Speaking Two Languages
Visitors to this site will have an interest in bilingualism almost by definition: They are English-speakers living in Greece. But there are many different kinds of families with two languages. One of the most common here in Rhodes is the ‘Shirley Valentine’ situation; often the woman is British and the husband Greek. Probably the couple started out speaking English to one another, and although the woman often learns Greek, when children are born the mother will speak to them in English. The children learn Greek from the rest of the family and the wider community. The language spoken in home may be Greek or English depending on a number of factors including the parents’ degree of proficiency in the ‘other’ language. However there are many other reasons why English is spoken in families in Rhodes: Sometimes both parents are English-speaking and are here for business reasons, employment or simply a better lifestyle. Often one or both parents are members of the Greek diaspora that took Greeks to all corners of the world, and they have returned from America, Canada, Australia or other English-speaking countries; their proficiency in Greek may range from rudimentary to completely fluent. Other families may speak English because it is the only means of communication: Often a Dutch or Scandinavian married to a Greek will communicate in English because neither knows the other language. Increasingly in Rhodes one also finds second generation bilinguals; adults who have themselves been brought up in bilingual homes and who want to pass their knowledge of English on to their own children.
When families with two (or more) languages do have children, a new set of pressures may come to bear and existing language ‘systems’ may be disrupted. For example, an Englishwoman who has learnt Greek and is used to using Greek with her husband may find that she wants to speak with her child in English. In some cases the Greek-speaking partner may react negatively and feel excluded.
Advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism
Before considering how to bring up a child bilingually, it is worth considering what exactly you want for them. For a parent from an English-speaking country, there are several obvious advantages in bringing up a child in Greece to speak fluent English as well as Greek. For example:
- You probably want to be able to communicate with your child in your native language, however proficient you are at Greek. You will want to pass on nursery rhymes, songs and stories learned when you were a child. Later it will probably be easier to shout at rebellious teenagers in your own language.
- You may want to return to an English-speaking country after a certain period of time, and your child may have fit into an English-speaking speaking school.
- Your child will feel more at home in your home country during visits, and will be able to communicate with English-speaking grandparents and other relatives.
- Speaking fluent English is obviously an advantage in adult life. Your child may want to work or study in the UK or other English-speaking country and even if they do not, English is an advantage in almost any Greek career. And think of what you’ll save on frontistiro bills.
- Bilingual children often find it easier to learn a third language, and recent studies have shown they may score better on intelligence tests (they probably need to become brighter to handle all those words!)
- They can more easily understand English-speaking culture – films and television, books, pop songs and computer games.
- It may be a source of pride for them to speak two languages; they will do well in English classes and may earn respect from their peers.
However it is worth remembering that bringing up a child bilingually may not always be the correct choice. English-speakers living in Rhodes who are fully proficient in Greek and who intend to remain indefinitely may prefer to avoid the complications and have their children learn English as a second language via the school system. And the reverse also holds; English speakers resident on Rhodes for only a short time may not wish their children to spend much time and effort learning Greek.
There are, after all certain disadvantages to bilingualism.
- It is undoubtedly more effort for the child; when learning to speak they need to learn two words for everything, as well as two grammatical systems who to use those systems with. Later they will need to learn two writing systems and alphabets with all the associated scope for confusion (e.g. the Greek letters ‘ro’ and ‘ni’ and the English letters ‘p’ and ‘v’)
- Speaking a foreign language is quite conspicuous, and the child may feel self-conscious and ’different’. Fortunately in Rhodes there is little or no prejudice towards English-speakers and people are accustomed to hearing English spoken. However there may still be situations where the child is embarrassed (often they are expected to act like performing seals) or when Greeks who don’t understand English feel left out or resentful. Bringing home school friends may be awkward – often the parent and child must speak together in Greek – the language they don’t usually speak with each other – or the guests won’t understand is being said.
- Any English lessons at school may be far beneath their level (they may actually be more proficient than the teacher – one of my children was recently taught to say ‘apple’ as ‘ai-pel’!) with the result that they waste their time and get bored.
However it is my view that the advantages of bilingualism outweigh the disadvantages in most cases and if possible parents should at least give it a try.
Bilingual families usually develop a system, either explicitly or subconsciously, for deciding which language to speak. The most common is probably ‘one-person-one-language’ whereby each parent speaks to the children in their native language. This has the obvious advantage that the child picks up the languages from native speakers (I certainly don’t want my children picking up my error-strewn Greek!) and the parents feel comfortable because they are speaking their mother tongue. The language spoken when everybody is together as a family will often depend on the parents’ proficiency in each other’s language. We usually speak English together, as my wife’s English is far better than my Greek and it’s hard to break the habit. The system will usually change when we have guests however as we don’t want them to feel left out. The language siblings speak between themselves will usually be Greek, especially if they are of school age, but it may depend on their activity (they often speak English when doing things they usually do with me, such as playing on the computer).
Although ‘one-person-one-language’ is the most common, and perhaps most successful system, there are others, such as ‘one-language-one-location’. Here an English-speaking couple might speak English at home and as a family, and the children are exposed to Greek only at school and on public occasions. This may be difficult for them at first, but children, especially when young, are very adaptable and highly motivated to learn. Whatever system you choose, it is important to be consistent.
On the whole, children have fewer problems with bilingualism than one might imagine; parents of children – not just bilingual ones – will often be amazed at how they ‘pick things up like sponges’. When young, the existence of two language systems will appear to children as a natural state of affairs and it is only later that they realise that it is something unusual (although it is worth remembering that in the world as a whole, it is actually monolingualism which is rare – whole swathes of the world, from Canada to China, from India to Ireland, from Wales to West Africa, are effectively bilingual).
However one must also bear in mind that bilinguals are effectively getting half the input in each language as a monolingual would. As many people know, it is not uncommon for bilingual children to learn to speak a little later. It is also very common for children to go through a stage of ‘passive’ language use – they understand the language, but do not ‘actively’ use it; the child may understand English questions, but only respond in Greek. This often occurs around the age that children go to playgroup. In some cases this may become a permanent state of affairs, but often a passive command of English may be made active at a future point, perhaps after a visit to an English-speaking country. Even if the child actively speaks both English and Greek, one language will usually become dominant – few bilinguals are completely well-balanced. If you intend to stay in Greece permanently, then if there is a dominant language it should probably be Greek, and it is important not to neglect your child’s Greek education. Other issues you may encounter include interference and mixing, where children mix words in sentences (‘thelo the ball’) or use grammatical constructs from one language in another (‘can you close the light?’). They may also speak English with a Greek accent (or even Greek with an English accent). However as long as these are not an impediment to effective communication, they probably shouldn’t be considered too much of an issue.
It is important to remember that language is only one of the problems facing mixed language families. As many of you are no doubt familiar, cultural differences may be just as difficult. Do you name your children after the grandparents in the Greek tradition? Do you take part in Orthodox church ceremonies? Do your children get presents on Christmas or New Year’s Day? Children may also have identity issues; Are they Greek or English? Personally I feel it is important for them to know that they are both: They are NOT half-English and half-Greek, but WHOLLY English, AND WHOLLY Greek. This may seem like a semantic difference, but I think it is important in that it leads them to think that they have the ‘best of both worlds’. Consequently we try, wherever possible, to follow the traditions of both cultures. We celebrate Halloween and Apokries. We have bacon-and-egg breakfasts and go to tavernas. And Santa Claus comes at Christmas and his Greek brother Agias Vasilis comes at New Year. Obviously there are situations when this isn’t possible, and arguments over the children’s upbringing will occur, but as long as you both have your children’s best interests at heart you should be able to muddle through.
What you can do to help your child
There are very many things you can do to help your child. Books are obviously an extremely important resource, and English books are readily available; buy them or have them sent from the UK, use the new English school library or look out for second-hand books at car-boot and jumble sales. Of course, just having the books is not enough; you need to set aside time to read to your children. And although many parents are aware of the importance of the bedtime-story routine, this experience can be intensified in many ways: Talk to your child about the story (‘What do they think will happen next?’, ‘How do they think this character is feeling?’). This will transform a passive experience for the child into an active one. Make sure a wide range of books are covered: women may sometimes choose inappropriate ‘girly’ or ‘fairytale’ stories for boys with the result that the child is put off reading; try reading more factual books as well – my son is fairly indifferent to ‘stories’ but is fascinated by books on how cars work. And it’s not just books: Comics are an excellent resource as the pictures can give clues to the language. And don’t forget about magazines and newspapers; children resistant to traditional books might be more interested in music magazines or the sports pages. Finally, remember that stories aren’t just for bedtime: Try reading on weekend lie-ins, after naptimes, in tavernas while waiting for the food, on aeroplance journeys etc etc.
Apart from books, there are many other resources you can use. DVDs or videos may be ordered from Amazon or sent by relatives from back home. For older children, most English-language television in Greece is subtitled rather than dubbed, so the child will be picking up English without even realising it. Music is another resource; CDs of nursery rhymes and children’s songs for younger children, and English-language pop songs for older ones (and don’t forget that many popular books are also available as audio tapes). And while parents may understandably have concerns about how long their children spend on the computer and playing electronic games, my son is never so motivated to learn English as when he trying to operate the Nintendo or locate a site on the internet! With proper guidance and control (try to steer them towards educational games) these too can be an important language tool.
If you are seriously interested in your child becoming bilingual then on Rhodes the international school is essential. Advantages for the children include.
- They will be taught literacy in English as a native speaker would be, not as a second language.
- They will meet and speak with other English children; apart from improving their English (and it is important for children to speak ‘children’s’ English as well this only learning from adults) it will help them feel less ‘different’.
- They will learn about cultural traditions in their native country, such as Halloween, Bonfire Night, the Fourth of July etc.
Younger children may attend one of the international baby or toddler groups – see our Groups page for more information. If there are no such groups in your area, why not try to set one up?
You may also try educating your child at home; I’ve had success using English ‘Jolly Phonics’ teaching materials (available from Amazon), flashcards and the reward of an M&M or smartie for each English letter, sound or word memorized! Language games can be incorporated into many different everyday activities: I-spy waiting for a bus; hangman drawn on a taverna tablecloth; making up a story while driving in the car.
Visits to the UK or other English-speaking country are obviously advantageous; the child will get a wider experience of English and a totally ‘immersive’ experience. Older children may benefit from an extended stay in the country, perhaps on their own, and you may be able to arrange for them to attend a playgroup, school or college while they are there. If visits to an English-speaking country are not possible for whatever reason, then relatives and friends from the English-speaking country may be persuaded to come to Rhodes (in my experience it’s not exactly a hard sell!). In between visits, children can be encouraged to keep in touch with English-speaking relatives by phone, email, text, and even social networking sites such as Facebook.
Finally, the most important thing you can do is simply to spend time with your child, talking to them about whatever it is you are doing (or indeed whatever comes into your head!) and listening to them and asking questions.
Overall, if you want to bring your child up bilingually, then go for it! Yes, there may be problems along the way, but the existence of hundreds if not thousands of bilingual individuals here on Rhodes testifies that it is possible. There is no single ‘correct’ method and you shouldn’t let anyone tell you what to do; what feels right is often the best guide. Whilst teachers, doctors and psychologists may be experts in their own field, they probably will not be experts in bilingualism. If you do need professional advice, some links are given below. If you are interested in finding out more, I’ve found the books below useful.
Growing Up With Two Languages, A Practical Guide – Una Cunningham-Andersson and Staffan Andersson (Routledge 2003) – excellent practical guide, stuffed full of quotes from people who will make you realise that your experience is not unique.
The Bilingual Family – A Handbook For Parents – Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Another good practical guide with extended case studies.
A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism – Colin Baker (Multilingual Matters Ltd, 2000). A good book with a useful question-and-answer format (e.g. ‘Will learning a second language interfere with development in the first language?’)