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Saturday, 30 June 2012

My story on Gato&Canard

Annabelle of Gato&Canard has graciously offered to feature me in her "Multilingualism in my family series". Not only is such a series a brilliant idea in itself, but also I am very happy- and proud- to be given the opportunity to share my story! Thank you very much, Annabelle! You can find the interview here

Also, be sure to check out Annabelle's blog. Annabelle raises her children to speak French, Portuguese, English and German. I must say I am very impressed by her commitment to multilingualism. It probably helps that she used to be a researcher in languages...
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Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Dear Dutch people. You are not boring!

Expats struggle a lot with living in a new country. Often, they don’t speak the language; they try to understand the norms and traditions of their new home. Being an expat is not easy. But let’s try to see this from the other side.

Imagine you have lived in one place your whole life. All the languages you speak, you have learned at school or through language courses. And then you hear a conversation that goes like this: “Well, I am originally from country A, but when I was little we moved to country B. Then, I met my spouse who is from country C, and in the end, we settled down in country D. We are raising our children to speak languages 1, 2, 3 and 4.” How does that make you feel? Maybe you feel happy to have firm roots, and a feeling of  stable cultural identity. But maybe not. Maybe you feel… boring.

But you are not “just Dutch” and neither are you boring. I think you are just as colourful and confusing to us as we are to you. Seriously, sometimes I feel you are from a different planet. I mean, how would you explain your huge obsession with bicycles? Why do you think that bitterballen can actually count as food? Oh, and the healthcare system? What’s with that?  You challenge us as much as we challenge you.

The Netherlands are a country with a rich history. You have great artists (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Escher, and many others). Your influence has stretched much beyond the Dutch borders, and still does. You have had contact with many cultures and nations and religions. At the same time, you have known wars, famine, intolerance and floods. The latter has forever shaped the Dutch landscape and mentality.

For years, you have fought for more land, only it was not people you were fighting, but water, a dangerous and yet beautiful element. While you admire the water, you also respect it. I love to be able to live so close to the sea. They say that God created the Dutch, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. Your country is where human work and nature come together in intricate and exciting ways.

For many of us expats you are the reason we are here. You are our spouses and partners, our employers and employees. You are our friends and acquaintances. For others- myself included-, you are our hosts, and we are your guests. Thank you for your hospitality.

Do I have any Dutch readers? If so, give me a shout and tell me what do you love most about being Dutch!

And of my expat readers, I ask the question: what do you like most about living in the Netherlands?

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Monday, 25 June 2012

My Bad Language Day

You’ve all must have heard about the Bad Hair Day. You know, the day when your hair really can’t be bothered to look properly. It will be straight where you want it to be curly. Then obviously, you’ll get curls wherever you want your hair to be straight. And straight hair? It can also be straight in the wrong way- too flat, too long, too… something. And sometimes there’s just nothing wrong with your hair but you still feel like you’re having a bad hair day.

This is how I feel sometimes with languages. I can have a what I call a Bad Language Day. Now I know that complaining about speaking too many languages is like complaining about having too much money. But please bear with me for a while, and I’ll explain. Actually, that money analogy is pretty useful, so let’s stick with it.

Does it really help you if you know you have loads of money, only it’s hidden in a safe somewhere, and of course you have lost your keys, or forgotten the numeric combination that opens that safe? I feel the same way sometimes when I wake up and I know I won’t be able to utter a single coherent sentence that day, because although I speak 5 languages, they are all safely locked up where I can’t access them.

And even though I’m having a Bad Language Day, I still have to go out: do the grocery shopping, run errands, the lot. On a very particular Bad Language Day, I had a specific recipe in mind that I wanted to try out. It required me to buy ground meat, so off to the butcher I went. Usually, I would have just stated my request for 500g of ground beef, paid and left. But not on a Bad Language Day.

On that particular Bad Language Day I searched in my head for the Dutch equivalent of “500 grams of ground meat, please”, and couldn’t find it. Eventually, I managed to blurt out: “500 gram rundergehakt, alstublieft”.  Everybody in the store clapped their hands and they told me Dutch was an extremely difficult language and that I did really well.

But I didn’t! I know my Dutch is much better than this! After all, I speak German, and English, and that does help with Dutch. But not today. Today was my Bad Language Day. So instead, I felt very ashamed, and I blushed, and if there’s a person made for blushing, that’s me! I am The Mistress of the Blush, and nobody blushes as easily and stays blushed for such a long time as me. The fact that the butcher was sympathetic didn’t help because I felt he was being patronizing.

Sometimes, when I'm lucky, Bad Language Day only affects one of the languages. So I can have a Bad English Day, or a Bad German Day, or even a Bad Polish Day. Or, it can affect all those languages, depending on which one I need at any given moment. I need a word for something in German? We don’t have it today, mam. But we have English and Polish available! That doesn’t help me right now, sorry.

To come back to my money analogy, this is how I feel when I am in a supermarket, ready to pay, and it turns out that there’s no money left on my debit card, and when I look into my wallet, I see lots of money. Only, it’s Zlotys, Polish currency. Doesn’t help me either, because I can’t pay. Knowing a word in German or English when I need Polish doesn’t help me, either, because I can’t communicate. And of course, hours/months/years later I’ll remember that word, but it won’t matter anymore.

What to do in the case of a Bad Language Day? It usually means that your mind is busy with something else. Maybe it’s working on that problem you’ve been trying to solve for ages? Give it time, and- just like a Bad Hair Day- it will be over. Which reminds me that I really, really need to get my hair done.

How about you? Can you relate? If you can, how bad was your Bad Language Day?
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Friday, 22 June 2012

I can be brown, I can be blue, and now I'm a TCK, too!

I have been reading about TCK’s, Third Culture Kids for a while now. Those are children, who followed their parents to another country. TCK’s often ask themselves the questions: “Who am I? Where is my home?”

Turns out, I am a TCK, too! However, while I sometimes did feel that I was different, I was always  comfortable in my own country. But I also felt at home wherever I went.

When I was little, I followed my parents to Germany. I went to a German daycare, and learned to speak perfect German. After 2 years, we came back to Poland and I felt at home again. But I my interest in the German language and culture remained, and I later went on to study German at the Warsaw University.

At some point, I decided to take part in the Socrates Erasmus exchange program. I went to Hamburg, and again, I felt at home. I adapted extremely quickly, and met a wonderful German man. The feeling I had when I went back to Poland to visit my family was a very weird one: “I am going home”, I thought. But I was going home from a place that to me, felt like home as well. And I didn’t see any problems with that.

I then moved to Germany in order to be with my then-boyfriend. And again, I felt at home. I spoke the language, and understood a lot about German culture. But my parents- in-law said to me: “You speak perfect German but your intonation is funny. But it’s OK, this is a part of who you are.” And yes, I do embrace my “funny intonation” in German, and I don’t care if it’s not perfect. On the other hand, when I visit my family and friends in Poland, they sometimes tell me that I've started speaking with a German accent. I don’t care about that, either.

Now as I’ve been living in the Netherlands, I call the Netherlands my home. Symbolically, it is also the place where we bought an actual house. But the house doesn’t matter. Home is where the heart is. Home is where my husband is. It is where my children are. If we moved to another place, I’d call that home as well. I’ll always call Warsaw my home because that’s where my parents and my brother are. I am also wildly, madly in love with this city. The heart is the key. Love is what makes me feel comfortable wherever I end up being.

Sometimes you just have to ask your children, and they will give you the answer. One day, Klara wanted to put on a beautiful, silken dress that her grand-cousin had bought for her. I explained that this dress comes from China. And then I said: “and I am Polish, and daddy is German”. Then I asked: “And who are you?”. She said: “Klara!”

Such a simple and yet complex answer: she is Klara. She is 2 years old. She is a blond, happy, clever girl. We are more than our country of origin. We are more than our culture. Wherever I am, I am myself. Do you know this poem by Whitni Thomas? It is called “Colors” and deals with the difficult topic of cultural identity crisis. In the words of this poem, I feel green.

Besides, I have learned about TCK's from a very interesting blog called DrieCulturen. There, I also found the poem I quoted in this post.Thanks a lot, Janneke for tackling such a interesting, and difficult topic!
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Monday, 18 June 2012

Multilingualism: only for smart kids?

Usually people react with interest when I tell them that I am raising my children to speak three languages. But sometimes they make the assumption that not all kids can be raised multilingually. They tend to think that it takes a certain kinds of kid. What kind of kid, exactly? A “smart” kid. A “confident” kid. Is this assumption true?

Yes and no. First, research has shown that multilingual children have the same, or a slightly higher IQ than monolingual children. However, I am not sure whether this is due to multilingualism itself or to the fact that some of those children come from privileged families who have more resources to ensure a multilingual upbringing. On the other hand, switching between languages is a good mental exercise, probably resulting in increased mental capabilities. So mostly, in this group, we see the children who clearly benefit from being bi- multilingual.

There is another group: children of parents who leave their countries looking for work, whose languages do not enjoy a high prestige in their new country, like Arabic, or Russian. Those children are sometimes teased about their looks and their language. And it is true that maybe they need a little more confidence to be bilingual than children whose language is considered a high-prestige language, like English.

And I understand that parents want to protect their children from being teased and bullied because of their looks and language. But multilingualism can be considered a gift, a talent, something that other children do not have. It’s the same as playing a musical instrument, or knowing a useful craft. But maybe those parents are afraid their children would be bullied because they’re different. This is where the wish for the “assertive”, “confident” personality comes from. But those children are not at fault. Society is, for not accepting their cultures and languages. So if we can give our children the gift of speaking many languages, and are willing to do so (yes, there actually are reasons why a family could decide not to do this!), we should.

Other people think that children have to be really talented to speak many languages properly. But what does “smart” or “talented” mean? Of course, there is the IQ test to measure intelligence, but what about other children who do not score well on such tests? What about other types of intelligence? You have heard of people who are engineers and scientists but their language skills are terrible. Others learn languages like a sponge but can’t do maths well. I know, this is just an overgeneralisation, but how would you define the words “smart”, “clever”, “intelligent”? And is it a matter of inborn talent, or hard work and environmental influence, in other words, is it nature or nurture?

There is another thing. A few months ago, I wrote about whether multilingualism is some kind of a special need. But some children really get diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, or similar labels. The parents then think that they shouldn’t bring up these children bilingually because it’s already so confusing. As we know, the theory that learning several languages at the same time is confusing does not stand true. Although there a very few studies on this, we can assume that children on the Autism spectrum can become multilingual. Whether the parents want it, or have the time and the resources for raising bilingual children that are autistic is another matter altogether.

The truth is that almost any child can become bi- or multilingual. Because it’s not only a matter of in-born talent, it’s a matter of work, and exercise, and commitment from the parents’ side. It also depends on the family goal: is it both multilingualism AND multiliteracy? Or is it just that we want the children to understand all the languages spoken in our house but speak, read and write only in one of them?

Multilingualism does not happen “like that”. It is hard work, and it is sometimes exhausting. Yes, we know about the benefits of raising our children with two or more languages. But some parents might decide that it’s not a good idea. They might not have the time, the money, the resources, the commitment. And you know what? That’s OK as well. Because multilingualism is a choice and no parent should be judged for their decision not to raise a monolingual child.
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Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Yo-ho, hoist the colours… but what colours?

We expats have problems other people don’t have: adjusting to a new home, living in a country different from our own, often learning a new language. But those problems pale in the face of what happens during the football season.

We were “happy” to experience this twice: World Cup in South Africa 2010, and now the Europe Cup, hosted- I am proud to add-by my home country, Poland. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my belief that if it wasn’t for football, we would have World’s Peace. But please let me explain before you go on and lynch me for uttering such profanities.

See, in the times of globalisation, and people moving around, and living in other countries, we could think that those people are usually welcomed in their new homes. We could think that there is a Global Brotherhood Period, and everybody loves everybody else. But, during Football season the mood changes to a more nationalistic one. But there is more to that. Suddenly, history becomes important.

For example, Poland playing against Germany is never just Poland against Germany. The Germans think: “Oh, those Poles, we will crash them like we did in 1939”. The Poles think: “You…., we’ll get back at you for what you did to us in 1939!” Old prejudices, and old wounds are being remembered, and emotions fly high.
When you are in your home country, you have just one side to choose: yours; Or the one that you like more, if your country is not playing. But an expat’s situation is much complicated. Here is an example.

When I read that Germany will be playing against the Netherlands on June 13th, I jokingly posted a message on my FB wall wherein I debated in what colours I should dress Klara. I wasn’t really planning to dress her in any colours rather than her usual ones but I still wrote this as a joke. I was totally unprepared for the problem that I was facing.

As you know, I am Polish, and we live in the Netherlands. And you also know that my husband is German. See my problem? Germany is playing against the Netherlands. This makes my husband’s position as uncomfortable as my position was when we watched Poland playing against Germany back in 2008. I was the only Pole in the pub, and dear, was I uncomfortable. If Poland were playing well, that’d be a different story altogether, but they were so bad that even I noticed how bad they were. And so I kept my head low, and paid real good attention to not rolling my R’s, just to be on the safe side.

So, in the FB discussion, several options were presented: Orange (because for Poles the Dutch are the lesser of the two evils). Dress one girl in black-red-gold, and the other in orange; Then, Polish, in white and red. Then German-Polish: white-and-black. Another suggestion was, dressing her in a colourful dress- so that people see whatever they want to see. But I think that is something people might miss altogether. And what it the point of a fashion statement if nobody notices it?

The arguments for and against colours were varied, and the discussion was heated. I’ve realised that there is no good way out of this. Whatever I’ll do, I’ll be lynched for showing loyalty to whatever that wasn’t Orange. But I didn’t want to go Orange on my daughters. So, what to do? Maybe I’ll let them run around naked.
But you know what? This problem was solved for me by my girls’ daycare. They had custom made orange onesies for the occasion, and had all children wear them. The kids had a blast playing football!

And you know what happened? Julia got hers dirty. She’s a baby after all. And Klara? Did I tell you we were potty training her? So yes, you guessed it. She was dressed in Orange, and she peed on it.

Today, on the day of the match, Julia is wearing pink pants, a dark violet top and light violet stockings. Klara is wearing brown corduroy pants, a light pink top and blue socks. I totally forgot about the Orange thing! And then at daycare, they had a bring-your-child- dressed-in -Orange-day. And it didn’t matter. Because while the nannies, including Klara’s Muslim nanny  as well as some of the children wore Orange, others were dressed in other colours. So Klara and Julia didn’t even stand out. But you know what, the colours don’t matter, they will be dirty in no time anyway! 

How are you dressing your children today?
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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

How to name a child when you're an expat?

My parents named me Olga for several reasons. One of them was the fact that this name is short and easy to pronounce. Maybe they somehow felt that I would go to live abroad. Unfortunately, they didn't predict that we'll end up in the Netherlands where the Dutch  deform this name in the most terrible manner by pronouncing it  „Olcha”. 

But this only shows how difficult it is to name a child. You have to think well whether to name the children after their grandmother, grandfather or maybe after somebody else. On top of that, the name has to sound well, and if it means something, it's even better! The name can't  be too weird, or too popular. So many rules to observe!

And this is only for people who live in their own country. I will take Poland as an example because the names are often very different from the ones that you might know. What about the Polish people who went abroad or have a non-Polish spouse? They have even more dilemmas. For example: should we give our child a Polish or an international name, or maybe a totally foreign one? Polish names are beautiful, but they often have letters and sounds that do not exist in other languages.So, there is also the problem whether you should name our child MaƂgorzata or Margaret, Katarzyna or Catherine? You get the idea.

What to do in such a case? This depends on the family. Many families look for names that   can be found in Polish as well as in other languages. We wanted names that could be pronounced and spelled the same way in Polish and German, hence our daughters are called Klara and Julia. In German, you can spell Klara with a "C", but this is not possible in Polish (or it would be pronounced Tslara), this is why our daughter is called Klara. "Julia" (pronounced "Yulia") is a similar case. In the same way, my Polish friends named their children „Antoni”, „Antonina”, or „Artur”. There are many other, beautiful Polish names that work internationally: „Natalia”, „Daniel”, „Adam” The choice is big.

Other Polish friends chose another way: they gave their children foreign (non-Polish) names: Jennifer, Ellen, Emma. I love these names, and it doesn't matter that they are not Polish. Actually, I would see this as an opportunity: you can give your child an original name without having to explain this to your family!

There are many methods and many ways to find a beautiful name for your child. One thing is clear, though: naming a child is never easy, and if you live abroad, there might be other issues as well.

How did you name your child? What were the reasons behind your decision?
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Monday, 4 June 2012

100 posts old, and counting!

Dear readers, this is the 100th post. I can’t believe it! The 100th post! As this blog is nearing its first birthday, I have many interesting things for you in store. I hope to be able to present this blog to you in its final version in July.

As you might have noticed, I have decided to drop the posts in German as they just didn’t make any sense. To me, they felt forced and unnatural, which is weird given the fact that I am bilingual and speak the language every day.  But I hope to continue writing in Polish and English as it’s both fun and challenging.

Dear readers, the content of this blog is also up to you. Are there any topics you want to read about? Do you have any questions on whatever topic I wrote about? 

So far, this has been an experiment, a fun way to spend my time writing about whatever came to my mind. I feel that I have arrived at a point where I have to decide what this blog should be. I am a mother and I write a blog. That makes me a mommy blogger. So this blog will continue to be about my children. But I am also a bilingual person, and an expat living in the Netherlands. I want this blog to reflect this as well- both through topics and the usage of two languages. After all, I haven’t called it The European Mama for nothing.

In the next few weeks I’ll be doing some works to make this blog look a little bit tidier. I am also thinking about the visual aspects, researching ideas for backgrounds and mastheads. A logo would be nice, too!

What do you think? I would appreciate all suggestions, ideas and comments. Please help make this blog bigger, better, bloggier! 
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