Tuesday, 29 July 2008

What's a Third Culture Kid?

Twenty years ago, Diane and Avi Schwarz, both native New Yorkers, decided that they loved Italy so much that they wanted to move there and start a new life. So they up and left, just like that. They rented a tiny apartment in Rome and had two sons, one after the other. The sons attended the local public Italian school and rapidly learned Italian, as children are prone to do. Meanwhile, home life and family activities and events were strictly English in language and American in culture. And of course, all family vacations have been to the States.

The Schwarz sons are now just completely high school in Rome. When the younger one is asked, "Do you feel American or Italian?", he answers "In Italy, I feel American. When we are in the States, I feel Italian."

The Schwarz sons are "third culture kids". Third Culture Kids are children who grow up away from their family's "home" country. Sociologists have found that third culture kids become both "a part of" and "apart from" their local environment, creating a "third culture" that does not wholly belong to either their "home" culture or the local culture where they live.

Third culture kids have their own particular issues that their parents have to watch out for. There are the obvious ones like ensuring that their child has a proper mother tongue. My daughter hears English from me, French from her father and Italian all around her.  She's more or less trilingual.  So which language is her mother tongue? (I'm trying to make sure that it's English!). How can I make sure that she is able to communicate in all three languages without rendering her not great in any language?

There are also more subtle issues facing third culture kids, relating to identity and the need of a "home". For a third culture kid, simple questions like, "Where are you from?" can require reflection. And often a third culture kids discovers, upon entering her passport country at age 16 to live (possibly for the first time in her life), that she knows a lot less about her "home" culture than she thought. She may have American parents, maybe even went to American schools overseas and speaks the English language like an American. But she realizes on "re-entry" that she doesn't like driving everywhere, she hates American food, it's too cold, she can't talk about anything with people and she doesn't understand why everyone dresses so badly.

Probably the best thing that we expatriates can do for our children is to make them feel grounded somewhere.  Our daughter will probably end up feeling culturally more "French" than Canadian and although part of me is reluctant to let her grow up without knowing much about backbacon, beer, and baseball (sniff, sniff), the other part of me knows that I need to let her latch 0n to one culture, for her own feeling of identity, and as long as we're in Europe, it might as well be the French identity. 

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Can monolingual parents teach their children another language?

No. If you do not speak Spanish fluently, you cannot teach your child Spanish. Any attempt to speak to your child in Spanish will, in addition to feeling wholly unnatural, end up in conveying a bad accent and lots of mistakes, to boot. Don't even try. Your job is to pass YOUR mother tongue on to your child, not a tongue that is foreign to you.

But here's what you can do. Tell your little one that YOU want to learn Spanish and invite him to learn it with you. Listen to Spanish songs (and later on, stories) on CD together. Look at photo books with Spanish words in them and try to say them together (ideally, in conjunction with a CD or tape providing the proper pronunciation as a reference). Watch Spanish Sesame Street together. Attend Spanish playgroups together. All of these activities will give you and your child a basic vocabulary. (I should add that you should take this route even if YOU already have this basic vocabulary but do not speak fluently).

Beyond the foregoing, you need outside help. Do you have Spanish speaking neighbours? Employees? A relative? Is there a bilingual or Spanish preschool near you? You will not be able to teach your child a language that you don't speak fluently but you can find the outside resources that will allow your child to learn the language.

Remember, a child needs between 20 and 24 hours a week of a language in order to speak at a "native" level. But even if his exposure doesn't add up to that many hours, your child has a good chance of obtaining fluent comprehension and/or a disposition for the language. And that's good, too!

Sunday, 20 July 2008

6 Items that every globetrotter family should have

One or more electric bikes - We own two. Might not be as handy in some North American cities where car travel is imperative, but here in Europe, having a bicycle for getting around makes life so much easier. An electric bike is a lifesaver in hilly cities like Rome, where a motorino is too dangerous for a child to ride on and driving in the city center is impossible.

A Leap Frog Globe - Fantastic for learning geography or just minute facts about places near and far.

An Ergo or Kozy baby carrier - For taking your under-3 year old anyplace where a stroller just isn't practical.

Friends who speak another language - Playdates with friends whose home language is not the same as yours will open your child's mind to the idea that his language is not the only one.

An open mind about new cuisines (and a closed mind to standard fast food) - This one is tough when your children are picky eaters. Last week, we introduced our daughter to Thai food. She wasn't too keen on it. The week before, she tried Indian, which she liked. We just keep presenting her with different kinds of food in the hope that one day, she won't always ask for pasta whereever we go in the world. :-) We never go to Macdonalds or Burger King, so she has never heard of those places. That way, there is no risk that she will want to eat there when we are on the road. :-)

Einstein Kids and Dora the Explorer DVDs - I'm not a huge fan of television but I have to give credit where it is due. These two programmes do a good job of introducing kids to other cultures. In fact, just last week, after watching an Einstein Kids episode about Igor Stravinsky's Firebird, our daughter said "Mommy, I would like to visit Russia. And I even have a snowsuit, so I wouldn't be too cold there.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Can TV teach your child a second language?

I met 8-year old Dalia at a birthday party that my daughter was attending. Dalia was doing handsprings on the front lawn and when I caught a glimpse of her tumbling, I said my 4-year old daughter “Look at what that girl is doing! Would you like to try gymnastics one day? Doesn’t it look like fun?” (The alpha mom in me never takes a break…).

“I can do other stuff, too!” Dalia said, when she overheard me.

Now, this party was in an Italian home for a girl in my daughter’s French kindergarten, so I was a little surprised to hear Dalia speak to me in English. I knew that her family had just moved here from Egypt but I also knew that in Egypt, she had attended the French school, so how was it that she spoke almost fluent English?

After talking to Dalia about gymnastics, I asked, “And tell me, where did you learn English, Dalia? You speak it so well, just like an American.”

“In Egypt!”, she replied, as if this was obvious. I looked at her quizzically.

“But in Egypt, people speak Arabic,” I replied, scratching my head.

“Yeah, but whenever we watched TV or DVDs, it was in English.”

That would explain why Dalia not only spoke with an almost perfect American accent, but seemed to have all the current expressions down pat. But I was still incredulous.

“You’re telling me that you learned English just from watching TV and that’s it??”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” she replied, with a shrug.

Now, Dalia’s parents are diplomats, so that probably is not “pretty much it”. She has likely been in many social gatherings where she has heard English being spoken (this birthday party being just one example). And although her mom speaks to her exclusively in Arabic, Dalia has probably heard her mother speaking English (albeit with a slight Arabic accent) to other diplomats and expats, in Egypt and here in Rome.

Nevertheless, it sounds like television has played a big role in transmitting language comprehension and (surprise!) even speaking ability to Dalia.

I still don’t advocate letting children watch unlimited television, but Dalia’s case just goes to show, if they’re going to watch it, why not get them to watch in another language?

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Another Paris vs. Rome inquiry has landed in my Inbox:

Hi Caroline,

What a wonderful resource you seem to be. I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog. I am an American mom living in Paris with my 19 month old daughter and my Canadian husband....

We are considering moving to Rome and I'd love to hear anything you have to say: about living there as a mom, what's available for your daughter, preschools, pre-preschools etc...my daughter is not in creche here. I do counseling and coaching and work from home so my husband and I share babycare duties. But if we move, I would really like to get her into something group oriented...can you tell me anything about that?

Also, schools...what do you think compared to France?

Any info regarding neighborhoods would be great too.

Sorry to bombard you with questions. We just don't know where to start finding info! We moved to Paris on our own and took years to make it "familiar" but Rome is a blank state.

Any thoughts, opinions, suggestions would be so greatly appreciated!

Thank you!- Tamara


The Italians LOVE children but from a practical perspective, Paris is definitely more family-friendly than Rome, and that includes availability of childcare. Unlike in Paris, public daycare is not available in Rome unless you can show poverty of Dickensian proportions. Private daycare is available but quality ones are hard to come by, especially in the centre. There is a darling Montessori nursery at the Istituto Nazareth in Prati (via cola di Rienzo, 140). It fills up quickly, though. You generally would need to register your child by March to get her in for September of the same year.

In Italy, public preschool (scuola materna) starts at age three, as in France, and goes for three years. Unlike école maternelle in France, scuola materna consists mostly of unstructured play and does not have a formal programme of any kind that teachers must follow. So children in scuola materna will not necessarily learn their letters or numbers (often they end up learning that at home) and they certainly will not learn cursive writing as they would in the French system at age five.

As for foreign schools in Rome, there are a bunch of British schools, the French lycee, another private French école maternelle, Marymount International School, and the American Overseas School. Check out this site for English-speaking schools in Rome.

Neighbourhoods: I'm a big fan of living near the centro storico (historical centre). Prati is also a great area because there are lots of stores and it is walking distance to the historical centre and it is on the metro line. (Public transit in Rome is not great, by the way. Count your blessings in Paris.) Some people like Parioli, which is this upscale bourgeois district a little further away from the centre. It is accessible to a few parks but I don't see any other advantage to living there. You need to take a bus to the centre (not even a metro) and it is quite residential. But really, it all depends on what you are looking for. Probably the wisest this to do would be to decide where you want to send your daughter to school at age three (French school? British school? American school?) and find something close to it.

Living in Rome as a mom? Again, there is nowhere near the same network of English-speaking moms as in Paris, but recently, a friend of mine established Rome Mama. I'm hoping that it will flourish.

Best of luck!

Saturday, 15 March 2008

This e-mail arrived in my Inbox the other day:


I am a single mom to a wonderful 14 (almost 15) month old daughter. I was born and raised in California and am attending UCLA right now completing my BA in English Lit. I still have almost two years left, but I am strongly considering moving to Europe for grad school. My ex already said he would be supportive of my moving anywhere as long as he can have open visitation with our daughter where we live..... so I am trying to find leads on grad programs in or around London, Rome, Paris or the South of France with excellent Creative Writing programs..... any insight? Also which place do you feel is best to raise children.... best for single moms, best for expats? Any advice would be helpful.


Mommy to Taylor

Here is my response:


Congrats on being a student and single mom! I know that it must be hard sometimes to get the university papers done and take care of a toddler. Way to go!

For grad studies, if you want to study in Europe, then I would go with Paris. My considerations are as follows:

London is obviously best for language of study but London is incredibly expensive and it will also be difficult to get free, quality preschool or kindergarten for your daughter.

Paris has the American University of Paris and many (French) universities. Paris is a pretty family-friendly city - there are countless playgrounds and activities for kids available throughout the year. What is more, your daughter would have the right (assuming she was at least age three), to attend quality universal public and free école maternelle (French preschool /kindergarten) half- or all-day (virtually all children attend, so your daughter will have few or no playmates if you keep her out of it).

Paris also has an excellent support system for expat parents in a group called Message Mother Support Group. I haven't seen an organization like it in any other city.

Rome has the American University of Rome as well as John Cabot Univerity. Universal preschool also starts at age three here. The network for expats is much more limited than in Paris. There is nothing like Message Mother Support Group here. There is the American Women's Association of Rome but it tends to be focused on older women who have lived here for 20 years.

Good luck in your pursuits and let me know what you decide and if you have any more questions, just send me another email!

If you have a question that you would like to ask about taking your family abroad or teaching your child a new language at home, drop me an email at globetrotterparent@gmail.com!

*Names have been changed.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Bilingual children do better!

You may already know that bilingual schoolchildren perform significantly better on standardized tests, are better at problem solving, are better at mathematics and, of course, language. But did you know that bilingual children also tend to read earlier?

Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a York University linguist, concluded from her studies that children who are exposed to a second language early in life learn to read at a younger age than their monolingual peers. In her study, preschool children were tested on their understanding of letters as symbols. The children who spoke English only could recite the letters but could not read without the help of pictures. On the other hand, the bilingual preschoolers understood written language without the use of pictures. The bilingual children scored twice as high on language tests as the monolingual children. Dr. Bialystok concluded that the bilingual children were simply better prepared to tie symbols to words and words to meaning!

Friday, 7 March 2008

Language Immersion - Can it work?

Language immersion is getting popular these days. Mandarin immersion schools are popping up everywhere between San Diego and Vancouver. French immersion schools are available for children throughout English-speaking Canada. And of course, more and more Spanish immersion schools are appearing everywhere in the United States. But here is the 60,ooo Dollar (or is that Euro, nowadays?) question: does language immersion work?

Here in Rome, Italian parents are so eager for their children to speak another language that I often have the opportunity to meet Italian children who attend the French school or one of the English schools. The results are...not stunning. Most of the kids can understand the immersion language fine but their speaking ability remains limited.

This is not surprising. Even at a French or English school in Rome, the classrooms are filled with...other Italian children... who speak...you guessed it, Italian with one another. So the children are getting exposure to the immersion language exclusively from their teachers. In that environment, it is unlikely that the child will ever become bilingual as a result of immersion alone. He or she may eventually be able to speak the language somewhat fluently but even there, there are many, many cases where this simply does not happen.

Another risk of immersion is that the child learns to read and write neither the immersion language, nor his or her mother tongue very well...

My advice for those considering immersion education for their children is this: unless you can offer additional support for your child in that language either at home or in the local environment, don't expect your child to become bilingual!

Who can provide additional language-support to a child who attends an immersion school? Any mother tongue-speaker you can find. A parent or grandparent who speaks the language (as a mother tongue, mind you), an au-pair, a babysitter or a nanny. What is crucial is that there be someone in addition to just the teachers at school, either in family life or in the local environment (for example, if your child is in Spanish immersion AND you live in a predominantly hispanic neighbourhood where your child hears Spanish spoken every day), who speaks to your child in that language on a frequent and regular basis.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Why won't my child speak to me in English?

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet many "transplanted" moms. Unlike "expat" moms who are just in a foreign country for a defined term, transplanted moms have effectively immigrated to the country and adopted it as their new home. Often, a transplanted mom's husband is a "local".

Of all the challenges that transplanted moms face, getting their kids to speak English often is the most difficult one to surmount.Take Andrea. She is from the United Kingdom, married to a French guy and lives in France. They have two school-aged daughters.

"I thought raising my kids in English would be automatic," Andrea says. "It never occurred to me when they were born that they might not be bilingual."But at age 12 and 10, Andrea's girls are nowhere near bilingual. While Andrea has consistently spoken to her daughters in English from the day they were born, her daughters, from their first word, have always spoken to their mom in French. Attempting to read an English book is too much of a chore to even bother and watching movies in anything but the dubbed "version française" is a challenge for them.

"Friends said that I should refuse to answer my girls when they asked me a question in French," Andrea says. "I called that 'language blackmail' and I refused to engage in it. Now I regret not having taken that approach."

Andrea is one of many transplanted moms who just can't get her kids to bother with English. They understand when their mom talks to them and that's about the extent of their fluency.

Here are some tips for avoiding this situation.

1. Recognize that your child needs a minimum amount of time per week exposed to English if she is going to learn to understand and speak the language fluently. Your child is not going absorb the English language by osmosis just because one of her parents happens to be an English speaker. Most experts in multilingualism say that a child needs about 20 to 24 hours per week of exposure to English to gain true fluency. Exposure, for this purpose, includes listening to a person talk to the child in that language, listening to people talk to each other in English, hearing it on television or radio, and the child herself speaking English.

Lots of moms complain that their child does not speak English but when you get the details of the exposure the child gets, it looks something like this: the minority language parent works full time and the child is in the local school or daycare where he hears the local language all day. He only sees the minority parent a couple of hours per weekday. Part of the time at home, the minority parent is talking to his or her spouse, in the local language of course. Then on the weekend, the family is with friends and relatives and of course the local parent has to speak the local language with the friends and relatives. Then there is the TV, which broadcasts in the local language... You get the picture.

If you want your child to learn your language, you are going to have to make an effort to make it happen. This may mean ensuring that you talk to your child as much as possible when you are home (more than you normally talk), getting a English-mother-tongue babysitter to pick your child up from daycare early and spend a couple of hours with her, and/or avoiding the relatives on weekends and getting together with other English-speaking families. Bilingualism is not going to happen if you are not ensuring adequate exposure in some way.

2. Always speak to your child in English. This piece of advice sounds self-evident, yet how often I heard my Anglo-saxon mommy friends in France tell their little one to "get into the poussette" (the stroller) or that it was "time for their afternoon gouter" (snack).It is easy to fall into the trap of using local language words for certain items but whenever you do that, you 1) send the message that using the local language with you is acceptable and 2) deny your child an important piece of vocabulary in English. Imagine your child showing up in your home country when he is older and not knowing the English word for "snack"!

3. Original version only! In our home, we have a rule that when we watch a film or television show, it has to be in original version. We watch French films in French, English films in English and Italian films in Italian. Dubbing is something you have to get used to as a child to like. Adults who watch dubbed movies do so because they grew up with dubbed movies. If your child does not grow up watching dubbed versions, there is a good chance that he or she will always prefer watching the original English version of movies and shows when he is older, even if another language is his dominant language.

4. Books, radio, DVDs...in English! Spend at least half an hour reading to your small child in English. And make it a rule that all animated DVDs are to be watched in the English version (all non-animated stuff in the original version, of course!). You don't need to iterate this rule to your child. Just make it so. He wants a DVD? It gets put on in English. If you have access to an English radio station, tune into it! And don't forget to watch the news on CNN or BBC in addition to the local news that your partner insists on watching at 20h00 every evening!

5. If your spouse understands English, consider speaking to him in English if you do not already (at least when your child is with you). It might feel artificial at first but switching to English when talking to your spouse can ramp up the English exposure for your child significantly. Remember, your spouse can still talk to you in his language. This tactic also reinforces that association your child draws between you and your mother tongue.