How to keep our languages alive while living abroad

At my kitchen table conversation– session I held at the 20th FIGT conference this year in The Hague I focused on the languages we collect during our life, and how we can keep them alive while living abroad, in different countries.

Why kitchen table conversation?

Because that’s where all began 20 years ago at Ruth van Reken’s kitchen table. I wanted to honor the format where all began, because I, myself, have the most significant conversations and discussions at my own kitchen table. Of course, the one at the venue of the conference was not a real “kitchen table”, but we had a great discussion about “my” topic.

Ruth van Reken at FIGT 2018 in The Hague

How can we keep our languages alive?

Many international families struggle to maintain their home languages if they are not among the most dominant ones, i.e. if they are not English and sometimes Spanish, French and German, depending on the country they live in. What seems an easy task for the first years of a child can become a real challenge once the children attend daycares and schools who don’t provide sufficient support in the other language.

I see this every day with my clients and friends: our children are tired from school and rarely find the after school classes in their home languages pleasant, fun. Many families send their children to weekend schools, where, once again, they will sit down and “learn” a language that, in other circumstances and settings would just “come natural to them”: they would be fully immersed, literally showered by it.

For all these families, maintaining their language can become a great issue. If they don’t find a community that speaks this language, or they don’t connect with this community for different reasons, parents find themselves as being the only ones of providing linguistic input for their children.

Moreover, speaking a language in a restricted group, i.e. among family members, doesn’t allow the language to “breathe”: we tend to use the same kind of vocabulary because we tend to speak about the same topics, our language “shrinks”, like a plant would shrink and wither, if we don’t nurture it.

For our children it is even more important to have regular and diverse input in our home language as they are still building their vocabulary, they are still becoming “natively fluent” in the language, which, as we know, takes up to 8 years of constant, daily (!) practice.

What if:

  • our children don’t speak their language with peers?
  • the daycare or school doesn’t support our home language?
  • weekend lessons are not enough to foster the language or are not an option?
  • our partner or extended family can not support our language?

Then this language will stagnate or die.

I have seen this many times when I was a child, and throughout my work with multilingual families: languages are abandoned because it is too much to ask to one person or a small group of persons to work on it, and if it is about more than one or two languages within the same family it becomes almost impossible to maintain them.

This is why I recommend to be very clear about the following points: 

– what language is important for our family – because extended family, friends speak it? 

who talks this language on a daily/weekly basis with our children and us?

– what are the short and long term goals for all our languages qua fluency?

Are these language goals and expectations S.M.A.R.T.?

Many multilingual families struggle with agreeing on the languages they want to prioritize. Should we keep Swissgerman or prefer German or Italian instead? Should I learn my partners’ language? What if we move to a country where none of our languages are spoken, where there is no community in that language? – I help families maintain their languages on the move, make short and longterm plans

Language lives, changes over time, adapts to new circumstances and needs to be nurtured if we want to keep it alive.

How can we make sure that we keep our languages alive? 

  • By speaking them on a regular basis – daily would be perfect, but weekly needs to be enough sometimes.
  • By not listening to the no-sayers, those who tell us that it is too difficult to keep up with all those languages, and by following those who, like us, want to enjoy our languages and see them grow.
  • By thinking out of the box: if we can’t immerse into the language by traveling to places where it’s spoken, form our micro-world in our home.
  • By finding other speakers on- and offline, and talking about topics that challenge us to learn new words, new concepts. Our vocabulary will grow by repeating new words in different contexts, learning new registers of the language, jokes, metaphores, how to do maths in all our languages.

With our languages it is like with our cultures: we shouldn’t have to choose one or two of them to call “our own”, we have the right to choose them all.

Our languages shouldn’t be minoritized and marginalized. They all have a right to be spoken and heard.


Some thoughts & quotes about languages:

Knowing another language is like possessing another soul (Charlemagne)

The limits of my languages are the limits of my worlds ( adapted from Ludwig Wittgenstein)

I am all the languages I know, some I only understand, others I speak, read and write. (Ute Limacher-Riebold)

Languages are the vehicle of our thoughts, they open the door to the other culture, its values, beliefs, habits and so much more. (Ute Limacher-Riebold)

The development of language is part of the development of the personality, for words are the natural means of expressing thoughts and establishing understanding between people. (Maria Montessori)

Poetry is not a matter of feelings, it is a matter of language. It is language which creates feelings. (Umberto Eco)

– What about you?

– What are the languages you are nurturing and keeping alive?

– What are the obstacles you encountered while trying to keep your languages alive?

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