Thursday, 1 December 2011

Hearing is believing

Way back in the mists of time, before having a child, we used to go off on holiday and spend whole swathes of time sitting about contemplating the view.  Without having to take colouring sheets, pencils, bottles of water, spare this that and the other, etc, etc...

It was on such a holiday, that we ended up in a sort-of restaurant on a small island on the Adriatic Sea.  The whole thing had a slightly dream-like quality, not just looking back on it now from the windswept, rain-lashed shores of Scotland, but at the time too.  The person serving seemed amused when I asked if there was a menu...Oh, we have everything, he assured me...Meat, fish, salad...We went for fish and salad.  The setting was so idyllic (the sunbleached terrasse looking out over an un-ending turquoise sea), the food so wonderful, (simple barbecued mackerel and fresh crisp salad with homemade (yes!) olive oil), that we barely noticed the only other people dining on the terrasse a couple of tables down.

But eventually we did begin to notice the little family unit.  Monsieur R and I rolled our eyes when we heard French being spoken...we'd come all this way just to end up sitting next to people who probably came over on the same plane from Lyon.  But then we realised that they weren't all speaking French.  The father spoke German.  And suddenly, the daughter spoke German too.  Then the son.  Then they spoke to their mother but returned to speaking French.

By this point we had gone from being aware of them to actually sitting and listening, almost straining to hear what they were saying.  We looked at each other agog.  The children were both under 10 but were switching from German to French without batting an eyelid.  The mother continued to speak French to everyone at the table, the father did the same but in German.  I could only follow one side of the conversation, but the family scenario playing out was familiar enough to be understandable; the children had finished, were bored and wanted to go off to investigate the other end of the terrasse.  The parents eventually acquiesced and finished their coffee in peace.

Monsieur R and I continued to listen unashamedly as the parents continued their conversation sans enfants in their respective languages.  They eventually assembled their belongings and children, paid the bill and thanked the family who ran the restaurant (mama was in the kitchen) and left.

The impression that they left on us however, is still here today.  When people ask me about bilingualism or how we manage languages at home, I often forget what a profound moment this was for us as a young couple who were beginning to think about starting a family.  We saw that you can manage your languages with respect and tolerance and neither need fall by the wayside.

This is why we've never wondered about what we're doing, talking different languages to our daughter, creating a way of life that incorporates both of our worlds.  We saw it in action.  We know that it works.

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