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Benefits of Being Bilingual

8 May

“Language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is the shaper of ideas… We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” (Benjamin Whore, 1897-1941)

Back before my daughter was born, which in some ways feels like a different life, I used to teach CEGEP (community college). In one of my courses, we talked briefly about knowledge and how language shapes it.

“How many of you speak at least two languages?” I would ask, as an introduction.

Every hand in the class would go up. Not only do I teach in bilingual Montreal, the school where I work is in a very multicultural neighbourhood where many students are first or second generation immigrants.

“How many of you speak at least three languages?” I would ask. Always quite a few hands would go up, sometimes most.

“How about four? Five?” Usually, at least one or two students in my class spoke five languages.

Then I would ask them, “In what ways does learning a second (or third, or fourth…) language contribute to and expand your knowledge of the world?” We would discuss. We talked about how translation is more complicated than just substituting a word from one language for a word in another. How languages are shaped by culture and context. I gave them some real examples of mis-translations to illustrate the point. For example:

“We take your bags and send them in all directions.” (In a Danish airline ticket office)
“You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” (In a Japanese hotel)
And my favourite:
“Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.” (In an Italian laundromat)

Or did you know that Puijilittatuq is Inuktitut for: ‘he does not know which way to turn because of the many seals he has seen come to the ice surface.’? I guess we don’t have a concise expression for that in English because… we probably don’t need to say it very often!

Not only does knowing more than one language help you to function in an increasingly globalized world, it also expands your understanding of culture and language and the way the world works.

I was interested to see that apparently there are  10 Proven Brain Benefits of Being Bilingual. This article brings up some interesting points, some of them surprising (did you know that bilingualism apparently staves off dementia?). This makes sense to me though, because learning a second language doesn’t just mean memorizing more vocabulary; it means expanding your understanding of the world. I guess it makes sense that that makes your brain work harder, keeping it in good shape.

For all of these reasons, I’m happy to be living in a bilingual city and that my little munchkin has been being spoken to in three languages since the day she was born.

Many months ago, I wrote about speaking to someone who had taken a course in bilingualism. She said that it could actually be best for both parents in bilingual homes to speak both languages to their children, rather than taking the traditional approach of having each parent speak one language.

However, I eventually asked for more information about this theory and after reading through a stack of academic articles on bilingualism didn’t see anything direct or convincing about it. So we switched to the traditional approach- I speak English to M, and E speaks French.

We both slip up sometimes- I find it almost impossible to speak English in completely French settings, and E finds the same in English settings. But we do our best.

And E’s parents speak Italian to her… except when they forget and slip into English or French. Ok, so none of us are perfect. But we’re trying. And the important thing, I think, is that my little one is hearing two different languages on a daily basis and three on at least a weekly basis. I’m very curious about how this is shaping her perception of the world around her.

Last week I was invited to an event and brought M with me. Most people there were Latin American, and there was more Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese being spoken than French or English. Everyone wanted to see M- she got passed from person to person, and was spoken to in rapid Spanish and Portuguese all evening long. She didn’t seem surprised about it, and reacted to the people talking to her in the same way she reacts to anyone else. It made me wonder: what is going on in her little head? At this age is facial expression and intonation more important than actual words? Are Spanish and Portuguese similar enough to Italian that she actually can understand a little bit? Or is she just so used to hearing different languages that it’s no surprise that a few more might exist, too?

M is 13 months old now, and babbles incessantly, but she doesn’t speak many real words (that we can understand, anyway). I can’t wait until she starts talking, mostly because I’m curious about which language will come out. Will she automatically speak English to me and French to E? Or will she mix everything all up? Remember some words in one language and others in another?

I’m happy that M will know more than one language for the benefits to her brain explained in the article mentioned above (what mother doesn’t want her child to be creative, intelligent and environmentally aware?!). But also I’m happy that she’ll have a window into different cultures, different ways of seeing the world, different ways of structuring information. One of the benefits of ‘multicultural motherhood’ is the ability to give this gift to our children.

What Babies Need

9 Feb

A friend of mine just called me today to tell me that she finally, after years of searching, found a job. It’s just a retail job in a second-hand clothes shop, but she and I were both thrilled. In the evenings after work she brings her four-year-old daughter with her to night school. Her daughter’s daycare is closed by the time her evening classes begin, but B only has another month of schooling before finishing the certificate she is working on, and she’s determined to complete it despite the new job.

I met B almost exactly 4 years ago, shortly after she had come to Montreal as a refugee from West Africa. I met her as a volunteer for a small organization called “Action Réfugié de Montreal”, which pairs volunteers with newly arrived refugees as a source of support and friendship.  When we first met, B had only been in Montreal for a few months and her daughter was three months old. Our volunteer relationship blossomed into a friendship, which has continued although the official volunteer “contract” finished a couple of years ago when B was finally allowed to move beyond refugee status to become a Canadian resident.

Now that I also have a daughter, our relationship has changed and deepened. While in the past she often came to me for advice or explanations about paperwork, procedures, and logistics, she is now the one who has more experience than I do in one very important area of life: motherhood.

B’s strength, determination and joy despite everything that has happened to her are an inspiration to me. She has faced many challenges. She was forced to leave her child’s father behind, in West Africa, when she escaped to an unknown city on an unknown continent. She arrived in a francophone city unable to speak a word of French. She had her baby shortly after arriving, and dealt with having a newborn while still trying to find a place to live, still bewildered and very alone.

B was only able to complete grade 5 in her home country, since after that her mother could no longer afford her school fees. This made finding a job in Montreal almost impossible, especially considering the language barrier. I have watched her struggle to improve her reading, both in French and English, so that she could understand all the important documents sent to her by mail. She managed to find an apartment, prepare her defense for the stressful court case that would decide whether she would stay in Canada as a permanent resident or be deported back to her country, apply to educational programs and jobs. A girl from a small African town has learned her way around Montreal, has acquired functional French, and has discovered organizations and programs that help new immigrants such as herself that I never knew existed. She has survived, despite all odds.

She has done more than survive; she has raised a beautiful daughter. Her little girl is her pride and joy, and has been her companion through all the challenges she has faced over the last few years. Despite her very limited financial resources, B always manages to make sure that her daughter has whatever she needs. When her little girl was still a baby, I watched B skillfully bargain the price of getting her ears pierced to an amount she could afford. She set up a small savings account for her future education, even though she can barely afford to pay the rent and buy groceries. Every year she scrapes the money together to throw daughter a birthday party, complete with a fancy dress for the birthday girl, cake, balloons, and as many friends as their little apartment can hold. B makes sure her little girl gets to talk on the phone with family members including her father on a regular basis, and they have met other West Africans in Montreal who have provided them with a sense of community and extended family. B’s daughter is sweet and beautiful, and she calls me “Auntie”.

I am thankful that when I think about all that I wish for my child, I don’t need to hope that she can meet her father one day, or that I will be able to somehow find the money to provide her with healthy food, a home, and clothing. But my relationship with B has shown me that many aspects of motherhood are the same no matter what culture the mother is from, or what her situation is.  Mostly what babies need is love, and all mothers, no matter where they are from, know how to give that to their children.

Maro Adjemian lives in Montreal, Canada, with her husband and 10 month old daughter.

Winter, with a baby

19 Jan

It’s January, in Montreal. Cold. Icy. Snowy.
My daughter was born at the end of last March, so we got to enjoy a warm and beautiful spring, summer and fall together before facing the challenge of winter. I’ve lived through many a Canadian winter, but having a baby adds a whole new dimension.

Things that make me wish I lived in a different, warmer part of the world:

The Snowsuit
M hates getting her snowsuit put on. She screams and struggles, every time. Then, invariably, as soon as we get out the door she is happy and excited to be outside. I’m waiting for her to connect the two in her little head… “hey, every time Mama puts this stupid suit on me, we get to go outside! Maybe it’s not so terrible after all.”

The Stairs
We live on the third floor. To get to our apartment, we need to go up one outdoor staircase and another indoor staircase. After 9 months of doing this with a stroller and baby on an almost daily basis, I have become a pro (and have the biceps to prove it). However, a coating of ice on the outside steps definitely adds a whole new challenge. I now go up and down pushing or pulling the stroller with only one arm while I hold onto the railing with the other hand, concentrating on not slipping and/or releasing the stroller from my grasp.

The Cold
Gone are the beautiful summer days when we could go for long walks and stop in the park for a few hours. Now we go for a walk to get out or to get somewhere, but we don’t linger. I can’t let M out of the stroller to tickle her feet in the grass or to look at the ducks. I do miss the sun. I dream of beaches, and warm places where babies don’t need to wear snowsuits and hats and scarves. Places where my little one could crawl around barefoot. Places where it doesn’t take 15 minutes to get dressed every time you want to go outside.

Things that keep me from boarding the next plane headed south:

Naps
M doesn’t like to take naps anymore. The world is just way too exciting to miss out on even a minute of the day. Now that she is crawling and climbing up on things, she is busy exploring and doesn’t want to waste any time sleeping. But when it is cold outside, taking her for a walk in her stroller magically and immediately puts her to sleep. I guess her way of dealing with the cold air is just to shut it out. She looks so cozy bundled in blankets in her stroller that I’m almost jealous.

Cross-country skiing
Our stroller is a hardcore outdoorsy stroller that you can jog with or attach to the back of a bike. You can even replace the wheels with skis to take baby cross-country skiing. We decided to purchase it mainly because it would allow us to continue cross-country skiing in the winter, even with a baby. The only way to beat the cold is to get out and active in it, and it’s easy to do so right in the city. Skiing has been my method of getting fresh air, exercise and vitamin D through the winter for as long as I can remember, and I am an addict. Skiing is what makes me look forward to winter. Without it, the short days and frigid air would get me depressed by January.

The only problem is that this winter has been far warmer than typical Montreal winters are. For the fifth year in a row, we spent a few days over New Years with friends at a cottage in the country, and for the first time in five years we weren’t able to go skiing even once because there wasn’t enough snow. `

We finally got our first real snowstorm during the second week of January… almost two months later than usual. I haven’t even gone skiing yet, but E took M last weekend to test the conditions. While they went for a father-daughter ski, I went to my favourite yoga studio to attend a class for the first time since I got pregnant. It was worth missing out on the first ski of the year. But I am looking forward to taking M for a ski someday soon.

Keeping busy
Despite the cold weather, M and I are definitely not sitting around at home getting depressed. My daughter gets cabin fever as easily as I do. We both need to get out and about every day, or we get grumpy. Fortunately the problem is that there are too many fun activities to choose from to fill our schedule. Since all mothers in Quebec get one year of maternity leave and want to make the most of it, there are a multitude of activities offered for mums and babies. There are mama-baby dance classes, yoga classes, swimming classes, music classes, playgroups, etc, etc. I meet up with friends who are also on maternity leave at one of our homes on a regular basis. We visit M’s grandparents. M is also always eager to “help” me with grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning and cooking. We are certainly never bored. I think we’ll make it through the winter.

Maro Adjemian lives in Montreal, Canada with her Italian/Quebeçois husband and 9 month old daughter.

Three Cheers for Family by Maro Adjemian

7 Dec

Maro: I speak English, French, Spanish (although it’s getting rusty), and not as much Italian as I should. I grew up in small towns not far from Ottawa, first on the Quebec side and then on the Ontario side, but my background and extended family reach from Armenia to Hawaii. My husband, Eric, was born in Montreal to Italian parents. He speaks English, French, Italian (although he denies it, since he doesn’t think his grandparents’ dialect counts), and a bit of Spanish.

We have a baby girl, Myriam, who was born in March 2011. She’s working on her consonants these days- baba, dada, ida, lida, nana… but I’m not sure which language, exactly. I’m not sure she knows, either.

Three Cheers for Family

Yesterday, Myriam and I went to visit her Nonno (grandfather in Italian).  He came to the door to let us in, and immediately bent down to see M in her stroller.

“Myriam! Come stai?”

She beamed and waved her arms in excitement.

He plucked her out of her stroller and peeled her snowsuit off of her, tossed her up in the air a few times while she shrieked with joy, and then handed her an orange to play with. She was delighted.  As an afterthought, he said, “Hi, Maro, how are you?”  M didn’t even look at me. She was engrossed in her orange.

My father-in-law retired this year, just in time to become an eager and available babysitter.  He took fine arts in University once upon a time, and used to do ceramics. He still has his potter’s wheel and equipment, and a couple of years ago he gave me pottery lessons at my request. Now, we go and visit once a week. M hangs out with her Nonno, and I work on my pottery. It’s a win-win-win arrangement. I’m not sure who enjoys their time together more: M or Nonno. And I treasure the couple of hours a week I have to spin a wheel and get lost in my thoughts without worrying about my baby. It’s nice to have an opportunity to zone out and completely lose track of time in the way artistic creation allows you to do.

I grew up 5000 kilometers away from all four of my grandparents, so I never had the sort of relationship with them that my daughter has with hers. We wrote letters to them, and spoke on the phone, and once a year they came and visited us or we went and visited them. I always felt close to my extended family. I never really thought about what a difference it would make if we lived close by.

I never really expected my kids to live close to their grandparents, either. As a child, I used to proudly tell people that on my father’s side of the family there had been one immigration per generation for the past four generations. People would ask me, “And will you continue the trend and be the fifth generation to emigrate somewhere?” and I would reply, “probably”.  I used to flip through my parents’ National Geographic collection and dream about all the places I could go.  When we were little, my brother and I played a game with our globe. We took turns spinning it as fast as we could, and then letting one finger drag on its surface as it turned. Wherever that finger landed when the globe stopped spinning is where we would live.  Often, of course, we ended up living in the Pacific Ocean. But many other possibilities also presented themselves.

A decade or so later I went to University and studied International Development, and then Geography. I assumed I would end up living somewhere in Africa or Latin America, at least for a few years. It’s funny how life happens to you. You take one step after another as they present themselves, and you often end up somewhere very different from where you expected to find yourself. I read somewhere once that life is like “stepping stones in the fog”. You only see one at a time, and you step forward not knowing where the trail of stepping stones will lead you in the end.

And so here I am, living in a Canadian city where I have spent most of the past twelve years, surrounded by extended family. Almost all of E’s family lives in Montreal, and in the past couple of years my parents and two sisters moved here. Myriam sees her entire extended family on a very regular basis and she’s only 8 months old. And I think it’s great. It’s convenient and wonderful to have excited and available family members around who can babysit when I need to do something or go somewhere baby-less. After Myriam was born they filled up our fridge with good food and helped clean our apartment. When we visit them, they play with her and give E and I a chance to eat dinner uninterrupted. The traditional family support system makes a lot of sense.

When I thought about being the fifth generation of immigration in my family, I thought mostly about the benefits of living in another part of the world. The richness of leaning different languages and getting to know other people and cultures, as many of you on this site have talked about.  I didn’t think about the richness of living surrounded by family in a familiar place and culture. Right now I’m happy to be here, both for the extra help and support it gives us, and because of the relationship my little one can have with her doting extended family.

How to Raise a Multilingual Child

19 Nov

By Maro: I speak English, French, Spanish (although it’s getting rusty), and not as much Italian as I should. I grew up in small towns not far from Ottawa, first on the Quebec side and then on the Ontario side, but my background and extended family reach from Armenia to Hawaii. My husband, Eric, was born in Montreal to Italian parents. He speaks English, French, Italian (although he denies it, since he doesn’t think his grandparents’ dialect counts), and a bit of Spanish. We have a baby girl, Myriam, who was born in March 2011. She’s working on her consonants these days- baba, dada, ida, lida, nana… but I’m not sure which language, exactly. I’m not sure she knows, either.

——————————-

My name is completely Armenian, but I’m a mishmash of places and cultures: only one quarter Armenian, another quarter Italian, and the other half Anglo-Saxon American. My father, half Armenian and half Italian, was born and raised in France, so I have French roots (and a French passport), too. My parents met in the U.S. but immigrated to Canada before I was born.

When I was 18 I moved to Montreal to go to McGill University. During my twenties I spent a lot of time studying, working, volunteering and traveling in various places including Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, Madagascar, Zambia, Italy and France. I also spent some time working as a Naturalist in northern Quebec, and planting trees in British Colombia. I was, as some friends affectionately called me, a globetrotter.

Now my husband and I are back in Montreal, fairly settled and stable. We have family here, we have wonderful friends, and we both love our jobs. We’re even talking about buying a house, which seems a very adult and stable thing to do. Although wanderlust still strikes and we talk about living and working abroad at some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future, for now we are very happy in this vibrant and bilingual city. Montreal has become home.

One of my sister’s friends, who studied bilingualism, told me that although the traditional method of raising bilingual children is to have each parent speak one language, it is not necessarily the best strategy. Apparently children actually become more fluently bilingual when each parent speaks both languages, as long as they stick to one language at a time and don’t mix them up. Otherwise the child tends to be stronger in the language of the parent he or she spends the most time with.

I have never heard anyone else state this theory, but I’m really hoping that it’s true. I’m hoping that Myriam will grow up multilingual and not just confused.

The plan was that Eric would speak to Myriam in French and I would speak to her in English. However, living in this bilingual city has made us so used to flipping back and forth between languages that we’re finding it hard to stick to this plan. It doesn’t help that both of us are fluently bilingual but more comfortable in English than in French.

Eric usually speaks to her in French, but we speak to each other in English in her hearing. I speak to her in English, except that often I find myself speaking to her in French. Myriam and I spend a lot of time with other mama-baby friends, most of whom are francophone. So during our social activities I’m usually speaking French, to my little one as well as to my friends and their children.

It doesn’t end there. Myriam’s Nonno speaks to her in Italian, except that sometimes he forgets and switches to English. Her Italian great-grandparents speak to her in Italian dialects that probably no longer exist except in North American immigrant communities. Once in a while I spend time with Spanish speaking friends and catch myself speaking Spanish to Myriam.

Every night as I put my baby to sleep I sing her lullabies in English, French and Spanish. I should probably learn and include an Italian lullaby, just to be fair. Sometimes I wonder how long it will take before she realizes that lullabies have words and meaning. She probably just thinks that I sing a variety of songs because they sound nice. Maybe we should be more scientific about our method of raising a multilingual child.

Myriam is, in general, a happy and good-natured little person. But she studies things seriously. When she meets someone new, or happens to spot someone interesting while we’re out and about (in the subway, in the market, in the park…) she stares at them unabashedly and unflinchingly. I don’t think there are many people who could beat her in a staring contest. The people she stares at usually either coo and smile and gush about how adorable she is, or else look away uncomfortably and pretend they haven’t noticed her unblinking focus. I’m not sure if she’s trying to figure out the Meaning of Life, or if she just likes making people squirm. But I feel confident that if she has this level of focus and concentration at 6 months of age, someday soon she’ll be able to understand what we’re saying to her, whether it’s “go to sleep”, “fait dodo”, “duermate”, or “vai a dormire”.

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