Monday, March 17, 2014

Taking risks with the rules

In an interview for The Victorian Writer (the newsletter for Writers Victoria), acclaimed Australian author Christos Tsiolkas said:

"I write in English, that's my language but I do have the blessing, I think, of having also grown up with a second language, and maybe that gives you an outsider [position] or an observation of language that with only one language you don't have. You realise that you can communicate between languages.

What it allows you to do, [...] is take risks with the rules."

I was reminded of this -- and how much it resonated with me -- when my dear friend and sister cosmopolitan Mehnaz pondered the benefits of bilingualism in relation to music on twitter.

Bullseye! I love having these sorts of conversations and was reminded that, although the people who understand my feelings about this are few and far between in my real life, the ones who do are my true kindreds.

I grew up bilingual because my dad made an effort to speak Greek to me when I was a toddler. Unfortunately, not having any other family here in Australia and not growing up in a Greek community (or attending church or Greek school or Greek dancing or wotnot), I lost most of my day-to-day conversational skills.

Then I enrolled as a continuing education student a couple of years after I graduated and found that things would come flooding back to me that I could not explain. The lecturer would ask a question and I'd respond instinctively, not really knowing how I knew the answer. All I could think was that the skills and knowledge my dad instilled in me so young were deeply embedded and just needed a bit of encouragement to emerge. By the time I'd spent three weeks on a Greek island studying language every day, followed by two weeks in Cyprus with family, I could converse easily and understand almost everything that was said to me.

It's been ages since I've spoken or written any Greek but I know if I had the opportunity to spend some time in a Greek speaking community again, it would come flooding back.

But the lure of this story is even more powerful than that. Anyone who has learnt another language knows that it's not just a question of acquiring a new vocabulary and set of grammar rules. It's about learning how other cultures chosen to describe and structure their world, how they prefer to communicate, the ways they want to represent themselves.

I agree with Tsiolkas. Once you have a feeling for this, and once you have fluency, you can slip between the two understandings. And you can really test everything you've been taught about the world. And you can also have a lot of fun with it.

This is one of the main reasons my husband and I have decided to send our daughter (and, eventually our son) to a bilingual/immersion school. It's a choice that has raised a few eyebrows in some quarters, given that the language she will be learning is not one that reflects either of our lineage.

There are several practical factors supporting our choice. The school is walking distance from our home. It's only one of only two immersion schools in our State, and the only one that requires students to learn 100 per cent in the other language in Grade Prep (each year it reduces so that by Grade Six it's 50/50). The school is small and academically rigorous, has excellent student support systems and is highly regarded.

And we do have friends and business connections that speak this language and live in countries where it is spoken.

But, frankly, the language itself seems almost immaterial. It's the immersion experience which is so unique and valuable. And, most importantly, we feel it will be a great fit for our clever, curious, cheeky, creative, cosmopolitan little girl!

It seems to me that folk who get hung up on which language it is don't truly understand the value of bilingualism. Sure, it's probably not the world's leading business language. And knowing this language mightn't necessarily help learn others (although there are some connections with certain musical terminology).

But seriously: whatever.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I do have some fears in relation to this brave new frontier. What if she finds the immersion environment completely overwhelming? What if being one of the few students to have no experience of this language is a burden too heavy for a little person to bear? I am already working up strategies to prepare her; scoping out the school's capacity to deal with these eventualities; keeping sweet with her current school in the event we need to return after a couple of terms.

Dammit, I hope it all works out.

All going well, this experience is going to expose my daughter to the richness and beauty of understanding the world in different ways. And it is going to open doors for her that I cannot begin to imagine.

Long may she take risks with the rules.

Of language, anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's so fabulous that you're enrolling your little ones in immersion. I completely agree with moving between understandings. My sister and I sometimes can only find words that fully express what we're thinking or feeling in a language other than English (are there words for weltschmerz? or schadenfreude?)

    I have had the pleasure of learning six languages throughout my life (not all of them well; and some only in comprehension) and it's been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.
    Your brain works differently when you speak more than one language and your ones will be able to carry those brain mapping skills to so many more things in the world.
    It might be scary, but young brains are so malleable, you truly are opening up the world of adventure for them :)