Inhabiting parallel universes

One of the greatest gifts expatriate parents can offer their children is the enriching experience of growing up with more than one language. As the ethnic mix in Greece becomes more varied, an increasing number of children are learning language skills that will ease their access to a multicultural world. Kathimerini English Edition asked an informal sample of Athens-based bilingual and multilingual families how they made the most of this opportunity. Switching codes One strategy that works remarkably well in some families where the parents are of different nationalities is for each parent to speak to the child in his or her own language. The child learns to speak correctly through interacting with a native speaker, instinctively guessing when to switch languages, or codes. Conventional wisdom once held that this method disadvantaged bilingual children, particularly where the mother tongue was a minority language, says Anne-Marie, mother of six-year-old Clio Takas: «It was believed they would never acquire proper competence. But pediatricians rebelled against the pressure on mothers to speak the adopted language, saying it interfered with mother-infant bonding.» Clio uses Greek, which she learnt at kindergarten, and English, which she learnt from her mother, with equal flair. She never had any trouble code-switching, but her development has been uneven: «She speaks in a more adult way, and has a wider vocabulary in English, because she’s modeled herself on her mother. Her Greek is much more idiomatic than her English.» Having two languages to work with has given her a larger stage to play on: As her mother says, «I think Clio finds it very stimulating that she has two parallel worlds she can inhabit.» Creative grammar Stephane Cordier, four and a half, already speaks three languages fluently: English with his mother Pauline, who is British-Greek, French with his father, Pierre, and Greek with his grandmother and everyone else. He attends a French class in a Greek nursery school, where he has French and Greek playmates. By the age of one, Stephane had started using individual words from each language. His fluency in the three languages used to fluctuate according to which parent or grandparent he spent the most time with. At one point he began responding in Greek to his mother’s English, but after he spent time in England last summer, his English picked up again. Stephane used to do some creative code-mixing: «Pou einai to friend mou» and «On aresei pas.» His parents consolidate the cultural background by reading to him a lot in their own language and using videos and audio cassettes. Nikos Kavallaris is happy using the English he learns from his mother Rosie, or the Greek he learns from his father Vangelis. His skills are developing through interaction with native speakers. At three and a half, he rarely mixes up his languages, correcting himself when he does: «Nai, Mummy – sorry – yes, Mummy.» Britons Susan and Kevin Windell are permanent residents of Athens, where their sons Dylan (almost 10) and Laurence (almost four) are growing up bilingual in English and Greek. English is the language of instruction at Dylan’s international school, where he learns Greek in the advanced class, but the key to their native skills in Greek is their Greek babysitter, who also helps with homework and spends many hours a day with the boys. Conscious choices By the time they are teenagers, children have started making conscious choices about which languages to use and when. Spyros Michos, 14, learnt Greek from his father and English and a smattering of Chinese from his mother. He uses English to write to a raft of Finnish pen pals: «It’s not because of wanting to practice a language, but because it’s interesting to communicate with children of my own age from other countries,» he says. Full competence in languages needs support, so Spyros attends Greek school and has private lessons in English. Without formal training in Chinese, he can manage simple conversations with his maternal grandparents. Sophia Berlis, 16, feels completely at home in English and Greek, which she learnt from her parents Monica (British) and Aris (Greek). She attends Greek school, because her parents wanted her to feel a part of Greek society. Monica, an English teacher, has advice for mixed couples whose children learn one language at school: «Whichever language is left on the side has to be supported by some sort of tuition, otherwise the language never develops beyond family conversation. Bilingual children slip easily into learning languages, and have a tendency to think they can learn everything by ear. They don’t understand that there are some things you just have to learn, whereas kids learning foreign languages know you have to learn some things, but don’t realize how much you can just pick up.» Peggy Giannakopoulou, nearly 17, describes growing up bilingual in Greek and English: «I don’t really remember what I learnt first. I think I learnt both of them together, because my mother always spoke to me more in English and my father nearly always spoke to me in Greek. And most of my friends were Greek. I went to a Greek school and a Greek-German nursery, so I just grew up with lots of languages around me. My school is French too, part French, so I don’t think I ever had any problems with languages, apart from when I was young and I started to write. Sometimes I mixed up the letters, but that didn’t last very long.» Peggy’s mother used to take her to England or Wales for at least two or three months every summer, «so I’ve seen the way people live in Britain.» Peggy believes parents in mixed families help children learn both languages properly by doing as her parents did: «They should speak to their child in both languages, but I think they should send them to a school that uses the language of the country they’re in.» Factors in success Peggy’s mother, Claire Davies, did research into bilingual families for her MA in applied linguistics. Interviewing four Athens-based families where the mother is British and the father is Greek, she found the children had varying degrees of success in becoming bilingual. «There are very few children who actually succeed in being completely happy in both languages. There’s usually a weakness somewhere, on one side. A lot of factors are involved in successful bilingualism,» she explains. «Firstly, it has to do with attitudes. If one parent has a very strong attitude toward their own language and feels very strongly about it, then they will obviously push their own language. «Another factor is how well each parent speaks the other language. For example, one of the mothers didn’t speak Greek very well when she had her first child and this meant that automatically the family spoke English, because she simply couldn’t deal with Greek. And one of the fathers in one of the other families didn’t deal with English very well. «Another very important factor is education, whether the child is actually educated in a Greek school – a Greek-language school or in an English-language school. At school, the child’s peer group impose a lot of pressure on the child not to use one or the other language a lot of the time.» Claire, Anne-Marie and Pauline all narrowly missed becoming fully bilingual in early childhood. They have since remedied the deficiency, and are doing the best to offer their own children a rich linguistic environment. An emotional tie Successful bilingualism is a useful introduction to the work force. Eleni Argyraki grew up bilingual in Greek and English, and uses her language skills in her work as an English teacher and translator. She likes English and makes her living from it, but feels a special emotional tie to Greek: «It’s my mother tongue.» She feels strongly that parents should not put pressure on their children to learn both languages perfectly: «If they show interest and want to learn, that’s all to the good, but if they prefer one of the two, it’s better to let them focus on that one. Parents should follow the child’s inclinations.» St Lawrence College caters for kindergarten to 12th grade and prepares pupils for all regular GCSE and ‘A’ level GCE subjects, Common Entrance to British Public Schools and for the American system’s PSATs, SATs and ACTs.