Why Don’t My Bilingual Children Care? Blame the Daycare Lady!

by Corey · 16 comments

Corey Heller with her children and brother, Thomas Spellman.

Corey Heller with her children and brother, Thomas Spellman.

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.

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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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shannon April 27, 2011 at 11:19 am

Love it, love it, love it, Corey!!!


2 LSabadosa April 27, 2011 at 11:25 am

Well said. I feel this way all the time. It’s my personal struggle as a parent to learn to let go of my own issues but, above all, to avoid passing them on to my child. But it’s a daily battle. You have my complete solidarity.


3 Alexandra April 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I have these same feelings every day, but I realized part of it is that old competition thing — I want my kids to be better and smarter than other kids, and part of that is being fluent in two languages instead of just one. Of course bilingualism is important, but how much of what drives me is the benefits and how much what other people will think?


4 Antonia April 27, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Thank you. I know you’re right.
However, no matter how many newspapers I read in Spanish, no matter how many other adults I speak to in Spanish (many of whom are speaking it as a second language too!) no matter how much I live my life without worrying about it -THEY WILL NOT BE BILINGUAL UNLESS I DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT NOW, WHEN THEY ARE SMALL. Sorry about the shouting. I cannot be anything but angry, passionate and convinced on this matter. (and I have spent the evening in a bar with other PTA mums discussing the merits of private versus state education and now the chip shop is closed and I have to eat home made hummous instead!)


5 Antonia April 28, 2011 at 10:09 am

Sorry about the shouting there! One too many wines last night I fear… :o)


6 Laura April 29, 2011 at 4:04 am

Very well put. I think we all share your frustrations as we go through our multilingual struggles! While my kids have started to play with each other for the most part in English, I do notice that if they have to tell the other one to stop something or follow their lead, they switch to Spanish.


7 Susanne April 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm

I know just how you feel! However, keep going, because when theyb are older they will understand what a gift a second language, a second culture really is.

I didn’t appreciate having to do French as a child, preferring Italian and English, and only as an adult I have gone back to studying, speaking and ultimately loving the language which felt like a chore when I was younger. This pattern is repeated with my own daughters, the eldest is 20 and has just rediscovered the books I tried to make her read as a teenager. The others are still at the resentful but resigned stage where they accept that in order to get a response from me they must speak German but among themselves they will switch to English.

I had to be firm with my in-laws at around 18-20 months when they made huge leaps in their language development as I felt it was important to concentrate on the”weaker” language; we had no contact with them for about 5 weeks (normally we met them 2-3 times a week) but I explained this to them well before the time came. Although they didn’t like it and have not been particularly supportive they accepted this was going to help their grandchildren.

Keep calm, keep going and they will eventually realise why you’re putting so much effort into this venture. And then they will accept the gift or live without it, the choice will be theirs ultimately, but you will have given them the choice!


8 Lilian April 30, 2011 at 7:37 pm

This post resonated with me BIG, HUGE time! πŸ˜‰ Just this evening at dinnertime my parents were berating us for dropping the ball on Portuguese, for speaking English to the kids, etc. I’m just very frustrated with trying to get the boys to be fully bilingual right now. And doubly frustrated because we won’t be going to Brazil this year. When we go next year, TWO and a half years will have passed since our last visit (which ended in January last year) — the longest time ever between trips. πŸ™ I should be thankful that we just bought a house and that’s why we can’t travel, but I still feel bad. Sorry for the negativity! I’m glad that you found some comfort & I hope I will too, somehow. Summer is just around the corner and I will try to be more diligent with the Portuguese this summer. Sigh.


9 Anna M. Wolleben May 3, 2011 at 12:42 am

My husband and I make a big effort to speak to our 2 y.o. son in our mother languages: German and Polish. But when we hear the answer in English or a new word in English from him, we are asking ourselves, what do we do wrong.
After reading some literature on Multilingualism I assume, the quantity of the input he gets is important. We lived in Canada for 5 years (he is born there) and now we are living in South Africa. But we keep talking to him in our languages and they will do their “job” in his brain;)


10 The Globetrotter Parent May 3, 2011 at 6:40 pm

i think your attitude is a good one.

That being said, I’m pretty sure that I would be changing daycares/schools if any teacher told my children that they couldn’t speak the minority language to each other. Bilingualism is a question of exposure – the amount of time children spend talking and listening to the language. I can have the most positive attitude possible and if the exposure isn’t there, bilingualism won’t happen.


11 Stella May 3, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Hi Corey: great story, I live in Australia and have raised 2 beautiful bilingual children; I also work building early childhood educators capacity about bilingualism and the the right of children/families to have their cultures and identities acknowledged in the learning process. Like you I have experienced times of frustration and many others of happiness, but I have being reassured by my kids that children are confident and capable learners and that THEY CAN GUIDE THEIR LEARNING. We are co-learners with them, and we can only make the learning journey fun, exciting and playful, providing a safe, nurturing and rich environment. At the end it will be their choice to decide how and when languages are useful, meaningful and valuable to them. I agree with you that there is not need to yell to people who doesn’t understand or know about bilingualism or that feel threatened by the presence of diversity, but we are never to remain silent. We need to keep advocating for bilingualism and diversity at large to be an asset for our children, community and society at large in our global village. I have and will continue to engage in conversations with those that have told me to stop speaking my home language, those that have told me that as part of learning ‘children shouldn’t speak their home languages’, or that is rude for children to speak in their home language because adults can’t understand what they are saying…. as these messages are charged with silent meaning that teach children something about their worth as individuals, their culture and languages.


12 Maureen May 3, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Thanks. I consider myself fortunate to have found this website, which has made me relax about the whole language thing. I’m blessed to live in a country (Switzerland) that recognizes four national languages (German, French, Italian, Romansch), introduces English early in school and adds to its own language diversity with all the spoken dialects of Swiss German. And while I’m pretty relaxed, I’m also comforted to know that my kids might just very well have a leg up in school, knowing Swiss German from daycare/daily outside life, German from my husband and English from me.


13 Kate May 18, 2011 at 10:58 am

Ahhhhhh. There is so much relief in what you’ve said. In fact, I find as a parent that most things go better when I just relax and trust my child. He’ll crawl, walk, talk, etc when he’s ready. And the more I push him, the more he pushes against me. So I love what you saw in your children’s eyes: “Mama, we’re just living our lives without worrying so much about it.”
Of course that doesn’t mean to stop making the effort. Or to stop encouraging them. (I agree that I’d probably look for a place to send my kids that allows them to speak their language.) When I was growing up, I don’t know how many times my parents encouraged/cajoled/bribed me to continue taking piano lessons. Of course, I eventually came to a place where I was grateful and now love to play. I imagine there will be times like that as I raise my own children. But for the most part, I guess the trick is to set the example and trust that our children will – as you say – acquire this feeling of biculturalism naturally.
I must also say, as a bilingual mother and a language teacher, I’m sorry to hear of the opposition so many face on this front. I’m so fortunate to have the support of extended family. I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who had a negative remark about my speaking German with my son. Granted, he’s only 18 months, so we haven’t been at it that long. So far, though, it seems rather normal. Even our playgroup is multi-lingual!


14 April November 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Oh, it is so true ! As Corey says, I also found out that it is much easier and less frustrating if I focus on making myr multilingualism part of our everyday and drop my language expectations from my children. This made the process for me much more fun and lifted a huge weight from my shoulders. As with everything, my job as a parent is to provide and guide to the best of my ability. I am sure in the years to come, my children will enjoy their multilingual background even more. I am now mainly trying to keep up with my oldest child’s interests in my mother language (books/ DVDs, CDs etc) so that he continues to be surrounded by interesting stuff in his second language. This will hopefully keep him involved in his second language.. Keep up the good work Corey πŸ™‚


15 Ana May 14, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Hi All,
I found myself in the story.
Two weeks ago a mum that is bringing her bilingual daughters up in English and Polish asked me how was I coping with the fact that our children’s teacher asked the class to speak English at home and not to watch tv in other languages.
In a school in great London where 43% of children speak English as a second language! I won’t be going back to Argentina this year as money is tight, but I look forward to a summer with long sunny days in Spanish.


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