Learning My Spouse’s Language through My Children

I am a native speaker of American English married to a native speaker of Greek, raising two Swiss-born children in Scotland–we are a multinational, multilingual family!

Because we met almost two decades ago on American soil, my now-husband and I have always spoken English to each other. Visiting Greece frequently and listening to him speak Greek with friends and on the phone regularly gave me a good grasp of pronunciation and some basic phrases to use. So, for example, I could flawlessly order an iced espresso with no milk and no sugar at a café in Athens, or tell my mother-in-law that her lamb was delicious, or defend myself from relentless offers for second or third portions by my father-in-law at the dinner table.

Over the years, I did attend a few Modern Greek courses at whichever university I was currently attending, but I did not particularly enjoy classroom learning for this language. Nor did we attempt to speak Greek at home on a daily basis, as the path of least [conversational] resistance language was English. Perhaps I also took it for granted that Greek would always be there, when I was ready to fully embrace it.

Ready or not, when our children were born, one of my number one priorities was for them to be raised bilingually. Backed by my scientific convictions regarding the benefits of bilingualism, and my husband’s stubborn persistence, our efforts have been a resounding success–our kids are fully bilingual. Our strategy, at least until recently, has been the one-parent-one-language (OPOL) approach. When they were very young, our children even suspended disbelief, accepting blindly that Babás (daddy) did not understand their English even though he could understand Mommy’s.

I always knew we would make it work for the kids, but what I did not anticipate was how much I would learn alongside my children. Like most parents, my husband used infant directed speech (baby talk) in the early years and, as they became toddlers, the dialogue increased but was fairly repetitive and limited in the range of themes. As a result, in addition to knowing the names of all farm animals, I also have quite a repertoire of imperatives like, ‘sit down’, ‘don’t touch that!’ and ‘don’t put that in your mouth!’ Learning from my husband’s interactions with the children has also led to embarrassing situations, such as when I have unwittingly, and with a straight face, used childish and cutesy diminutives when ordering from adult servers at restaurants or cafes in Greece, for example, ‘fakoules’ for ‘fakes’ (lentils) or ‘nero me bourboulithres’ (water with little bubbles) instead of ‘nero me anthrakiko’ (carbonated water).

Now that both kids are in primary school, their dialogues with my husband have become more complex. As in many families, the dinner table is a main stage for conversation, and as in many bilingual families, our conversations involve a mix of both languages; that is, each parent speaks their first language to the kids and the kids switch languages depending on what parent they are speaking to. This can seem chaotic to visitors, and at restaurants I occasionally witness people at neighbouring tables staring at us in wonder or disbelief, and rarely, with pity or disapproval. But for us, this scenario feels just as natural as the act of eating.

As a recent development, my husband has started making efforts to include me in his dialogues with the children, signalling to both me and the kids by initiating his sentence with a pronounced “Mamá” and continuing, in Greek, to tell me something about one of the kids. For example, he will say “Mamá, did Zoe tell you that she tied her shoelaces by herself this morning?” My kids then watch me curiously and with great anticipation to see if I will understand, and I usually do. Of course, he speaks to me in the same accommodating way that parents speak to their young children, and language teachers (right or wrong) speak to their students.

For the kids, taking steps to learn their father’s language not only demonstrates that I don’t just expect them to be bilingual, but also shows that I am willing to cross the border into the language territory they inhabit with their father. Additionally, I hope that this act of solidarity will add to the appeal of speaking a language that is not generally spoken outside of our house. But for myself, I see it as the alternative to classroom learning I have been waiting for: my ideal Greek course is served at the family dinner table.