The Identity Complex Of Bilingual Children

Last week's column dwelt on the enormous advantages for the early bilingual child. But when the bilingualism is a result of parents who speak different tongues like Vita and Benedict's, it's not just a question of language skills but identity.

Neither I, 100 percent Anglo-Saxon, nor Sasha, who despite a smattering of Ukrainian, Georgian and even a suspected dash of Buryat, can conceive what it must be like to be half and half.

Olivier Todd, a veteran of both the BBC and French television and graduate of Cambridge University and the Sorbonne, grew up with an English mother and a French father in an English-speaking home in war-torn France. He described the true bilingual's plight in a recent interview with the European newspaper.

"Being bilingual means I can pick and mix," he said. "I can choose the good things like the art of conversation and sexual openness of France, or British fiction and TV. But there is also a big down side. What really distinguishes a person is their main language -- the language in some sense is their identity. ... After three years in Cambridge I felt English, but English people saw me as a foreigner. When I got back to France, they saw me as a foreigner, too. I felt confused and marginalized.

"After this, I became convinced that you have to decide which language you are going to be ... . It's tough to decide whether being brought up bilingual is a blessing or a curse."

Experts, like Colin Baker, the author of "An Encyclopedia of Bilingualism," maintain that even if the parents speak different languages, the bilingual child will nevertheless be stronger in one or the other language because each language has different functions or uses. Most likely, he concludes, the language in which the child studies during secondary education will become dominant.

The point is more than brought out by our Anglo-American neighbors whose young children, having attended only Russian school, not only describe themselves as "Russian" but even do their math lessons and play with each other in Russian.

Anglo-French friends in Moscow, who have always lived in neutral third countries, say their young children confidently describe themselves as "French and English" even though they understand little more than the fact that French cheese is nicer but grandma lives in England.

Vita and Benedict will inevitably see Russia a bit through my eyes and, no doubt, England partly through Sasha's. Sasha and I have always hoped that, like Todd, the children will pick and mix the best of each of their cultures. But will they also, like him, always feel part foreigner in each of their native lands?

Todd, interestingly, married a French woman and chose not to bring up his children bilingual.