Archive for February, 2010

Families in Global Transition

On March 3rd to the 6th, Families in Global Transition will host its annual conference in Houston, TX. I’ll be presenting a workshop on raising bilingual children, as well as hosting a breakfast session on Friday morning, and signing books Friday afternoon. It was at FIGT 2007 conference that I got the idea to write Bilingual By Choice – so I”m excited to be back this year with the book finally published! It’s inspiring to meet other parents, mostly global nomads, from all the different sectors – military, international business, government, missionary, education – and hear their stories on crossing cultures. There are families (working for the UN, for example) who relocate with their children every 2 or 4 years and the challenges can be overwhelming. Short-term and long-term consequences. That’s why this conference is so important – you can create a fantastic support network, with people who understand what you’re going through. I’m looking forward to it. Plus I get three days at a hotel, and for a stay-at-home mom, that’s pretty sweet!

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Keep the conversation going

At 4 years old (and 3 months!) Sofiya feels more comfortable expressing herself in English. She had a vocabulary burst during our vacation in Mexico last month with her English-speaking grandparents and, right now, she often chooses to speak to me in English first. I always answer in French (a must!) – sometimes I simply continue the conversation, other times I repeat what she has just said, to give her the vocabulary she needs. It usually takes 2 or 3 exchanges to get the conversation back on track in French. She never shows any frustrations, which is important. This method works for us because it never interrupts the conversation. It’s less abrupt than asking a child point-blank to switch languages, which is potentially damaging (unless it’s done with tact and humor!)

As researcher Traute Taeschner points out in her book The Sun is Feminine: A study on language acquisition in bilingual children, “With time, it becomes harder and harder for the adult to interrupt speech continually, doubling the amount of time needed for each interaction. In the long run, this request is accompanied by anxiety, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction, culminating in an overall state of frustration, and the parent feels he has failed in bringing up his child as a bilingual.”

My goal with Natasha and Sofiya is to make their bilingual language development as smooth and second nature as possible. I know that Sofiya’s hesitation in French is just a phase and my job now is to give her as many opportunities as possible to increase her vocabulary in fun and thoughtful ways geared toward her interests.

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Great Quote

“The most compelling reason to learn the language of another land is because of the symbolic significance of the act of communication. At its most fundamental, the attempt to speak with people in a foreign country is an acknowledgment of their humanity and individual worth (as it is, perforce, an indication of our own), a sign that we take them and their concerns seriously.” 

Craig Storti, The Art of Crossing Cultures

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Increasing second language exposure

How can a family build on second language exposure when it’s only provided by a nanny or babysitter? Great question, Yvonne.

First, it’s clear that any amount of language exposure is great for children! It’s good that you’re giving them a chance to hear and speak some Slovak on a regular basis. There are a few things you can do as a family to increase their interest and their exposure to this beautiful language.

First, you and your husband can try to learn it along with your children! It can start with an evening a week learning new vocabulary words together from a great children’s book or listening to a CD of children’s songs. The point is to show your children that you think this language is valuable and worth learning. Don’t ever worry about mispronouncing words in front of them; they’re hearing it correctly from their babysitter and from any CDs you get, which more than compensates.

The other step you can take is to get to know more of your babysitter’s friends and family who also speak Slovak. Have a small group over for coffee to soak up the language! You can even ask for family lessons once or twice a month. You can also celebrate some of their holidays at home as a family, to teach your children more about the culture of the country and its history. You can print cultural info from the Internet, and open their minds to a new perspective.

There are great VHS tapes (we still sometimes use those at our house!) or DVDs available in many libraries that introduce children to different cultures. A great series is “Families of the World”. Also, check out – they have a great catalogue of tapes and books to raise multicultural awareness in children. They have bilingual books in English and Slovak.

And last, I would recommend finding bilingual pen pals (living in Slovakia, and learning English in school for example) for your sons to write letters or emails to and practice some of their vocabulary words, even if the conversations are very basic at the beginning. They’ll get to know how children live in Slovakia and maybe one day they’ll ask you if you can take a family trip together to see their new friends! Hope this helps, have fun!




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“Mom, all my friends in school speak English!”

Here comes the tricky part: Keeping our children bilingual once they leave the cocoon! Now there are outside pressures – from school officials, from English-speaking peers, from the media, etc. Many parents notice a drop in interest in their native languages when their children start school in the U.S.

The first thing to remember is that now‘s the time to stay consistent. Which means we have to keep speaking our native language to them, no matter what! It sounds simple but many parents actually notice that they will turn to English more often – it might be easier, especially if you’re fully bilingual – but the minute we do that we’re sending the message that – Hey, mom doesn’t think it’s important to speak French, so why should I? Natasha very rarely speaks English with me, but I notice that Sofiya is more comfortable with her vocabulary in English and I could easily slip and continue our conversation in English but I know that I won’t help her increase her French vocabulary if I do that! I either repeat in French what she has just said in English, to get her to think in French, or I just continue the conversation in French. Usually she’ll switch on her own two or three sentences later. It’s obvious that her vocabulary is not as developed so that’s what we’re focusing on – by engaging in activities that she likes.  

We need to boost their exposure and find fun and creative activities to keep our native languages on the front burner. In the book Bilingual By Choice I include 100 activities that can help families stay motivated, including 50 you can do at home, and 50 that you can do in your community. At this stage it helps to focus on your children’s current interests and hobbies – when thinking about activities – We want them to be having fun, so that our language choice doesn’t feel like homework!

For a child to keep speaking his home language, he has to see its relevance in his every day life. It’s not going to be enough to just hear you say it’s important. A great way to keep your language relevant is to help him connect with kids his age (new friends, pen pals, cousins) who speak his heritage language. Parents who’ve succeeded in raising bilingual children build strong support network, which can include things like more Skype time with cousins, heritage language schools, language camps, a trip back home or to another country where they speak your native language, pen pals who share common interests, or inviting a favorite cousin to stay with your family for the summer. You’ll find many more examples in the book.

It’s clear to parents that speaking two languages is incredibly valuable – with great social, cultural, academic, and economic benefits – but now we need to be creative to convince our children as well!

Thanks for your great question Janet.



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Examining our values


I believe that before we can communicate effectively with others, it’s critical to identify our own values that we’ve internalized since childhood. If we become aware of our values, our beliefs, and our assumptions, and how they translate into our particular style of parenting, or our particular style of teaching for example, then we will have an easier time working with others, or raising children together. There is a Dutch anthropologist named Geert Hoefstede, who came up with four very helpful “value dimensions” – as he calls them – that can clarify for us why we do the things we do – He explains these value dimensions in his book “Culture’s Consequences: International differences in work-related values” published in 1988.

This research is very powerful because it raises your level of awareness every time you come in contact with someone from a different cultural background. Because they show us how our values influence our every day behavior – things that we do subconsciously – so that instead of judging someone for doing something that doesn’t match our way of doing things, we can recognize that this person has a different value system than ours and has a different way of behaving or a different assumption of how things should be. We take on the role of the anthropologist and we can take a step back, instead of rushing to judgment or falling back on labels or stereotypes.

Obviously these value dimensions represent only generalizations – there is great diversity in each cultural group – and for many of us who’ve grown up in more than one country we will often identify with more than one value systems – but at least this research gives us a foundation, to help us to stay more open-minded and aware when we encounter different behaviors and different ways of thinking.

The first value orientation – which is mentioned the most often – is Individualism and Collectivism. If you come from an invidividualist culture like the US, the focus is on your personal needs and becoming self-efficient from an early age – With collectivism, in countries like Japan and Guatemala, there are stronger ties to the family, which promotes interdependence. And caring for one another comes before your own personal needs. According to the research, close to 70% of the world’s cultures can be described as collectivistic. Which means for many immigrant children moving to the U.S. they will have to find a way to go from a more collectivistic value system at home to a more individualistic value system in school.

In many collectivistic cultures, children are taught to respect their elders as the source of knowledge. They’re less likely to be asked to express and share their opinions or contradict someone of a higher status. So, of course, in the classroom, students might resist raising their hand and assert their opinions ut loud. Unfortunately the hesitation in group discussions might be interpreted as a lack of knowledge or motivation, instead of simple respect toward the teacher.

In an individualistic culture, competition is highly valued, whereas in a collectivistic culture, the focus is on cooperation. This might show up during tests, when a child might feel compelled to help another child find the correct answers, which in a US school would most probably be interpreted as cheating.

The second value dimension that helps us see how people’s expectations might differ from ours is called Small Distance Power and Large Distance Power. In Small Distance Power there is equality between family members. In Large Distance Power, there is a defined hierarchy. Parents and grandparents have authority over children that is seldom questioned.

For example, in France, a Large Distance Power culture, there is an emphasis on formality. Children learn early on to use the Vous form, which is the You formal, to address elders. As they grow, they learn to use it when addressing people of a higher status or people they meet for the first time. Siblings also each have a rank in the family, which grants them different discretions.

When parents come from opposite cultural dimensions, there are inevitable frictions. One parent might expect complete authority when making decisions for the family, while the other parent might prefer to give his children more power and engage them in the decision process. My husband and I noticed our cultural differences in the way we let children interrupt adult conversations. In large distance power cultures like France, children are often taught to wait for adults to finish speaking, whereas in small distance power cultures, like Canada where my husband’s from, children’s needs come first and parents will often break a conversation to attend to them. In some families, that can be interpreted as a lack of respect for the elders.

The third value dimension is Weak Uncertainty Avoidance, where the focus in on taking risks and encouraging changes and new ideas, and Strong Uncertainty Avoidance, where the focus in more on setting rules and regulations. Children are guided along a path and deviation is not encouraged. Parents who come from a strong uncertainty avoidance culture often impose more restrictions on their children compared to their American classmates when it comes to activities like spending time after school with friends, or attending parties in the evening. In addition, parents might not be comfortable letting go of their authority and discipline or they might refuse to send their children to summer camps or far-away field trips.

In the US, with a weak uncertainty orientation, children are often given more freedom and flexibility in their choices. For example, when we moved to the States, my sisters and I were amazed at the range of classes offered in school that encourage new and diverse ideas. I studied Journalism in junior and high school, and I never would have been able to do that in France. I would have been guided toward a career in business, like everybody else, because that’s what you do. I wouldn’t have been able to pursue a career as a writer has I stayed in France, let alone publish a book in my second language! So even through all the pains of culture shock, I’m still grateful we moved here!

The fourth cultural dimension is Masculinity and Feminity. This one affects how children are socialized. In “masculine” cultures, the dominant values are geared toward assertiveness and the acquisition of things. In “feminine” cultures, the dominant values are geared toward a genuine concern for people and their quality of life. Disagreements caused by this cultural orientation can show up in unexpected ways. For example, if one parent is from a masculine culture where achievement and ambition are important, and the other parent is from a feminine culture where rich and nurturing family time together comes first, the discussion of how much the children should get involved with after-school activities can get complicated quickly.

What I have found is that once we clarify our own values, our attitudes, and our behavior patterns, the better we can recognize strategies to deal with our disagreements or – better yet – prevent misunderstandings. Different cultural values and beliefs do not have to be a constant source of tension and frustration. We use our differences to teach our children early on that there is more than one way to look at things. When children witness cooperation they learn that people can have different perspectives on issues but still respect one another. And that makes for more comfortable family reunions, doesn’t it?

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Interview on UK site

I was interviewed by UK journalist Jasmin Qureshi for a fun article on raising bilingual children. Check it out here:


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NABE’s annual conference – Feb.3-6 – Denver, CO

The National Association for Bilingual Education is holding its annual conference this Wednesday, February 3rd until the 6th in Denver, Colorado. I’ll be presenting as part of the World Languages and Cultures Special Interest Group (SIG) on Thursday. During the presentation, I’ll review research findings on the different communication styles, value dimensions, and cultural behaviors and beliefs that can help us develop intercultural awareness in the classroom. I’ll focus on what is relevant for educators to help them work more productively with their multicultural classrooms. We will also discuss common cultural misunderstandings and share practical strategies to overcome them. The objective of this presentation is to help parents and educators develop mindful intercultural communication skills.

It’s been fun putting the presentation together because it brought me back to the excitement I felt at the beginning of my degree. The first time I came across this research – during my Master’s program – I realized how different the French and American cultures were – and it was reassuring to me – because as a “hidden immigrant” – someone who looked like most people in my 7th grade class in New Jersey back in 1982 – I struggled for many years trying to figure out why some of my behaviors and some of my values and assumptions clashed with mainstream America – A lightbulb went on, and I could look at the strengths and weaknesses of each value system and I could stop feeling like I had to be one or the other.

I became bicultural and that’s what I hope for – for all the kids today who relocate to the U.S. and find themselves straddling two cultures. We want them to become comfortable as bicultural or even multicultural students. As they learn to integrate different cultural values, beliefs, and assumptions, they naturally develop a broader definition of identity. They learn not to define themselves by a little box on a census form, but rather by the many layers they deem relevant. Ideally, our children will learn not to box people in either and not impose limits on how others identify themselves, and instead, become open-minded to different perspectives, and mindful during conversations with others who come from a different cultural background.

That’s a future that makes me hopeful.

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