If you have done everything you could possibly do to keep your home language alive, but your preteen or teenager doesn’t respond in your home language, or overtly states that “the home language is not cool” or “too difficult”, you may experience multilingual parenting fatigue.
Yes, I gave it a name!
I was the multilingual daughter who refused to respond in the home language (German) to my mother. She would ask me to “take all the time you need to find the right words. I’ll wait. But try to form the whole sentence in German only”…
I remember the sense of anger, frustration and inadequacy I felt when my mother walked away from me, not accepting my code-mixing… I knew that she understood all the languages I was mixing, so, why would she refuse “understanding” and listening to me?
I am now in the same situation, with my own teenage children. I know about raising children with multiple languages, about the different stages of language acquisition and learning, and about strategies to help our children maintain their languages. I know what research says, the best practices and strategies, but when it comes to our own children, it’s a whole other story!
When I help my clients find solutions to their struggles, I constantly switch between “best practices” and “alternative solutions” that seem more realistic. We can easily feel inadequate as parents if “research says that …% of the children respond positively to this strategy”, but ours don’t...
Also, I know (and can’t stress this enough!) that code-mixing is NOT a bad thing – and still love code-mixing and code-switching with my children and friends who share the same languages!
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that although we raise multilinguals and in an ideal world they (and we!) would be allowed to use all their languages interchangeably and still be understood, our society still requires us to “stick to one language” at a time. And it makes sense, don’t you think?
So, we need to raise multi-competent multilinguals, multilinguals who can adjust to a variety of situations, adjust their communication by using the right (expected!) language in the (expected) way to make sure the communication flows, misunderstandings are reduced to a minimum and “everyone is happy”.
But our children / teenagers / young adults are still learning these languages and they still need our help with figuring it all out.
My frustration level increases when my children constantly speak the school language, also in settings where we agreed that they should speak the home language. That’s where I wonder if they are still able to say those sentences in the target language, if it’s laziness or something else? And – that’s when my blood pressure levels reach a high…: “Why are they not making the effort to talk in one language at the time, like at school?!”
And then I hear myself saying “take all the time you need to find the right words. I’ll wait. But try to form the whole sentence in German only”; I sometimes add “let me know if I can help you”. This is the echo from the past. What I do NOT do is to walk away, or to make them feel inadequate. I don’t insist on this when they are tired, when the communication is flowing and at a high pace. I ask them to focus on the target language mainly in the weekends and when they’re in a good mood.
I’ve been fostering German, a bit Swiss-German, and supporting English and Dutch on a regular basis. There are days I feel exhausted, days where I wonder why I insist on asking them to hone their language skills in these (and other) languages? It’s not only because I love languages, I’m multilingual myself and I work on all my languages constantly, challenge myself by reading more complex articles and books, learn new languages etc. I do not expect my children to do the same. I really don’t. Since they were toddlers I decided not to push them, but to guide and support them (it’s my parenting style). Children’s agency is, in my opinion, the key to success in anything our children do and learn. For my children to be(come) fluent and confident in all their language, they must take their own journey of ups and downs, and at this point I only play the role of the supporter.
I think every parent experiences a kind of fatigue at some point. In the first years I experienced physical fatigue due to severe sleep deprivation, then there were years of battles against a too restrictive system at school, misunderstandings concerning multilinguals and raising multilingual children, not to mention bullying and other “stumble stones”.
Raising children with multiple languages is a long journey and we should allow ourselves some time outs every now and then. Those are the moments where we sit back and look at the results, at what our children have accomplished – language and non-language wise. And enjoy what we see!
My children can converse in all their languages, read and write in most of them (Swiss–German is not a written language!) to various extent, and that is enough.
When I feel the multilingual parenting fatigue, and, believe me, I felt it many many times, I look at the long-term goal. The one where my children will use the languages they need without fear of failure, or fear of making mistakes. They won’t be the one not sharing his or her opinion in a meeting because their language skills are “not perfect”, because they know that everyone has a say (a great side-effect of raising them in the Netherlands!).
When we started this journey, I wished that one day my children would love languages as much as I do, that they would understand that it is an incredible gift and privilege to grow up with multiple languages, that they will be thankful one day for the effort and energy they’ve put into fostering all their language. Now (2021) I can say that they are. They are proud to be able to make their new friend feel comfortable by speaking his language, to ask people for advice on the street in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium and all English speaking countries (with French and Italian need a bit more time to get used to).
We didn’t have supportive communities of German, Italian and Swiss-german speakers, where my children could have fully immersed, naturally, on a regular basis in conversations and confidently and proudly speak their languages. Not even my parents or parents in law managed to find a way to communicate regularly with them, build up a relationship through their languages that goes beyond small talk and basic communication skills.
Maybe, if my children were born a bit later and our extended family would have taken the chance to take interest in my children’s lives and interests, this would have been possible. I guess we all do what we can with the people in our life that are ready to support us.
The multilingual parenting fatigue is real. I observe it in many families that, like mine, try to maintain their home languages over decades whilst living abroad and rarely visiting the countries of the target languages.
We all need to remind ourselves (over and over, and over again…) that
- our children don’t need to be perfectly fluent in all their languages
- the most important thing is that they enjoy speaking the languages and to communicate and connect!
- That whatever we do is enough and more than many others manage to do!
Therefore it is ok to take a break, reassess what we’ve done so far, what we have achieved, to acknowledge that our children are on an incredible journey and that the “down” phases are part of it, and they are only a phase, that instead of thinking about what they don’t do (yet) and don’t like (yet), we should rather focus on what they like, what they’re passionate about, what they can do, and bridge, connect through our languages… one step, one-or-two languages at a time…
Do you feel the multilingual parenting fatigue?
Could you need a break, some comforting words or a reassessment about the language situation in your multilingual family?
Let me know in the comments here below.
– You’re not alone, and I’m only a few clicks or an email away 😉