By Corey Heller
Over and over again I hear parents of multilingual children around the world sigh in frustration when they talk about their efforts. Day in and day out, week after week, year after year we do what we can to raise our children multilingually and multiculturally but it feels like we are having no impact – our children seem not to care one little bit about our efforts. They seem to just go along their merry little ways speaking whichever language they darn well please.
I can understand this frustration. I have experienced it myself.
As I watched my children switch bit-by-bit from German to English with one another, I felt an emptiness begin to form in the pit of my stomach. “Why?” I asked myself. “Why are they doing this? What did I do wrong? Don’t they care? Don’t they understand?”
Initially I wanted someone to blame. If I was doing everything by the book, then someone else must have caused this to happen!
I wanted to yell at the daycare lady when she told me that she had asked the kids to speak English at daycare so that she could understand them.
I wanted to yell at my mother when she said to the kids, “I don’t understand German but would love to know what you are talking about. Could you please speak English together when you are around me?”
I wanted to yell at the know-it-all who told me that if I had done this, that or the other thing then my children would be speaking German with one another.
I wanted to yell at those in-laws for calling us “the Americans” when we arrived and then assuming that my children couldn’t understand German very well.
I wanted to shake the whole, darn, arrogant, self-centered, bulking mass of the United States for being so unsupportive of bilingualism.
However, I didn’t.
I didn’t because I didn’t want to turn into a bitter woman. I didn’t because the thought of constantly being upset with everyone around me was exhausting.
Instead of trying to change the world around me, I asked myself why I was so upset, why I was so disappointed and why this all made me feel like a failure. Because the truth of the matter is that all of this has very little to do with my children and everything to do with me.
I want my children to understand where I am coming from, to comprehend my bilingualism, to embrace my biculturalism. I want them to share in this wonderful journey of which they have the privilege to be a part. But to make this happen, I need to accept the fact that they should take for granted that which I have worked so hard to cultivate both for myself and for them.
Ironically, if I want them to experience bilingualism and biculturalism on the deepest of levels, then it can not be something that they consciously appreciate, like a gift given at a birthday party, at least not at this age. It must be something that exists in them as part of their everyday lives. To come naturally, it must define them simply as a basic part of their personal architecture.
Like the ability to breathe air: if our family’s bilingualism is working properly, then my kids should feel that it happens effortlessly. Shouldn’t feel that bilingualism is a chore, a task or a special event.
So rather than yelling at the daycare lady, my mother, the know-it-all, my in-laws and the whole bulking mass of the United States, I turned my attention to the wide eyes of my little, non-compliant children. What I saw there were open, loving faces of wonderment looking up at me, ready to embrace another day with gusto.
Their eyes said it all: “Mama, we’re just living our lives without worrying so much about all of the details every minute of the day.”
And so I try to do the same.