I met Alma last year. Her younger daughter goes to the same gymnastics club as Minette. We started a conversation while our girls were busy jumping and somersaulting. I felt immediately interested in what she had to say. Her intelligent intensity was both attractive and slightly unsettling.
In my book, Alma is as bicultural and bilingual as it gets — much more than me in any event. She grew up between Argentina and the United States, a few years here, a few years there. She was raised in English and Spanish. Even so, she said she felt limited in what she could express in either language. I suspect her limitations cannot be perceived by most of us, if at all. But she feels them anyway, so they undeniably exist in her own life experience.
She says she has at times felt frustrated about not being able to fully express herself in her two main adult relationships, one with an English-speaking partner and the other one with a Spanish-speaking one. This, I suppose, has informed her decision not to raise bilingual children. She speaks English to them. She says not everyone is wired to thrive as a bilingual child and she does not want to impose this setting on them. She feels her son is happier concentrating on other pursuits while her daughter will probably be more open to connect with her Argentinian heritage, but in her own time.
As much as I am committed to Minette speaking French and Tamil, listening to parents like Alma, especially as articulate as Alma, gives me pause. After all, why would being multilingual have only upsides? Surely, it brings obstacles that are not necessarily successfully overcome by every child. Possibly, it competes with some area of cognitive development — although many studies point to cognitive benefits too.
But it seems to me that what Alma wants to spare her children is mostly a sense of disorientation, of not knowing where they belong in the first place. Perhaps because she knows first hand that “in-between” is not a comfortable spot. Full of possibilities, certainly, but with some pitfalls too.
My answer to that is a work in progress. Right now, Minette is an avid learner and she is absorbing her three languages smoothly. But I know things can change. I don’t want to dismiss the challenges she may face down the road, especially since I was not a multilingual child myself. I realize it may be less easy to define yourself when you are connected to several languages and cultures.
But I believe a lack of familiarity with her heritages is not the way to go for Minette to feel and to remain grounded. I think it is the other way around: her intimacy with our languages and cultures will be a strength and a cornerstone of her identity if we pursue what we are doing now. Instead of blank spaces behind “My father is Indian.” and “My mother is French.” she will have a solid grasp of where she is coming from. I would contend that our goal as parents is to give her as much access as possible to her roots while helping her figure how she will grow from there. Figuring that is no easy task and I am fully aware there is only so much we can do. At some point we will have to let Minette take over.