An interview with Jean-Marc Dewaele, expert in raising multilingual children. The Multilingual Lives interviews are a way to understand how we meander through different languages and cultures in our daily lives as multilinguals and multiculturals. This interview first appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.
What are your languages?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: French is the first language I came in contact with, as it was the language my parents used at home in Bruges (Flanders, Belgium). Living in a Dutch-speaking environment meant that my sister, my brother and I grew up bilingual. We went to Flemish state schools and all our friends were native speakers of Dutch, or the local dialect – which I don’t speak well. When we went to France on holiday, we felt that our French was somewhat stunted. My parents did not use “argot” with us (most social classes in France use this vernacular) and we felt very “uncool” when speaking to peers. We did pick up some of it, but we never became really fluent.
I had an incomplete English immersion between the age of 1 and 2 when my father became a Fulbright exchange teacher, and we lived in Connecticut from 1963 to 1964. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have picked up much and so I started learning English as a true beginner, at school, at the age of 13. When I started doing my PhD, I struggled with academic writing in English, and funnily enough English has now become my dominant written language. Having lived and worked in London for 13 years has not erased my French accent in English, though. Luckily, it is an accent that the British find quite cute, so I don’t worry about it. I learned Spanish at university, aged 18, and during great summer camps in Salamanca and Malaga. I understand it well, but I don’t use it enough to be fluent in it. I can understand German and Italian pretty well if it’s not too fast and if it’s a standard variety.
What language do you use in your family (with your child and wife)?
Jean-Marc: I use Dutch, French and English with my wife (in decreasing order) and French (and occasionally English) with my daughter. In fact, we’re a trilingual codeswitching family.
In what language did you receive your schooling?
What languages do you commonly read in for work?
Jean-Marc: English, French, sometimes Spanish.