Every once in a while, our multilingual parenting journey loses its luster. It starts to feel heavy and exhausting rather than light and easy and we start to wonder why we are putting in all of this effort. Is it really worth it? We all hit these roadblocks at some point along the way.
All of us.
In fact, a few months ago, in a fit of frustration, I told my native-speaking German husband that I thought it was time that I just quit speaking German with the kids. He is the native-speaker, let him do the talking. Why am I doing all of this anyway? Will my kids appreciate the fact that I sometimes get discombobulated in the head from all of this German speaking; that I sometimes just want to chat with them in a language that flows off my tongue with native ease?
But over the course of a few hours, I thought again about all that I would miss if I didn’t speak German with my kids. I’d miss the unique chance to use a language that brings me so much joy; a language that I am connected with on a different level than English. I speak English all day at work, most of my friends speak English, my surroundings are almost always in English. The one opportunity I have to relate to the world in German is with my husband and children.
Despite the fact that we know that deep down we do want to continue doing what we are doing, we still hit roadblocks and it is sometimes hard to get past them.
What can we do when this happens? Are these roadblocks telling us to throw in the towel or to march on? Should we be making big changes in our multilingual family life when we hit these ruts in the road or should we just stand steady until the storm passes? How can we know?
Here are some tips for figuring out what a roadblock means and how to get past it:
1. What is the real problem?
When you feel overcome with frustration with your multilingual parenting journey, start by figuring out what it is that is really bugging you right now; at this moment. Ask yourself whether it really has to do with multilingualism or if perhaps it is due to something totally unrelated. For example, I notice that when I have a bad day at work, little things can get under my skin which I would normally brush aside.
Resolution: Give things a day or two to clear up and see if you are feeling better then. Don’t make any radical changes at this point. Recognize that this feeling of frustration may be due to bad timing rather than anything major. Remind yourself that we all go through rough patches and this may be one of those.
2. The same problems come up again and again
Do you find that your roadblocks are following a pattern? For example, when things are going along smoothly, do you start to feel a little uneasy, thinking that perhaps you should be doing something differently so that it will feel more challenging? Or vice versa: Perhaps you feel that raising multilingual children should go smoothly and when you hit even a minor snag, you assume all is going downhill? We can unwittingly sabotage our own efforts by creating roadblocks where there aren’t any.
Resolution: If you find that there is a pattern to your roadblocks, then see if you can identify whether there is an underlying fear or uneasiness in you around certain elements of your multilingual parenting journey. Find out where you are putting up roadblocks and brainstorm ways to work through them (perhaps a spouse or friend can help you brainstorm?). Keep a journal of when you are feeling good about the process and when you are feeling frustrated. See if there are elements which seem to coincide (certain days of the week, not enough sleep, having certain friends or family over, etc.).
3. Expectations are not being met
Sometimes we find that roadblocks are more mental than they are real. Without realizing it, we can create expectations in our minds about what it means to be raising our children multilingually. We set standards and measure the results to determine whether we are successful in our efforts or not. These expectations can really derail our efforts if we aren’t careful, as they can create an overwhelming sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction in us and we may not even really know why.
Resolution: Write down what, exactly, your expectations are for your mutilingual children. Write down what you think it means to be “on track” in your multilingual parenting journey and what goals you have consciously or unconsciously placed on yourself and your family when it comes to multilingualism. Talk with your spouse (and children if they are old enough) about what you wrote down and decide whether or not your expectations and goals are realistic. If they are not, then come up with a plan for how to change them to be more realistic, fun and inspiring.
4. Burn out
It may sound silly to some but yes, we can reach burn out in our multilingual parenting journey. This often comes from trying to do too much, too fast. We end up feeling used up and empty. Remember that you don’t need to do it all. No one said that you have to be Superman or Wonder Woman to raise your children multilingually. No, you don’t have to read your children a book in your language every night and you are allowed to skip the long list of language games that you swore you’d play with your child every day this week. This isn’t a race. It is a long journey and you’ve only begun.
Resolution: Take a few days off where you don’t have to do anything in particular in your language journey other than just be you together with your kids. Hang out with your family. Just chat and laugh and watch a family-friendly movie together. Sit with your spouse and kids to come up with a more reasonable activity plan, one where you start each sentence with “We could…” rather than “We should…”.
5. Time for a change
Yes, sometimes it is time for a change, a real, honest-to-goodness reworking of the language plan. Maybe you realize that you and your spouse are arguing a lot about the language choices which have been made? Perhaps you are frustrated with your spouse because he/she won’t speak his/her language and tempers are rising? If the tensions are high and a resolution isn’t bubbling up to the surface on its own, then it is time to reassess your language plan (you have one, right?) to come up with something that everyone can be on board with.
Resolution: You and your spouse really need to come together to find out what each other’s needs are. It is very likely that the language choices are only part of the problem. It is very possible that the issues are deeper and have to do with fear and a sense of belonging which the language issues brought to the forefront. But even if the problem really is with the language use itself, then see if a compromise can be found. Just starting up a dialog can help tremendously with getting things back on track.
Multilingual parenting roadblocks can be wonderful things.
These roadblocks are warning signs that things are starting to veer off course. Don’t ignore them and just hope they will go away! Pay very careful attention to them, as often they are telling us more than what we see at face value. You may feel like throwing in the towel on your multilingual journey but before you do so, dig deeper, find out if something else is really the source of the problem. Once you work through those issues, you will most likely find that your multilingual parenting roadblocks are resolved as well. The more we explore our perceptions of multilingualism and our expectations of what it means to raise a multilingual child, the more we will be able to wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to the process.
And yes, you will still have more roadblocks down the road. It is an integral part of the journey.
Can you remember multilingual parenting roadblocks that you have hit along the way? How did you resolve them? What was the source of your roadblocks? How did you work through them? Did you emerge even stronger in your resolve to raise your children multilingually?