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Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Why I Want My Children to be Multilingual


Question: why is it important to me that my kids speak more than one language?

I have to admit that I never really thought about this. When I married an Algerian woman I must have assumed my children would be multilingual. Or maybe I was so unprepared that I actually didn’t have an opinion.

But in hindsight it is obvious that there really was no choice for me. And I can think of two main reasons.


My background is monolingual. I grew up in Germany and I am pretty much a German. While I might not fit all of the stereotypes about us, I certainly have a purely German cultural repertoire. Everything I read, heard and watched whilst growing up was German. I can “compare notes” with any German my age and find tons of similarities. French or English people my age share some of these references, but clearly not all. And sometimes we just don’t know because things were called something in German and something else in French or English.

The same goes for my family. My mother is German, my sister is German, my aunts and uncles are German. They all come with their huge baggage of culture. I guess that baggage is what defines us as Germans.

Enter my children.

They will never be German in the same way I am. Chances are they will be English or maybe French, but our current plans do not include moving to Germany, so they won’t grow up like me. In a sense, that is sad. Some of the things I grew up with I wish they could know about as well.

So in order to give them every opportunity to pick up anything that is German, they need to be able to easily and fluently converse with Germans, with me, with my family, with friends or even strangers in Germany. They need to be able to immerse themselves into a German environment seamlessly.

I will read them books that I liked, like “Onkel Florians Fliegender Flohmarkt”. I will speak with them using strange, creative grammar and words I make up, because that’s how I learned it. I will show them movies in German, even some non-German movies. I will give them some German music as well. I hope that doing all that means they will learn to appreciate language like I do. And the culture that comes with it, of course.

I can obviously only do all of that in German. Given that we’re living in the UK that dictates they will be at least bilingual. So be it.


Reason two has to do with the subtle changes in personality that I can feel when I speak German versus another language.

I am not entirely a different person when I speak English or French, but some things feel different. Only very slightly different, but different. I want my children to know “the real me,” so I speak German with them. It’s bad enough my wife struggles with an additional barrier.

A colleague who speaks a lot of languages confirms that he feels different when he speaks English. He acquired English later in life. He cannot see a difference between speaking German and French, though, supposedly because he grew up with these languages from the very start.

I have not seen any research that links language and personality unfortunately. But I think it makes sense. The brain probably creates relations between things that it learns at a given time. That way the language is always linked to who I was when I picked it up.

I’d be delighted if anybody shared their view! Maybe there is some material about “language schizophrenia” that I didn’t find? Please let me know what you think!

© 2010 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsTamsin   |  Monday, 06 December 2010 at 8:52 am

    Great article! Well I was raised in a multilingual household, living in the UK, German mother and Dutch father who each spoke to me in their mother tongue so I definitely value the importance of children being able to speak more than one language if they can when growing up, they are like sponges!

    The only thing was I didn’t practice my German and Dutch enough and spent most of the time speaking, reading and writing in English (I went to a German school in the UK and struggled quite a bit..) so it is very important to really try and maintain the languages, introducing the same amount of books in each language and if you can, get TV channels in the languages too.

    I am hoping to send my daughter to a German school here in Chile where I now live and speak to her in English while my husband speaks to her in Spanish, that way I think we can keep up with all three! It is sad that she won’t truly live the same life as I did in the UK with regular visits to Germany (being so far away from Europe!) but we will try our best.

  2. CommentsAnnabel   |  Saturday, 08 January 2011 at 8:28 am

    Hello Jan. On reading this blog a memory springs to mind. I was taking part in a free singing weekend and one of the participants was Polish. We were all trying to be more open, uncensored and inhibited with our voices. The polish woman was struggling, until the teacher suggested that she sang in her native tongue, Polish. It was amazing. Her voice totally changed. So much power, like it came from a deeper place within her. You could try free singing in English and German and see what happens!!

  3. CommentsSarah @ Bringing up Baby Bilingual   |  Saturday, 29 January 2011 at 2:53 pm

    It will be so interesting to watch what happens as your girls grow up. As they’ve been exposed to four languages since birth, will they feel equally comfortable in all four?

  4. CommentsCarmen   |  Monday, 11 March 2013 at 8:58 am

    It does happen to me as well. I am “more myself” when I speak in Spanish than when I speak in English, even though I speak English daily and have the chance to speak Spanish a few times per week, when chatting with family or friends over the internet/ phone. I read something lately on this topic and though it was a brief remark, it looked like this “feeling a different person” seems to be quite a common thing. I wonder too if it happens more often to those who acquired their second language later in life.

    Having said that, I would like to ask you something that is not related to this post but attracted my attention: since you are raising multilingual children, I wonder what are your views on multiliteracy? I do not have children yet, but it is about time and, being married to an arab native speaker, the possibility of confusing our future children with two different alphabets is what worries me (I have a much clearer mind on the multilingual part though). Any thought on this?

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