Keep cool and stay bilingual



We can find many suggestions about how to support our children to become bilinguals* when they are toddlers, in preschool or primary school. But what happens when they are teenagers and young adults? Can we still support them with their family languages or other languages they’re learning along the way?

If culture was a house,

then language was the key to the front door,

to all the rooms inside

(Khaled Housseini)

Being bilingual and a teenager can be challenging, for both parents and children. Adolescence is a very intense period of physical and mental change, and all seems to revolve around finding an identity and fitting in with a group of friends.

How do teenagers juggle speaking two (or more) languages and belonging to two nationalities or cultures?

In my personal experience, talking two or more languages is not a problem per se during those years. Discovering literature in all the other languages I learned during my childhood and being able to really immerse into the cultures and the mindset of these cultures during holidays was (and still is!) very fascinating and enriching.

If we want our teenagers to stay  bilingual,

they need to know about the cultures

(Ute Limacher-RIebold)

What I found more challenging was the expectation locals would have. People would expect me to know what peers in that other culture and country would rave about.

My parents made sure that we would visit Germany once or twice per year for an extended period. They wanted to make sure that we could meet peers in order for us to get to know the culture through peers’ eyes, even if only for a few days.

I recall that despite very easy beginnings – after all, we all spoke the same language! – we would soon discover that we have different expectations. Locals would expect us to understand their slang, jokes and to know what they were talking about (TV shows, what is “in” etc.).

I quickly realised that I didn’t share the same taste in food, music, literature. I wouldn’t know about the latest movies, spots, sport idols. I wouldn’t know the newest gossips and soon feel alienated and “different”. Knowing that I didn’t have to stay for a long time, made me yet enjoy those moments and appreciate the short but intense friendships.

One year I had to stay 4 weeks alone with my extended family, with nobody to talk Italian with, to share my daily experience with teenage life in Germany. It was full immersion and my first reaction was to turn silent. I became a listener, an observer. I tried to fit in at every level: wearing the same clothes, eating the same things (although I didn’t always like it…), listen to their favourite songs and try to talk like they did. It was like discovering language from scratch. I remember talking with the local intonation, how it felt weird at first and became a habit within a few days. I realized that I was experiencing a shift: a shift in my personality. I wasn’t becoming someone else, I was discovering a skill I didn’t know I had. The skill to “fit in”, to blend in. These 4 weeks felt long and short at the same time. Long for I was away from home, from my friends and I didn’t get to speak “my” favourite language, Italian – except the few times we bought ice-creams but even there, the seller was 3rd generation Italian and he prefered talking German… Short, because I knew the day I left that this kind of life felt possible for me. I had never pictured myself living in Germany, but that summer I got a taste of what it would be to be German in Germany.


Nowadays, thanks to internet etc., being in touch with cultures around the world is much easier. – We can all access informations in no time and get a virtual impression of the “other” culture.

Today, I encourage my children to watch news from the different countries we want them to be more familiar with. They know about the idols, they understand – most of the – jokes and, up to now, do not feel alienated when they spend some days with peers in Germany or southern Switzerland (the Italian speaking part of Switzerland!) twice per year.
I know that peer pressure is very important and being the main reference for them who talks German and Italian, who explains the other cultures to them is not going to suffice. We have friends with children in my children’s age groups in southern Switzerland  and this helps already a lot. We don’t have the same in Germany when we visit their grandparents, but we have some German children in our community here in the Netherlands – which is not the same, of course, but better than nothing.

Some tips for parents who want to support their teens bilingualism and biculturalism:

  • bear in mind that teenagers rate peers higher than parents!
  • foster social networking: chatting via webcams is a great way to keep the other language alive. It is a great alternative to Saturday schools or parents teaching these languages at home!
  • be open minded when it comes to slang (and swearwords!). While growing up abroad, bilinguals will use the language in an “artificial context”. Allowing your child to use the slang their monolingual peers use, will help them fit in easier once you visit the country.
  • help them find resources to have access to the local slang.
  • make sure they know about the habits and values of peers in the other culture.
  • travel as often as you can to different places of your family languages and offer them opportunities to meet peers (by enrolling them in some local activities they like).
  • if you can’t travel that often and provide full language immersion, look out to other families that speak the same language where you live.
  • find pen-pals for your children – using social media may also be an option, but if you would like your children to improve their written skills in the other language(s), writing in the “old fashioned way” is advisable.

(* I use the term of bilingual also for plurilinguals.)

A previous version of this post was published on my other blog.


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