A fascinating subject I have long wished to tackle in greater depth is that of Marion’s tri-lingualism. My daughter is 6-years-old and is tri-lingual in Basque, English and Spanish. Before the umbilical cord had been cut at the birthing table in a maternity ward in Pamplona in May 2004 her father had spoken to her in Basque, the nurses in Spanish and her mother had undoubtedly uttered the odd expletive in English. Since this day she has lived her life in the three languages. I have always spoken to her in English, her father (who moved out of the family home when she was just 6 months old) always speaks to her in Basque, as do our neighbours, local friends and the village school, and I have always communicated with the Basque people around me in Spanish. This means that whenever Marion is with me and our Basque-speaking friends our social life develops simultaneously in the 3 languages. Up to a couple of years ago this meant that Marion would hear Spanish around her constantly but reply, if possible, in either Basque or English.
However, at about 4 years old Marion started to became more socially aware and, since then, evidently wanting her mother to join in the conversion she has been far more likely to answer us all in the one-fits-all language of Spanish – ensuring that no-one escapes the net or misses out. This tendency towards the happy medium of Spanish is, so I gather from other friends in multi-lingual families, quite normal BUT it usually poses a threat to a child’s true bi or tri-lingual state.
I believe that the survival of Marion’s English as a native language with native accent and intonation is ‘thanks’ to the fact that I have brought Marion up alone for the past 6 years and that our home (on top of a Basque mountain) with its Beatrix Potter books and Cbeebies, Marmite on toast and cups of Horlicks has always been an English oasis. All the other children I have met here who have English mothers (who talk to them in English) and Spanish fathers (who talk to them in Spanish), and where the home language is also in Spanish, appear to understand English perfectly but their spoken English seem stilted with a decidedly foreign lilt.*
This surprises me as I was under the belief that if a child had heard native English all its life (and particularly from its mother) then its ear should be trained to hear the sounds of the English language perfectly and therefore replicate them without a problem. If anyone knows more about this subject then PLEASE do let me know.
At this point I would like to point out that until this year we knew NO other English families in the area and as Marion is brought up in a totally Basque/Spanish speaking environment her English is solely dependent on me (and Cbeebies) and the odd trip back to the UK. This has been the main reason why I have been so strict in enforcing English as the home language and have not put in Spanish television or play Spanish/Basque DVDs while she is here. I now have my worries as my Spanish-speaking partner comes to live with us as to how this will influence our fragile English-speaking microclimate.
(An aside here: the only time Marion has ever spoken English with a Basque/Spanish accent is when she has sung a song learned during her English lessons at school and her accent has tuned in to her teacher’s accent and that of her other Basque school friends – Mixel, her English teacher, and my dear friend will forgive me for saying this, I always pull his leg about it and he takes it so well!)
Anyway, I will leave this blog for now. It may at least serve as a background to further and more interesting blogs I have in mind which try to take a look at the extent of her tri-lingualism as well as offering a variety of anecdotes which aim to explore the relationship between language and thought, culture and identity. All comments really welcome!
[…] the languages they speak. As always, my favourite guinea pig is my tri-lingual daughter Marion (See blog: Trilingualism and the Maternity Ward): Is she actually a politer person in English not only because English has more PLEASES and THANK […]
Interesting to read another “guiri´s” story. I am originally Dutch and live in Barcelona, which is also bilingual: Spanish and Catalan. My girlfriend is Catalan. Since Catalan and Spanish are more similar, people here find it – in general – easy to switch from one language to an other. Of course there are linguistical frictions here, but in general I find language is not a problem. I wrote two articles about that on my blog: http://dinzo.wordpress.com/tag/catalonia/
We don´t have children, but when we would, I would be in favour of a three-linguistic education: Spanish/Catalan/English. I am not sure what my position would be on my own native language, Dutch. That´s why I was a bit surprised about your comment that you would like your daughter not only to speak English well, but also get her accent right.
Personally, I have the feeling that languages are changing so quickly nowadays, and communities are so international, that more and more, languages will grow bigger, get more varied, be more influenced. I imagine that in my region, those three languages will be used in parallel, and mutually influence each other. If I would have a child, I think I would expect it to speak well Spanish, Catalan and English, but it would probably all be in various degrees of Catalan and Dutch accents.
Thanks for your comments and I find your blog fascinating! I take your point about what may seem like an obsession with Marion’s native accent and agree totally that as the same language may be spoken by many cultural and ethnic groups, it would be ridiculous to attribute the values of right or wrong, better or worse to any of their accents. And yes, languages are evolving and adapting constantly – fascinating fosils of their experiences. Thanks for clarifying my thoughts on that issue… more though, I think is my surprise that many of my English-speaking friends’s children have not replicated an accent that they have heard from birth. This interests me as marion has totally replicated mine (swear words and all!). I am still unclear of my thoughts on the interplay between thought-language-culture and what I strive for is that the language we speak between us presents as few barriers as possible to the communication between us. Personal inhibitions (and adolsence) will see that there are enough of them in any case.
What surprises me is that you are in doubt as to whether to teach your mother tongue, Dutch, to your future children, do you not feel that there are some parts of yourself, your emotions, your humour etc. that can only be transmitted in that language alone? I have still a long way to go to clarify my thoughts on this immense subject but I really welcome the input. Cheers!