The Multilingual Life of a Non-Native Speaker

by Corey · 10 comments

The Multilingual Life of a Non-Native Speaker

By Corey Heller
Originally published in Multilingual Living Magazine

People often ask me how I can raise my children in German, a language I first learned as a young adult of 24 years. I tell them it all has to do with a love affair with a man, a language and a culture.

When I first met the German man who would become my husband at Mary Ryan’s Hostel in Galway, Ireland, I was distinctly disinterested in the German language and culture.  At the time, my image of Germany was still tainted with discussions of the Second World War, the Holocaust and Hitler.

Now, fourteen years later, it is difficult for me to separate that which is German within me from that which is American.  The two are deeply intertwined, and together they define who I am.  Therefore, I am surprised when someone asks me how I can raise my children in German.  “Isn’t it obvious,” I wonder?

Through my dedication to the German language and culture, I have come to make them, to some degree, my own.  As the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, “The Little Prince” says, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”  It is the time I have wasted for the German language, the time I have spent trying to understand and live within the German culture, the time I have devoted to my husband and his family that makes all of these elements and people so important to me.  They are mine and have become a part of me because of the effort I have made.

Despite this, there are times when I feel that my relationship to my second language and culture are very tenuous: what would happen if my husband were to leave me?  Would I continue to raise my children in German or would I rebel against the language and culture and refuse to continue passing them on to my children out of anger and hurt?

Or what if my husband were to pass away while our children were still young?  Would I become even more attached to my German connections?  Would I go as far as to move to Germany to support the memory of my husband and to ensure our children continued his legacy?  What does this say about my connections to my second language and culture?  Are they really my own?  Or do these belong to my husband and me together, as a kind of glue that keeps us connected on a private and personal level?

German also represents new beginnings for me; a starting over, the redefinition of identity and the opportunity to create myself anew.  It is about seeing life through the eyes of an infant (not speaking a word of the language) and the gradual process of coming to adulthood (the ability to communicate in complex conversations).  The German language has given me permission to start over again; to slowly become the adult I am today. It does not carry with it any of my baggage of youth and thus it has been mine to define and shape as I see fit (and to be shaped in return).  The people with whom I speak German never knew me as a child. I have been free to explore who I am through the German language without the weight of childhood expectations.

This love for German did not come about through a rejection of English and the American culture, as some seem to think!  I have not made a choice of one over the other, pushing aside one so that the other could take its place.

The English language and the American culture were there when I was born and they are not going anywhere; they have a very strong foothold.  But they now occupy a place in my heart together with the German language and culture, like a parent who has two children.

When I was pregnant with my second child I confessed to my obstetrician, Peggy Hutchinson, that I was concerned that I didn’t have enough love in my heart for more than one child.  She said to me, “Corey, the special thing about the heart is that it simply expands when our new children are born and you will find you have more love in your heart than you thought possible!”  Her statement overwhelmed me. I later realized just how correct she was!

This has been true for my two languages and cultures as well.  My being has simply expanded and they coexist in me together; simultaneously.  They have different textures and are associated with different elements, different experiences and different events.  They taste, smell and feel different.  But neither is better or worse than the other.  The only difference is the way in which they came to me: one in childhood, the other in adulthood.  It is through their very nature of being unique yet intertwined in me that make up the whole of who I am.

Thus, when people ask me why I am raising my children in German, I spare them my long, contemplative explanation and instead I say, “My husband and I know our children will get more than enough American language and culture exposure, so we have decided to raise them in German.  If we were living in Germany, we would raise them in English.”

This seems to satisfy the majority of inquirers, even though deep down I know it is so much more!

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 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa May 26, 2010 at 5:17 am

Wow, I really like this. I can identify with a lot of it, as I also learned my second language (Czech) in my early twenties. I hadn’t thought about the fresh start in those exact terms, but that’s exactly what it has been. I like your description of language learning as being a baby and growing up, because that’s exactly how I always thought of it. We’re just lucky enough to do it at a faster pace. And while already potty trained.

I don’t speak Czech to my daughter, since I’m the English Parent 🙂 – but if we ever moved permanently to an English speaking country I think I would. It really becomes part of who you are on an essential level, you’re right. I actually just this morning posted a piece that touches on this, focusing on the impact it has on the relationship with the extended family. So it’s been on my mind.

Thanks 🙂


2 Corey September 2, 2010 at 2:58 pm

I just noticed this comment, Melissa! Ironically I just saw it after reading your amazing post on the Multilingual Mania site ( isn’t that fascinating!?

What is very impressive for me is that you make the effort to speak English even though you feel strongly about Czech. I have been taking in a lot of what Madalena has been suggesting in her column here – the point that we don’t HAVE to choose one language or the other. We are multilingual and that means we can mix and match to the degree that we feel most comfortable. Of course!! Who says we HAVE to choose one or the other?

Thank you so much for the comment and for letting us all share in your multilingual life via your blog and posts! Would love to get a guest post from you one of these days!


3 Rivas October 15, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Dear all,
I need HELP!!!!
I have a 14-month old baby that is exposed to four languages and I am worried thought that it might end up being too much for him. Three of the languages come in very naturally. My wife is Italian so she speaks to Matías in Italian all the time so that he will eventually comunicate with his Italian family without any problems. She sings and reads stories in Italian too and we’ve got cartoons in that language, Cds, etc.
We live in a Basque comunity and both my mum and Matías’s nanny, as well as pretty much all the children around here, speak Basque so my son is pretty exposed to that one too, therefore I don’t think he’ll have any problems with it.
My father (Cuban) and my brother (Spanish) can’t speak Basque, so they use Spanish to comunicate with Matías and with me. And Spanish is also the language I use to talk to my wife. Apart from that, we’ve got plenty of films, radio, music and so on in Spanish.
So far so good. The problem comes in when I was highly criticised by a friend of mine, who lives in England and has bi-lingual kids, when I told her that I spoke English to my son. I always thought it’d be brilliant if he did not have to struggle they way his parents did to learn it so I started to speak to him in English since the very beginning. I was educated(university-wise) in Ireland, Scotland and England. I am very aware of my language limitations but I also think that over my years in Britain I mastered a very acceptable usage of the English language. Anyway, I was very happy with my life until this heavy criticism shook my confidence.
I’d be very greatful if you could tell me what you think about both teaching Matías Enslish and English being his fourth language.


4 Corey November 19, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Thank you for your comment, Rivas! I apologize for not getting back to you sooner! I do not think that exposing your son to 4 languages is a problem in any way. The key will simply be the amount of language exposure and the need your son will have to use all four languages. We use languages in different contexts and to meet different needs.

Clearly from the comment you wrote, you have very strong English skills! I would ignore what your friend in England had to say. Have your friend read posts on this website from Madalena and Prof. Grosjean! And you should read them as well. The only reason why I would caution you against speaking English with your son would be if you are not able to fully express yourself with your son. You want to make sure that your relationship with your son is comfortable. If you feel that you can’t express yourself fully or can’t connect fully with your son, then you might want to stick with a language that comes more naturally. That will be something you will have to figure out along the way. Other than that, go for the English! You can always change down the road if it doesn’t feel right.

Please let me know what you decide and how things go!


5 RIVAS December 14, 2010 at 5:15 am

Dear Corey,
Thank you for all your support and advice and accept my apologies for the spelling mistakes on my previous comment. I was desperate looking for answers and I had been reading articles on the Internet for a long time and I did not bother to double check the spelling.
We decided to carry on with our routine and it is truly amazing the way our child understands me (English), his mum (Italian), his grandmother (Basque) and his grandfather (Spanish) without any apparent difficulties. There is a slight problem thought. I haven’t been able to find much literature on raising children in 4 languages, which is sometimes discouraging, especially when other children start speaking and your own hasn’t said anything but a few words. I perfectly know that bilingual kids begin to speak later than monolingual ones, so nevermind multilinguals!! The thing is that I need to read more about the matter. I find it quite difficult to search for trust-worthy articles on the Internet plus my not having much free time does not make it any easier. Could you send me some titles that focus on the 4 languages aspect? I am expecting a book called “Raising Multilingual Children” and hopefully it will through more light into this “adventure”. But as I said before, things are working out wonderfully so far. I am very excited about my son’s four languages and I would like to continue bringing him up the same way.
I am sure I have forgotten a million things… but I’ll keep in touch


6 Alex February 17, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Dear Corey,

great posts! We are both non-native English speakers, lived and studied two years and a half in the U.S. before returning to Germany. Afterwards, we decided to speak English to our son (then unborn, now three years old) and made English even our family language. My wife and I have to speak English at work on a daily basis so that doesn’t give us any headaches at all. However, in both of your posts, I realize how much I sometimes miss the American serenity being back to ol’ Germany for five years now. Here, you will see almost only weird looks everywhere you go if people realize that you are a German native speaker raising your child bilingually. And even in books written by linguists, you will find more warnings than encouragement even though they no sound studies can be cited for their pessimistic statements. Saunders is mostly the only “guy” mentioned. If at all. And I must admit: Even browsing online, you will rather find stories about parents with young kids starting this kind of endeavour (perhaps because the internet as we know it is not really older than 10 years). What I wanted to say: We sometimes doubt whether the path we chose is the right one (esp. since our second child will greet this world soon) and the support is about zero (well, at least our British nanny who comes twice a week finds the idea great).


7 Lia January 25, 2012 at 6:44 pm

what a great article! thank you Corey!

i can relate to what you wrote with my third language. i was living in egypt for some time, falling in love with the country, culture and language (and eventually with my now husband!). i will use my native language (austrian german) with our, soon to be born, baby but i believe it does help a lot being able to also communicate in my husbands first language. i hope to be able to later on teach our children how to read and write arabic (as a stay-at-home mom i will have more time than my hubby) at least as soon as they are “at home” in the arabic language, because i don’t want to mess up their arabic with my mistakes 🙂

i can also relate to you questioning if german is really your language or more your husbands or both. for me at first it was very simple, because i fell in love with egypt and arabic before i even knew my husband, but now, preparing to raise our child multilingual it seems more like my husbands language. well, how ever it might be, i’m really happy that arabic will be a big part in my child’s life, since it became such a big part of mine when i first fell in love with egypt.


8 Tracey January 26, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Thanks for sharing Corey – I know what you mean I love spanish as it is the language of the land God sent my family to and changed us in. It is also the language of many friends and ‘family’ including my two big kids who are staying in Bolivia to study and have their boy/girlsfriends and of my babies (4) whom we have spoken both english and spanish to since birth.
Obviously spanish is my second-language too – but I dream in it and think in it most of the time – my fear is that when I am back in an english speaking country I will lose momentum – my 4 year olds are fluent in spanish and english currently their sibling language is spanish I just hope I can keep them growing in it. I will continue to correspondent and study and read in spanish so I hope it is enough.


9 Mia August 30, 2016 at 4:41 am

I’m desperate!!
Help me please!
My children and I have move to the UK with my new husband. Kids are doing great but my husband that doesn’t speak Spanish at all feels rejected every time we speak Spanish. He works from home!!
I ‘m feelinh miserable!!!
Any help?????


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