Multilingual Envy – It Happens To the Best of Us

by Corey · 9 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: istockphoto

The kids and I are walking down the sidewalk when we see a bunch of people standing outside the library waiting for it to open.  Kids are jumping on rocks and meandering through small bushes, adults sit on the benches reading books and chatting in the sunshine. What a lovely morning in Seattle!

As the kids and I get closer, I spot a friend I haven’t seen for a while who is also raising multilingual children.  We wave, greet one another and start chatting.  Neither of us is a native speaker of our children’s second language but we each have native-speaking spouses and we delight in the camaraderie of our shared language experiences.

Yet as I bask in the joy of this whole mixture of language and friendship, I notice a feeling starting to creep up inside me as I listen to my friend’s children playing nearby.  I don’t like this feeling.  I know this feeling.  This feeling is the cold, hard, nasty feeling of envy.

I am loathe to admit that I too can feel multilingual envy from time to time.  How can it be that I, the supporter of all things language-related, can actually feel envious of my friend’s family’s multilingual mastery?  How embarrassing!  Me, the founder of Multilingual Living, the Editor-In-Chief of Multilingual Living Magazine, the teacher of a course titled Raising Bilingual Children! I should have been jumping up and down, full of joy and praise and delight. Shame on me!

But yes, envy can raise its ugly head anywhere and at any time, especially when we least expect it!

Here adapted from Wikipedia:

Envy (also called invidiousness) is best defined as an emotion that “occurs when a person lacks another’s (perceived) superior quality, achievement, or possession and desires it.”

“If the other person is perceived to be similar to the envier, the aroused envy will be particularly intense, because it signals to the envier that it just as well could have been he or she who had the desired object.”

Why on earth did this icky feeling envelop me as I stood there on this lovely spring day in Seattle?  What was it that I felt was lacking in my multilingual parenting journey?

I was envious for the single reason that my friend’s children were voluntarily playing together in their minority language!  No one was constantly reminding these kids to use their minority language.  Nope.  No one was pleading, begging, asking.  Nope.  And my friend’s children, all on their own, had chosen to play together in their minority language – they felt absolutely comfortable speaking it to one another!

But still, why oh why did this get to me so very much?  Why this in particular?

It got to me because of all areas of my children’s multilingualism, this is the area where I feel an extra bit of disappointment.  For a long time now, I have wished that my children would communicate (freely, happily, voluntarily, contentedly) with one another in German.  For a time I reminded them when they were speaking English with one another but as time wore on, I let it go more often than not and focused instead on other areas of our multilingual family.

I’ll be the first to admit that this wish is for me.  It is something that would make me happy.  It would round out an image in my head of our perfect multilingual family: all three of my children sitting in our living room reading Goethe or Schiller, listening to Bach or Beethoven, discussing a myriad of topics with one another in easy, perfect German (yes, this despite the fact that they are currently only 5, 7 and 8!).

However, my children are perfectly content in their communication choices: German with me and their father, English with one another.  They don’t question any of this.  It all just comes naturally and comfortably.  They don’t feel the need to reach some arbitrary language goal.  They are living their languages fully and completely.

Envy can destroy a good multilingual parenting plan.

Comparing our multilingual family to other multilingual families is to be expected.  It helps us figure out if we are on the right track or not.  However, where this becomes a problem is when our comparisons cause us to feel envy and dissatisfaction, even to the point of wanting to give up.  We are especially vulnerable to this when (1) we are just getting started along our language journey and (2) in the middle when we start to wonder if we are really getting anywhere at all.

Ultimately, envy comes from believing that someone else has something we wish we had (see the quotes above).  We start to think that the other person is truly happy because of some element (real or imagined) which they seem to possess and we feel that we don’t.  We can even start to make ourselves believe that we are unhappy because we don’t have that desired element which we believe is so essential.

There is really only one solution for multilingual envy: learning to appreciate what we have right here and right now.

Somewhere along the way we forgot to remind ourselves of just how much multilingualism we do have in our lives and how multilingual our children really are at this moment in time.  We are overflowing with more multilingualism than we can even contain!

To help ourselves feel grateful for what we have right now, we need to stop our chattering mind which is telling us that we haven’t done enough, haven’t come far enough, will never reach the goal (whatever that might be).

Try the following to get back on track right away:

  • Take a deep breath – a really deep breath.
  • Then take another one and another one until you feel yourself start to relax.
  • Let your thoughts go through your head but don’t follow them – just be aware of them as they come and go.
  • Keep doing this until you feel you are centered again.

Once you have reached this balanced state of mind, set aside some time to do the following:

  • Think back on the situation which triggered your envy and look at it as from a distance.
  • Ask yourself: What was it about that situation that got under my skin?  What does that situation say about what I feel is lacking in my multilingual parenting journey?
  • Write down everything that comes to mind – let as many things as possible bubble up to the surface.
  • Ask yourself if the elements you feel are lacking are real issues.  Often external expectations (from society, family, research we happened to read) make us believe that we are lacking something, rather than truly feeling this deep down inside ourselves.
  • Write down at least 10 items that you are proud of in your multilingual parenting journey.  These might be things that you are grateful for, that make you feel happy or are unique to your specific multilingual family journey.

Multilingual envy need not negatively impact our multilingual parenting adventure. It can only get under our skin if you let it.  Respond to it as we would a little bump along the road – notice it but keep moving along.

Use multilingual envy to deepen our multilingual family’s journey. Let it show us the areas where we feel the weakest and most threatened.  Understanding these areas is truly invaluable.  The more we understand these triggers, the deeper we will be able to bond with our multilingual children.  It sounds counter-intuitive but it really works!

Finally, expect that multilingual envy will, in fact, rear its ugly head again and again. We are human after all and being human means feeling things like envy from time to time.  So when it happens again in the future, just smile and say to yourself, “Ah, there you are again, envy.  What will you end up teaching me this time around?”

Have you ever felt multilingual envy?  What triggered it in you?  How did you deal with it?  Did it inspire you to change anything in your multilingual family’s journey?  I’d love to hear!

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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christiane Williams May 18, 2010 at 12:03 am

I know the green-eyed monster very well, when it comes to other children choosing the second language for communication! My kids have chosen to communicate in English as well as soon as they both were in school. Worst feeling of rejection (that was almost comical in hindsight, but very real at the moment): when the kids picked jerseys they wanted to wear for the upcoming World Cup games. Son No 1 chose England (were we live right now), Son No 2 picked USA (where their dad is from) and NOBODY pick Germany (my native country)! Boo-hoo!


2 Corey May 19, 2010 at 12:04 am

Christiane, I LOVE this comment! It totally warms my heart. I can totally imagine how that felt with the jerseys. I also can appreciate what you said about “almost comical in hindsight, but very real at the moment”! It is amazing how dreadful and horrible things feel at one moment in our language journey but when we look back, we can’t help but laugh. Thank you for sharing!!!


3 Rossella May 26, 2010 at 12:07 am

I guess my questions would be what made them feel so comfortable in their second language that they freely speak it playing with each other? what does the family do differently at home? do they have cousing over often, or younger people who speak their native language who play with them? do they spend the summer in their second language country? what’s their exposure?
This is very interesting, my two boys seldom speak their second language to each other, I would be interested in exploring this subject in more detail.


4 Corey May 28, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Yes! Those are some great questions. It is amazing how many individual elements come together to create a unique multilingual family mix. It always fascinates me (after I’m not envious anymore – hah!).
I’m not sure of the answers to the questions you wrote above for the family I was talking about but what GREAT questions for us to keep in mind! Thank you!


5 Marcella May 28, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Rossella, I often noticed that children whose both parents speak the same language at home (meaning a native language different than that spoken at school by the children) end up playing in the parent’s language more frequently and freely than children from parents who speak different languages at home. This definitely is true for me who grew up bilingual (French in school and Italian at home from parents who both spoke only Italian) versus my children who have a parent speaking French (me) and the other speaking German but speak English at school. My kids seem to use English most of the time when playing together. Has anyone else witnessed this?
Another factor might have been that I stayed home until the age of 4 speaking exclusively Italian, while my kids went to day care, then pre-school from the age of 1, where only English was spoken…


6 Corey May 28, 2010 at 6:51 pm

What great observations, Marcella! I totally agree with you – the minority language at home approach can often offer such a easy distinction between “home” language and “non-home” language. It makes things so much more clear-cut. As for my kids, even though my husband and I both speak German at home, the exposure my kids have had outside the home is very significantly English, to the point where they were encouraged to speak English at some daycares since then the teacher could better understand what was going on. I noticed that more and more English became the language for play. The more vocabulary they learned which was specific for play, the more they stuck with that for playing. Isn’t this all so very fascinating? I can’t get enough of it! Thank you for sharing!!


7 bee December 3, 2011 at 7:06 am

Hi Corey!
I see this is an old post but recent to FB so I just read it.
My bilingual children choose to speak the majority language where we live now (Swedish in Sweden) when they play and converse, probably about 90% of the time. They are completely consistent with English when they converse with me and their English-speaking relatives, friends and teachers, though. This has been fine with me, but a few years ago, another bilingual family we know starting making comments about how their children choose to speak the minority language English together, and not Swedish. The comments clearly indicated that they thought this was a sign of greater bilingualism and that this meant that their children were more at ease in English than mine were. This really bothered me for awhile! I did finally come around, though, and realize that as long as MY family felt comfortable with how our bilingualism worked for us, that was all that mattered.
It can be tough sometimes, so hang in there!


8 Monica December 3, 2011 at 12:46 pm

yeah, I got it when the kids switched from speaking Spanish to each other … to English! it became the language of play, and then eventually their language between the two of them. I was sad at that development, but at least they still speak Spanish to their dad and his family…but I do get that envy when you mention!


9 Betsy June 22, 2014 at 2:10 am

I’ve been admiring this web site and learning so much from your posts, old and new, Corey. Thanks so much for this one…I am just starting out on the journey of *trying* to nurture my boys in a new language for all of us, Arabic. I think I can easily get discouraged so I’m going to take your advice and write down the 10 things I can be proud of so far. Thanks again.


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