Hina Zaman grew up across three continents. She is the founder of WellVine and has a background in healthcare management, studying both in Canada and France. She raises a trilingual daughter with her Swedish husband in London.


What’s your background?

I grew up in India and moved to Canada when I was 17. My mother spoke both Hindi and English to me pretty interchangeably. At home we also spoke Urdu, which is very similar to Hindi when it’s spoken, but the languages are different in writing: Urdu uses characters derived from Arabic, Hindi has its own alphabet. 

In India everybody is fluent in their language and English as well. We use whichever language or words we need in a sentence. When my family moved to Canada we started speaking more and more English at home and Hindi was parked a little bit. 


What would you describe yourself as? 

That’s a difficult question. I haven’t stayed in one place long enough. Initially, when I first moved from India, I used to call myself an Indian, then for a while it was Canadian. I have lived in London for almost 10 years now, off and on, but I’m not really English. I find this a really hard question to answer. I usually just say I’m Canadian by nationality but I don’t actually feel I belong there anymore. 

I met my husband in France. We were both exchange students in Paris. We spoke a little bit of French before we decided that English was a lot easier. That was 15 years ago.



On the consequences of choosing Hindi


Do you understand each other’s languages?

No, not really. My husband picks up some words here and there but that’s it. The same goes for my Swedish. 

Our daughter speaks Swedish with him, English generally, and I try to speak to her in Hindi. It takes a lot of effort. The natural language at home is English and we tend to default to English all the time.


Have you had a conversation with your husband on how to approach languages?

Oh yes, even before our daughter was born! When we were picking names we obviously wanted one that works in English because we live in London but it needed to work in my language and his language, too. In the end we couldn’t find one that worked in all three so we settled for another idea: it needs to be a beautiful name in one language and not have any negative connotations in the others. Her name ended up being arabic.


Did you research anything about trilingualism? Have you looked at how to approach it in theory? 

Not really. We just had a few conversations about the fact that we love the way she will grow up, and that we need to make an actual effort, but we didn’t research anything on the subject. I read somewhere that multilingual kids can start speaking a little later but the evidence on that is mixed. That’s pretty much the only thing I looked up. I don’t follow any particular method.


What made you choose Hindi?

I guess I really want her to learn it. I’m fluent in Hindi and Urdu but it doesn’t come as naturally to me now because on a day-to-day basis I don’t use it as much anymore. My brother, who is almost six years younger, pretty much lost it when we moved to Canada. There is this sense of loss and I really want her to learn it when she’s growing up. 


Has your own experience as a multilingual influenced the way you raise your daughter?

I’m conscious of the fact that we’re not exposing her enough to Hindi. I need to remind myself daily to not slip and speak to her in English. I would feel bad if she grew up and didn’t have an affinity with Hindi - or Urdu.

I’d love her to know how to write Hindi, too. It’s just tricky fitting that into our schedule, or finding the time to do it myself. That’s only part of the wish list! I would be happy if she’s “just” fluent in Hindi and has an appreciation for Hindi music. The writing may or may not happen. 

I need to start speaking more myself. Children pick up what we’re tutoring on, don’t they? I have thought about groups and languages, I know there are some Swedish groups around, but I haven’t heard of a Hindi group yet. We have a couple of relatives in town but when we meet up we speak in English because we’re so used to it. I can make an effort and start to speak Hindi but we always end up speaking English.

It’s hard to find people when the only thing you have in common is just language. It’s like baby groups, where the only thing you have in common is a baby of the same age. This is usually not enough to create a bond.


Do you feel comfortable speaking Hindi on the street when English speakers are around?

I don’t remember doing it. It is probably worth reminding myself of. 



On the challenge of sourcing materials


How do you find and source materials?

For some reason it is quite difficult to find Hindi material online, so every time someone goes to India I ask them to bring back a few things. You can order on Amazon -but then you’re paying 20-30 dollars for a book that’s worth maybe 20p. My parents were there earlier this year and brought a couple of books home. 

Many of the Hindi books have old stereotypes I don’t want to convey to my child. And they are definitively not aesthetically pleasing. You should look at the books we have. They look like they are from the 80s. And you know the alphabet books - “A” is for this, “B” for that. The characters they use in Hindi are religious characters or stuff that doesn’t make any sense. It is difficult to find good quality Hindi books that are on the same level as their English equivalents.

Most of the books I read to her at night are Hindi and whenever my husband reads to her, he reads in Swedish. I translate instantly when it’s an English book but I miss words when I’m translating simultaneously. 

My daughter associates languages with people. For instance she won’t pick up a Swedish book and bring it to me. Or if she does she says “oh, this is Papa’s book. It’s Svenska.” So she understands the distinction that Swedish is his language and Hindi is mine. If she picks up a Hindi book she won’t bring it to him, either.



On the importance of family ties

What are your parents saying to this?

They are not pushing me at all. The speak Hindi to her when they come over and remain very open. They are used to my brother who has pretty much lost all his Hindi and Urdu or doesn’t speak it anymore and they are ok with that. They knew this might be one of the trade offs of leaving India and coming here. 


What about your husband’s family?

My in-laws are definitely more confident in Swedish than English and stick to Swedish exclusively when they interact with one another. They don’t switch to English at all. They’d love her to learn Swedish.

Her Swedish is much better than her Hindi. My husband speaks Swedish a lot more on a regular basis. Our daughter spends a lot more time with her paternal grandparents. They live in Sweden and can hop over more often. Sweden has also a stronger tradition around nursery rhymes. It is really easy to source hours and hours of Swedish music that is made for children and there is no equivalent for that in Hindi. My child loves music and she has a lot of exposure to Swedish songs and those tend to stick. The Hindi Music she listens to is adult music, film music, because most Hindi films are musicals. There are also a lot of nursery rhymes in Hindi but they are not sung! It’s not the same. Swedish has an amazing collection.


On cultural differences

Have you encountered any other cultural differences?

I think it’s more the daily grind. You end up sometimes with the typical couples thing of “I did this - have you done your share?” It’s more a bit of that. Especially when you’ve had stressful days. I guess the only cultural thing that I notice - obviously I’m from an indian background- is about family. In India you don’t think twice about asking family for help and if my parents lived closer there would be much more of leaving our daughter with them. Swedish culture is a little different. Not that it’s not family oriented! But you think a lot more about asking the family for help. Maybe I’m generalising too much. To give you an example: For our 10 year anniversary we were thinking “should we go alone” or “should we take our daughter with us” ? I think we’re going to take her anyway but if we were to go alone, we asked ourselves “where would we leave her?” I suggested “Oh, we’ll just leave her with your parents.” It would be two weeks. My husband thinks that’s way too much. I think more “No it’s not too much, they are her grandparents. They love it!”. And that, his hesitation, for me is quite Swedish. Where as my “Oh, we’ll just leave her” is very Indian. 

At the moment we’re so far away from it that we joke about it but when she’s older and starts to date we ask ourselves “What’s it going to be like?” In indian culture, at least when I grew up, there was no concept of dating. You bring a boy home when you’re ready to marry him. And Michael has been dating since he was maybe 12? That’s a big difference.


Does she have any cousins?

She has second cousins, not first cousins living abroad. They meet each other when we visit them, maybe a few times a year? We go to Sweden about twice a year. Actually we find we use up all of our holidays to visit family. The grandparents come here a lot more often. So in total she would see them 5-6 times a year.  

She is the first grand child on both sides. That’s a lot of love and attention. It is a special position as not only do we learn to be parents but grandparents learn to be grandparents, too. It is a different dynamic to others.


You don’t seem to be at all concerned about her use of languages, which is beautiful to see!

She uses multiple words from different languages in her sentences. If anything I would like her to be exposed to it a lot more for us to not speak English at all at home because she has enough of this at nursery, there is never going to be a question about her learning English. 


Are you planning on staying in the UK?

Not forever but for the next few years at least. Eventually we want to move closer to at least one of our families. For now we’re ok.


Madalena Xanthopoulou

visual storyteller / founder of @the_alma_collective / structuralist / home in many worlds / #raisingmultilingualchildren