My own experience growing up in a bilingual family has made me more relaxed. I know that I had phases when I wanted to speak Greek and I had phases when I didn’t. And I still have those phases as an adult. It never stopped.
I think some parents maybe find they reach barriers with their kids and sometimes you wouldn’t be the right person to ask your child how they are feeling.
TAC: Can you give an example of those barriers?
KH: I’ve noticed that a friend’s daughter didn’t want to speak to her in Greek. She always said “Stop talking to me in Greek. Talk to me only in English”. I think the daughter wasn’t finding it easy to speak, in general. Her father never really learned Greek. She doesn’t really have Greek friends around although she has a really good relationship with Greece. Every child is different. My friend asked me: “I don’t know what to do. Shall I stop talking to her in Greek?”
They were always the minority. I think it would be really useful to understand what kids are going through when they act out like this.
on starting a new journey
TAC: How did your journey start? I remember when you had your now seven-year-old you spoke English to him.
I knew he would be growing up in England and that would be the most important language to him. And that’s my native language, too. I’m much more confident in English than I am in Greek. So I think it was more about not being sure that I would be able to offer him a good enough standard in the language to make it worth to speak to him in Greek. I was worried that I would reach a kind of boundary, a barrier at some point. Which I will! And that would be unfair to him, because I would have started something I couldn’t complete. I didn’t have the skills to take it to the next level.
TAC: What about your husband?
To my husband I speak a mixture of English and Italian. It was English entirely but as my Italian got better it improved. He speaks Italian to the kids. He’s completely supportive. He was very happy when I decided to switch and speak to our children in Greek. He wanted me to speak to our first born in Greek from the start.
TAC: What changed with the birth of your second child?
KH: It was the network. And also a kind of new start. I wanted my mother and father to speak to my first-born in Greek but they never did. And my sister Chloe wasn’t either. They were all working and busy and they didn’t see him that often. They didn’t want to alienate him by speaking another language he didn’t understand. That was very much the case for my mum. She would see him once every couple of months. She wanted to build a relationship with him and she thought that if she spoke another language he wouldn’t understand and possibly wouldn’t be as close to her.
I think this is something that parents shouldn’t feel guilty about. If they see that it is really something coming between them and their child: Ditch it! You don’t want anything to come between you and your child.
I found the courage and whatever I can give him, I’ll give him. When I can’t give him anymore I’ll speak to him in English. And that’s better than not trying at all. Any new, additional language or culture is a positive thing. It gives children choices. It opens their minds. It makes such a difference when you go to a country, to how you feel, how you speak, how you experience it.
Language is an open door. They can push that door even further, they can close it. It's their door. Given that I can offer them that, I think it would be crazy not to. Of course it is an effort.
on managing daily life
TAC: How do you manage this in your daily life?
KH: Initially with lots of guilt, struggle. Then less guilt and less struggle.
With my first-born it hasn't been easy going from speaking English to speaking Greek and still is not. I constantly forget to speak to him in Greek. Then I feel guilty. Then I go through phases of thinking “Oh my God! I didn’t speak to him in Greek at all today” and then I speak to him in Greek. It’s inconsistent. I’m very inconsistent.
It would be easier to give up, to give in to the English. Because that’s what the kids start speaking to me. The easiest thing to do is to respond in English. And read English books. And not bother trying to find ways to finding friends for them in their language, finding new books, finding a nanny in Greek. It’s such hard work. It would be so much easier not to bother. But I think it’s worth it.
It’s natural to respond in English when I’m spoken to in English. Not just because my English is better. If they spoke to me in Greek, it would be more natural to respond in Greek. I think in fact I’ve become quite lazy because my first-born is going to Greek school on Saturdays and he has made leaps and bounds there, he is less reliant on me. It doesn’t absolve me from my duty at all but because he is self learning and his ability to do so will just increase as he gets older, I think I have just become a little lazy. And I feel bad. Because he wants to learn it, he wants to speak Greek.
TAC: Has he ever told you: Mum, speak to me in Greek?
KH: No, not in those explicit terms. But he has voluntarily responded in Greek to things. He has shown me that he can do it, too. I’m so amazed that he never asked me why. “Why do I have to speak Italian?” - there was never a question what’s the point of it. Never! I wonder - because that is very different from my personal experience: As a child, I did respond only in English and I felt embarrassed of having this... otherness. I loved Greece! And I loved going to Greece, I identified with it. But I felt a tension. A conflict between the English and the Greek. Which my seven year old doesn’t feel.
on growing up as a foreigner
TAC: Your English is perfect. You speak without an accent. Nobody on the street would doubt that you are local. Do you think that plays a role?
KH: I don’t know. My husband Saverio is very Italian and our first born makes fun of his accent all the time. He has asked “Mum, why did you marry a foreigner?” and things like that. “Daddy, why are you foreign?” I’ve replied: “Dad is not a foreigner when he is in Italy and I am foreigner when I’m in another country.”
In my case, I think it was because I was only one of two children with non-English parents in my class. London was a completely different place at the time. There was no European Union, no Freedom of movement. There weren’t Europeans in the UK. My parents had to get residency, it was a completely different era. Where as now my children are surrounded by people who are in similar situations.
My parents’ friends were only Greek. They didn’t have any English friends, they very much assimilated work wise but not socially. So there was a kind of “us and them” thing going on, from both sides. Where as we live in an area where people are form all over the place. They all mix with each other. There is no “us and them” going on because everybody is a bit of everything.
Although I think my kid kind of assumes I’ll understand things about his social life that he doesn’t assume his dad would understand. That’s because he knows that I grew up in London and went to a London school, where as his dad comes from a completely different world. Literally! It’s not just the language, it’s the culture as well. So it goes beyond language.
on language lessons and cultural idiosyncrasies
TAC: Have you booked lessons in Italian?
KH: No we tried but basically our first born was more able in Italian than the other kids in his class. They sometimes weren’t even speaking Italian. So he was put in a corner doing separate stuff from everybody else. He hated it, so we had to stop. We also prioritised Greek because there is less cut from me.
TAC: You have the Greek nanny, the Greek school, you have the Greek friends and the Greek family, you go on holidays to Greece. Italian takes second place in your daily life. Yet you see Greek as your children’s third option.
KH: All of the Greek people we know speak English. None of the Italian people we know in Italy speak English. Our Greek community is a bilingual community. It’s more of me. Of course there are people who speak Greek better than English but they all speak perfect English. It’s never full immersion, even when we’re in Greece.
When we’re in Italy it’s different. First, we go more often to Italy, we spend more time there and he has friends his age, which he doesn’t have in Greece. And second, nobody in the village speaks a word of English. The kids have to immersive themselves in the language. Their father won't respond to if spoken to in another language than Italian. There is much more national identity behind that as well.
In Greece everybody who’s educated speaks English. And a lot of them speak French, and German, too. Languages are a huge investment in people’s families and lives. For my children it makes it harder still to fully immerse in Greek. People will just speak English to them. They want to be sweet and nice and maybe they think they don’t speak so much Greek. My children don’t have any friends their age in Greece.
on managing playdates
TAC: How do you navigate social interactions when you organise a playdate?
KH: It depends. When they are really close friends and they are English speaking then I might speak in Greek. But if not, then I speak English. I don’t want to exclude others from the conversation.
TAC: How do you feel if somebody else in the room speaks ie Swedish?
KH: It doesn’t bother me at all. If I was going to have a playdate with a French family, I would speak Greek to my kid. Because they would understand, they have to do it, too. But if it’s an English family that I’m not very close to, I wouldn’t, because I don’t think English people understand what it means to be in a bilingual environment. That’s my take!
TAC: Has anybody told you off?
KH: I can tell you about my difference in experience from being a mother that speaks English in stay&plays, baby bounce, and the playground, and a mother speaking a foreign language to her child. In the second case I had far less conversations. People wouldn’t approach me to speak to me or talk to my child so often in the park. Because I’m speaking a foreign language.
TAC: What do your friends think about languages?
KH: That’s interesting. I don’t have any friends who grew up in a bilingual environment. Or my best friends from childhood - I immediately think about this group - didn’t grow up in a bilingual environment.
I think sometimes they don’t understand. At one point they were saying “Let’s go on holiday together”. And I said “To be honest, right now I want our holidays to be spent in Italy or Greece.” to which they replied: “Lets go to Italy or Greece then!” and I had to explain: “I kind of want my children to be immersed in those times.”
I think they sort of felt that was a bit control freaky perhaps. Or that I was sacrificing something. You know there was a little bit of not real comprehension of why one holiday would be such a big deal. And in fact, as my children have gotten older we’ve had holidays with friends. With English speaking friends.
There were still minor interactions in shops and restaurants in Greek. But overall it was ok. Because it didn’t take away a significant chunk of time. It was just half term. If that would have been all summer, I wouldn’t want that. I wouldn’t want my children to spend all summer in the UK. I think that would be a big loss to their immersion. I think my friends admire it, generally. Sometimes they feel disadvantaged.
TAC: Why do you think your friends feel disadvantaged?
KH: Their kids only speak one language and probably never will speak another one. They will grow up here and live here. They don’t have any connection with anybody in another country. Their parents see their children’s life as theirs and it will be here. The motivation to learn another language will never be that great. They would like it but they are never going to prioritise it.
It sort of feels like a disadvantage but at the same time it isn’t, because even if they had the time they wouldn’t go for it. None of them have foreign language lessons for their kids over and above what’s offered in the public education system.
I have one friend whose sister lives in Paris. I’m sure they will prioritise French because there is this connection, there is this auntie in Paris. Just this one human being somewhere can make such a difference.