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.