Bilingual parenting


Mouth whispering to earAs a young teacher in charge of a class of unruly teenage boys, I occasionally lost my voice: an occupational hazard and inconvenience. But 30 years ago, I lost the voice I had always taken for granted; I lost it, even though I could still speak.

With the move to a Peloponnesian village, my language skills were reduced to those of a three-year-old, for my Modern Greek was rudimentary, and so I was effectively silenced.

The pain of that reduction was immense, and was exacerbated when six months to the day after our arrival, my six and eight-year-old sons started speaking to each other in Greek. I am sure I heard my heart crack that day, but I suppose the wonder is that they had held on to English for so long.

It was then that I began writing; in effect, I was calling out and pleading: Listen to me. Please listen.

I have now spent 45 years listening to a language, which though it eventually became familiar, will always be foreign. My three children are truly bilingual. To those of us who are not so blessed, this capacity seems a miracle, as we observe the fortunate ones apparently just flipping a switch or pressing a button in the appropriate part of the brain.

But even now, my sons still seem different people to me when they are using their Greek voices. Noise levels, for example, vary from culture to culture, and many's the time I have instructed, through gritted teeth: Tone it down; you're not on stage.

Voices are as individual as fingerprints, or so it has always seemed to me, and I had apparent confirmation of this notion when I met my elder grandson for the first time. He was four months old, and I spoke English, not Greek, to him, as I still do, nearly five years later.

He cocked his head, giving me such a wise look that I am sure he was thinking along the lines of This funny old chook is making noises different from everybody else's noises.

Because of the unique quality of voices, I bitterly regret that I have no recording of my mother's and sister's voices.

I hear my grandparents calling down a longer avenue of memory, and I register the differences there, too, for the Australian accent has changed so much even in my lifetime that I do not believe anybody now speaks the way they did. They never used the rising inflection, never swore or blasphemed, and indeed considered swearing evidence of an impoverished mind and vocabulary.

My grandfather used to take me to the football, to watch the Mighty Cats, quite regularly, but was always the soul of dignity and decorum. Goodness me, what a sausage of a kick. Do better myself, was the strongest reaction I ever heard.

This conduct was in sharp contrast to that of my volatile father, whose full-throated bellow sounded throughout four quarters every Saturday. But he didn't swear, either. Open the other eye, Umpy. Go home and get your little dog. Ya oughta be shot. The messages were much the same at cricket matches.

While the women in the family were people of spirit, they took their example from Cordelia, whose voice was ever soft, gentle, and low, an excellent thing in a woman. A real lady — and, way back then, this was what girls and women usually aimed to be — was never, ever loud.

But there was always a lot of play with language: puns, riddles, parodies, and I am still convinced that I heard my mother speak at her own funeral, for as the minister solemnly intoned Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I swear I heard that irrepressible laugh and the familiar voice adding And if God doesn't get you, the Devil must!

I started writing all those years ago in order to be heard: now I have the voices of my departed people speaking to me through the letters that I have never thrown away. I can hear the voices as I read, although not always very clearly.

Mostly, as the great Greek poet Konstantine Kavafis wrote, those lost voices are heard in dreams and imagination, their sounds faint, 'like far-off music in the night, which dies away'.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, language, bilingual, greece, greek, poet, Konstantine Kavafis



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Existing comments

I grew up with both the English and Greek languages in the family home. My parents spoke Greek to me, my brother and I spoke in English. We often served as translators for our parents (in banks, schools, etc). I translate almost everything for my mum, still (including TV programs and movies). She has struggled, considerably, to learn the English language, having arrived in Australia at 31 years old and worked from home, in isolation, for almost 20 years. Ironic that she struggled; she grew up speaking two languages in Greece (Greek and a dialect from southern Bulgaria). I'm not sure what kind of synaptic muddling my own brain would have experienced before the two languages became distinct; even now, I must admit, I muddle things (and use both English and Greek to complete a sentence). I don't feel like I have quite mastered either dialect (yet); but, I'm truly grateful that I can 'flip a switch' whenever I want or need to.

Helen Koukoutsis | 16 February 2011  

I was brought up in Perth instead of Melbourne and went with my husband to Croatia instead of Greece, but otherwise, this article of Gillian's certainly applies to me - all of it, from losing my voice, to the voices of my parents. Gillian however has been stronger than I, in that she has always spoken English to her children and now to her grandchildren, whereas I gave up quite early. It is no thanks to me now that mine are bilingual, but solely due to the fact that we have lived in both countries. When in Croatia we spoke Croatian, in Australia we spoke English - not something we discussed, it just seemed to happen that way. I am very happy to be able to speak both languages, not equally well, but almost. Being able to live in two different cultures makes my life doubly rich.

Coral Petkovich | 17 February 2011  

Lovely piece, as usual from this writer. For me it was Gaelic and American, different languages, although each liable to humor and slangy corners; American blunt and salty, generally, and Gaelic more musical, its words and ideas longer; I have often wondered if the wealth of the American landscape and the relative paucity of the Irish led to an effect on the languages in those lands...

brian doyle | 22 February 2011  

As i have learnt in Indonesia, the peacefulness, manners and political potency fopr democratisation of islamic culture can be extraordinary:

geoff fox | 27 February 2011  

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