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).
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?