After a week of rain, a short burst of sunshine. Long enough to start pumping out flooded subways, but more importantly it increases the flow of human traffic too, because I needed someone special to write about today.
I could have played with the surfer folk (love the water running of this woman’s board – click to enlarge if you want a look), or joined the dog-walker fraternity to keep their pooches intrigued, but today that just wouldn’t do. I needed to press on and find someone with powers. Not as in Chronicle or Avengers Assemble, but as in a radio programme that I found interesting this week.
The programme, Word of Mouth, is hosted by Michael Rosen, and this week he was meeting some interesting families, but it was the last five or six minutes that really caught my attention, given that I have an interest in language. He was speaking to a husband and wife, parents of three young girls, he is German and she Algerian but both currently live in the UK. Jan is naturally fluent in German, and his wife (whose name I couldn’t make out in the programme) speaks a colloquial mix of French and Arabic. Her parents spoke Berber as well as Arabic and she regrets the loss of any Berber that she might once have had. Her husband is as protective about his German.
Consequently this fascinating couple speak French to each other (they originally met in France) and their native languages to their children, the eldest of whom is just beginning school. Both of the parents are fluent English speakers, and of course their children are growing up speaking English to their friends. Indeed Jan describes his daughters as English, which he sees as an inescapable effect of the environment they grow up in.
Why then do his parents continue to use their other languages? Surely it would be easiest for all to converse in English as a language that have they have in common. Jan puts it this way – for him to speak English is “wrong”, not through any dislike or prejudice against the language, but because he feels that he is being someone else when not speaking his “own” language, in German he is himself.
This idea of your identity being rooted in the language you speak is an interesting one and is another angle on the debate about whether immigrants to this country should be able to speak English, and undermines racist arguments about the colour our your skin being a deciding factor. Fascinating stuff, but way too deep to be resolved in a few hundred words of blogging!
For me though, the most fascinating aspect of all of this was the young girls and their ability to converse at will in four languages without giving it much thought. What remarkable futures are in store for them?
It felt appropriate today therefore to find a subject who was multi-lingual, and almost as soon as I got out of my car today I saw Nehir approaching. She was kind enough to be photographed, despite the wind whipping at her hair, and cautious enough to see my business card first, but more importantly she is multi-lingual, having parents of West Indian and Turkish origins. She sees English as her “mother tongue” but is fluent in Turkish too – I wonder if she feels she is English then, or Turkish, or West Indian?
*Melting Pot was a huge hit for Blue Mink when I was a young schoolboy. I loved the song without giving much thought to its meaning, but perhaps it was more portentous than I gave it credit for.