Petros and Luisa

Petros Hassanakos is a Visitor Engagement Officer at the Imperial War Museum. Luisa Dornelas is a Social Worker. Their son grows up hearing Greek and Portuguese at home and is about to start school in London.




Petros: There are massive numbers of people who are like us around us. Immigrants of all sorts, who are pretty much the same age with similar age children.

Especially in the summer when everybody is going out for a walk by the little lake or the shops you bump into someone from here you know. Last time this happened to me was back in Gytheio [Greece] which is about 5000 people. We live here in the middle of London! 


Is it down to children?

Petros: I think it is a combination of several things. You have a lot of people who have all moved in at the same time, that makes you more open to meet new people than if you’ve lived in an established place. 


When did you move to the UK?

Luisa: 14 years ago. That all of the sudden sounds like a lot of time!

Petros: 10 years ago.


On leading a trilingual household

Luisa: Our son used to be less confident with social interactions. I guess that was because he spoke so many other languages at home, which was the right thing for us to do but which meant that he was a bit shy - he isn’t anymore, so it’s different. 

Petros: I think it is also because he went from occasionally playing with other kids to hanging out with kids every day and coping with that. I think partly it is just growing up.


How long did you stay at home?

Luisa: I stayed at home for 9 months and then we hired a Portuguese lady who would be at home with him. I wanted to give him the first couple of years one-to-one adult care. When he went out into the park and was asking for “amigos?” “amigos?” it was very clear that he was ready to move on.


How do you do it with the languages?

Petros: I speak Greek at all times. Our son speaks English at all times. 

Luisa: I speak only Portuguese to him except for numbers. We say the numbers in English because this was my sister’s advice. She is Portuguese and lives here, too. She researched it and apparently the part of the brain that processes languages and the part of the brain that processes numbers is different. 

Petros: Both you and I have the same. When we’re counting numbers in our heads, we do it in our own language. We don’t count in English. 

Luisa: It is a test for spies. If you want to work out if somebody’s first language was really their first language you get them to do a difficult mathematical exercise and see what language they are counting in. That’s one of those apocryphal stories. 


Are you confused when your son answers back in English? 

Petros: Not really. I think we forget about it. I think about it a lot more when we’re in Greece. People are amused, we are a bit like a show but we don’t realise it. He understands everything, it’s not that he can’t follow. I think both Luisa and I instinctually repeat what he says in English in our respective languages so he gets to hear the equivalent.


Has he ever told you “Speak to me in English”? 

Petros: No, this has never been an issue.

Luisa: We speak to him in our language but we speak to each other in English. It's a permanently trilingual household, which is only weird when you stop and talk about it. People come to visit and we realise “Oh yes!” for us it’s just the way it is. Before he was born I thought it would be an effort, but it just isn’t.


Do you speak each other’s language?

Luisa: Yes. Part of my reason for learning Greek was “No way am I going to let him have a secret language!” This idea that I might be going to have a child that’s partially Greek and for him to understand that language is a big thing. 

Petros: Interestingly our understanding of each others’ language has improved a lot since his birth. My understanding of Portuguese and Luisa’s understanding of Greek. There is a lot more Portuguese and Greek spoken around the house. When it was just the two of us we spoke only English, and Portuguese and Greek was heard when we spoke to family and friends on Skype. Now we have a constant flow of languages.



On the home countries’ influences


Do you find it hard to switch back to your language? You work in English, you live in English, everything is English.

Petros: It wasn’t ever so much of an issue with me. Before I lived with Luisa I shared a flat with three other guys, who happened to be Greek and I spoke to my parents a lot on Skype. My Greek was never rusty. Its focus has shifted but I never went through periods when I wasn’t talking Greek.

Luisa: Can you still talk about work in Greek? I can’t do that in Portuguese anymore. My university asked me to translate some questions the other night and I sounded like an idiot!

Petros: To this day I don’t know how "herring" is translated in Greek. That’s a situation in which I stumble.

Luisa: That happened to me the other day! We walked past a bush and our son asked me what’s this and I said “baga” which is the Portuguese word for berry in the widest sense. He went “Wow! Can I eat them?” - I said “NO!” and then asked “How do you say that in English?” - “Strawberries?” - “No, they are not like strawberries! You can’t eat them”. I still don’t know the Portuguese word for it.

Petros: I remember a friend in school, she was so keen to speak English that she would call random numbers in Los Angeles leaving messages on an English answering machine pretending she was living there. Completely bonkers! That is Hollywood’s influence.

If you listen to a TV series in Spain you hear Spanish, or Italian in Italy. In Greece and Portugal you hear the actors speaking, it’s a completely different experience. This is why in Spain and Italy you have to be a little bit educated to speak English where as in Greece and Portugal even people who don’t necessarily finish high school can say some things in broken English. That actually has a very big impact.



On the concept of an in-between identity

Petros: In Greece, you don’t have the concept of someone who is two things at the same time. It’s interesting, we do have the concept of the Greek-American or a Greek-German, but they are Greeks who live abroad rather than something that is half way. 

Luisa: But there is such a diaspora, you’d think that’s no issue at all!

Petros: The concept doesn’t exist. There is no question about understanding them being different things in different contexts at the same time.

There is a very interesting book by a guy who has lived both in Greece and Turkey who gave his identity as Greek-Turkish and said it’s interesting that the Greeks are familiar with the concept of a Greek-American or a Greek-German but can’t process the concept of a Greek-Turkish person. It doesn’t exist.


What do your friends and family say about your son?

Petros: He lives in Britain and replies in English, that’s what defines him according to them. They speak to him in English. A friend of ours even spoke Spanish to him! I told her speak to him in Greek and she apologised and said she just wants to help the child communicate. Because you’re going to help him communicate in Spanish! In a way they are trying to be kind, to be friendly, but they are actually not helping.

Luisa: It is weird if you’re not used to it and he speaks back in English. It’s a natural reaction to reply in English, to respond and communicate in one language. We are the ones who are used to communicating in several languages at the same time. It is our normal, but for most people it is a confusing situation to be in.

We also know it’s exposure and need that count. The moment he realises there is no need to speak another language, he won’t try. I really think that he has his ears tuned to “oh, they speak English, there is no point trying.” Portuguese is a pretty useless language to him. His parents speak to each other in English. The world speaks English. Why should he try?


Can you imagine the same scenario working in Athens or Lisbon?

Petros: Yes we could do it because in a domestic setting we’re used to it. But living in Greece would move him more into Greek, and living in Portugal would move him more into Portuguese, and that would change the dynamics in our family. English is a neutral language for the two of us, whereas all of the sudden he would tend more towards the language of one of the parents. We’ve spoken about it if we’d emigrate we’d rather go to Canada than go to either of our countries. A lot of things would tilt towards one side otherwise.



About the elusiveness of time

Do you send your son to any language schools?

Petros: We were going to a Greek playgroup on Saturday mornings. The thing with my work is that I have a crazy schedule. I work in a museum which is open 7 days a week and have one full weekend a month that I’m off. It’s difficult to start something that is regular on Saturday. Weekends are really rare. 

Luisa: I realised after I went to a few sessions at the Greek playgroup that having someone who isn’t speaking Greek there kind of breaks the spell because it stops being a fully Greek space. Everybody has always been very kind but you want the full immersion, you don’t want English in there. 

When I last went to Portugal I felt for the first time that our son’s not speaking Portuguese was impacting his play with his cousins. He has one cousin who’s nine months older and he doesn’t speak any English. They get along really well, he’s Portuguese-Italian. I really want our son to learn Portuguese now. But I can’t find any under fives groups on Saturday for Portuguese so I’m trying to start one. 

Petros: It’s time though, that’s the thing.

Luisa: Yes, it’s trying to make it work. I also don’t want us to have those lifestyles where you run forever to the next after school activity. I think being bored is a big part of what boosts creativity. Life with too many things packed in isn’t what we want for him. So it’s trying to keep that balance as well. 

If he ends up speaking Portuguese and Greek like we speak English then we did really well. I started learning English when I was five. I think it’s inevitable that you have to have language lessons. I had them growing up. I didn’t like them. But I think it was definitively the right thing to do.

Petros: It just occurred to me that most of my English, I mean not now but growing up, came because of the written word. This was pre Internet days. My dad had the International Press Place in Gytheio and I graduated from reading Marvel Comics to reading Times, Newsweek, and the Economist because we had them there, they were around. To this day I know what quite a few words mean but I’m not sure how to pronounce them. 



On why relationships matter

Do you travel home often?

Luisa: Not often enough for him to have enough exposure. We go to Portugal twice a year and Greece maybe once a year. In total he would be in Portugal three weeks a year maybe? 


Do you have strong ties to your families? 

Petros: Luisa has a much bigger family than me. I have a much bigger circle of friends. It’s a different balance. In Portugal it is a bit more of a home environment. My parents don’t live in Athens so when we’re there we usually stay in someone else’s flat. 

Luisa: Luckily though, he has kids his age in both countries. Petros has a nephew the same age as our son, he has friends’ kids the same age. It’s not just a place full of grown ups.


Do you think this helps? 

Petros: Definitvely! I think it will help even more as he grows up and becomes more independent. This will be an incentive. You become really independent with a person your own age. You communicate more in the language they speak.

Luisa: He’s looking forward to going to our countries whereas if he didn’t have friends there he would be “Yeah, I’m going to spend time with mum and dad.”


Madalena Xanthopoulou

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