Are You Taking Your Children’s Multilingualism Personally?

by Corey · 4 comments

We sometimes forget a few important things along our parenting journey.  We forget essential things, necessary things, like the fact that our children are not perfect reflections of ourselves.

If little Paul acts up in the grocery store, that in itself does not mean that I am a bad person, even if others are giving me the evil eye.  And if little Ella gets a perfect score on her math test, that doesn’t mean that I am a better person because of it, even though other parents will praise me for my daughter’s accomplishments.

Yet it is easy to forget this.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that our children are our mini ambassadors, going out into the world representing our family.

When it comes to multilingual families, we can fall into the trap of believing that our children’s language skills represent something about us:  Our child speaks perfect Arabic while visiting family in our home country?  We have reached the pinnacle of success!  We can finally live happily ever after.  Our child makes one grammatical error after the other?  We should be ashamed of our ourselves!  Send that parent to the language dungeon. We can be so very hard on ourselves as multilingual parents!

Are you taking your children’s multilingualism personally?

The answer to this question is most likely rather fluid: sometimes we do, other times we don’t.  Of course multilingualism in our families is personal – on a very big level.  Our language is personal so passing it on to our children is personal.  But sometimes it can go too far. Sometimes we take it too personally.

If you find that your children’s multilingual mastery can alter how you are feeling about yourself as a parent/person or how you feel about your child as a human being, then things are getting too personal. This is when it is time to step back and take a look at things from a wider viewpoint.  The key to turning things around is catching yourself in the act and paying attention to it.

Here are two examples of how to spot when you are taking things too personally:

1) Getting emotionally involved with your children’s language accomplishments.

Do you find that when your children make the same grammatical error for the 100th time that you feel hopeless?  You have been correcting them over and over again, why haven’t they learned by now!  All of your efforts have been for nothing!  Or if another native speaker of your language comments negatively about your children’s language skills, do you feel an anger and justification welling up inside you?

If these types of situations resonate with you, then you are most likely coupling your children’s language accomplishments with your own sense of self-worth.  Your children’s language abilities are something that your children own and develop with your help but they are doing the growing and developing.  Just do your best to provide your children with the essentials (see this article) and let the results come as they may.

2) Keeping up with the multilingual Joneses

For those who live in the United States, a common expressed is “to keep up with the Joneses,” which basically means our desperate attempts to stay on par with those in our communities and social circles.  When it comes to multilingual parenting, things are no different.  We often want to make sure that we are meeting the standards of other multilingual families in our midst. However, this can be a dangerous undertaking when our children are the yardsticks against which we base our measurements.

What do you feel when another multilingual parent talks about his or her child and lists accomplishments that your child of the same age and gender hasn’t even started to master?  What about when you read something on a multilingual parenting forum that makes you feel that your child is “behind” in some way, shape or form?

What to Do?

If these situations fill you with the urge to sit your child down and start drilling verb declensions until the cows come home, then you need to take a breather and realize the consequences of what you are doing.  The article about multilingual envy can really help dig down to what might be the real reason your child’s perceived lack of language skills is bothering you.

The key is remembering that this is not a race!  Let your child develop along his or her own path.  Most importantly, do not to let the accomplishments of others negatively influence your relationship with your children. You, your child and your family are each unique in their own right. Be grateful for that!

What are your multilingual benchmarks for your child?

As we put a lot of heart and soul into our multilingual parenting, it is not surprising that we have expectations for where we believe our children should be along their multilingual journeys.  When they aren’t where we expect they should be, we often take this as a reflection of ourselves: our skills as parents, our ability to pass on language and culture to our children and so much more.

Figure out what your expectations are for your children and then decouple this from how you perceive yourself and your children as human beings.  Once you do that, it is easier to adjust your expectations.

The sooner we remind ourselves that we are all still perfect human beings no matter how multilingual our children are, the sooner we can allow our linguistic mastery to wax and wane without taking it so very personally.

Most of all, remember that living multilingually is a journey, not a race!

Do you feel that you take your children’s multilingualism personally sometimes?  What are some specific examples?  Have comments from others ever triggered a strong response in you?  What were the comments and how did they trigger you?

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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lila November 2, 2010 at 8:24 am

Thank you for this interesting article!
I recongised myself in many points you mention since I realise I am sometimes emotionally affected when my daughter refuses to speak my language!

She is French as her father and while we lived in Paris she obviously learned more French than Spanish, my mother tongue.
For example, I felt very frustrated when she called me “maman” instead of ‘mama’.

She is still little, only 19 months and I can notice she is able to understand what I say in Spanish, but she says more words in French.
Sometimes I am sure she knows exactly a Spanish word but she just DOESN’T want to say it and she just says it in French even if I keep on repeating it all the time.
So, as you exposed, I tend to feel guilty, not giving her enough input…and a little bit stressed.

Now we moved to England and French is still dominant. At the nursery, she understands simple things as ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ or ‘kiss’ but she stills says them in FRENCH…so, it is a bit strange seeing her waving ‘au revoir’ while everybody is saying ‘bye’ . She has perfectly understood they have the same meaning, and again as with Spanish, she refuses.

I don’t know how to help her with English, we follow the OPOL system at home and I am afraid she ‘ll have problems at school later.

Thank you!


2 Abdul Hameed March 31, 2011 at 12:09 am

Dear Lila
as you told she refusing spanish, and catch French, it means she is more suitable for french, suppose ! you want to speak spanish, why not french? and you feel frustrate, same like this she feel easy to speak french and feel hard to say in spanish! as like you! she also has her personality and right to choose what she feel easy! also this is the matter of genetics, she is by born french speaker!.
so never mind if she not speak spanish, after some time when she will grow up and can realize more better so she will speak.


3 Kate April 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Please don’t get stressed! Your daughter is very young, you know. She’ll speak Spanish eventually, but the more you make it a chore for her, the longer it will take. Play with her, read to her, let her watch suitable cartoons in Spanish and one day, she’ll use it happily. Don’t worry about helping her at school with her English, and don’t make the mistake of speaking in English to her on the advice of her teacher or doctor. Her peers and teachers, the world outside your window will teach her better than you ever can. Be happy that she understands you (no small thing!) and be patient and enjoy her. I’m sure she’s a lovely little lady.


4 Jill May 14, 2013 at 11:57 am

Thank you for this article. I definitely am someone who can fall prey to this issue. I am American and my husband is Portuguese. We live in America and are attempting to raise our 3 year old son speaking English and Portuguese. This has become quite a struggle because my husband basically forgets all the time to speak to him in Portuguese. This is a constant source of frustration for me and even when I prompt him to speak in PT, he still forgets! As a result, we are both discouraged by our son’s comprehension and especially by the fact that he basically says zero words in Portuguese. I speak fluent French because I spend the early part of my childhood in France. I know how much of a gift it is to be bilingual and I was so happy when my husband and I got together because I believed I would be able to give my children the same experience I had. My husband is on board with everything, in theory, but I continue to struggle to get him to understand that bilingualism should be a top priority in our house, along with him learning his ABCs and learning to share and brushing his teeth! I don’t think my husband can quite grasp this because he did not grow up bilingual. He learned English as a grown up and speaks fluently and with almost no accent. I did not consider raising our son speaking French because I felt Portuguese should be the priority so that our son could communicate with his family in Portugal and connect to his Portuguese culture. Things are not going as I had hoped (though I am constantly coming up with new strategies on how to help with his language development so I’m not giving up) and in the meantime I have started speaking to our 4 month old in French! We’ll see where it goes…


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