I Know Why You Are Really Raising Your Children Multilingually

by Corey · 26 comments

The author with her daughter

I know why you are raising your children multilingually.
Really, I do!

It’s actually fairly simple.  Yet, we like to fancy it up with statements like:

“I am raising my children in more than one language because it is good for their brains.”

Which is true. Or…

“Multilingualism has so many benefits, I can’t even count them!”

Who can argue with that nowadays! Or…

“I want to make sure my child has better employment opportunities down the road.”

A commendable goal, indeed!

However, you and I both know that deep down that’s not really why we are raising our children multilingually.  Those are fabulous nuggets of value that we can hold onto but they are not the inner sanctum.  Those reasons are not strong enough to sustain us through the thick and thin of our linguistic feats day in and day out – raising children multilingually is no walk in the park!

We give those answers because on a very fundamental level, it feels good to be able to legitimize what we are doing, both to ourselves and to others.  When we can answer questions about our most important choices with cold, hard facts, the rest of the world responds with that understanding nod of approval, and that nod feels really, really good. That nod says that what we are doing is the right choice.  Everyone agrees.  We are on the right track.  Big sigh of relief.

But deep down we know there is so much more to it than the cold, hard facts.  With or without approval, we’d raise our children multilingually anyway (and many of us do).  That nod, a thumbs up, those luxurious facts, they give us a boost but ultimately they aren’t what sustains us through the thick and thin of our multilingual parenting journey.

So we have to dig down deeper, much deeper, layer after layer, under all of those thoughts and choices and deliberations we have made over the years until we come to something soft and subtle, gentle and true.  It is something beyond research, beyond brain development, beyond employment opportunities.

And what do we find?  We find ourselves.  Our bold, beautiful, amazing, average, everyday, multilingual, multicultural selves.  That is where we find the reason, the source, the most important nod of all.  There we find the real reason for why we raise our children multilingually.  That is where we realize that we do it for ourselves, from ourselves, as ourselves.

To raise our children is to share all of who we are.  We give ourselves, our deepest selves, away to those we love.  We can’t help it.  And as our deepest selves are intrinsically intertwined with words and gestures, tastes and emotions, we give those to our children as well.  We can’t separate them out from who we are.  Our language, our multilingualism, is in our bones.  It is who we are.

How can we not do it?

To raise our children is to step back in time.  We step back into our own childhoods.  Memories of our own youth are triggered in us: the events of that time, the childish pranks and silliness, the serious contemplations.  Our own children remind us that deep down we are still children ourselves, and in that place we find a language, our language, which feels safe and vivid and complete.  That language brings us home.

So when others ask us why we are raising our children multilingually, we can easily let the rote answers slip off our tongue. Of course we can, and we should. That nod of approval is a lovely thing.

But we can also smile.  And look across at our children.  And know that what we are doing 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 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colleen Trimble June 3, 2010 at 3:38 pm

So true! Other people throw me the she’ll-definitely-have-better-job-opportunities line CONSTANTLY,which is nice to have positive support and I always agree, but inside I’m thinking “But that’s not why I do it…” I couldn’t imagine my daughter not being bilingual or bicultural!!


2 Corey June 5, 2010 at 12:01 am

Thank you for your reply, Colleen! I was a little hesitant to post this because it comes from such an emotional side of things in me. Also because it is ironic: I am not the one who grew up speaking German! However, I feel like I did in many ways. So funny! I appreciate your comments and knowing that others feel this way too!


3 Portland Mama June 3, 2010 at 4:31 pm

That’s a wonderful thing but it isn’t why my husband and I are raising bilingual children. I speak only a tiny bit in my children’s second language and my husband learned it only in school and is far from bilingual. It is not even the language of our ancestors. We send our kids to an immersion school *because* we are not conversational in another language and we are disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to speak more than one language when we were young enough to absorb it fully. We want to give our kids something we wish we had. We hope they will appreciate it as adults 🙂


4 Corey June 5, 2010 at 12:03 am

Yea, I knew that not everyone would have the exact same reasons as many of us aren’t speaking our native language with our kids. But I often feel that it comes from a very similar place inside us – one that is less logical and more emotional. As you said, “we want to give our kids something we wish we had.” I love that!! It is the way we want to give everything we can to our kids. Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate hearing from someone who doesn’t resonate exactly with the native-speaker side of things!


5 Barbara June 3, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Corey, you are so right. I defintely speak my own language to my children because that’s the only natural way for me to do it. I’m just lucky to be married to a man who speaks a different language and to live in a country with a different language. I could not imagine speaking a different language than my mother tongue to them. We are also lucky that we live in times were being bilingual is considered an asset (unless you are a hispanic immigrant in the US and treated with double standards…) and not a liability as it still was a generation ago. Usually, people tell ME all the arguments you listed above, not vice versa.


6 Corey June 5, 2010 at 12:04 am

Barbara, that is so great about people supporting you by telling you the benefits. We are living in a much different age than our parents (or parents’ parents) aren’t we! We so very lucky!


7 Stephanie June 6, 2010 at 3:00 am

Thank you for this post. I suddenly saw my son’s bilingualism as an expression of actions taken by his ancestors as well as who I am. My mother instilled a love of words and language in my brother and even though we were monolingual, we are both living in another country and raising our children billingually.

Note: There’s a problem with one of the links above. It should be: http://homeschooling.gomilpitas.com/ (no www)


8 Corey June 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Thank you for your comment, Stephanie! I so, so agree! What is ironic, and I’m not sure how many people noticed, is that I wrote the above post even though I am raising my children in my second language (the one I learned during my college-age years) so it may seem odd that I feel so strongly about the deeper connection. But there is something about language which takes us down to the core, forces us to become children again (to some degree) and then build us up again. What a great gift that your mother instilled in you and your brother! You are clearly a perfect example for why any and all language/cultural exposure can be so valuable!
Thanks for the link update! I think it is from my article on bilingual homeschooling. I will update that right away!


9 gweipo June 6, 2010 at 11:49 pm

In our case, we’re global nomads and it would be unthinkable and rude for us not to let our children learn the language of their host country….


10 Corey June 7, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Hear hear! I totally agree. And I’m envious of your global nomad status. Thanks for the link to your blog!


11 christina June 7, 2010 at 3:49 am

Spot on Corey! I’m doing it because I *have* to, because I really *can’t* help it. Not doing it was never an option.

I too am sooo tired of hearing “Oh, they’ll have it easier in school, then!” (not at all true , BTW).

Thanks for a great post!


12 Corey June 7, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Hello Christina! Thank you for your feedback. It is so true, isn’t it? There is this deep drive in us that guides us to give of ourselves and language is so deeply intertwined (even for me with my second language – wow!). I didn’t think about the school comments. Are you meaning that it can be more difficult for our kids because they become the “odd ones out”? Thanks for your comments!!


13 Sophie June 7, 2010 at 8:39 am

A friend at uni was raised in Hong Kong by his British father and Chinese mother, but learnt little Cantonese – though his ability to order food in a London dim-sum restaurant certainly impressed me 🙂 One thing that always stuck with me though, was his comment one day that he’d never been able to have a proper conversation with his grandmother. It seriously cut me to the core.

So for me, it’s partly because my Mum did her best to raise me bilingually and I remember the fun we had playing games with her (and with some of my best friends when we were little – one who was half-Japanese, the other half-Honduran – secret agent code games were are right laugh!), and partly because my maternal (and only surviving) grandparents speak none at all. Same goes for most of my other relatives on that side.

We’re moving far, far away soon (to New Zealand), but I don’t want a future visit “home” to be marred by my daughter not having even a little French vocab with which communicate with some of her European relatives. It would be my fault, not hers.


14 Corey June 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Lovely comment, Sophie! This connection with family and the chance to communicate in meaningful ways is so important, isn’t it? I know exactly what you mean and think that it is such a fabulous reason for raising our children multilingually – perhaps it is one of the most important! I remember learning German while living in Germany and how my husband (then boyfriend) had to translate everything for me at the beginning. When I started understanding more and more what he said, I realized how he wasn’t always translating exactly what I really meant. He wasn’t doing it on purpose, he just couldn’t read my mind. (Like that “telephone” game where each person whispers in the next person’s ear and by the end it isn’t even close to what it was at the beginning!) I was so happy when I could explain things for myself (even though I can’t always express myself in German as exactly as I’d like). Thank you so much for sharing!


15 Maria H June 7, 2010 at 10:01 pm

This post really speaks to me! When I became pregnant with my first child all the years of my grandparents telling me how important it was to hang on to our language and our culture before they were lost suddenly made sense to me. When he was born, and his sisters after him, it became very important to me that they be able to understand the songs their great grandparents would sing to them, know the smells of the kitchen I grew up with, find comfort in the world of two languages I knew as a child. On the days that this journey is a challenge for me (and there are many!) it is this deep emotional connection that keeps me going, not the brain research or the improved employment opportunities. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone.


16 Corey June 8, 2010 at 7:47 am

Thank you for your comment, Maria! It is amazing how having children can really kick the emotional side of language and culture into high gear. The same happened with us. When it was just the two of us (the graduate student couple without any kids) I didn’t think about all of this language stuff so much. But once our first son was born, things really started changing. So nice to know that so many of us share this connection!


17 Erin June 8, 2010 at 9:47 am

Funny that you mention this, Corey. The other night at the dinner table, my daughter was jabbering on and on in Italian. I am constantly reminding her to try to speak in English or French, but I am not having much success. I then looked at my husband and said, ” You know, when she doesn’t speak to us in English or French, I feel like there is something missing in our communication. Something deep and personal.” I really agree with you. My daughter being able to speak English with me is much more than jobs and intellect, but more about a personal communication with me.

Btw, love what you have done with the website! I am now officially hooked!!! 🙂


18 Corey June 8, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Thank you so much for sharing, Erin! I absolutely love that story and am so, so happy to be in this midst of multilingual families like yours! I often feel that the research and benefits is like the foundation (the basics) upon which we build the “real” house (our emotional connection) where we can really live. And this can be true whether it is our native language or a language we have adopted along the way (like me with German). It find that so very fascinating and fabulous! Thank you for your comment!


19 varya June 10, 2010 at 3:06 pm

A beautiful article! Thank you, Corey.
Our almost-two-year-old has been thrown into the Russian, English and French fusion in his everyday life. In addition, his nanny is from Madagascar, and his great-grandparents are speaking Alsatian to him (it is the dialect of the region in France we live in). So you can imagine, only having an attitude similar to one you have in this article, stops us from panicking………….


20 Corey June 13, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Oh Varya, what an exciting mix! I’m envious already! That kid of yours is going to have more language fun than most of us could every dream of! Sounds like you are doing things exactly as you should: having a wonderful time with your fantastic “language salad.” Woohoo! Thank you so much for sharing!


21 Gretha July 4, 2010 at 12:08 pm

“To raise our children is to share all of who we are”.
You have put my thoughs in words so beautifully.
Many times I think that there are quit a lot of things
I can not give to my son but what I have to give is ME
and all that goes with me like my language (Dutch)
my history and my culture.
Living in Israel ………..that’ a whole lot together.

Thank you for this great article !!!!


22 Corey July 5, 2010 at 7:46 am

Gretha, thank you so very much for your comment! I so enjoy hearing about how language is an emotional and integral element in the lives of others (as it is in me). I feel like we so often focus on the benefits of bilingualism from a subjective standpoint (which is a good thing to do) but we can gloss over the deep emotional side of it all – that very, very personal side that may almost feel selfish! As you say, what you have to give is yourself and your language is all intertwined in that. Lovely, lovely! So glad you took the time to share!


23 Kimberly de Berzunza July 7, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Yes… and no. More like the 2nd comment but in reverse: I want my kids to grow up knowing what it took/has taken me so many years and so much effort to aquire, and of course communicate with the spouse’s side of the family. And more! So we speak L2 at home and offspring #1 gets L3 in an immersion program at school and L4 in a class on 30 Sundays a year. We are about to embark on a trip to where L3 is spoken so we can more fully immerse the kids in the language we don’t speak at all. It’s basically that desire to give our kids more than we had. It’s hard, but it’s worth it!


24 Sonja January 17, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Right on, Corey! Once again, you took the words right out of my mouth. 🙂 I love the photo of you and your adorable daughter, too. Keep up the good work!


25 Kristin Kimble January 18, 2011 at 1:13 am

How very true, lovely and well-put. 🙂

My language (German) is part of who I am, intertwined with the cultural footprints that come with it (TV shows, book characters, expressions, childhood games, etc.), and I would not feel that I was being myself completely with my daughter if I did not speak to her in that language.

I feel like I’ve become a lot more sentimental since having her, and feel the need to share that much more!


26 Reina February 13, 2011 at 11:46 pm

Corey, this is a beautiful article and I am so glad that I’ve read it.
I spent half my life outside Japan (my home country), and I am trying to raise my daughter biculturally/bilingually. I too have encountered the need to “legitimize” teaching English to my child. In a country like Japan, I think it’s hard for most people to see through my Japanese face that I am half non-Japanese inside. I just want to share with my daughter what is very dear to me, which essentially is the happy times I had speaking in English, living in the U.S.
Thanks again!


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