Bringing up bilingual children: The best ways of passing on cultural identity

Growing up in a bilingual household offers a gateway not only to another culture, but even to a different persona, believes Simonetta Wenkert. But, as she discovers, the children of immigrants don't always see it that way

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Indy Lifestyle Online

"How did you learn such good English?" asked the woman in the chemist. Her question threw me, though in truth it is not the first time strangers have questioned my accent. I was born here, like many Londoners, to foreign parents, in my case, an Austrian father and an Italian mother. I was educated in the UK; and in spite of my name, was never taken for anything but British as I was growing up.

My Italian wasn't even that good when I was a child. Every summer, my mother's sister, who lived in Rome, would take me and my sisters for a month's holiday to the Adriatic coast. There, my Italian would slowly bed in, though I continued to make linguistic howlers. (A memorable example being, when, at the age of nine, I asked a waiter, using the most vulgar term imaginable, for a plate of lady-bits instead of figs – a mere one-letter difference.)

The Emperor Charlemagne is reputed to have said that "to speak another language is to possess another soul". I distinctly recall when I discovered that being bilingual could allow you to slide between two discrete identities. At the age of 13, I spent the summer with one of my mother's schoolfriends and her children in a house by the sea, where I only spoke Italian for six weeks, living like an Italian teenager, listening to sugary Italian pop songs and riding on the back of a Vespa. In the car on the way home from Heathrow, I recall being unable to string a sentence together in English to my parents, almost as though I had become a different person in those six weeks away. Sono una ragazza italiana, I remember thinking to myself, exultantly; I had become an Italian girl.

Fast forward 40 years, and to all intents and purposes, I have elected to live like a foreigner in the city of my birth. My husband (whom I met in Rome) and I exclusively speak Italian to each other, as I do every day at work at our Italian restaurant and also with my Italian best friend. Though my "literary" language, the language of my intellect, in which I write my novels and articles, remains English, speaking Italian on a daily basis seems to have blunted my Englishness, hence people mistaking me for a foreigner.

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Mimi Eskinder and Mary Mulugeta (David Sandison)

For Sava Mihajlov and Ana Pavlovic, 54-year-old architects from Belgrade who have lived almost half their lives in the UK, the language shift has been in reverse. While they have been consistent about speaking Serbian to their two sons, Ana says they occasionally rely on "helping" English words when discussing complex emotions. "After all the years we have spent here, we often do not have the equivalent Serbian word at our fingertips; and even though we studied architecture in Serbo-Croat, our professional dialogue now takes place exclusively in English."

Sadly, my husband and I have not been as thorough with our three children. My husband has always talked to them in Italian, but, right from the start, they always answered him in English. "I'm shy" was the standard response when we tried to push them. And yet, if asked, all three would identify themselves as Italian Londoners; plain "English" just doesn't cut it.

I remember the first time I heard our eldest, Isotta, utter a sentence in Italian. She had gone on what turned out to be the playdate from hell with a girl in her class who lived in a house full of scary dogs and even scarier teenagers, all congregated in the garden, drinking Red Bull and smoking weed. At a certain point, my mobile rang, and in anguished Italian, Isotta croaked: "Mamma. Voglio. Andare. A. Casa. Adesso!" (Mummy, I want to go home, now!). In extremis, she had found the words.

According to a 2014 survey by the Department for Education, there are more than a million UK children today who speak a language other than English in the home. The challenge for their parents is finding ways to pass on a cultural identity while giving their children the freedom to discover their own. Some hire tutors or send their children to evening classes, while others decide to speak English from the start.

Mimi Eskinder, an Ethiopian who came to this country in 1981, says she regrets not teaching her daughters Amharic. "The big difference is that I came here as a refugee, but my children, who were born here, didn't need any extra help with fitting in."

Her daughter, Mary, aged 18 and studying for A Levels, initially resisted learning Amharic from her two grandmothers, and refused to go to language classes because she was embarrassed about her accent: "I'm not the world's greatest linguist, and whenever I tried to string a sentence together in Amharic, it sounded terrible."

For Mary, the issue was further complicated by wanting to fit into a tough inner-city girl-culture: "Until I went to Ethiopia on my own, at the age of 14, I would see people wearing our traditional Ethiopian clothes and be embarrassed that they looked like "freshies" or members of a cult. When I was out with my friends, I acted all 'gangsta', making loads of noise, which is completely opposite to the Ethiopian way of being respectful and talking quietly."

What spurred Mary to start teaching herself Amharic was falling in love with Addis Ababa; and the realisation that learning her parents' language was a gateway into her culture. "Now, my Amharic is not bad, and here in London I say 'Hi' and bow to any Ethiopian stranger I come across in public. And I don't care if that happens in front of my English friends." This shift in Mary's world view is proof of what Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology at Stanford University, believes: "As we uncover how languages and their speakers differ from one another, we discover that human natures, too, can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak".

Elena Xenophontos, a 48-year-old restaurateur from London, is aware of a different emotional register when she speaks Greek to her sons. "When I shout 'tha se scotosou', 'I'm going to kill you', to one of my boys in Greek, it sounds harmless, comical even, while in English it is more sinister." Yet, she had no doubts that she would do everything in her power to pass on the language of her parents to her sons. "Languages are precious, and being Greek is so ingrained in me that it would have been sacrilege not to."

Unlike Elena, Francesca Manfredi, a lawyer from London, has no overwhelming attachment to Italy, the country of her mother's birth: "Both my mother, and my husband's father, left Italy in the late 1950s without a backward glance. Consequently, they passed on very little to us, their children, in terms of culture, though in my mother's case, at least she taught me the language."

Francesca did not speak Italian to her two daughters, who attended a Spanish nursery in London. "Although I do feel some attachment to Italy, what I am truly passionate about is languages as the means of opening your mind and understanding other cultures. We'd lived in Madrid, and my husband had family there, so the Spanish nursery made sense as a way of planting the language seed in them. Plus, being a mother is such an emotional thing that I would have felt like a middle-class poser had I spoken Italian to them for the sake of their language skills." Interestingly, her daughters not only turned out to be able linguists, but both speak Italian better than any other languages they have studied.

However, Christina Franco, an Italian-American explorer and conservationist, who has lived in London for the past 25 years, finds little value in bilingualism for its own sake. "What warms my heart when I speak Italian to my son is sharing not just the culture, but the continuity. Each time we return to Italy, I watch Vittorio walking the same paths that I walked when I was his age. I also wanted him to have Russian, though his Russian father was estranged from us. Still, here in London when people hear about our set-up, they say: 'No, Russian is so last year. You should hire a Mandarin nanny,' which makes no sense at all."

As a result of his upbringing, her son Vittorio, aged four, navigates between three languages, though he calls English "his". For Christina, this is familiar territory: "Until the age of six, when we moved back to Rome, we lived in Chicago. One day, I overhead my father speaking English to a colleague, and remember thinking how clever Papa was to know all those words!"

At her American school, however, Christina's bilingualism was frowned upon. "I remember my teacher saying that I had to stop speaking that other language, and I didn't understand what she meant. As far I was concerned, there was just one universal language in the world, with lots of ways of saying things. In some ways, I still believe that to be true."

Some names have been changed

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