The Multilingual Language of Love

by Corey · 2 comments

By Corey Heller

“I love you Mama.  I love you , love you, love you.”  Three little words to warm a mother’s heart!

It probably sounds strange but I’m not exactly sure where my daughter learned these words.  The chance that she learned them from me or her father is unlikely since we speak German with her even though it isn’t my native language.

Hearing the words “I love you” come from my daughter’s mouth immediately reminded me of a day four years ago that I will never forget.

My mother, continually shocked that I had decided to speak German with my toddler son, asked me, “Will he ever hear the words ‘I love you’ from YOU?”

My immediate response to her question was a strong dose of defensiveness: How could she even ask me such a question!  How could she not appreciate this wonderful gift we were giving our son!

However, the truth is, my reaction was a reaction to the fact that I had no educated answer to give and was hit with the realization that I had never really thought about such implications of raising my son in my non-native language.

What might the consequences be of my son never hearing the words “I love you” from me?  I couldn’t imagine NOT saying the words to him at some point along the way but my mother did have a point: when would I ever speak such words if I was only speaking German with my son?

I knew that at the very least, he’d hear the words from my mother and brother.  He’d hear them from other family members and very close family friends.  But that wasn’t the same, was it?

As the weeks passed, I started to understand what my mother was getting at.  She was wondering how anything could compare to that emotional closeness which included words learned from my own childhood.

Snuggling on the sofa, warmly nestled in a mother’s lap while hearing those heart-warming words has an indescribable force of its own between child and parent.  And the truth is, she was right to ask that question.

And I have to admit that the words “Ich liebe Dich” or “Ich habe Dich lieb” just don’t have quite the same deep, emotional impact within me that the words “I love you” have.  They have a very powerful response within me but it is different.  The words envelop a different place in my heart and don’t go quite as deep down into the very core.

After months of letting thoughts about this mill about in my head, tentative resolutions started to bubble into focus.  I realized that the answer to this situation for me would definitely mean finding a compromise.  I didn’t want to stop speaking German with my children but I also wanted to use expressions which came most natural to me in English.

I decided to take what I call the “attentive yet laid-back” approach.  I decided to try not to pressure myself or my children to use these expressions in any given language (the laid-back part), yet I also made sure not to ignore these important elements in our relationship (the attentive part).

I started looking for moments when using the words “I love you” would work well in our conversations (bedtime has been a great time, especially after reading a book in a given language) and when using the words “Ich habe Dich lieb” would work best.  Sometimes I’ll just use both: “Ich habe Dich lieb, I love you, Ich habe Dich lieb, I love you!”

I also have made an exception to the rule of always repeating my children’s English sentences in German before replying back to them, at least when it comes to these expressions.  I take the opportunity to repeat back phrases of love in the same language.  Thus, “I love you” from my children will be answered with a corresponding “I love you” from me.  And the words “Ich habe Dich lieb” are answered in kind.  After all, we are a bilingual family.  Using both expressions of love with my bilingual children is a delightful luxury!

So, four years after my mother’s initial question, how are things working out?  It is always hard to say but I do believe that my children are developing an familiar and emotional bond with both “I love you” and “Ich habe Dich lieb.”  I believe that they feel a similar sense of closeness, comfort and connection with me when I use either expression.

What I find most amusing is that as an American I use these terms of endearment (in both languages) far more liberally than my German husband.  Consequently, I fear that my children will most likely find themselves as cultural oddities when compared with their German counterparts.  All I can hope for is that when my children are older, they will be able to see this as yet another tantalizing twist to their lives as bilinguals.

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Birgit March 26, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Great topic! Although I was only brought up speaking German as a small child living in America, I knew while I was pregnant with my first child that I wanted hear her say she loved me in German. So I’ve been saying. “Ich hab dich lieb” – Bavarian version? – since the day she was born and four years later it’s music to my ears when she says it back.


2 Christiane Williams March 27, 2011 at 2:32 am

I think this article shows how deep language and emotions are tied up with each other and that translations don’t necessarily convey the same feeling.
Native speakers of German tend to save “Ich liebe Dich” for romantic (adult/teenager) love, most parents would say “Ich hab’ Dich lieb” to their children. Saying “Ich liebe Dich” to a child would feel just as wrong as kissing it on the lips. Americans tend to throw “I love you”s around with less inhibition (i.e. yelling it after a school bus), which is not a judgement just an observation. I personally think you can’t tell your child too often that you love it – only I would say “Ich hab Dich gaaaanz lieb!”


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