Culture Matters

I was reading an article yesterday about how
bilingualism makes children smarter, by improving their cognitive skills (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html).
I have always been proud about how all our kids grew up bilingual (my step-daughter
in German and English; the other three in English and Greek – adding German to
the mix by the time they were three years old). I am confident that one day
they will come to appreciate this gift we have given them, even if now they complain about having to go to two different schools (they go to Greek
school once a week in addition to their “regular” bilingual school) and do
their Greek homework when they have so much else going on.
For me, raising them this way is much more than wanting
to make them smarter or offer them practical advantages in their future lives
and careers. The idea that my children would learn my native language was always
a given. It was also part of a bigger “package:” I wanted them to become
familiar with my culture; to understand and appreciate where part of their
family comes from; to be proud of their Greek heritage. Eventually, I wanted
that culture to become part of their identity.
Before they were born, I read most of the literature
on raising bilingual and multilingual children (yes, I’m a nerd). I knew what
the benefits are, which methods work and what common mistakes I should avoid. This
was not going to come naturally or automatically to them. It was going to be work, but it would be well worth it. I was diligent about speaking to them only in Greek;
reading Greek books to them; insisting that we watch DVDs in Greek, instead of other
languages (my husband drew the line at dubbed Disney movies J); sending them
to Greek school once a week as soon as they turned four;
hanging out with our Greek friends and their children as much as possible. I
also wanted them to have a feel for the culture first-hand, so I took them to
Greece regularly, making sure they spent time with my family and took part in
family traditions and celebrations. I was secretly hoping that at some point they
would feel Greek, at least in part; that my home country would become their home,
I knew that I had a short window of opportunity before the
other two languages took over once they were in school,
so I did my best (Sure enough, that window is rapidly closing now, as I am
noticing, to my horror, that they sometimes switch to English or German even
when they are with their Greek or half-Greek friends).
The big shock came when, a couple of years ago, I was
watching Philip and Alexia at soccer practice and the coach was trying to point
out how many different countries were represented in the group, by asking the
kids who came from each country to raise their hand. When it was Greece’s turn,
neither of them raised their hand (they did for Austria)! Somehow I did not see
it coming. We had a long talk afterwards and I tried to explain to them
about their bicultural heritage; that, despite what they might think, they are half-Greek. It became clear that,
while my children understand very well that I
am Greek, it did not occur to them that they are as well. They are always happy
to go visit and at some point even told me that they would have liked to live in
Greece, but their attachment to the culture is very different from mine and
always will be. It is a strange feeling, but one that I need to come to terms
with and be happy for whatever “Greekness” they do have from me.
Soon after we decided to move to Zurich, one of my
first priorities – besides finding a home and schools for the kids – has been
to find a Greek school for them. I want them to at least have a once-a-week,
formal contact with the language and with the culture. I have not been able to
locate such a school yet, but I’m working on it. The Greek school here in
Vienna has been very much part of their weekly program and I must admit that
the thought of not finding a similar institution in Zurich makes me a bit
nervous, especially for my youngest. Given that our family language is English, he will only get Greek from me on a
regular basis. I know that there is so much more I could do to reinforce both the
language and the cultural aspect of learning. ometimes I’m just tired. Still,
letting go is not an option.
Children need anchors in their lives, particularly when they move around. Besides their family, awareness
and connection with the different cultures that constitute their identity can
provide that stability and continuity they need as they go through change
and transitions. So even if I don’t find that Greek school in Zurich, the “Greek
immersion programme” will continue – at home and on location, in Greece. I am also hoping my
mother will continue with her grandmotherly duties, which involve helping me
teach the little guy how to speak and read in Greek and making sure the older
ones don’t lose their skills.
My children will make their own cultural choices as
they grow up and I will have to respect them. But for the moment, they will continue
to do their Greek homework every week – and be less than thrilled at it – because
they have no choice.
I would love to hear about how you have dealt with raising children under multiple
cultural influences. What challenges did you face in doing that and how did you
cope with them?


  1. Anonymous

    Ciao Katya!
    As you know we only speak Italian at home, had we stayd in Italy I would have spoken German I suppose but having chosen to live abroad I decided thay have to speak Italian. Currently we are fighting on a daily basis with Nyra as she speaks less and less Italian (although in the past 2 weeks it's getting better…perhaps the fghts show some sign of success?), whereas for Irian it come smore natural to speak Italian with his parents. I didn't send them to Italian school as in Rotterdam you only have schools for children who don't speak a word of Italian and that was/is not the case of these two little bastards. Reading happens only in Italian (even Dutch books I translate while reading) and we try (Gianluca is better in this than myself) to speak only Italian to them. I notice that when we speak of something which is closely related to school then some words are just easier to say in Dutch…Nevertheless both kids can write decent Italian but unfortunately never seem to read it…apart from Donald Ducks…occasionally.
    For one thing I am sure, when they are in Italy they can communicate with family and friends and that's what counts. Also I notice that Nyra can switch from stubbornly speaking Dutch to me (and me ignoring her or pretending to do so:-s) one moment and the moment after she can turn to a relative in Italian with no difficulty…means that we have done a decent job.
    It made me laugh when you tried to convince yr kids that they are Greek 8-). Until a few years ago Irian was crossed with us as he was not Dutch and he really insisted he HAD to be Dutch… In our case it's different as we are both Italians and I know they feel sort-of Italian, but definitely not Dutch. Which is fine, as Rotetrdam is very multicultural and there are a lot of kids born here from foreign parents…Next year he'll go to a bilingual school (English-Dutch) and in the hoice of the secondary schools I kept an eye open to see if the school was multicultural enough…and the Wolfert tweetalig is indeed very international and I know Irian will feel more at ease in that environment opposed to a 100% Dutch school, like the primary school he goes to now). By the way, we chose this very 'white' school for language learning purposes. In a so-called black school (with many foreign kids) children don't learn as fast and as well Dutch as in 100% Dutch schools.
    I'm curious to read other people's experiences…

    1. Ciao Aglaia! What is it with second children and language? Alexia's Greek is also not as good as Philip's – especially her vocabulary. She also mixes in more English words when she talks. Is it us being more sloppy with our second (and third, etc.) children, also because we simply have less time with them?

  2. Katia, when we moved with 1,5 year-old Solène from Paris to Tuscany, Italian became a threat to her "father tongue" (German). I had to stop speaking German with her for some time (a year or so) in order to make her confident with her mother tongue French and the language of everyone around (you may imagine how many of our Italian friends spoke anything else but Italian…). But I continued with German songs. From "Ich armes böhmsches Teufli" to "Grün, grün, grün sind alle meine Kleider"… – that was an amazing success! She didn't feel "obliged" to speak German with her father, but enjoyed singing all those songs with him… And then, when we "re-started" German again, Solène spoke it with a French/Italian grammar and obviously a slight Austrian accent. Frequent visits in Austria (skiing, being with her cousins) added the necessary feeling to be part of this culture (just as you did with Greece). The most important step was when we moved to Munich and decided to register her in the European School – NOT in the French or German classes, but in the Italian section. This helped tremendeously in keeping her fluent with the Italian language and culture, helped her to feel comfortable in the new "German" environment "as an Italian immigrant with her Italian classmates". I remember when she was 16 and I got her her Austrian passport (in addition to her French passport), she asked me to get her an Italian passport, too. And when I told her that this wasn't possible because she didn't have the Italian citizenship, she was aghast and said that this simply wasn't fair, because she was Italian as much as all her Italian friends… The good thing with this intercultural kids is that they feel at home where they are. You ask Solène whether she belongs to France, Austria or Italy, and she may respond: "Actually, I feel German now, because I live in Munich". She recently told me that she is so happy about "her" new Bundespräsident – yeah, it was Gauck she meant… 🙂

  3. Anonymous

    Well,I believe that the kids will resent us if we push them hard to take our own cultures. I certainly resented my parents when they tried to make me think and behave like them..but that's my character..

    Teaching them mother tongues is doable to a certain extent but I am not so optimistic about teaching them a culture..As an aside I have special circumstances: home for me is London (ie where my parents are) and not Lebanon.

    And Arabic is one of the kids' mother tongues but apart from taking them to Lebanon & exposing them to Lebanese people (who actually either live in the "Lebanese ghetto" or integrate very well), I don't see what else I can do…

    I am more keen for the kids to be culturally sensitive rather than teaching them about adapting my own culture but I believe that this will come with exposure and emotional intelligence if they have any! What do you think?

    1. Your point about cultural sensitivity is a very good one and I believe our children get enough exposure to diverse cultures – starting at home, but also given our lifestyle and social circle.
      It's incredibly important for them to have that skill, but I consider it as additional to being familiar with their cultural heritage. If they cannot be part of that (our) culture, they need to at least know about it – it's where they come from 🙂

    2. Anonymous

      Hi Katia,
      I'm always saying bilingualism and culture is like luggage perhaps now they don't need this suitcase but one day who knows. This comparison was made in my youth for the debate on having Latin or old Greek at school, I had old Greek and I'm happy to still have some basics in it to explain some very complex words or to be able to read the alphabet etc..
      My kids are saying all the time that they are from here (actually Vienna not Austria) France and Turkey are not so present in their mind… although they are going to French school, our family language is Turkish and every year they are spending at least 4 weeks in Turkey in the family of my husband with nobody speaking french German English… I'm ok with that because how can you feel part of a country if you are only going on holidays there… My husband has of course a different opinion and the children won't touch the subject when he is around …
      I also feel even if my kids are fluent in French and /or Turkish they can't be as french or Turkish because we (my husband and I) lost after years of living abroad some body language or some cultural stuffs ourselves … It is my 18th year in Austria and before I was in Germany, Mücahit came more than 20 years ago
      But I won't give up on the language and the culture …like i said at the beginning: the luggage .. perhaps they are going to live somewhere else when they are grown up… and then their French and or Turkish suitcase are going to be at least some thing they can relate to…

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