The ABCs of Multilingual Parenting: The Letter N

by Corey · 6 comments

N is for… Negotiate!

You’re right. I’m right. We’re both right, right? Now what? Looks like it’s time to call in our good old friend Negotiation.

When it comes to multilingual parenting, the “elephant in the room” (i.e. the thing that is obvious but rarely acknowledged and addressed) is that there are more people involved in our language adventure than just us. We often seem to forget this fact. Or we ignore it. But it is big and it is right there in front of our faces. Do we think we can control a situation like this with sheer will-power?

Look at this list of people who may be directly involved:

  • spouse
  • children
  • our parents
  • our spouse’s parents
  • other family members
  • nanny/daycare provider.

Then there are the following that also come into play:

  • children’s teachers
  • neighbors
  • other parents
  • community members
  • well-meaning cashier at the grocery store
  • guy on the bus
  • “expert” who works at the university
  • … and on and on.

This is a far cry from you, alone, making some decisions, putting together a plan and then simply following it through. Raising multilingual children is never done in isolation. Never.

The key is to have a plan, but to also be able to negotiate with everyone involved. Ideally you will find ways to make others want to carry out your plan on their own accord. However, the most important is this: negotiation means learning to pick your battles. Let the little things go. Stay strong for the important ones.

Here are some examples:

“My children won’t speak my language with me!”

  • Battle status: Big
  • Power to change: Low
  • This is a big issue in multilingual parenting. If your children were to use their language with you, then they’d have continual opportunities to strengthen it! Gosh darn it!
    However, the truth is, you have little control over this (short of threatening or using bribes). What you do have control over, is you.  Let your kids speak whatever they want but let them know that you are going to speak your language no matter what. And then use some masterminding to make your language as useful and appealing as possible without them knowing it. Let them come to you. Be warned, it may take some time but it will be worth it!

“My spouse won’t speak my language with the children.”

  • Battle status: Big
  • Power to change: Minuscule
  • Did your spouse say that he/she was going to speak his/her native language with the kids? Short of a written and signed contract, you are going to have to tread this issue carefully. If your spouse feels pressured, cajoled, forced, manipulated or anything like that, he/she is most likely going to resist forever.
    Try to appeal with love and understanding. Show the research and explain why your heart breaks that your spouse won’t speak his/her language with the kids. Find out why your spouse is uncomfortable speaking the language. Do what you can to figure out what would motivate your spouse the most and appeal along those lines. See if you and your spouse can come up with a plan: speaking the language on certain days, in the evening, on weekends?
    After all of this, you need to step back and give it some time to work its magic. And if after giving it time, your spouse still doesn’t want to, then see what you can do to bring the language into your child’s lives. That in itself might actually inspire your spouse to join in.

“My neighbor points out my child’s grammatical mistakes.”

  • Battle status: Small
  • Power to change: Medium
  • There is almost always a well-meaning neighbor/acquaintance/friend around who likes to point things out which get under our skin and drive us crazy! However, in the whole scheme of things, this is small. It’s like that annoying fly that buzzes around our head and won’t go away.
    To deal with it, we have thre options:
    (1) just ignore it. Each time one of the comments come, immediately think of something positive in your head to counteract it.
    (2) Tell the person that you understand that they like to point out mistakes that your child is making but it isn’t really helping anyone. Tell them you are aware of the mistakes. Say, “thank you” and change the subject. If the person continues, then be more direct the next time around and say that you want them to stop. Period.
    (3) Avoid the person as much as possible.

These are just a few of the many situations with which you may come into contact. Remember that these kinds of situations won’t go away. You will need to negotiate your way through each one of them, one at a time. Have your battle gear on to protect yourself but don’t strike a blow unless it is absolutely necessary. Aim for a peaceful negotiation first. Remember that you often can catch more flies with honey. Honestly!

We are going through the alphabet one letter at a time, multilingual-style! Join in the fun and add your own ideas, suggestions and tips in the comments below that begin with today’s letter! Check out all of the ABC’s of Multilingual Parenting posts so far!

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.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maureen May 24, 2011 at 1:39 pm

No! Nein! Non! No!

Whatever the language, any young, defiant kid will make his wishes (or lack thereof) known.


2 Corey May 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm

LOL, Maureen – I love it! I almost went this direction for the post but decided on “negotiate” at the last minute. 😉 “Nein” was the very first word that my first son spoke – tells a lot about his personality!


3 Antonia May 24, 2011 at 2:22 pm

N is for NICE post Corey!
I feel your second example could have been personally inspired by my dilemma!


4 Corey May 24, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Thank you, Antonia! I can imagine that the second example resonates! What is interesting is that so many people are in EXACTLY the same predicament as you are. In each of my Raising Bilingual Children seminars, there is at least one person or couple there with this exact same “problem.” It is such a hard balancing act, isn’t it? I hope that once you embark on your efforts your husband will realize that he can participate on his own terms (and will see how much he can offer). Sometimes it is just a matter of us being able to decide how, when, where, etc. we want to share our language. But, of course, each person is so very unique! Let us know how things go!!


5 Lori Nolasco May 25, 2011 at 4:32 am

This reminds me of a story I heard about a child with a German father and an American mother. Each parent used his/her native language with the child, who became used to this pattern. One time when the mother used the “wrong” language, the child became upset. The “culprit” was the word “Voeglein” or “Voegelchen”; the child shouted, “Nein! Nein! Du sagt ‘birdie!'” ((No! No! You say ‘birdie!'”)
This situation caught my attention: 1) The child addressed the mother in the father’s language 2) to tell her that she was supposed to be using English!

By the way, this is the extent of my German. I took one semester in college, am able to sing in German and use clear diction, and can write and say very simple sentences.


6 Antonia May 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Lori – that’s a lovely story! The first time I tried to speak to my children in Spanish after always using English they were HORRIFIED!


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