Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
Real Intercultural Family in the U.K.: Arabic, French, German and English
Real intercultural family: Jan, Souad and their three girls
Welcome Souad and Jan!
Where are you from?
Souad: I am Algerian.
Jan: I am from Germany. I was born in the middle, grew up in the North then moved to the South, but I consider myself a Northerner.
Where do you currently live and what countries have you lived in together?
Souad: We have been living in England for eight years. Before that, we lived in France together for three years.
How did you meet?
Jan: We met at our shared workplace under slightly weird circumstances that involved someone predicting it before we ever met.
Souad: I was doing a PhD degree. Jan had just finished a Master’s degree in the same department. It was a mainly male-dominated environment in the technology department so whenever a new girl appears everyone knows. So he basically had seen me before I had seen him at all.
Friends of ours were celebrating the defense of their PhD and invited most of the department to this chalet for skiing. Jan didn’t want to come initially. He was sitting at home by himself and getting bored. One of his friends called him and told him to come to dinner. He decided at 9 in the evening to drive the two hours to where we were and arrived at 11.
I had seen him before but he had never registered in my mind. That evening though was meant to be–I like to think about it like that. It was funny, it was magic. We started chatting and that was it. The next day, he drove back and I had no idea where he worked or what he did. I then discovered his office was 50 yards from where I was.
We took things really slowly as for me culturally, dating was a different idea. It was a bit weird, especially for me with my Mediterranean temper and him with his German temper, to figure out is he into me, is he not into me? It took some time, a good 8-9 months before I was sure of his feelings and he was sure of mine. We got married 2.5 years after we met.
How old are your children and where were they born?
Souad: Our three girls are nearly 7, nearly 4 and 1. All three were born in England.
What passports do you and the kids hold?
Souad: I have an Algerian and a British passport. The oldest girls have Algerian and German passports. The youngest one has an Algerian and a British passport.
What language do you speak together?
Jan: I speak French with Souad and English with people outside.
Souad: Although we met in an international environment in France, French was the dominant language, and has since remained our common language.
French is my first language, at a similar level to Arabic. It is Jan’s third language after German and English. He speaks it fluently though he lacks vocabulary sometimes, and sometimes mixes up “le” and “la.”
In what languages do you speak to the kids?
Souad: I speak to the children in Arabic and French. I find it hard to make 100% Arabic or French sentences. More often than not, the grammar would be Arabic with half the vocabulary in French.
Jan: I speak to them in German.
What languages do the kids speak?
Souad: The older two speak a mix of Arabic/French/English vocabulary, using Arabic grammar. While playing, they often speak English.
The Arabic and French of our two eldest improve immensely whenever we spend some time in Algeria and France respectively. They speak German with their father pretty fluently.
Jan: English is clearly their preferred language but they speak the others pretty fluently as well.
How do you reinforce all four languages beyond just the parents speaking it?
Souad: English is obviously the majority language and does not require any reinforcement from our part as it’s everywhere: school, nursery, friends, shops, TV.
We are lucky to have Algerian friends who live nearby. They have two sons. They follow the minority-language-at-home (ML@H) approach, as they speak Arabic and French at home. We see them often. This gives another context for Arabic and French speaking.
We have a collection of books in various languages that we read to them. The oldest can manage simple texts in German and French. I am currently teaching the girls the Arabic alphabet. We also have a preference for DVD’s either in French or German, and the local library is a great resource for this.
We travel as frequently as we can to Algeria, Germany and France. We usually visit each country once a year, with a long, five-week stay in Algiers. We get visits from German relatives two to three times a year.
Do you have any advice for parents raising multilingual kids on what works and what doesn’t?
Souad: I have the same advice for parents raising multilingual children as I do for any other parent: follow your instincts. Stay focused (OPOL or ML@H) and trust your children–they are totally able to absorb as many languages as naturally occur in their environment. The only rule for me is to follow one’s instincts.
What religion are you both? And how are you raising the kids?
Jan: I am agnostic. I was raised with protestant values, which I adhere to, I think.
Souad: I am Muslim. When we met, the difference of religion was in the background. It became prominent with the birth of our children.
We are raising our children as Muslims, in the large sense of the word. I’m not the most practicing Muslim in the world. I mean, we don’t eat pork and we don’t have alcohol in the house. Jan still drinks but usually not in the house. I don’t pray five times per day. I fast during Ramadan–it’s important to me. It’s important Jan fasts with me. I don’t make him really, it’s to be together in it. When I’m away he doesn’t fast and I don’t expect him to. There are things I don’t say to the kids, like the punishment side of things. It’s more about their values than anything else.
How do you balance being a mixed religious family?
Souad: We observe the dietary restrictions of Islam and both Jan and I fast during Ramadan. We observe the various celebrations of both holidays. On Eid days, we take the bigger girls out of school, put on henna and wear party clothes. We’re lucky we have Algerian friends here who live locally. We get together very often, once a week, and for Eid to celebrate together. We also celebrate Christmas as a family get-together, and a giving time to loved ones.
Jan and I share common values, which in our view transcend religions. We try to transmit values of honesty, respect and kindness in the way we live them every day.
Jan: I do not interfere. I trust my kids will do whatever is best for them.
Do you have any concerns with your kids’ language acquisition?
Souad: My biggest and only concern is probably the girls’ accent when they speak Arabic. They have difficulties saying guttural sounds, they sound as Europeans who can speak Arabic. I am not sure how this will be perceived in Algeria as they grow up.
Jan: Nope. Whatever accent they may have or if their vocabulary is not perfect, they will undoubtedly be able to pick it up in no time when needed.
What are some of your biggest cultural differences?
Jan: Good question. I think we have a different approach to freedom and protection when it comes to our children. Where I would not worry about sleepovers, Souad clearly does.
Souad: There are big differences in the way we interact with people. I come from a society where social interactions are quite coded. Not everything is as it seems. Jan has got difficulties, sometimes, to read between the lines. Mind you, 11 years down the line, he has learned to insist at least three times when offering food or a present to an Algerian.
What have been your greatest challenges as an intercultural family?
Jan: So far it has been fairly straightforward, to be honest. My personal challenge is that I am responsible for transmitting a whole culture all on my own. That’s a big task.
Souad: I miss my parents, a lot. I have been living away from home for so long, too long. But being of different cultural and national backgrounds brings home the fact that I may never be able to go back to live in my homeland.
Other people’s perception is sometimes tricky to handle. Occidentals can’t really place us: Where do we come from? What’s our religion? Why do we speak foreign languages even outside the home?
I also feel the weight of Muslim people’s look on our multicultural family. For some of them, I live in sin. This has always been a thorny question. We have had people come up to Jan asking him if he was Muslim. He is not. When we met, 11 years ago, we accepted each other as we were. If he had turned ‘round and asked me to become Christian, I would most certainly have walked out of our relationship.
I believe that religion and beliefs are personal matters. Everyone should be able to practice them in a peaceful and private way. I love the U.K. for this. I think it’s one of the most open places to various faiths and religions. The key is respect.
Picking up on what you just said, how has your experience as a Muslim differed in the U.K. and France?
Souad: They have two different modes of integration. French see it as assimilation. You have to espouse French values and not wear the head scarf for example. The British are more mind your own business. There’s more mixing. I think it works better in the U.K. I feel at ease here with my identity. If we were in France, I think I would have found it more difficult to speak Arabic to the girls in the street. I don’t know how we would have been.
What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
Souad: On our flight back from Algeria, a woman interjected , “Mashallah (well done), your daughters speak Arabic!” Many Algerian expats find it hard to transmit their language to their children. The same can be said for many multicultural families that we know.
Jan: To see our daughters grow up and magically communicate in all their languages. That is just amazing!
Anything else you would like to add?
Souad: Jan and I come from two different countries and are expats in a third country. We wish to transmit some of what makes us us: language and culture. Multilingualism is something that comes naturally to us. It does not come naturally to our children though; we have to keep working at it. They would definitely find it easier to speak English to us all the time. But even they do not opt for the easy way, because multilingualism has become the norm in our household.
© 2011 – 2013, The Editors. All rights reserved.
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