martes, 1 de septiembre de 2015

Is it rude to speak a different language from the majority one?

Is it rude to speak a different language from the majority one? I don't think it is. I love languages, and I have no problem at all with people speaking their own native one, no matter where they are. It doesn't make me angry that people from other countries come to 'our' country and keep speaking their own language. In fact, I get more annoyed when I go to other countries, try to speak the languages spoken there, and as soon as they find out it's not my native tongue, they switch to English or Spanish.

This happened to me in Italy last year. I had been studying Italian for nearly a year. (A friend asked me what the hell for. Answer: studying languages is one of my hobbies.) So I got there, eager to practice and quite proud of myself at first when Italians didn't even notice I wasn't 'one of them', until after two or three sentences when the conversation got too complicated. I understood it was frustrating for them to have to listen patiently, but I finally had to put my hands on my hips and say, 'I have invested money and time to come here and practice my Italian, while you haven't moved from home. So don't you think you can use me to improve your English or Spanish when you haven't even paid a cent!'

The other day I was talking to a friend about the Catalan-Spanish situation. We grew up with it, so it's a topic that has always been present in our lives. When we were kids, Catalan was only unanimously spoken if all the other kids around spoke it. If just one kid didn't speak it, that was enough for all the others to switch to Spanish, even if that one kid understood it but simply refused to speak it. I'm not sure if this has changed among kids, but the subject arose because my friend's daughter announced to her playmates that my children are Australian and don't speak Catalan, so while they were there they all had to speak Spanish, which was the only language they all understood. Naturally, I disagreed. I would love for my kids to speak Catalan as well as Spanish and English, and as many other languages as they are willing to learn. Last year they were picking up Italian after only two days in Italy, and I know that every time we come to Barcelona they learn new Catalan words and get the gist of nearly every conversation. In my family, we speak both Catalan and Spanish and I've always encouraged my family members to speak Catalan to my kids. They usually don't. Again, because it is easier to speak the dominant language, the one everybody knows. It is the polite thing to do.

Yet, when it comes to children and languages, I think it is important to be rude. By being rude I mean speaking that other language that makes your children bilingual or multilingual and is the minority one. Since I've had children I've come to realise that even rudeness is a matter of opinion. For example, for most people not saying 'thank you' and 'please' is rude. For me, it is rude of an adult to make a child say those words when they don't even know what they mean, let alone feel them.

Before I had children I thought a lot about the language thing. Which one would I speak to them? Some people were of the opinion that the most natural thing for a mother is to speak her mother tongue to the children, and that it feels fake or forced to speak a second language to your offspring. I don't agree with this, and in fact I see every day and everywhere mothers who don't speak their native language to their children. They usually speak the majority one, to be polite and to make it easier for everyone. I wasn't going to do this; if we had been living in Spain instead of Australia I would have probably spoken English to the kids, even though it is not my mother tongue. Having had the privilege of being raised bilingual, I was determined to pass on that gift to my children. I would speak either Catalan or Spanish to them. In the end, I opted for Spanish.

Although I had studied and researched about the acquisition of languages, when they were very little I worried that, living in an English-speaking environment, the kids would some day ask me to stop speaking Spanish to them. I kept seeing examples of it. Once I met a woman from Spain with an Australian husband who told me she always spoke Spanish to her kids and took them on holidays to Spain every summer. Yet when they were teenagers the three of them asked her to speak English because they were embarrassed about speaking Spanish, especially in front of their friends. She said it broke her heart, but she couldn't bring herself to force them if they didn't want to.

Over the years, I've seen countless similar situations. Lots of my friends from different countries started speaking their first language to their kids, but they soon switched to English. In mixed couples, this was usually done so the father wouldn't feel left out. I was lucky I didn't even have to stand my point with my kids' father. His grandparents came to Australia as refugees when they were already in their forties and didn't speak any English; his mother's first language was German. Yet, it was lost in just one generation. His mother stopped speaking German as soon as she started school. He always regretted not having been given the opportunity to be bilingual. So, when I told him that for our kids to be bilingual it was important that I always spoke Spanish to them, even when he was around, he agreed and encouraged me.

I still speak Spanish to my children all the time. Nobody seems to have a problem with this. Only one person, in the early days, asked me to speak English to my kids in her presence. I offered to translate everything for her if she was that interested in knowing every little thing I had to say to the kids, but the answer was still a resolute no. I won't speak the majority language to my kids for the sake of other people. To do that would be a disservice to my children.

So, many of my friends who have 'failed' in maintaining the minority language asked me how I managed it. They also spoke their mother tongue to their kids, but the kids stopped speaking it as soon as they realised it was not what everyone else spoke. The answer is simple: You have to speak it to them all the time, even at the risk of seeming rude. As soon as you switch to English for the sake of other people, you can forget about it. Your children get the unspoken message that other people are more important, so why should they make an effort if you don't? In the case of that Spanish woman with the teenage kids, I think she must have somehow passed on the embarrassment. I've met other people in Australia who are embarrassed to speak their home language, and so they have chosen not to speak it to their children.

To finish up, I'll tell you an anecdote involving three of my friends, one Spanish, one Venezuelan, and one Australian. I wasn't there, but the three of them told me their version of the story separately, so I drew my own conclusions about what happened. The Venezuelan was friends with both of them. The Spanish and the Australian had just met. The Australian was a bit drunk and not really following the conversation between the other two. Never mind, because the Spanish and the Venezuelan were talking about something that concerned the two of them only. So, when the Australian gave his opinion, the Spanish snapped. Mean words and middle fingers followed. This happened three months ago, and although they've all talked about it many times, I only recently found out that the whole scene happened in English. So, the Spanish and the Venezuelan were speaking English for the Australian's sake, even though at least the Spanish considered that it was none of the Australian's business. She told me that the Australian shouldn't have heard what she said to the Venezuelan. Why didn't she say it in Spanish then? This to me is an example of unnecessary and even fake politeness. Which didn't end well, by the way.

When I have to talk to my children about things that concern just us, I speak Spanish to them and that's that. If I consider that other people present should be included in what I just said, then I repeat it in English. But if it's none of their business, it's none of their business, and I don't care what they think about my manners. So I usually do a lot of speaking in both languages when my kids' friends are around, but not so much when my friends are around, either because they understand Spanish anyway, or because it's just not about them!