Monday, 21 June 2010

Language Etiquette

I come across a lot of two-language families.  For example, the mother is Italian and the father is American, or the mother is Australian and the father is German, or there is our case - I'm English-speaking Canadian and I have a French husband. 

The question always arises - which language should we speak to our children in?  For me, the answer was and is simple - English, English and English.  I speak to my children in English, read to them in English, sing to them in English, play with them in English, and listen to the radio and watch television with English!  Call me stubborn but they don't get much English exposure anywhere else - I'm basically IT - so I do everything with them in English.

So far (knock on wood), I've been lucky.  The Bambina speaks to me exclusively in English, this despite the fact that she has a French father and is in a French school. 

Some people are taken aback that I speak to my kids in English even when we are with other non-English speaking people.  I attend a playgroup twice a week, once with my daughter and once with my son.  Both playgroups are francophone.  No matter to me.  When I am speaking to my child, it's in English.  We often have people over here for lunch on the weekends and the conversation with them tends to be in French.  Any discourse with my children remains nevertheless in English. 

If the Bambina has a friend over, I still speak to her in English.  If I am talking to both of them, I say it in English and then in French.  (Actually, the parents of the child are inevitably thrilled that I am speaking English to their child so there is no objection from them there).

I may be in the minority on this one.  I've talked to other moms in two-language families and have discovered that they are reluctant to speak to their children in their own language when they are around other people.  One Italian mother told me that she simply refused to speak Italian to her children at (French) playgroup because it would exclude others from the conversation.  Um, you're talking to your son about his lego tower.  What makes you think we need to be included in this conversation??

Another (once again Italian!) mother told me that she thought it would be rude (gasp!) to talk to her children in Italian when they were with other people.

Well, you know what?  It might be rude but my answer is that my children's bilingual ability takes precedence over showing good manners.  Call me rude, I don't care.  In ALL the cases I have encountered where the parent in a two language family switches languages when around others, the child ends up speaking to the parent in the dominant language rather than in the parent's minority language.

Here is a typical discussion that takes place on this matter:

Other mom: I speak to him in Italian but he'll only answer me in French.
Me: But I just heard you speaking to him in French.
Other mom: Well, yeah but when we're with other people, I speak French.  Otherwise the other person won't understand what I'm saying.
Me: Hmmm. I don't think he'll speak to you in Italian unless you speak to him exclusively in the language.
Other mum: Well, he understands everything I say and I guess that's good enough.

Fair enough.  If bilingual comprehension is your goal, then that's all you need.  But if your goal is for your children to be bilingual and you are in a two-language family, you need to keep it exclusive in your language when you talk to your children - no matter where you are.


JamieU said...

It's always been funny to me how many people speak through their children to those around them. They say "tell the nice lady she looks pretty," for example, instead of offering a compliment themselves.

Of course, even when it is just a conversation about lego blocks, of course people around will be curious what you're saying. Some might even find it rude that they can't understand. But you're totally right that you have to have prorities. In this case you're leaving the adults a bit mystified so your children will grow up speaking two languages. Seems like a good tradeoff to me.

Jennifer said...

I've noticed here in US among my Indian friends (from India) they talk to their kids mostly in their native languages or mix it up with English (which wouldn't be different in India I think). The kids often reply in English. So the conversation is completely bilingual! The only exception is when the kid wants the parent's attention- then the kid knows speaking in the native language gets everyone's attention!

The Globetrotter Parent said...

Jennifer, I think that speaking to your child exclusively in your language is especially important in the States because it is such a melting pot culture and the push to assimilate and "become American" is strong. Hispanics do a great job of being consistent in sticking to Spanish all the time with their kids - so much so that often even the grandkids of the immigrants are bilingual Spanish/English. They often live in large Hispanic communities however, where everyone around also speaks Spanish and this makes it easier for them.

Jamie, yes other parents might be curious about the Lego blocks but in our case I find they are also equally amazed and impressed at how my 5.5 year old switches between talking to me in English and her friends in French. They are so surprised that she bothers to speak to me in English and that she doesn't insist on speaking French with me.

NotQuiteCrunchy said...

It's so nice to visit your blog again- it's been awhile. My son goes to an international school here in The States and many moms there are great at speaking to their children in their native less so- wonder why that is?

The Globetrotter Parent said...

Notquitecrunchy - just saw your comment! Honestly, I've never noticed that men are less consistent but you might be right. The Frenchman has no problem dropping lines to the Bambina in English or even reading to her in English if I am not available but then his language is the majority one where we live so he is less concerned about sticking to French religiously.

Mothers tend to be the onces primarily responsible for transmitting culture and language to their children (that's why it's called a MOTHER tongue) so I guess it makes sense that we would be the most earnest about sticking to our own language when communicating.

Anonymous said...

Growing up, my parents spoke to me in a mixture of Chinese and English, with words from both languages in the same sentence. I responded in English and didn't become fluent in Chinese. Most of the second generation Chinese kids I knew also didn't speak Chinese. I guess the language itself also matters - Spanish is much closer to English than Chinese is, and would be easier for a kid to figure out. To this day I can still understand Chinese but can't come up with a whole phrase in my head.