Multilingual Road Trip! When Languages Collide

by Corey · 6 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: TDC Digital

As we mentioned in Multilingual Road Trip! The Answer to Living Multilingually, we are on a road trip along the Pacific Coast right now. We started in Seattle and made our first stop at Crater Lake. Gorgeous!

We then continued on to San Francisco to stay with my childhood friend (the hot fudge sundaes at Ghirardelli Square are amazing!).

The next stop along the way was Santa Cruz, where we visited my aunt and uncle (and also home of my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz).

Finally we arrived at the home of my youth in Nevada City which is where my brother still lives. Ahhh, home sweet home. This is the first time I have been here since my mother died.

We Are All Tourists

I love to travel.

There is something so wonderful about moving through new places and being amidst different people. I embrace the novelty of so many new smells and sounds. In one day’s drive we experienced the sweltering heat of inland cities followed by the cool wind and misty fog of Bodega Bay Head just as the sun was going down.

I feel comforted when surrounded by a variety of languages while traveling. There is a distinct beauty in the mix that occurs when languages and cultures come together naturally and organically. As we viewed San Francisco from the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, elbow to elbow with people from all around the world, we felt right at home.

We talked with only a few yet witnessed one another continually and completely. Each of us beamed at one another with the acknowledgment of the beauty of the scene before us. Together we were one world. We came together in a single expression of humanity. So, so lovely.

Language Is Power

Aside from the amazing changes in landscape, the the most interesting aspect of this visit to family and friends has been the beauty of languages and the power they give us. My children reminded me, once again, that language is something that we wield fully and completely.

Language is power.

If we have ever doubted the power of language, all we need to do is to take a moment to witness our children and their desire, or lack thereof, to speak our language(s). Language really is a powerful tool and our children know to wield it.

While visiting family and friends in California, my children specifically chose when they were going to speak English in front of their family and friends and when they were going to speak German. My children loved doing the latter, expecting me to translate for non-German speakers (and correcting me if I didn’t translate to their liking).

The variety of responses to my children’s language choices was diverse: Some of our family members laughed and simply waited for the translation. Others teased sweetly, giving my children silly pouting faces to show that they felt left out. Others made it clear that they felt disappointed that they could not understand what my children were saying and didn’t like to be left out. Such a mix of emotions! Such a clash of languages!

What To Do?

I am never sure what exactly to do in these situations. I find myself teetering in the middle: I want my children to feel empowered by their language and to use it as it feels most comfortable. Yet, on the other hand, I also want my children to be kind and empathetic to how their family and friends must feel.

I expect my children to say “please” and “thank you.” I expect them to treat others with respect and appreciation. So, wouldn’t speaking in a common language with monolingual family members fit into the same category?

I don’t know.

I don’t have an overarching answer for these situations. I refuse to insist that my children speak English around their English-speaking, yet I also try to appeal to their empathy: “Your uncle feels a little left out when he can’t understand what you are saying to all of us at the table. You don’t have to speak English when your uncle is in the conversation but he such would feel more included.”

I don’t think that telling my children this makes them feel less linguistically empowered. In fact, I believe that it makes them feel more so. I believe that this makes them even more aware of the power that their language holds. It isn’t our responsibility to make everyone feel comfortable but it is essential that we consider the environment and the people in it. Even if my children choose not to speak English when their uncle is around, at least they will have given the matter some thought. At least they will have taken a moment to think about why he might feel a little left out.

Despite my questioning, I find this whole language collision beautiful and fascinating. I am delighted that we have the privilege to have to deal with this situation – the joy of being multilingual!

How do your and your children deal with visiting relatives that only speak one language? Do your children prefer one language over the other? Do you get frustrated with your children or your extended family members/friends?

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 Beth Ortuno September 7, 2011 at 6:10 am

I think by not being sure what to do in these situations you feel somewhat stressed being in that position but really, you are going at it with the right attitude exactly. It’s important to be flexible enough, with what the kids themselves want to do, that they don’t start feeling like speaking a certain language is a dreaded chore. Maybe they want to go one way or another for reasons they can’t articulate, but when you are flexible you’re giving them to understand they are important too. We are lucky in our family that the pouty-face types are not the ones we are especially close with, anyway. All the same, family is family and there are important lessons there for kids -gently – that if everybody can compromise a little, that’s what it’s about.


2 Corey September 8, 2011 at 12:40 am

Lovely response, Beth! You are so right about the need to be flexible with our children, especially when traveling. My children are already shy so expecting them to feel comfortable in one new situation after another is even more difficult for them (even if the people we are visiting are dear family and friends)!

I appreciate knowing others out there who embrace linguistic flexibility! Thank you for taking the time to share reassurance, encouragement and understanding!


3 Ana Paula G. Mumy September 9, 2011 at 7:27 am

In my bilingual family (Portuguese/English), I don’t expect those who feel more comfortable speaking in Portuguese to stop speaking (even if they can speak English), but I do take it upon myself to become the interpreter when I sense others are feeling uncomfortable or left out. For example, it feels “unnatural” and awkward for me to speak to my parents in English (even though they can now speak English fluently) because our language of interaction has always been Portuguese even though we’ve been in the U.S. for 20+ years. So again, I do what comes natural but with a sensitivity towards others and the need to interpret at times.


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Thank you for this comment, Ana! I love what you write about making the effort to notice if others are feeling left out and doing what feels right to you to help them feel more included. Helping others feel included can create truly meaningful bonds between family and friends, ones that can last a lifetime. I’ve noticed that when people feel left out, NOT helping them feel more comfortable only fuels their belief that they ARE being left out. Sharing a bit about the conversation or why everyone is laughing/having a great time shows them that they are not being excluded on purpose. Thank you for this wonderful reminder!


5 Sheila September 11, 2011 at 12:03 am

I grew up in a multilingual family, too. I agree that it’s not our responsibility to make everyone feel comfortable but being flexible and considerate helps. We can’t help it if there will be people who will pout at us when we talk in another language, even if it’s just a short phrase. As long as we don’t intentionally make them feel left out, right? I think it’s great, too, how you’re raising your multilingual children.


6 Corey January 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Thank you for sharing this, Sheila! You are right that helping others feel comfortable can sometimes go too far (and then WE become resentful since our efforts are simply brushed aside). We want to be able to chat amongst ourselves without always having to translate and we would hope that people we know/love would trust that we aren’t talking about them behind their back or purposely leaving them out of the conversation. You are right on: the most important thing that we can do is to make sure that we aren’t purposely leaving others out. Such a great point!


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