Every day of her life, my daughter Minette gets to hear and speak three languages — well, at least three. With Appa she speaks Tamil. With Maman she speaks French. At school she speaks English. She also hears us, Appa and Maman, speak English to each other and she participates in our conversations in the language she chooses. This is our family’s setting and we intend to stick with it. We have done it for five years so it feels really natural and comfortable by now. On the other hand, Minette’s growing up is a factor of uncertainty. As we have heard from parents of older kids, it is not always easy to keep enough space for your family’s other language(s) as children grow up and their command of English, spoken, read, and written, expands.
The objective I would like to attain eventually is for Minette to speak fluently and enjoy reading books in each of her three languages. I would be delighted if she could also write confidently in French and Tamil but I am ready to admit it’s a bit much to ask.
Why do we do consistently speak French and Tamil to Minette? I think the main reason why we do it is because we want her to be connected to her heritages in a tangible way. When you grow up in a country that is not your parents’ country there are two powerful links to your heritage(s): language and food. They are powerful because they respond to essential human needs and they are in your life day in, day out. So the fact that Minette speaks Tamil and French – and eats Indian and/or French food – every day have turned her heritages into an organic part of her identity. Something that goes much deeper than mere intellectual knowledge. Something that defines who she is in an essential, though by no means exclusive, way. Language and food are Minette’s keys to a meaningful, intimate relationship with our families and the two very different worlds beyond our families. It doesn’t hurt either that sharing our language and food with her make us, her parents, feel more grounded at home.
These are our reasons for raising Minette in three languages, as best I can explain them at this point. As I write this, I realize I will probably never stop exploring our intentions and their outcomes in a corner of my mind. I am also always curious to hear about the choices made by other multicultural families when it comes to passing on, or not passing on, their language to the next generation. Looking forward to some chiming in…