I watched anything in English on the TV.

I guess the main point is that they fully understand two languages each and also understand many bits of others. You can't sit at the table for years without picking it up. So they have a feel for what multilingual normality is. They are completely unfazed if they don't fully understand everything being said around them because they know there are so many different languages in play at any time. 

It reminded me of an eye-opener years ago. I was sitting in my garden with a French friend and her kids. We were speaking French, our kids were speaking a mixture. A neighbour's child (a ten year old) who had been doing French at school asked to play so I invited her in. My friend shouted some instructions over to her kids and the neighbour looked really puzzled. "Why is she speaking like that?" she asked. I explained that she was French so although her kids were bilingual as they lived in Scotland, she spoke to them in French, even if they usually replied in English (a bog-standard bilingual child's way of communicating with their foreign parent). The child replied "But she's speaking it really fast!" I relayed that French is spoken much faster in reality than what they learn at school but still she couldn't understand how the kids all understood it without a second thought. Eventually she explained to me that although she had learned some French at school: Il fait beau, je vais bien, la pomme est rouge, etc, she hadn't understood that it was in fact a full language that people used to communicate! She had been brought up in such a monolingual atmosphere that she thought English was the only language people used to communicate and that the little phrases she'd learnt in French were of no more everyday use than memorised poems or mathematical formulae. She had never heard people actually communicating in another language. I think I was as gobsmacked by her lack of linguistic experience as she was by our nonchalant mixed communication.

I find people are often taken aback by the real way bilingual households communicate - that is the say, the foreign parent speaking their language and the kids who've grown up somewhere else replying in that language. Of course, when in the other country the kids can switch to that language but generally when you live bilingually, everyone speaks their strongest language at the table. I remember being bemused by this the first time I visited my first husband's parents (he was French with a German mother). She spoke only in German, he replied just as fast in French. Had I not been studying both, I'd have been completely lost. At first I figured they were weird and unique but as every one of my kids has since followed the same pattern, unprompted over the years, and Thomas too speaks to his German father mostly in Danish, I realized it is simply human nature. 

I do fondly remember a night last year when I spent the evening with Thomas and Peter (his father). We were discussing Greek politics and the ideas of Yanis Varoufakis, quite vociferously, for a few hours and it was only when I was lying in bed later that night I found myself smiling at the realization that I had spoken only in English, Thomas only in Danish and Peter only in German that night and yet all of us had fully understood the conversation. I wish I'd recorded it to show just how much fun these kinds of households are!

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