What part of our language are we passing on to our children when living abroad?



When our children grow up abroad, outside of the country where our home languages are spoken, many of us tend to focus on standard language. We want our children to learn the most standardized version of our language. This has several reasons: we want our children to be able to understand and be understood by a vast majority of speakers of that language. So, for example, if the language is German, we want them to be able to communicate with people in the different regions of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein etc..

Many parents make an extra effort to not pass on their regional accent.

But why shouldn't our children learn regional variants too?

Would this really be too much or would this rather help them connect even more with extended family, or the places we visit?

Knowing regional variants does not mean that our children won't be able to speak the standard version.


Every language and dialect counts!

I'd like to share my take on languages and dialects. My husband and I transmitting to our children my husband's Swiss-German, which is a mix of the local dialect of Luzern and Zurich, and as I am a strong defendant of maintaining any language and dialect that is important for us, parents, and our extended family, I find it important that Swiss-German has exactly the same value as German and Italian – the other two languages I am transmitting to my children.

Avoiding any hierarchy in our family languages is fundamental when we transmit several languages to our children. Our own experience, our doubts, our way of acquiring and learning languages and what we think about our languages and our partner's language, influences not only our relationship with our partner, but also the one with our children.
To connect with our children we need language and when this language is linked with linguistic bias, fear, guilt or shame, it will affect the attitude of our children towards it, and also our connection with our children. The way our children perceive our language has an impact on their motivation to acquire and learn it.

For this reason, all our languages should be on exactly the same level or "importance" for us. If our languages are equally important and supported by the society is another aspect, and we usually don't have much influence on that. But at home, in our family, our micro-society, we can create a healthy and harmonious environment that fosters all languages and values them at the same level.

This is why when speaking about all our languages at home, I use colors and not labels like L1, language alpha, mother tongue – or father tongue, to be fair (see the image here below, which I use in my workshops and trainings).


Why I am so adamant about this...

I'd like to share my own "story" about being exposed to both: the standard language and regional variants.

Whilst growing up in Italy, my parents mainly spoke German with me and my sister. They chose the standard version, which was tinted with some regional expressions from Hessen, the region they came from. We were lucky to have the opportunity to attend school in our home language, which surely contributed to consolidate and further motivate us to use that language in different contexts on a daily basis. Also, this allowed us to hear our peers speak German with a variety of intonations and accents from different regions of Germany, but as some of my classmates spoke German as additional language, the environment in our class at school was what I'd define a more "international German" one.

As my mother knew that she had to do something to not loose contact with Germany and the language, she made it a habit to listen to the Deutsche Welle – a radio station that was and still is globally broadcasted. This way she was always up to date about news, politics, culture and also some "slang" that was used in some shows.

My parents grew up speaking the local variant, Hessisch, of their region, which my mother spoke with her family when we visited once or twice per year. I remember that she didn't explicitly teach us words, sayings or sentences, but I picked up a lot while just listening to her and her family. I guess I was just too curious to know what the adults were talking about. But what made me like the Hessisch even more was the fact that I could see that my mother was enjoying speaking it! She felt so confident and comfortable in using her Hessisch, that I wanted to know more about it. I sometimes would repeat some sentences or expressions I picked up and we had fun playing with the language, comparing expressions and inserting Hessisch into our more standardized German every now and then.

For me, this particular bond that using the regional variant is something that made me like German more than anything else. Knowing some of the expressions also helped me to understand locals, to bond with my extended family, and feel "included".  

To get an idea about what Hessisch can sound like – there are different regional variants – have a look at this video:


As for other dialects spoken in Germany – hier ist ein Video, das eine Übersicht verschafft, über den Gebrauch von regionalen Sprachen in Deutschland heute:




Und hier eine schnelle Übersicht von 8 unterschiedlichen deutschen Dialekten in einer Minute:


The same applies to regional variants or dialects of the region I grew up in in Italy, Lombardia:

For me, the only way to maintain a language, also a dialect, is to speak it, like the person in this video says: "l'ünica manera per tenir viva una lengua, l'és parlar-la" – e mi la parli.

To maintain it a bit also when we live abroad. The cultural value of the language, the dialect, is what I find very important to transmit to our children. 


This is a video about the dialect that I heard in families of my peers when growing up:



What language should we transmit to our children?

My answer to this question is: the one you speak in the most spontaneous way, the one that you feel closer to your heart. For multilingual parents like me it is not possible to opt for one language or variant only. For this reason Swiss-German, German – with some regional variants – and Italian – also with some variants –, are the three languages that my husband and I are transmitting to our children. The reason for me to also include variants and dialects is simply because we can't avoid regional expressions when transmitting a standardized version of our language. Also, I have an emotional bond with some of them and I insert some expressions in my German and Italian that one would recognize as coming from Hessen or Lombardia (or Tuscany, where I lived several years).

If we look closer, all languages, all standard versions of our languages have expressions that derive from regional variants. If you look at the Linguistic Atlas of your own language(s), you will find how for everyday objects, tasks etc. you find different expressions. Which one to choose is up to us. I personally find it important to find our very own combination of languages and our very own multilingual repertoire that makes our multilingual family unique and, what I particularly like, what makes us feel home in our languages. I still remember the moments spent with my mother exploring her Hessisch, when I hear others speak it, and the same goes with listening to people speaking Lombardo.

How can we maintain our languages “alive” when living abroad?

I asked this question in my facebook group Multilingual Families and the responses inspired me to write this post.

One mother said that she didn't want her children to learn the "new French" as she preferred them not to get used to speak her language in a way that she compared with people using "like" all the time in English for example. This is indeed what I observe in many families who live abroad, and what I have mentioned above: that we want our children to be able to use a more standardized version of the language.

Another mother who is living in Korea, shared that in order to "keep (her) German alive and fresh", she watches "news, and political talk shows and discussions and documentaries", she also bought a "German dictionary with synonyms". I like this idea of having a dictionary with synonyms as we sometimes run out of them when explaining things in new contexts. I personally like to explore synonyms with my children, as I find it very important that they know the shifting meanings words can have, depending on the contexts.

Watching "television or Netflix, listening to podcasts and reading books, trying to keep up the communication with other native speakers" is what another mother said helps her to get a various input in her language whilst living abroad.

"Keeping in contact with family and friends" is as important for another mother, who points out that "keeping culture alive" is more difficult. In fact "last hits, slangs, jokes, phrases" are what is difficult to keep up with when living abroad. These are the things we try to catch up on when we get the chance to visit the countries our languages are spoken.
When our language is one that is used by many internationals, like English, living abroad can also mean to get used to speak your own language in a more international way, i.e. without the own local touch, that we need when speaking with our family and friends when visiting. So, even if our language is supported and used by the community we live in abroad, and we get a more varied input in it than those whose languages are spoken only by a minority or nobody else, maintaining our languages abroad always feels like "maintaining something static", that doesn't change and "live" as much as if we were living in the country where it is the majority language.


What I do to keep my languages "alive" and to update my knowledge of new terms and expressions is to listen to podcasts, radio, watch TV – not only news that are usually using the more standardized version of the language, but also shows, documentaries and reality shows. Fact is that by listening to it doesn't automatically make me use them. Even if I understand them, it takes a while for them to get into my active vocabulary.
I have observed though that when my children watch compelling shows or movies, they almost immediately use certain phrases or expressions.

When, a few years ago, my daughters watched a reality show about teenagers spending holidays in other countries, they not only could relate more to what their German peers were sharing, but  they immediately looked up the cultural references (music, books, stories that were mentioned), and they learned about how their German peers communicate with each other.

Some years earlier, I used to watch a show with my daughters, where participants had to find an outfit for a certain theme, within a short amount of time. The funny result of watching that show was not only that whenever we had to shop new clothes, my daughters were very quick at deciding and very good at opting for what was needed and what not, they also used expressions like "dieses Teil ist nicht meins", meaning that the particular item didn't suit them, they didn't like it, adopting the "jargon" of the show. I do the same when watching movies and shows in my languages. I only watch what I find interesting and the vocabulary, new expressions seem to be much easier for me to use in conversations.

Maintaining dialects and regional variants is more difficult though. It means to provide my children with exposure either through audiobooks, podcasts, and videos about them, or to visit the places. There are only few books written in a more "intuitive" version of the dialects, or about topics that are not always compelling for my children. The downside of these text is also that we stumble through the texts, our pace slows down, which results in most cases that we avoid reading them. I have a whole series of Asterix & Obelix in different variants – even in Latin – and I enjoy reading them, but it's my very personal way taste.

Another way to maintain and fuel the interest for Italian and Lombardo is to spend our summer holidays in the Southern part of Switzerland – Ticino – where our children were exposed to the dialect of Ticino (from the Lucomagno region). They were also exposed to several Swiss-German dialects, which they all understood naturally, without us having to explain them.

When someone shared a post on facebook lately, about a text that people didn't seem to recognize, I talked about it with my family, and when we read it out loud, my daughters immediately said that it sounded like the dialect they heard during our last holidays in Switzerland. We only spent 3 weeks in that region in 2019, but this was enough for them to remember the sound of the local dialect, and to recognize it 3 years later.
In fact, it turns our that the dialect of the text was, indeed, the dialect from the Lötschental in Wallis/Valais!



What part of your language do you pass on to your children?

What do you do to make it compelling for them?

And how do you manage to maintain your language "alive" while living abroad?

Please let me know in the comments.

I invite you to read also this post:
How to maintain our languages whilst living abroad



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  1. Pingback: Dialects, standard languages and education - Ute's International Lounge

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