Polyxeni Tzachrista


Our daughter understands Greek perfectly but she usually answers in English. With her father, who speaks English to her, she has proper conversations! It is incredibly beautiful. We don’t chat with each other the same way.

Is that bothering you?
I’m not bothered, but I am a little jealous, yes. The trouble is I don’t understand her English mumblings very well. She has just started talking and I can’t discern what she says easily. Her dad picks it up much quicker. He recognises the English sound bites instantaneously whereas I find it much harder.

Of course this is because English is his language and it has become her default too. I just wish it could be the same for us in Greek. That said, I’m impressed at how well she understands my language. If you think about how much English she hears compared to Greek - English clearly dominates. Maybe that will change once she’s reached the same level of exposure in Greek. We’ll have to wait and see.

Do you address her in Greek exclusively?
Yes, even when we attend English-speaking playgroups I talk to her in Greek. Of course she hears me speak English to the other mothers and their children on site. At the beginning I felt uncomfortable doing this though.

How did you get over your fear?
I never got over it really. I still have trouble speaking Greek when we’re in front of other children. In front of other adults I don’t mind it as much. Grown ups are able to understand what I’m doing and might know I have to speak my language to my child in order to maintain it. But children can feel confused or left out by my approach and I don’t like that.

I find it especially hard when we’re with her English cousin at their place. When I want to say something that both girls have to understand, what shall I do? I don’t know the right answer and often result in repeating what I’ve said in Greek to my daughter in English to her cousin. Those are moments I struggle with a lot.


Balancing unspoken words


Have you researched anything online or read books about bilingualism?
No, I haven’t looked into it yet.

You are a person who has meticulously planned her daughter’s arts and crafts entertainment on a plane. It doesn’t feel like you to leave research to others. How come you haven’t applied your usual rigorousness to languages?
The arts and crafts materials were essential to our survival on a spontaneous trip and a quick, short-term fix. Language-related topics take up more time and effort. Now that we’ve reached a language production phase I can’t delay it anymore and will have to invest.

What kind of language level would you like your daughter to reach? 
I wish for her to speak Greek as a Greek person and not like a foreigner who knows Greek. Pronunciation is important to me. My hope is that this won’t be too difficult to achieve as accents seem to work independently from language skills. You can be fantastic in a language and still speak with a heavy accent the same way you can sound native-like and struggle with the most basic sentences. More importantly though I want her to learn Greek properly: Grammar, syntax, reading, writing. I’m aware that we’ll need some form of formal education for that. 

Would you like her to go to University in Greece?
Ahh, no. I also don’t have any illusion of me ever returning to Greece. Even though I would of course like to, I doubt that very much.


Should I stay or should I go?


I find it tricky to maintain the Greek culture and traditions alive abroad. They are not my strength anyway and it gets harder the more time moves on. I don’t hang out a lot with other Greeks either, maybe that’s part of the challenge.

Couldn’t a Greek-speaking playgroup solve that for you?
In theory yes, and I’d like to go, but our timings are always off. Especially with my second pregnancy I tire faster and don’t want to push for more activities with our child. Admittedly I haven’t been very successful at it, but I try to avoid having a prescribed schedule on the weekend, which is when the Greek playgroup takes place. I prefer to either do something as a family or let dad take a stroll through the park to get a break. 

At the same time one of my biggest worries moving house has been “How am I going to find such a playgroup again?”. Even though we don’t attend, it feels good to know it exists. When we saw a friend of mine the other day with her son who spoke Greek, the same afternoon my daughter started saying a couple of words in Greek to me. It is vital to meet other children and hear more Greek on a daily basis for both my daughter and I. 



There’s minimal room to change course


My husband would like our children to have a Greek identity too. He likes this element in our family because it makes us a bit more exotic. At the beginning of our relationship he called me Polyxeni for the same reason, but now he uses the much simpler English interpretation everybody else employs as well: Pauline. 

What about your in-laws?
They belong to the hyper-polite Britons who would never dream of expressing potential doubts they might or might not harbour and I don’t believe they have a problem with me speaking Greek to their grandchild. In fact, following their holidays in Cyprus, my sister in-law has recently been teaching her children to count in Greek.

What would help you persist? 
I think it would help if my husband fully understood Greek for a start. It would make it possible for us to communicate at home as a family in Greek, even if his Greek is imperfect. Actually he wouldn’t need to speak Greek at all, merely understanding would be enough support already. At the moment I need to repeat everything to include him as well. There isn’t a real flow of communication happening apart from when things are said in English, which reinforces his language to the detriment of mine. 


Time is running out


What is your dad saying to your circumstances?
My dad is really old. In the last three years following my mother’s death, he shut down and doesn’t interact much with the world anymore. There are moments when he’s still fully present, but in general terms it is quite hard to spend time with him. It is complicated enough for me to understand him, it’s even more complicated for him to understand his granddaughter. 

That said, they play really nicely together. They are close in age again: 96 and 2. My daughter shouts commands and wants to play games with him as if he was her peer and she can do whatever she thinks is right. He lets her. Their behaviour matches. Their slow pace of interaction and its repetitive flow, which is what drives me crazy in our daily life, is just what both of them need. My dad really focusses on this kind interaction and is present in those moments. Language-wise it’s murkier. At least she finally calls him “Papou” which is Greek for “Granddad”. 



We are the ones who are confused


When I speak to my daughter in Greek and my husband enters, I sometimes address him in Greek although we speak English as a couple. It is hard for me to wrap my head around those language switches.

I’m equally in trouble when it comes to nursery rhymes. I didn’t know any in English because I didn’t grow up here and at the same time I realise I have forgotten the Greek ones too. 

So I started searching for them on Google and Youtube. Some friends gifted me a few CDs but the songs are not yet suitable. My daughter likes the music well enough but doesn’t understand the lyrics. I think she needs a more basic level: Short, simple, repetitive songs. Something along the lines of “Old MacDonald Has a Farm” - although animals make different sounds in the different languages too which is another problem. 

Why do you think this is a problem?
My daughter’s duck makes “quack quack” not “pap pap”. She has never heard an animal sound in Greek before, I join in when we sing English songs and we sound the animals in English. When we’re in Greece I feel odd saying it differently. Isn’t this confusing? 

You could argue this is natural. You speak two languages, why shouldn’t animals speak two languages too?
I never thought of it that way. It’s true though, why should animals be any different to us? Maybe I’m the one who’s confused. How is she supposed to keep it apart if I’m not making the distinction clear myself? 


The Future is ours to behold


It will be super interesting to watch our children grow up.

What are some of the thoughts crossing your mind? 
I’d like to truly understand those switches, how easily or how automatically children turn from one language to another. Their fluid transitions can feel chaotic at times. 

There is also something many English people ask me which I don’t have an answer to: What language is my daughter thinking in? I try to apply this to myself: I think in English, but I also think in Greek. For example, I know my English phone number in English, and my Greek phone number in Greek, but need to concentrate before saying either in the other language. 

The question is probably a little odd too. Another one that fits the same category is “What language do you dream in?”. I never thought about what language people speak in my dreams. They simply understand each other.


Madalena Xanthopoulou

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