Geography, Identity and the Multi-lingual Child
How does language help connect children with multiple heritages to their cultural 'homelands'?
Miloš (pronounced Mi-losh) is, for the most part, a typical American child. Full of energy, a lover of treats, cartoons, trucks, and animals; alternately adorable and impossible, and full of hugs, shyness, giggles, and questions. Miloš, however, is the son of a Serbian mother and a Dutch father - both naturalized U.S. citizens (his mother is a U.S. citizen and his father is a permanent resident with a green card but not a U.S. passport) who have lived and worked in the U.S. for many years. Miloš is unlike most American children in that he is able to speak in three languages - English, Dutch, and Serbian. For his parents, these language skills are an essential part of his multi-cultural identity and a way to link together his far-flung origins. Coordinates Society (CS) had a chance to interview Miloš's mother, Darinka (Daka) Djordjevic, about how her family sees the relationship between language, geography, and identity.
CS - Why is it so important for Miloš to learn Serbian growing up in America?
Serbian is my native language and I can express myself the best when using it - especially when it comes to expressing emotions and sharing songs, stories, shows, and books I used to like as a kid. Since I didn't grow up in the U.S., my knowledge of American kid 'stuff' is limited, but the ones in Serbian come naturally.
Miloš's older relatives do not speak English very well. If Miloš did not speak Serbian, he wouldn't be able to interact with them and I think he wouldn't feel like he was a part of the family when we went to visit. Knowing the language is such an advantage! Every time we land in Belgrade, he simply gets immersed in the culture and family dynamics. He has a wonderful relationship with his grandmother, Ljilja. I've realized he has picked up some of her expressions - phrases that older generations use that I typically would not use in everyday conversation. So in that sense it is funny for me because sometimes I hear my mother speaking out of my son's mouth!
My hope is that being able to speak Serbian (and hopefully better Dutch in the future) will also help him feel a part of our families overseas and develop a sense of belonging. This is especially important for us because Frank and I have no family in America.
Also, to illustrate that our example is not the most extreme or special when it comes to speaking more than one language, here is another story. My friend Ivana (born and raised in Serbia) lives in China with her Mexican husband and 3 girls (twins are 8, youngest is about 2). Her twins go to a Chinese school and speak to each other in Chinese. Ivana speaks with them in Serbian and their Dad in Spanish. They spend two months in Mexico every winter and two months in Serbia and Croatia every summer. They will all start English school this fall.
CS - What benefits are there in being multi-lingual?
Clearly the main one is being able to interact and connect with Serbian and Dutch parts of our family and friends. Being able to speak another language allows you to connect to more people in the world and enjoy the different perspectives from literature and music another culture holds. Plus, there is a lot of research highlighting the benefits of bilingual and multilingual kids.
It is also fascinating to see how Miloš himself adapts to his own needs using language. Last time we were in Belgrade, Miloš wanted to play with pots and pans in the kitchen where my mom was cooking. He took pots and needed lids, but he didn't know the word for them. So he asked my mom to give him 'lids' using English, which she didn't know. When he realized she didn't get it he then asked her in Serbian to give him 'roofs for pots.'
Sometimes it can be simple situations with kids that make it helpful speaking more than one language. For example, we were in a teller line at the bank recently and in front of us was a large woman. Miloš told me, luckily in Serbian, that 'ova teta ima mnogo debele ruke' (meaning 'this lady has fat arms'). This was an advantage for me in terms of not being embarrassed because he said this in Serbian! It is phenomenal to have a 'secret language' with him!
CS - What struggles do you face in raising a multi-lingual child in America? How do explain (or do you) why you speak differently at different times?
It is difficult to handle multiple languages, especially because Miloš's father, Frank, is Dutch and I speak with him in English. Frank's understanding of Serbian is limited, although he knows basic things and has a good feel for the language and the same applies to my knowledge of Dutch.
The simplest scenario is when I'm alone with Miloš. Then we speak Serbian only. Miloš asks from time to time what does this or that word mean. That's a nice way to build on his Serbian.
Miloš singing a traditional Dutch Christmas song "Sinterklaas" in front of his classmates in day-care.
(Sinterklaas is St. Nicholas, who is the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus.)
When all the family is together, I speak English (with a bit of Serbian) to Frank, but only Serbian to Miloš (very confusing at dinner at times). Miloš, being super smart, tries to manipulate the language situation to his advantage. For example, if I say "no" to him in Serbian regarding a chocolate dessert he will go to Frank and tell him in English that I said it was ok for him to have one!
It does get trickier when we are with other non-Serbian speaking parents and friends. I have a feeling I sometimes come across as rude and arrogant for speaking Serbian in front of them and not English. Sometimes I explain myself, other times I don't. But I DO get strange and judgmental looks frequently (I guess if we were in NYC or some other place where many languages are commonly heard this would not be the case, but here in CT, English is the language; 'others' are foreigners). I am learning to ignore 'she is a strange foreigner' looks and mind my own business.
When kids in the park hear us speak Serbian they ask us if we are speaking Spanish! For many U.S. kids, if your language is not English, then it must be Spanish - although Serbian and Spanish DO NOT sound similar at all. I find this very funny.
Another reason for not explaining myself is that, in my experience, Americans generally don't know where Serbia is or what Serbian sounds like. To them, it sounds somewhat like Russian, so people immediately ask if we are Russian. Serbian and Russian are Slavic languages, but they are not that similar. Also, Americans confuse Serbia with Siberia - while they sound similar, they are actually very far apart. Geographic knowledge, in general, is not 'a forte' among Americans, so unless I come across someone who is more interested or knowledgeable, I skip the entire Serbian language explanation and continue speaking Serbian to Miloš.
However, I will add that I try very hard to speak English if Miloš does something he's not allowed to do, like taking a toy or pushing another kid in the park. In that particular situation, I ask him, in English, to apologize in English, so that the kid and parent(s) know I am correcting him.
CS - How does you knowing multiple languages impact your own experience of place and home? Were you raised multi-lingually?
I do believe it is important to know more than one language. My granny used a phrase that roughly translates to: 'the more languages you speak, with more people you'll be worth'. I started learning English when I was 6. My granny taught my sister and me during a 'lesson' we had with her every Sunday. Then we started English in 3rd grade, which we continued to take through the end of high school.
If I had not learned English, I would not have been accepted to college in the U.S. and I would not have been able to travel and find my way around when I moved here. Knowledge of English is basically expected in today's world, it's use is so widespread that speaking it is a must. Besides - it is just so cool to speak more than one language and especially if it's not one of the main world languages - it's like opening the world to yourself!
Also, we as a family like to travel, to get to know and learn more about other cultures, biodiversity, and history. Miloš has been to many places so far (we've done U.S. cross-country with him already, he's been to many places across Europe, in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Middle East (Israel, Jordan). As a baby, Miloš had no clue where he was (he'll only have photos to witness his travels), but once he turned 4, he started to ask more questions about traveling, continents, countries, languages, and how can we get around (by plane, boat, car). I am happy to think that the travel bug, the language bug, and a desire to explore the world has been 'implanted' into him by his father and me.