The Language of Identity

by Corey · 14 comments

Corey, in white and red dress, at her fourth birthday party

By Corey Heller

My mother once asked me how I could feel comfortable raising my children in a language other than my native language.  Being unprepared for this inquiry, my response was defensive.

Instead of using my mother’s question as a spring-board for deeper discussion, I attacked her as being unable to understand the importance of creating a home where my children would consistently hear my husband’s native language spoken.  I assumed that she was unable to comprehend the value and beauty of providing her grandchildren the richness of a second language.

Ironically, at the time of my mother’s inquiry, I only had a vague image of what, exactly, my husband and I were trying to provide for our children.  It was driven by a deep sense inside of me that what I was doing was necessary, both for my children and for myself.

My mother’s question has stuck with me over the years and I have tried repeatedly to answer it for myself.

Speaking German

I am different when I speak German.  I am not a different person. Instead, it is as if I put on different set of clothing: instead of my jeans, I slip on my slacks, and my loafers are replaced by pumps.

Neither is better or worse.  They are just different.

This transformation which takes place in me doesn’t specifically come from the language itself. It comes from my associations embedded within and surrounding the language. It connects me to another, very important, part of who I have become.

I can still remember clearly my first days in Kiel, Germany.  It was the Fall of 1993 and there was a thick, sweet smell in the air from damp leaves covering the ground.

I couldn’t speak more than a few words of my future husband’s language and I knew nothing of his culture. We had met in Ireland the year before – a sort of “common ground” where he and I were both visitors in a foreign land, swirling in the expanse of a foreign culture.

I figured that after having learned to live in Ireland for a year, living in Germany couldn’t possibly be so different.  Right?

Wrong! Nothing prepared me for what was to come.

Nothing prepared me for the four hours a day, five days a week of German-language immersion class, where I’d hear sounds and words and sentences that were absolutely meaningless to me.  I was a child learning her first utterances, learning how to speak all over again as others around me in class tested their own burgeoning language skills.

For the first time in my life, I was forced to use one word commands to get my needs met, “milk”, “drink”, “want”, on a daily basis.

I prepared and repeated basic sentences that I’d need as I planned my daily activities outside our little apartment. I was always hoping no one would ask me any questions and if they did, maybe, just maybe, this one time they’d instinctively know I was American and just ask me in English.

At night, out of sheer exhaustion from what most would consider far less than a normal day’s activities, I’d sleep for more than 12 hours… and then I’d start over again the next day.  Learning German was a battle and it took no prisoners.

Language Evolution

But as the year progressed, things slowly evolved.  I started to fit in.  I began to understand more and more of what was being said to and around me.  Before I knew it, my conversations were switching from English to German and I was able to converse as a more mature member of society.

I was delighted with my accomplishments: having started from scratch, I was really, honestly learning a new language and was coming to truly understand another culture.

Soon I was comfortably meshing with my every day meanderings. I felt confident and secure and was even looking forward (most of the time) to opportunities where I could share my own personal insights in this new language.

Along with my growing language confidence, I realized how much I had come to appreciate the German culture, with its clear-cut delineations for how and where everything fits into place. I was feeling the warmth that comes when a new culture begins to feel like home.

Yet, together with this new found confidence and sense of belonging, I began to pine for the country where my native language was spoken.  I wanted to return home, just for a while.  It felt as if the pull of my new language and culture needed to be balanced with that which was old and familiar.

I was missing something, even though I wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was. I knew that Germany had won me over and that we were very good friends but I had a longing to set foot on California soil: to visit my childhood home in the Sierra Nevada mountains, to smell the salty air of my college town.

A little less than a year after I had arrived in Germany, I returned to the US to finish the last year of my Bachelor’s degree in Ancient History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was delighted to once again be able to speak sentences that came naturally and comfortably, to see places that were deeply familiar, to hug family and friends that I had known since childhood.

During the first few weeks, I felt enveloped in safety and comfort and familiarity.  Yet, I also started to realize just how much I had changed during my years abroad.

A year in Ireland followed by a year in Germany had left their imprints on me. I had tasted the richness of belonging to different cultures, of speaking a new language and I couldn’t go back to being who I had been before.

There were words and sentence structures, ways of being and socializing and foods that had come to define me. I knew then that I would never, ever, ever be fully content with any one language and limited by only one culture.  It was extremely unnerving at first, to say the least, and still hasn’t complete dissipated.


To answer my mother’s question as to why I speak German with my children is still difficult for me to describe with words.  There are too many layers to the answer and to strip away each to get to the bottom of it would do no good.  It is the interconnected whole which creates the beauty.

Ultimately, to speak German in America with my children is a necessity for me. It is my way of keeping my full self completely alive; of balancing the rich and robust elements of who I have become.

To not speak German with my children, to not celebrate German culture while in the U.S. would be to deny an important part of myself; to relegate myself to a single dimension.

And I don’t believe any of us want to be defined by a single attribute as a complete statement of fact: she is “rich”, “poor”, “depressed”, “joyful”. We search for a fuller existence riddled with ridges and valleys. This is what makes us fully human.

Will my children ever hear the words, “I love you”? Will they ever associate this sentence with the depth and meaning with which I associate it?

Yes, they will hear these words from me and they will hear these words from their grandmother and uncle and friends. But they will also hear the sentence, “Ich habe dich lieb” and hopefully have an equal association with it.

They will be offered broad, intertwining resources for expression and meaning. I will speak German with my children and we will raise them as Germans as much as possible.

But at the same time I will also be raising my children as Americans.  Along the way they will hear me speak English with them and learn to fit into the American culture where they live.  We are a bilingual family, a place where two languages are spoken, where two cultures intertwine.

Our Special Gifts

Children who grow up in a monolingual society with more than one language are offered something extremely valuable.

Experts agree that a child who has at his or her disposal words and concepts in two different languages will be more accustomed to understanding and accepting the innate complexities that exist in this world. They will more easily grasp the concept that just as there is more than one word for items and concepts, there is also more than one way to solve a problem, more than one way to view an issue, and more than one way to define themselves and others.

Who can deny that a three year old child who can make herself known in two languages while retaining the full cultural meaning in each, without losing nuances, without simply translating words, will have been given a priceless gift?

We owe it to our children to offer them this gift, bit by bit as they grow.

But beyond the abilities these children will gain, they will have been given something so much more valuable: They will have been given the opportunity to live in two cultures and to make them both their own.

For our bilingual children, bridging the gap between their two different worlds will come naturally and comfortably. They will come to love Oma in Germany and Grammy in the US, Onkel in one language and Uncle in the other.

Their perception of the world, their concept of diversity, their understanding of identities will, by default, far exceed my own.

And when Grammy says, “I love you” to each of my children, they will be filled with that special warmth only matched by their Oma saying, “Ich habe dich lieb” to each in turn.


My mother passed away three years after I wrote this post for Multilingual Living Magazine in 2005.  “I love you” are three words that I use more often these days with my children to help keep her legacy alive in us all.

Do you raise your children in a language that you learned later in life?  Does anyone in your family find this strange?  What makes you take on this amazing task of raising your children in a non-native language?  Please share your thoughts with us!

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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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa August 11, 2010 at 6:08 am

“A battle that took no prisoners” – THIS. Good grief, this. And intensive language classes every day until grammar patterns and vocabulary burst out the top of your head.

I remember my mother asking shortly before my wedding, “Doesn’t it bother you that for the rest of your life, the first words that come to your mind will be English, and the first words that come to his mind will be Slovak?” I didn’t have a very succinct answer other than, “Um, no?” but I tried to express that I thought it wouldn’t always be as clear-cut as that, that eventually the language can be like a second skin and different languages might come more naturally with different people (I speak English with this friend, but Czech with that friend, and have trouble spitting out an English sentence when friend #2 is around). I didn’t have much evidence for this at that point, because I wasn’t far enough along, but several years later I would say it’s holding fairly true. 🙂

Thanks for this!


2 Corey August 16, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Melissa, thank you so much for your comment! It is so wonderful to know that others out there understand what it feels like to have others that we love question us on things like this which we feel so strongly about (yet which seems so illogical on some level). So wonderful to be able to share this journey with you – thank you for your blog and everything you share with us!!


3 Karolena August 11, 2010 at 11:01 am

“There were words and sentence structures, ways of being and socializing, and foods that had come to define me. I knew then that I would never, ever, ever be fully content with any one language and limited by only one culture. ” – Yes! I think this expresses perfectly the way I feel about being bilingual and why it’s so important to me, even though I grew up in a monolingual family and culture and have no (visible) ties to Latin America. I feel nostalgic for foods and cultures I’ve experienced abroad and really make an effort to include them in my life here in America. My husband accused me, “You really think you’re Hispanic, don’t you?” No, I know I’m not, but, as you said, I am not content or limited with one culture!


4 Corey August 16, 2010 at 10:27 pm

What a fabulous comment, Karolena! It is amazing how something can become a part of us even though we didn’t grow up with it. If we think about it… it is like our spouse or our children – we weren’t born with them in our lives yet our love for them is deeper than anything. I think it is fabulous that you continue with your love affair with Latin America! It makes life so much more magical and magic is what it is all about, isn’t it!? Plus, it is this magic which inspires our children to want to share in our love of language and culture!


5 Chelsea September 21, 2010 at 11:39 pm

I love this post. I was an exchange student in Portugal after graduating high school in the US, and now I’m back in the US with an American boyfriend and I’m still missing Portugal every day. I’m so proud of the command I now have for the Portuguese language. It’s not perfect, but it would be such a waste to not share it. I consider my host family to be family, and I want my son to be able to communicate with them as well.

I feel so alone sometimes speaking a minority language that isn’t even “my own” (to an outsider) so this post made me very happy. Thank you for sharing your story 🙂


6 Corey November 19, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Thank you for your comment, Chelsea! Yes, it does feel lonely sometimes, doesn’t it? Of course, I have my German husband so I have a good “excuse” to use German. But on the other hand, people wonder why I speak German when my husband is around to do it. They fail to understand what it feels like to have made the effort and fallen in love with another language. It is truly a love affair of its own texture and substance. It is a delight to be in contact with others who understand this and appreciate it. Thank you for sharing!


7 Shannon October 15, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Corey, I adore this post and how well you captured the admittedly vague but undeniably strong IDENTITY-related reasons that some of us raised in just one culture and one language can have for wanting — even needing — to have multilingual, multicultural lives later on. I grew up in rural Arkansas, for crying out loud(!), but my experiences in Japan and China and my marriage to a Peruvian have most definitely changed my core identity, and I wouldn’t want it any other way!


8 Corey November 19, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Yes, it is so much about identity… something really deep down that we wouldn’t ever be able to truly untangle from who we are. That makes it so beautiful, yet also kind of frightening (at least I find). It makes me feel a little helpless – like it has a hold of me in a way that I can’t control. But as you said, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I can’t even imagine what it would be like without it. Thank you so much for your comment – I am so delighted to be connected to others who feel the same!


9 Clare Maree October 28, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Wow! That was spooky. Reading this article, I felt like I was reading about myself. You encapsulated so completely my own feelings about my and my children’s language acquisition. My own identity is completely wrapped up in my ability to speak Japanese well and often, in a way that my monolingual family and friends really don’t appreciate. The part about raising our children bilingually being a precious gift also spoke volumes to me. That has always been the way I have seen it. Maybe my children don’t yet see it that way, but I am so hoping that they will when they are older.
I have only just found this website. We have been on this bilingualism journey for ten years now and I never before realised the wealth of knowledge and experience that is out there. I look forward to exploring the site in more detail.


10 Corey November 19, 2010 at 10:48 pm

I am so glad you found Multilingual Living, Clare! Mainly out of selfish reasons: one more person for ME to connect with! 🙂 This community of multilinguals is just so fantastic!

I know what you mean about our children not necessarily appreciating this precious gift that we can pass onto them. Of course, maybe the fact that they simply take it for granted is the indication that we ARE doing something right? I wonder if they will ever have the same appreciation for their multilingualism as we do for ours – they are growing up with it, they don’t have a need to fight for it as we do.


11 Kate February 1, 2011 at 10:50 am

I just loved reading this post. It really made me stop and thing about WHY I am speaking German with my son. I’m not a native speaker either, but the language and culture have become a part of me, too. How could I not share that with my son? It would be like not sharing my love of music or books – unthinkable!
I have been fortunate enough to have complete support of my family, on both sides. It boggles my mind that anyone would think it a bad idea to speak more than one language with your child!
Now, if only I could make my husband understand how amazing it is to share a language with our son. He’s from the Netherlands but does not speak Dutch with our son. He actually feels more comfortable in English than his native language (I know that will never happen to me in German!). He claims that once our son begins to speak more, he’ll feel more comfortable conversing with him in Dutch. I hope he’s right!


12 George de Moraes March 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm

“. I will speak German with my children and we will raise them as Germans as much as possible.” Great! I’m a Brazilian Dad talking French to my dear 1 year old daugther and, yes, when I say “je t’aime” it’s just like when I say “eu te amo” to my Mother.


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