“Why should I take another cake when I already know how it tastes?” – one mother living in Belgium told me her mother-in-law had asked her. She must have found this argument surprising to remember it so clearly. Of course, you could also ask why we shouldn’t have the same cake twice, because we already know that it tastes good and it’s so delicious that it’s hard to resist.
Such questions can arise from the character of an individual, but also from the common values of a group. These things can affect how much someone worries about exercising enough self-discipline when exposed to sensory temptations. Sometimes self-discipline also deprives the individual or an entire cultural group of joys that are part of other people’s or other cultures’ everyday lives.
Sometimes cultural peculiarities are not spoken about but are instead manifested through specific behaviour. For example, shortly after our arrival in Spain, my husband, my daughter and I were invited to the second home of a new friend of my husband, to spend some time with their family and friends. After lunch, as we got up from the table, heading from the dining room to the living room, I suddenly noticed that the men and women were going into different rooms. I would have gone after my husband, since I didn’t know anyone besides him, but the men indicated that I shouldn’t follow them and closed the double doors behind them. My husband hadn’t told me that we were there for work, and since this was the first time something like this had happened to me, I had no idea what to expect. How long would it last? My daughter was two years old at the time. This certainly did not come as a surprise to her, since it was just another source of information about how we behave in society, or which things are for men and which things are for women. Since she had little to compare it to, she simply added this information to what she had experienced up to that point.
These are the moments that can surprise us when living abroad. However, it is precisely through these moments that we gain an insight into the hidden part of the iceberg of another culture’s values. After all, these moments reflect the very deep values that are often so self-evident that we don’t even waste time talking about them, if we could attempt to explain them at all. People learn the most self-evident things at an early age, and from then on, the community expects them to be able to follow these rules.
Of course, just as babbling children try out the sounds of each language and only select the ones that they hear in their environment after a few months, we test out behaviour too. Various blogs have collections of sayings that have been repeated in a particular language for generations. (In Spanish, for example, you can see some examples of popular sayings here: http://www.comonoserunadramamama.com/p/todos-los-drama-consejos.html
Many of these sayings can be translated literally and still make sense. Others are the exact opposite. When a multilingual child learns a language, the first version they hear comes from a parent. However, when they speak to others, such as childminders, they quickly learn that, with different people, you can and sometimes should behave differently. For multilingual children, these variations are just like the sounds of different languages. Even if we label them with the same letter, multilingual children know that their sound may just differ by a hair’s breadth, but will still be a little different in one language or another – just like the letter ‘r’ is pronounced differently in different words. This is similar to behaviour; to use a language authentically, you need the correct accent and cultural values of the group.
Multilingual children must also acquire the cultural background related to the language at the same time as they begin to speak, since expressions are only authentic and valid when cultural background is embedded in them. Of course, children need time for this. In cases where the differences between the cultures of a child’s first and second languages are bigger, they need to pay much more attention to the differences, so their first words may appear a bit later. If this is the reason for the delayed onset of verbal communication, then there is no need to worry, since the result is indeed something that a person who grew up speaking a single language often does not achieve even after many years of deliberate work. The fact is that multilingual children really use the languages they speak, not only without an accent, but also according to the given situation.