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Bilingual Families

Bilingual families: Eve

Eve and her husband have a 4-year-old son, they have been living in the South Bay Area since 2019. They both come from multicultural families with roots in Lebanon, France and Argentina and grew up speaking several languages. Eve’s husband moved a lot when he was a kid while Eve spent most of her childhood and formative years in Lebanon. We talked about moving frequently, experiencing cultural differences, having stability as a child, making friends in a new country, and of course learning several languages.

Can you tell me where you are from and what languages you spoke growing up?

Eve - My mother is French and was born near Bordeaux. Her father was a military doctor so she moved a lot and she didn’t get to spend much time in France. She changed location every 3 years. They ended up in French Polynesia, where she spent most of her school years. My father is Franco-Lebanese, he speaks French and Arabic. My parents lived in Paris at the time of my birth but I was born early in Corsica (a French island in the Mediterranean Sea ) while my parents were vacationing there. After 5 years in Paris, we moved to Lebanon and I lived there until I was 21.

Lebanon has three widely used languages: Arabic, French, and English. The main language people speak in Lebanon often depends on the neighborhood they live in or the school they go to. We lived in a French-Christian neighborhood and I went to a Jesuit school that was accredited by the French Ministry of Education so I have both the French and Lebanese high school diplomas.

Because I arrived in Lebanon when I was 5 years old I was put in a class with a lower level of Arabic, so I do speak Arabic but not as well as some of my friends who were in the other classes. At school, I studied mostly in French but I also learned Arabic of course, English, and Spanish. At home, we spoke French and with my friends also so I didn’t have much opportunity to speak Arabic. When I started college it was a bit difficult for me because the classes were in French but most of the students spoke Arabic, so at first it was not easy to fit in but I managed to do it over time.

What culture were you exposed to?

A mix of French and Lebanese cultures because of my parents. My mother didn’t speak Arabic at all when she arrived in Lebanon so she had to learn the basics for everyday life. My father is Lebanese but was exposed to French culture because he did his last years of university and the beginning of his career in France.

It was fun to see how my mom tried to integrate French culture in Lebanon. She didn’t know how to cook Lebanese cuisine so she tried to do French cuisine with what she could find there.

I was exposed to the Lebanese culture through my paternal grandmother, with the cuisine but also the way of life. We lived in apartments where the doors were always open. Neighbors and friends would come and go in the apartment, it was very relaxed and convivial. Families are very close-knit in Lebanon and family members usually spend their Sundays together.

How would you describe Lebanon to people who don’t know this country very well?

Lebanon is a melting pot, and there can be huge differences from one street to another. Especially nowadays, inequalities are rising and some areas are becoming richer than others. Now that we live in the US, we travel to Lebanon about twice a year and the evolution in just 6 months is always striking. I think that today about half of the population lives below the national poverty line, while a rich elite manages to live in a bubble with the local political issues being out of sight, out of mind for them.

What is your husband’s background, is he Lebanese?

Yes, he is Lebanese but he also has Argentinian roots from one of his grandmothers. Besides Arabic, he speaks Spanish, French, and English. When the Lebanon war started, his family moved to France so he spent part of his childhood there. He speaks a mix of Arabic and French with his parents.

Do you mean they speak some French and some Arabic or mix them in sentences?

They mix the languages in sentences. In Lebanon, one of the most well-known expressions is “Hi, Keefak, Ça va?” which is basically saying “Hi” in English, Arabic, and French. In Lebanon, it is very common for people to speak at least two of these languages and even all three of them.

How did you decide to move to the US?

We first came in 2019 when our son was 3 months old for our work, my husband are co-founders of a startup company. In 2020 when the pandemic started we happened to be in the UK for our work and because our parents are not very young we wanted to stay with them, so we spent all the shelter-in-place period in Beirut. We moved back to the Bay Area in 2021.

Was it easy to adapt to your new life in California?

The first three months after our move in 2019 were complicated. Our son was very young, I felt very alone, I didn’t have any friends, my family was far away and my husband was spending a lot of time working at the office.

When we came back after the shelter-in-place it was easier, we managed to organize ourselves better, my son started daycare and I returned to work.

Did you experience a culture shock moving to the US?

Before moving to the US we lived in Paris and then in London and we used to come to the US often for our job so I didn’t really have a culture shock. What shocked me the most was the US health and school systems in terms of price and how they both work. Free, public education in France and Lebanon starts at around 3 years old, and before that childcare is far less expensive than here.

But on some points, the US and Lebanon are closer than France. Social behaviors can be very different, I feel like in Lebanon and the US, people are more open and warm than in France. For example, when you go to a restaurant or a shop, the waiters and salespersons are more welcoming and will easily chat with you. One day in France I was making small talk with the sales assistant and she asked me if I usually talked to everyone!

But Lebanon takes friendliness to another level compared to the US. People will easily invite you to come to their house and have dinner with them. In the US people are friendly but it is not easy to build real friendships.

Being a mom, I also notice differences in how parents behave at the playground. In Paris, mothers will easily lecture children, even when they don’t know them if they are doing something they think is not right. In London, if something happens, the parents will lecture the other kid’s parent. In the US, parents will come and speak in a very diplomatic manner with the other parent.

Before your son was born, did you have a plan regarding the languages and culture you wanted your kid to be raised in?

I think my husband and I are quite similar because we were both exposed to French culture and our parents lived in Lebanon for a long time so we didn’t really have to talk about what culture we wanted him to grow up with.

He is exposed to the Lebanese culture thanks to our parents and our frequent trips to Lebanon. When my parents still lived in Lebanon it was easy because when we traveled there we could see both our families and stay for a long time. Now that my parents have moved to Paris, it is more complicated because we get to spend less time in each country.

Regarding languages, we decided that we were going to speak French at home but that our son would learn English early on.

Do you always speak French at home?

Yes, but with my husband we sometimes speak Arabic when we don’t want our son to understand what we are saying! He doesn’t understand it yet but it is funny because he will sometimes speak with an Arabic accent!

Are you planning on teaching him Arabic at some point?

Yes, we are. During the summer when we go to Beirut, he goes to camps where they speak Arabic and in the future we will probably also hire a tutor to teach him while we are there.

Have you looked into ways to teach him Arabic in the US?

No, Arabic is a difficult language to learn, especially if you want to know how to read and write it. Our goal is mainly that he knows how to speak Arabic and use it in everyday life, not necessarily to read a book in Arabic.

What did you put in place to help your son learn to speak French and English?

We are really focusing on French first so that’s why we are speaking it at home because we might go back to live in France at some point. This is why we chose to enroll him in a French-English school. We thought about going to a public school but it would have meant teaching French to him ourselves and it seems complicated.

He is learning English at school. For now, French is easier for him than English but being in an English-speaking country I am sure he will learn it quickly.

In terms of culture would you say he is mainly exposed to a French one?

We give him a lot of information on French culture and a little bit on Lebanese culture.

What’s tricky for us is the American culture because he is exposed to it and we don’t know a lot about it. We lack references in terms of history, literature, politics or even holidays and events traditionally celebrated here. So sometimes our son is the one to teach us about things like Thanksgiving for example. But it is nice that we can learn from each other.

Do you find it easy to have a multicultural child?

I feel like each time we have to go from one place to another it is difficult. For example when we have to explain to him that we cannot spend the whole year in Lebanon or the US. Each time we leave we have to miss some things in the other place, like birthdays or other celebrations. Especially in the US, we don’t have a lot of time to explore the surroundings since we use our vacation time to go to Lebanon.

But the good thing is that we get to enjoy both countries and I think our son is happy to be able to discover so many different things. It’s just that the transition times are hard.

Being bilingual yourself, do you sometimes worry about how to teach him different languages, what method you should use or is it natural for you and you just go with the flow?

I am a pretty relaxed person in general so I try not to ask myself too many questions. My husband and I have both been exposed to at least four different languages so we feel that it is not too much to expose our son to two languages and we know that the earlier the exposure, the better. We are thinking about adding other languages, Arabic as I said but also Chinese. My husband just started learning Chinese with Duolingo so our son is trying as well.

Does your son ask to learn more languages?

Yes, especially Arabic. When we use it as a secret language with my husband, our son is frustrated that he doesn't understand it. His school also offers Spanish lessons as an after-school class so maybe we’ll try it.

How does your kid respond when someone asks where he is from?

When this happens he is a bit at a loss, he doesn’t know what to say. Sometimes he says I have houses everywhere! So I don’t know what people think after hearing that! He sometimes lists every city he has been to even if we didn’t live there. I don’t think he feels like he has strong roots since we have moved a lot since he was 3 years months old.

Does it make you sad that he doesn’t feel like he has roots?

I feel that compared to my mother who had to move all the time when she was a kid I was able to stay in one place for most of my childhood so I had one school and the same group of friends for at least 10 years. I would really like for my son to be able to enjoy the same stability as well, so I think we can maybe move in the next couple of years but after that, I would like to stay put in one place for a long time so that he can spend several years with the same friends, caregivers, and teachers, living in the same house with his own bedroom.

Do you think you will leave California at some point?

I don’t know. Our work has always been the deciding factor, we lived in London, then in Boston for a short time, then Texas, and now California. We don’t know yet where we will go but my gut feeling is that we will go somewhere closer to Lebanon and France because our parents are growing old and we would like to live closer to them so that our son can spend time with them and that if something were to happen we could go see them easily. So probably somewhere in Europe.

Is it as important for you as for your husband to find that stability for your son?

I think it is more important for me. I think my husband could easily move every two years because it was like that for him as a child. Because of the war, each time the situation deteriorated, he moved to Cyprus, Nice, or Paris so he didn’t get to go to one school. He realizes that because of the countless moves he didn’t get to build strong childhood friendships but he didn’t suffer because of it.

Do you think it is easy for you and your husband to agree on what you want to teach your child in terms of values for example?

Yes, we are aligned on a lot of values like religion, education, and behaviors. I feel lucky because I don’t know how couples with different core values manage to find common ground. We are a multicultural family but we share the same mixed heritage, it is not as if we each had a different culture, so this probably helps.

Do you sometimes find yourselves in situations where the US culture is not aligned with your own culture and your son is lost?

Yes, for example when our son was younger it was difficult for him to manage his frustration so he would hit or push people. In the US people are very calm and use gentle parenting methods, they explain to children that they should use their words not their hands. In Beirut, it is very different and children are often rough at school, so he discovered that while we visited. The good thing is that it showed him that being pushed was not nice, but it was not easy for us to explain that what they do in Beirut is not ok and that he cannot do that.

It is the same with noise level. In Beirut, people speak very loudly and it can seem like people are shouting at each other even if they are not. Our son was shocked because he is used to a quiet environment so he was paralyzed at first by all this noise and shouting.

Do you have any tips for parents expecting bilingual or multicultural children? And is there anything you would have done differently?

I would say you should try to pass on all the languages spoken in your family to your kids and keep using the different languages as often as possible. It is easier to learn when you are young but you also need to practice regularly otherwise you forget the language. That was my case with Spanish. I studied the language for more than 10 years and now I still understand it but I cannot speak it well. And I am sure that if we were not speaking Arabic with my husband at home as our “secret language” I would be forgetting it too.

I know that some parents choose to do one parent = one language, this was not what we did and I am curious to know how it went for parents who chose this route. I don’t think there is one right way to do things, I am just convinced that the most important part is to keep using every language regularly.

As you said it is great to have feedback from other bilingual families, were you able to talk with other families or did you look at testimonies online?

Yes, I did look online to help me decide if, for example, I should speak in French with my son and my husband in English. The results are not based on scientific studies but from what I saw it seemed better to have one primary language that the children master really well and then add on other languages, so we focused on French and added English when he was nearly 3 years old. But he was still exposed to English before that for example at the playground, in the stores, or on TV…

Now that he has started learning and using English at school for nearly 2 years, is French still his dominant language? Does he have a preference between the languages?

Yes, French is his dominant language and when someone asks him what language he can speak he will say “French and English but I prefer French”.

Are you worried that it might change?

No. I think his level in French is already good enough, so as long as he can read and write without making too many grammatical errors it is enough for me.

Do you have things that you did regarding his bilingualism, or that your parents did when you were a kid, that you regret?

No. I believe adding languages or cultures is always a good thing, you cannot go wrong. Thanks to multiculturalism you can feel closer to more people and I think it helped us fit in when we moved to the Bay Area. Of course, you will not have the same references as people who have lived here their whole life but still, it is easier to adapt.

Was it easy to make friends here with people from a different culture than you or did you gravitate towards French or Lebanese people?

When my son was not yet in the French-American school, I felt pretty lonely because working in a start-up, I didn't get to meet a lot of people. Thanks to his school, I was able to meet more people and this is with the French expats that I was able to develop friendships, so yes it is easier to connect with people who share the same culture. We live on a very nice street with lovely neighbors who have kids about the same age as our son but it is not easy to build strong relationships and become more than friendly neighbors. I would love to recreate what I had in Beirut with our kids playing together during the afternoon and all of us having dinner together from time to time but it is still very formal, we send each other texts several days in advance to plan anything.

Is there a Lebanese community in the Bay Area?

I have some Lebanese friends here but they are in a different phase in their life, they don’t have kids, and they don’t have exactly the same interests as me. I know that there are 2 or 3 Franco-Lebanese families in our school but I don’t think there are many families in the Bay Area.

Eve’s favorites

Favorite kids stores

  • Clothes: I buy children's clothes when I go to Paris. If I need something in between trips I just go to Target.
  • Books: Our son is really into Legos and Playmobile and we buy them online.
  • Toys: We go to the Sunnyvale Library to get English books and I buy French books on Amazon.fr

Family favorite places to eat

  • We often go to Pacific Catch but we try to cook at home most of the time because we try to eat healthy and it is easier this way. During the weekend we cook Lebanese food and on weekdays we usually cook simpler things that we can use for the lunchboxes. At the Sunnyvale Library, you can find several Lebanese cookbooks. One of our favorite Lebanese dish is Kibbeh.

Favorite places to have fun

  • We love Legoland in Milpitas and we try to go with my son’s friends. It is perfect for parents to chat while the kids play, so everyone has a good time.
  • When we have the time we like going a little further, Carmel is one of our favorite places.

Favorite places to learn

Favorite local brands, artists, or makers

  • My son's school organizes a winter market every year and I like the local makers Sew Francisco and Osmerya who were both vendors at the market.

Favorite family-oriented online resources