It happened again last week. I was enjoying a cup of coffee with a colleague when she asked me point blank what language we spoke at home. I often get that question as my husband and I come from different countries and on top of that, we’re expats in Turkey. This makes us, for all practical purposes, a trilingual family. But people don’t buy that and they want to know which of our three languages we really speak, when no one is watching. It isn’t a question I like to answer. I say vaguely, “It depends.” And it’s true, it does depend, and it’s not always easy to explain why we do what we do.
So let me try: my husband (British) and I (French) mostly speak English to each other–except when we slip into French, which happens. To our daughter, we’ve always both spoken French. Now she will allow us to speak English to her in non-francophone company. Just about. When home alone with her, I sometimes use a mixture of French, English and Turkish, occasionally all together in the same sentence, because it’s fun, and because it’s sometimes the best way to express what we think or feel. My daughter who is ten, is equally comfortable in all three languages, highly skilled at grammar and has a very rich French, English and Turkish vocabulary.
To our son, until last year, we would speak mostly Turkish. Now it’s become mostly French although he still occasionally addresses us in Turkish. He’ll speak Turkish to Turkish speakers, and, in the last few months, he’s been trying out his English on our non-French-non-Turkish-speaking friends.
So, yes, it’s complicated. And I don’t like to explain it because usually, before I’m done, I’ll be interrupted and told I’m doing it all wrong. “It’s really important,” they say, “that each parent should speak in their own language, at all times.” Right.
If I was rude, (which I am on occasion), I would turn around and ask them what they knew of people like us, how much research had actually been done on trilingual families with one gifted child, one autistic, and two Ph.D.s, dealing with some circumstances that are not all that common, and at least which are not usually found together. We wanted the children to learn French, but we knew it wouldn’t be easy if they also had to learn English and Turkish and only heard French from me. We’ve seen children failing to pick up a language because it was only spoken by one parent, and it wasn’t English. Or we’ve seen them learn a language, only to lose it because they spoke it so little. So we decided we would speak French at home. We feel that was the right decision.
The kids were learning Turkish at nursery school, at home with their nanny, and pretty much everywhere they went. By the time our daughter entered kindergarten, she was fluent in both French and Turkish. We put her in an English-speaking school and a couple of months later she was fluent in that as well. By Christmas, she could not only speak English but also read it.
Our son started to speak late, a bit later than his sister, in both Turkish and French. By age three, when he started developing symptoms of autism, he decided to ditch French, and from then on his Turkish developed very slowly. So we took him to a speech therapist, Turkish of course–we had no choice in the matter because there were no others, and because our son had clearly chosen Turkish for himself. After a year or so he spoke better. We encouraged him as best we could by using all the Turkish we had acquired to communicate with him, and by reading to him in Turkish every day. When his Turkish was communicable enough, we sent him to a French school and he began to speak French again.
At that time our household was truly trilingual, with all three languages spoken at dinner. This was a time when we were really able to communicate as a family. We started to develop a sort of dialect of our own, with a lot of borrowed words and phrases, and accents that people simply could not place. I believe our speech was all the richer for it, and certainly, our writing never suffered. I started writing a book, our daughter got top grades on her essays and my husband published several articles. Around that time, I took a trip to Ottawa and was delighted to hear groups of children speaking a mixture of English and French, people having conversations in two languages at once. A home away from home, I felt, if we ever left Turkey.
Now seven, our son speaks equally well in both French and Turkish. Not very well, true, but his difficulties are most probably linked to autism, rather than to pure linguistic ability. For example, he still mixes his pronouns in both languages. And he sometimes speaks inappropriately by failing to answer questions or by repeating the same thing over and over. But he speaks.
I’m sure you can imagine what kind of criticisms we received over the years and how we’ve felt about them. If we’d been consistent, people said, our son would have spoken earlier. Or maybe we’ve confused him by exposing him to too many languages. Maybe we’ve even caused him to become autistic. People suggested we go back to either France or England and speak only one language at home from now on. At this point I usually bite my tongue because I really need to keep my expletives for when my computer freezes up or I spill hot tea on myself. Of course all this was nonsense! Autism has nothing to do with how many languages he speaks. His particular strand of autism is linked to environmental changes that trigger crises, which was suggested can be attributed to all the languages. Again, nonsense as he was born in a trilingual environment so there were no environmental changes due to language.
One woman once told me that a child could not develop emotionally unless they identified with their mother tongue. This woman was the headmistress of an international school where most of the students were multilingual. What’s more, she wanted my children’s mother tongue to be English, i.e. their father tongue. I can’t even begin to describe how I felt about this conversation. I was glad to find out later that she was entirely unqualified to make any such judgments (and possibly to be headmistress, but that’s a different matter). She felt she could pass judgment and assign blame with no basis whatsoever.
A few months ago, we were considering moving to England and I got in touch with a group of people who either care for autistic children or, mostly, are autistic themselves to ask their advice. They unanimously were impressed that our son already spoke two languages and suggested I start him with English flash cards immediately, just in case. One person told me that as a child with autism, they had been much more disturbed by people speaking several languages around them but only one at them, than by learning to speak another language later on. The technicalities of having to learn another grammar structure and set of words were nothing compared to wrapping one’s head around the idea that you’re allowed to communicate in one language but not another.
It is simply not the case that autism is a deterrent from multiple language acquisition. It’s just another one of the many misconceptions that people have about autism. As Temple Grandin puts it, language itself is a second language for many autistic people who tend to think in pictures rather than words. So what harm is one or two more going to do to them? And just think of the good it could do!