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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Want to talk to children about multilingualism? Tell them a story!

I am a great fan of all kinds of stories. I have never been so good at telling them but I love reading books, short stories, or anything with a narrative. When we moved to our new house, I wrote a little story for Klara to help her settle in her new place. I wanted to write more stories, but I am better at reading stories than writing or telling them.

This time, however, Klara couldn’t go to sleep. She’s at a place she knows and loves and yet she is homesick, and needs my company when falling asleep. So instead of our usual songs, I told her stories. This was one of them.

A long, long time ago, there was a big (not a little girl, mind you, she’s a big girl) girl called Klara. Klara lived with her mama and papa and her little sister Julia in a house in Riswijk, the Netherlands. Klara knew other Dutch children, but she wasn’t like them: Klara spoke three languages, while these children could speak only one.

Each of the parents used their own language when speaking to her. Klara’s mama was Polish, and she spoke Polish with Klara. Her father was German, and that’s the language he used. At Klara’s daycare, the nannies and other children spoke Dutch.

Because of this, Klara got to travel a lot, and to meet many interesting people from all around the world even tough she’s only three. However, not everybody was just as excited about her ability to speak many languages as her parents were.

Some people told her that she didn’t need all these languages. For example, Klara could already speak Dutch, and some people said that’s all she needed in the Netherlands! Others understood that she spoke German. They said: “It’s so similar to Dutch, and Germany is our neighbour, and German is a useful language. But why Polish? We don’t understand it. Nobody speaks it. Why would you?”

Klara then was sad that she got ridiculed because of her Polish, and she even refused to speak Polish with her mother and only answered German or Dutch. She wanted to be a part of the group, and she wanted to feel welcome.

Klara’s mother never stopped using Polish with her daughter. And one day, they went to see Klara’s grandparents and her uncle in Poland. There, Klara saw that Polish is useful because that way, she could communicate with her grandparents. She then started using more and more Polish.


This is such a simple story, and it’s inspired by my own experiences, even though many of these things never happened- but they could and they might. But my point is that it’s not so difficult! And maybe you could try writing your own little story for your child? The cool thing about stories is that they are so adaptable, and you can write whatever fits your life best.

Is your daughter a princess? Tell her that real princesses have to speak many languages, and that princesses of old often married men from other countries. Was your child told that in the Netherlands, only Dutch can be spoken? Tell her a story of a child whose multilingualism gives them possibilities that the other children don’t have. Have you, as a parent been told to speak a foreign language with your child? Tell her a story of a sad parent who wanted to express her love for her child, but can't because she can only say: "I love you" in her own language?

Or, if you want to go all metaphoric, tell your children a story of a child who discovers many fascinating worlds because he has magic keys (languages) that allow him to open the doors leading there. The possibilities are endless.

Have you tried doing this? Maybe you can try and then share your stories in the comments?
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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

“Bilingual is better”-a review

I have just finished reading “Bilingual is better”, and I would like to share this review so that you can read it, too. You definitely should! The authors, Ana Flores and Roxana A. Soto are founders of Spanglish Baby, a great resource on raising multilingual children.

 Since I am a great fan of this blog I was very happy to find out that these two inspiring ladies wrote a book. Ana also writes for Babble, a parenting website I enjoy reading, but for a long time I was missing such an important topic as bilingualism- even though Babble already offers great articles on racism, raising children with special needs, or raising children as a lesbian couple. This gap was filled when Ana started her blog Besos which is a part of Babble Voices. Thank you, Babble!

Coming back to the book, it was a joy to read, for so many reasons. First, it is well written- which basically confirms the point that multilinguals often have a better command and understanding of language than monolinguals. Then, it is a wonderful mixture of current research on bilingualism, articles from the Spanglish Baby blog and Ana’s and Roxana’s own experiences.

Thanks to this form, “Bilingual is better” is at the same time personal and well researched- a perfect combination because it offers real life experiences and has a solid scientific foundation at the same time. I liked reading about the history of bilingualism in the US, and the situation of Spanish speakers there. And, I can’t help but think that, even though multilingualism is generally encouraged in Europe, many people face the same challenges like being told that their language is unnecessary and speaking it is a drawback to successful integration- this is for example the case with Turkish in Germany or in the Netherlands.

The bilingual and multilingual schools presented in this book sound amazing and I hope more of such schools will be opened around the world. I wish I could send my children to one of them, but I hope that The European School of The Hague will encourage diversity and multilingualism even though the classes are in Dutch so that my children will be proud rather than ashamed of speaking three- and later more languages.

All in all, “Bilingual is Better” is a book I can whole-heartedly recommend to all interested in bilingualism and who- like me- love reading intercultural experiences of real moms. The only thing I didn’t necessarily agree with is that the authors argue for everybody speaking Spanish in the US. While Spanish is without doubts a very important language, I would prefer to see that everybody would be bilingual or even multilingual without making the distinction between useful and less useful languages. Instead, everybody should be offered to learn another language, based on their cultural background, interests and preferences, rather than usefulness.

Other than that, “Bilingual is better” is informative, personal and fascinating. It took me all of two days to read it because I just couldn’t put it down! Please, do the same if you get the chance. The book is available on Amazon. Also, take a moment to browse Spanglish Baby-for me it’s a great resource on all things bilingual- and fun at the same time!
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Sunday, 21 October 2012

Are some languages more difficult to learn than others?

If there is one thing the Dutch often tell me about their language, it’s that it’s difficult. I am always surprised when I hear this. After all, it didn’t sound so difficult to me. German proved to be a huge help when learning Dutch- speakers of German can read Dutch even though the pronunciation is different, making speaking it a little bit harder.

This made me wonder whether some languages were more difficult than others. I browsed the web in search for the most difficult languages in the world, and found this or this list.

I am a native speaker of Polish, which is notorious for being difficult, and some lists even mention Polish as the most difficult language ever- see here for the explanation why it’s supposedly so difficult. I have been speaking German since a very young age, and it didn’t seem difficult to me, but I was very surprised that many of my co-students at school often stated that they preferred English because it was easier.

So, just because one language is considered easy or difficult, doesn’t mean that this is the case, because whether a language can be called easy or difficult depends on so many things. One of them is its distance to the native language. I considered Dutch easy because it’s close to German. So even though Polish can seem impossible to learn (Cases! More exceptions than rules! All these “sh-sounds!”), it might appear easier to someone who already knows Russian, Slovak or Czech. If you know Italian, you can easily learn Spanish, etc.

Another aspect is that in fact, all languages have their own unique characteristics. For example, while Chinese doesn’t seem to have any grammar to speak of (so it could be considered easy), but then it has a totally different language system, and a complex alphabet on top of that. English is considered easy, but personally, I found German easier than English: English has TENSES! As a speaker of a language that doesn’t have so many tenses, I couldn’t have cared less whether something had happened before something else happened, or that something has been happening for a while now, or has only happened recently. And there is no way of knowing how something is spelled or pronounce. Italian or Spanish always seemed easy to me but they have a complicated system of tenses, just like many other Romance languages.

Another thing is that sometimes we have a talent for languages in general or, a better understanding of some languages over others. A friend of mine told me that she had a talent for Romance languages and she was very proud of her knowledge of Italian. I have learned a great deal of Germanic languages, can understand some Italian and Spanish, but still struggle with French.

Then, there is the motivation for learning the languages: if it’s a duty, it’s going to be hard. If it’s fun, it’s going to be challenging- not necessarily easy, but at least it will be fun! Still, I think that each language we learn is a benefit, and each language we learn gives us a glimpse into another world.

What is important is that we don’t make this a competition. Learning a language- any language- is an accomplishment!
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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Who can be bi-or multilingual?

Until recently, I would never have thought of calling myself “bilingual”, or even “multilingual”. In Europe, it is widely thought that only those who can speak the two (or more) languages on the same level of proficiency can call themselves bi-or multilingual. So even though I spoke German on a much higher level than other people I knew, I still didn’t consider myself bilingual because I felt my German didn’t match my Polish. I would half-jokingly refer to myself as one-and-a half-lingual to try to explain my level of German, but I never felt I was truly bilingual.

When I started learning English, I would never consider calling myself “trilingual” because my English was far behind both my Polish and German. After I added French and later Dutch to this mix, I would say that I speak 3 and a 2 halves of 2 languages. I wanted to show that yes, I do speak 5 languages, but I don’t speak all of them equally well.

But this changed when I had children and started reading into bi-and multilingualism. And it struck me that the word: “bilingual” just refers to someone who speaks 2 languages. If they can speak more than “just” 2 languages, they are called multilingual. Do you notice something? Nothing is said about the level these languages are spoken. In fact, all scientific literature states how rare balanced bilinguals are and that they are the exception rather than the norm.

So I started to call myself first bilingual (referring to my knowledge of Polish and German), and then realized that I speak more languages than that and now I can call myself multilingual. After all, why not? I speak Polish as my mother tongue, have been learning German since the age three and a half, and later added English, French and Dutch. That’s five languages. That’s already an accomplishment.

The same applies to you! It doesn’t matter if you feel that your language skills are not enough. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak the language like a native speaker. It doesn’t matter that you can only communicate in a language on a very basic level- you are still bi-or multilingual.

Your goal can depend on many things: with whom and about what will you use this language? For some people it will be enough to be able to make their daily grocery shopping in the new language. Then others will need a high level of language to produce texts, articles or even books. But they are all multilingual. Even though there are differences between early bilingualism and later bilingualism, research shows that the mere fact of learning a language is already extremely beneficial, and even if somebody learns a language at a later stage, they might be able to achieve a be a highly proficient speaker, given the right amount of time and resources.

No, this is not to say that we should just decide to stop working on the languages we know. This is more to say that while we always can do better in our language development, by learning a language we have already come a long way. 
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Thursday, 18 October 2012

What does it mean to be European?

Since the European Union has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, I would like to take this as an opportunity to think about what being European actually means. I’ve been pondering on this even before I started this blog, but until now I couldn’t put my thoughts into words. So since now seems to be the right time, I’ll try to do just that.

Even though I have benefitted tremendously from Poland’s membership in the EU, being European means much more than just the EU. For me, how I feel about Europe seems to change wherever I am. When I was in Canada, I worked in a beautiful shop with Polish products, among them pralines, amber jewellery and stained glass that Poland is actually quite famous for. The text on the display said: “European glass”, even though the glass was specifically from Poland. However, I could identify with this description, because it actually counted Poland as a European country on par with France Germany- something that is not obvious in Europe where Poland is often considered a worse kind of Europe.

On the other hand, I often browse American websites in search for parenting articles, blogs and some advice. There, I often see arguments like: “In Europe, women do this or that”, when it is obvious that this “this or that” only applies to one or more countries in Europe and even though there are similarities, each country has their own way of dealing with parenting- or basically everything.

When I am in Poland, I feel very European. When I am abroad, I become more “Polish”. This sounds schizophrenic, but it really isn’t. Europeans often wonder whether the EU is taking away their own national identity, and trying to substitute it with a homogenous European one. This is not exactly true. When I was at university, I worked as a part of a research project team that analysed the emergence of a European public sphere over time. One of the factors analysed was European identity.

It turned out that such a public sphere already exists. And, if you look at articles and studies concerned with identity (or rather the multitude of them), you’ll see that far from having a fixed identity, people tend to identify with many roles: the child, the parent, the sibling, the colleague or the boss, the spouse, the friend. You say you don’t feel European but you feel let’s say, Polish? Great, but you probably identify with your city (I most certainly do), and/or your region- most Germans would agree with this! I often identify as a person speaking a Slavic language, which connects me to people from Russia to the Balkans! The cool thing about identity is that it’s in a great part your choice!

So why not feel European? After all, just as fulfilling the many roles in our lives, and identifying with various geographical entities, feeling European doesn’t automatically make you less Polish/German/French, etc. People of course might decide not to feel that way, and that’s fine.

I decided to feel European. I think my husband did as well. I hope that my girls will, too.

How about you? Do you feel European? And if you’re not from Europe, how do you feel about living here? If you don’t live in Europe, what are your impressions about it?
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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Raising multilingual children: hard or challenging?

I’ve already tackled a similar topic in one of my posts in which I compared multilingual children with very gifted children, which is much more challenging (or difficult) for the parents since they have to find special schools or programmes to accommodate their children’s talents. The same is the case with multilingual children.

This post, however, was born out of a conversation with my parents-in-law, who often express their concern that Klara’s German will not be enough and that they would prefer the children’s father (their own son) to understand all the languages the girls speak. And even though they are now convinced and impressed by Klara’s linguistic aptitude and the level of her German, they are not 100% supportive.

When we came back to speak about this topic, I said that while they worry so much about German, this is not the language to worry about and that I will have to work harder than everybody in the family to make my children speak, read and write Polish. To this, my father-in-law answered: “Parenting is hard. And I mean this in a positive sense, take it as a challenge. I then started wondering whether raising multilingual children is challenging or simply hard and difficult.

Some of you might agree with my father-in-law. After all, if you call something “challenging” rather than “difficult”, you make it sound so much nicer. Even though personally, I don’t agree with this view, there is at least a degree of truth. I guess, like so much in life, it all depends on the definitions.

For me, “challenging” means difficult, but fun at the same time. It is something that keeps your brain working, inspires you and allows you to gain new knowledge and new insights into yourself and life in general. In my case, raising my children, and particularly raising them multilingually, has proven to be just that. It is such a great joy and I can’t even begin to express how lucky I am to have my two clever, funny girls. In fact, I haven’t had so much fun for a long time.

On the other hand, “hard” means “dull”, “boring”, “exhausting” and basically the opposite of fun, but incredibly difficult at the same time. There are things about being a parent that are just that- hard, like dealing with temper tantrums. In this case, what my father-in-law did, was basically the equivalent of saying: “I see your backpack is already full, so let me put some more stones in it, so that it will be a greater challenge for you”. This is what I find the hardest to deal with: I don’t mind people (even family members) voicing their opinions but they can’t expect me to act on them.

The joys and the benefits of raising multilingual children are definitely outweighing the hardships of having to deal with unsupportive family members. But it is also difficult even without that so I totally don’t understand why I have to fight for my right for my children speaking my own language on top of all the responsibilities that come with raising children.

Are your family members supportive? If so, in what ways?
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Monday, 15 October 2012

A walk in the woods

I am now at my in-laws’ place in Northern Germany. They live in a little village, and when you go out you’re in the woods in no time. It is a beautiful place, full of trees, and flowers and lakes. It is also very quiet. At the moment, I am enjoying this but soon I’ll miss all that come with living in a city, like the vicinity of shops and public transport - even though Rijswijk is not much of a city, but it’s close to one.

Right now, I am using my time to play with the children and go for walks. The next few days might be difficult because my husband needs surgery and will have to stay in the hospital for 3 days. So, I am trying to distract myself by taking pictures. As some of you know, I bought a Canon 600D and I think now is the perfect time to learn how to use it. Nature is always a grateful topic, and especially now is the perfect time since the leaves are just becoming yellow and red and brown. The weather is not too bad, it rains sometimes, and it’s rather cold, but I can put on my sweater and be just fine.

Only yesterday, we used the still beautiful weather during the evening to go out to get some shots. We left the children at home so that I could concentrate better and I got some decent shots of the trees and clouds and flowers. Due to the low light, the photos are not perfect, and they are in desperate need of a great deal of editing, but I had lots of fun taking them and wanted to show you where I am right now.  Also, I used the automatic camera settings. I couls have played around with shutter speed and aperture but decided against it since we didn't have so much time and I think the camera did quite a good job with the low light.
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Saturday, 13 October 2012

Dear Dutch doctors- a letter to the Dutch healthcare providers

Dear Dutch doctors,

For a while I believed that your system worked out great and was pretty satisfied with it. After all, my husband’s thyroid condition was being managed really well, with regular blood checks and adjustments of medication when appropriate. I wondered why it is that my expat friends complained so much about you- that they weren’t getting medications for their problems, or weren’t treated well enough. For a while I thought that maybe if they understand that sometimes you can treat some diseases without any medications at all, they will be just fine.

For my second birth, I planned a homebirth, and I was very grateful for having this opportunity, and even if it didn’t work out, I was happy for simply being given the choice. I felt my midwives took care of my pregnancy really well, on the one hand offering me all the time and support that come with seeing a midwife, and on the other hand they really wanted me and my baby to be safe so didn’t hesitate to order additional tests when they were necessary.

At the beginning, I went to see a doctor for many of Klara’s infections because I was afraid of ear infections that might affect her hearing. When we really needed antibiotics, you prescribed them, and they always helped. But I didn’t go to see my doctor that often (even if it wasn’t often to begin with), and I even started to feel proud of not giving my child so many antibiotics, or other medicines.

But another thing was that each time I went there I felt like you brushed my worries and concerns aside, as if I was panicking because my child had a slight infection or fever. I felt that because I am a foreigner I wasn’t worthy of your time. And that was another reason for not seeing you so much anymore. I thought that was just a cultural thing and I had to adapt to your way of thinking.

But now you have failed me, and failed me big time. The thing that tipped the scale was Klara’s operation in August- you totally missed the fact that her adenoid was too big and had to be removed. I know how you despise operations, but this one was necessary and her breathing is now so much better. When I went to see you, you didn’t even bother to look at her adenoid even if it’s a common thing for children in Klara’s age.

I didn’t go to see you for Julia’s cough because I was sick and tired of being patronized and dismissed. We went to see a wonderful German doctor who found that Julia had mucus in her lungs. It wasn’t anything bad so he prescribed natural coughing syrup- no antibiotics! But he was kind and he listened. But the Dutch doctors could have totally missed it and she could have gotten pneumonia.

The Consultatiebureau did send Julia to therapy, but it was only after I asked them whether she might need it. Only then did you take a closer look at her, and said that she might indeed benefit from physical therapy. Would you do it if I hadn’t asked? Another thing that made me very angry is the advice I am usually given whenever I go there for a check-up. It really angers me that I am asking how to solve a very particular problem and you respond with general advice I can easily look up pretty much anywhere.

Last week I had a talk with my midwife about how to deal with a possible difficult, long birth, something I am very scared of. I asked about the possibility of getting a C section if it seemed that the baby was getting too big or was in the wrong position. She said she didn’t see any reasons why I should get one. Oh well, she didn’t see any reasons, but what if I did? Why can’t we have the choice between a doctor and a midwife, and between a natural birth and a C section on demand? She basically dismissed my fears as unnecessary and unimportant. I decided to get a doula to get the support I need but will it be enough?

I don’t buy the “cultural differences” argument. Yes, the healthcare system is different than the one I’ve encountered in Poland or Germany. Dutch people are said to be direct and sometimes rude and maybe this is reflected in the healthcare system. However, I found this was not the case in the Netherlands and the people very friendly and open. On the other hand, doctors everywhere are often accused of not being able to listen, and to dismiss their patients’ worries. In the Netherlands, this is combined with the general reluctance to prescribe medication and the “natural” approach to health, pregnancy and children’s health, which results in expats being extremely frustrated with the healthcare system in the Netherlands.

Please consider this. We are concerned that we’re not getting good quality care in a civilized country and this applies to all aspects of healthcare- doctors, Consultatiebureaus and midwives. It really is a shame!

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Friday, 12 October 2012

The silent phase

You might have heard this from teachers at your children’s day care: “Your child does not speak Dutch, even though he’s 2 and a half”. Maybe they offer you the advice to speak Dutch to your child, or maybe they will just bring it to your attention and leave it at that. And you might start worrying that maybe your children’s speech development is not as you had thought it would be. And maybe you’ve wondered if you were doing your child a favor by raising him bilingually.

I’ve gone through this with Klara. She said her first word at 18 months, and her speech development went slowly. I thought this might be fine, but was still worried. And this is when I came across a book on raising bilingual children that explained that this kind of thing happens to children who are still working on their mother tongue and therefore can’t concentrate on the new language just yet. They need to reach a certain level in one of the language to be able to start speaking a new one, even though they grow up with this language.

The book referred to this as the “silent phase” and it describes exactly what happened to Klara. She was working hard on her German and Polish, so it was no wonder that she didn’t speak Dutch! However, t was clear that she could understand everything that was said to her in this language.
After a while, she started picking up. Sentences became longer and more complex. Slowly, she also started adding Dutch words to her vocabulary. I am happy that this is working out and stopped worrying about her Dutch.

Another version of this might be when your child suddenly stops speaking one language (for example Polish) and concentrates on the other one. It might look as if your child is rejecting your mother tongue, and sometimes this is the case. However, it might be that the children are concentrating on another language they speak, in Klara’s case- German or Dutch. She has phases when she prefers Polish, and other times- German or Dutch, even though Dutch is much less common with her. I try not to worry when Klara speaks a lot of German, and instead try to be proud of her for managing 3 languages- it’s after all, quite an undertaking. Usually, she comes back to Polish after a while.

As for day care, there might be yet another reason why your child doesn't speak the majority language there. After all, it is not home, it’s a strange place with strange people, and while some children adapt really well to it, others struggle and refuse to use the majority language at day care even though they speak it at home really well. And, it also depends on the teacher: a friend of mine told me a story how she was criticized by one of the nannies for not speaking Dutch with her daughter. The nanny even went as far as to call a crisis meeting with the parents, and told them that they need to speak more Dutch at home. At home, however, it turned out that the girl could speak Dutch really well, and it seemed that she didn't like the nanny all that much and this is the reason she refused to use her language- or any language, for that matter.

So there are many reasons why a child wouldn't speak the majority language at daycare or school- and one of them could be that he’s working at his other languages, to come back to the majority language later. It’s always good to have your child checked if you’re worried, but it’s best if it’s done by someone who has experience with multilingual children. Usually, they turn out just fine. 

Have you had similar experiences?
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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

How does it feel to raise multilingual children? Educator and activist

In the last few months, I’ve been reading a lot about parenting. I like knowing the latest trends, and finding out about the many methods and approaches to raising children. I’ve been reading about breastfeeding, AP, giving birth, home births, and many other topics.

It strikes me as very obvious that the people mostly writing about these topics are extremely excited about them and very motivated to share their stories. This is why I share many characteristics with them. I am very motivated to share my stories, to learn as much as I can about raising multilingual children, and tell you what I have learned so far.

I am very proud to be able to raise my children with many languages and I try to explain, and educate wherever I can. I also find multilingualism a fascinating topic and I could go on and on and on forever. I try not to do all too much in front of others, but rather prefer to reserve it for this blog.

Another thing that strikes me about the parenting/birth-related/ and breastfeeding blogs is the fact that the line between being informative and describing one’s own experiences and being judgmental is a very fine, fine line indeed.

I run the same risk of sounding judgmental or somehow making people feel bad about their parenting choices. I try not to do this. I don’t want to sound like raising multilingual children is the only way you can raise children. I don’t want to make it sound that my children are special because of being raised multilingually. I think they are special, and I am so proud of them, but then I am their mom and that's my job.

Judging is the last thing I want to do. Having been judged myself (to the point where somebody called the police on me), I really don’t want people to feel this way. Instead, I want to share what I have found out. I want to share my life stories which by coincidence, include being an expat and raising multilingual children.

I want to share my struggles and problems, so that maybe you can feel less alone or maybe you have been through the same thing and can offer a solution or some advice. Maybe I can help you. Or maybe you can help me. This is what this blog is for.

And last but not least, I just love learning for the sheer pleasure of learning stuff. I love learning new stuff. I am learning and gaining new information, not only because I can use it but also because it is fun to know stuff. And isn’t multilingualism fascinating? Isn’t discovering all aspects of expat life exciting? It gives me a lot to write about and I am grateful because it keeps my mind at work and my creativity going.

But maybe you could share your stories in the comments? I am looking forward to reading them! If you have questions, or advice on all things multilingualism or being an expat- please share that as well! It's always great to read other people's opinion on these topics!

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Friday, 5 October 2012

Song for expats, Part 1

Music has always been a huge part of my life. I have soundtracks for every mood, for every part of my life. I love music from all genres and styles, and all parts of the world.  I am fascinated by the sheer amount of beautiful, inspiring songs. I like songs that make me think and contemplate, and songs that make me laugh, and songs about having fun. I like songs with complicated harmonies and songs with simple beats. I've been thinking about songs for expats, and I looked around and found many beautiful songs about expat life, feeling misunderstood and strange, and also about the excitement moving around brings- and about feeling at home somewhere. Since I have so many songs, this will be a little series with different songs about all the aspects of expat life. If you have any more suggestions for expat songs, please share them in the comments!
In the meantime, enjoy my little selection for today!

1) "Englishman in New York" by Sting

I think this is the first song that comes to mind when you think of possible expat songs. It has such a beautiful, jazzy melody, and Sting's voice and lyrics fit it perfectly. And I can relate to what he sings about: everything we do gives us away as expats, as foreigners, as legal aliens: our customs, our habits, our accents ("You can hear it in my accent when I talk") And while he criticizes the society he now belongs to: "Honesty, sobriety, are rare in this society", he also gives good advice: "Be yourself, no matter what they say!".

2) "People are strange" by the Doors

Another song about feeling strange, weird, alienated, excluded. It is not explicitly an expat song, but it can describe the feeling many expats get sometimes. I like the part where he sings: "No one remembers your name"- so true, and sometimes it's even "No one can pronounce your name". On the other hand, to the stranger other people seem strange as well. Thanks you, Jim Morrison for this beautiful, thoughtful song.

3) 'I like to be in America" from West Side Story

Let's switch genres, shall we? This is a very funny song, but it discusses so many important topics: which one is better: your culture or that of your host country? Did reality meet your expectations you had of your host country? Also, the discussion between Anita and Bernardo makes it clear that there are several types of expats: the ones who were born in the USA - who are treated like Americans (like Tony, who is actually half- Swedish, half-Polish) and the ones that came later - like the Puertoricans, who feel they are treated like a worse type of human being. 


4) "Clandestino" by Manu Chao

You might feel like a legal alien sometimes, but at least you're a legal one. You can get a job, you can get help, you can be treated like a human being. Not everybody has this privilege. This song is about "illegal immigrants" who come to Europe from other countries. Also, the EU goes to great lengths to ensure that every culture and every language is treated in an equal fashion, it only applies to EU cultures and languages. What about the rest of the world? Can't they be included, too? Also, apparently the Netherlands are debating on this very topic.

5) 'Bei mir bistu Schein" sung by the Andrews Sisters

This is an old Yiddish song from 1933, made famous by the Andrews Sisters in 1937. I love this jazzy, swingy version! I love the voices and how the singer can sing in perfect harmony. For me, this is a song for all in intercultural relationships. Many people say that being in a intercultural relationship is more difficult because of cultural differences. I say that if you can speak more languages, you can say "I love you" in so many more ways. "I could say bella, bella, even say wunderbar, each language only helps me tell you how swell you are!"

More songs to come soon!
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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

How does it feel like to raise multilingual children: The Puppet Master

Raising multilingual children can invoke different feelings in their parents. Sometimes you can feel like a mad professor who performs experiments on your children. Or maybe you feel like you have to advocate for your children all the time. This is how I am feeling right now: like a puppet master, a manipulator.

Sometimes I get the feeling that if I looked hard enough, I’ll be able to see them, the 3 strings attached to my children, and pointing at 3 different directions. At the end of every string, there is a certain language, a certain culture and certain expectations.

The first string leads to the majority culture and language: Dutch. When I meet Dutch people, their question is always whether my children speak Dutch. And they do, but they will never become fully “Dutch” (whatever that means). I agree that it is important that they speak it. However, society expects full integration, and this is hard for me to do because I know that just like many expat children, mine will never feel fully Dutch.

On the other side, there is my husband’s part of the family. I am always asked how the children’s German is. I get comments on their German. They are always concerned whether Klara’s and Julia’s German is good enough. The fact that their little cousin can already say several words doesn't help me much.

And as upsetting this picture is to me, and as much as it pains me to admit this, I am one of these forces, pulling into a certain direction, and forcing my agenda on my children. Because here I am, speaking Polish with my children, totally unmoved by the fact that nobody understands this language and that Polish people already have a bad reputation in the Netherlands. I have an agenda: I want my children to speak Polish. I am ready to spend a big amount of time with them, reading books and playing games, but Polish is always in my mind. Do they speak enough Polish? Am I doing this right? How not to let the pressure get at me? For others, Polish might not seem like a priority: after all, when the children start school, it will be harder and harder to make them speak it. So is it not better to concentrate on the languages that count?

This is hard, people, and sometimes I really want to give in. But Polish is the most natural way I can communicate with my children. It is the only way I still get to speak it consistently every day. And while I have more in common with other expats than with a Polish person who has never been abroad, I still see my being Polish as a big part of me.

But here is the thing. While I still see the importance of my children speaking other languages, and no one knows better than you, dear readers, that I am a huge believer in multilingual upbringing, I am still the mother of my children. This means that while I do my best to ensure their exposure to the many languages that we speak, Polish is my top priority. I want my children to speak, read and write in Polish. I want them to understand the conversations I have with my parents.

I know that we all want the best for our children. However, I am their mother. If I don’t take care of my own language, nobody will. Yes, I do have an agenda in raising my children. But I believe, very strongly, that it is a good agenda, one that will benefit everybody. And in order to be able to take good care of my children, I also need to consider my own interests. And speaking Polish with my children is one of them. 
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Monday, 1 October 2012

What to say to parents of bilingual children

Two months ago, I wrote a post about what not to say to parents of bilingual children (see here for the edited and revised version on InCultureParent Magazine). It was a highly popular post, proving that other parents of multilingual children feel the same way and can relate to my situation. However, Ute of Expat Since Birth has made a point in that it is better to use positive reinforcement. Also, I realized that while it is useful to know what not to say, I didn’t provide any helpful alternatives. Here is a little attempt at giving positive reinforcement.

1)      How is this working out for you?

Usually parents of multilingual children are very keen on educating people and advocating for multilingualism. By asking this question, you recognize the parent as the expert on their children, and they will be happy to explain and educate. It’s a win-win situation.

2)      What’s your story?

Some parents are monolingual, but end up having multilingual children due to certain circumstances. Other parents are multilingual themselves and raising their children multilingually is the most natural thing to do. So many families, so many stories. Also, there are many methods and approaches to multilingualism. I found that expat families like telling their stories to people who are genuinely interested in their situation.

3)      So, your children will grow up to speak several languages!

Even though I get awfully silly comments, I also hear this one sometimes, and I love it! It acknowledges the importance of learning languages from early on, and it recognizes the fact that parents want and need their children to speak their language. Also, whoever says this does not differentiate between “useful” and “not useful” languages.  Thank you to everybody who has ever said this to me.

4)      I hear many things about multilingualism. Are they true?

This is similar to some of the statements in my former post, but the aim here is to ask questions- again, you recognize the parents as experts, and even though you might agree with some of the things you have heard, you might change your mind, or at least we can have a meaningful discussion instead of having to fight back your accusations.

5)      How does your extended family feel about this?

We worry how our families react to our children being raised multilingually. Some of the families are very supportive, others are not. This will either mean that we answer with a reassuring: “They always support me and they understand”, or you will give us a reason to rant about out unsupportive families. In both cases, we will be grateful for your question and listening skills because the focus is on our situation.

6)      How do you plan to do this?

This is a question that a family member might ask if they’re worried that multilingualism might hurt their grandchild/nephew/niece. The focus is however, on understanding our plan. Maybe just explaining what we are planning to do will make these worries go away. It also means that the person understands that the parents will raise their child multilingually, no matter what. We will be happy to share resources- and maybe this is a good way to include the extended family in the upbringing.

7)      I would like to read up on multilingualism. Which articles/books/websites do you recommend?

If you ask this question, you get another win-win situation. You are showing interest, and want to get educated on the topic. Also, it allows us to boast our knowledge and who doesn't love that?

8)      Can we talk about this? We are worried.

Now, saying this is so much better than saying some of the things I quoted in my former post. If you don’t understand how bilinguals think, you might be worried. And yes, of course we can talk about this. You might change your mind, or you will realize that we won’t stop doing what we’re doing just because you’re worried. For you, this is a good way to address your worries, and share your thoughts. For us, it's a great way to explain- in a way that is not defensive.

9)      “She’s/He’s multilingual!”

Say this with pride, instead of confusion and fear, or as a way of excuse, and we will truly appreciate this gesture. We are so proud of the fact that our children speak several languages. Treat it like a special talent, or as an opportunity, and you will have our gratitude forever.

10)   I see you are very committed to making this work

Yes, we are very committed to making our children multilingual because we know that this is a great opportunity for them-and for us. By saying this, you recognize the hard work we’re doing. After all, we read about it, we think about it, we spend a lot of time with our children; we ensure that they get consistent input in all their languages and we hope it will work. Thank you for appreciating our commitment. Maybe, just maybe, you can understand more about what we are doing.

What I think is similar in all of these comments is that they acknowledge the fact that we parents might be on to something. We usually know what we are doing when we decide to raise our children multilingually. I think the comments above might lead to discussion and understanding rather than confrontation. I don’t mean that everybody has to agree with us. I just want to be understood and acknowledged.

What would you add? What comments would you appreciate to hear? What comment has somebody said to you that made you feel understood?
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