Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Invisible Interpreter: The Grandmother – Child Language Divide

raising-bilingual-children/ Silvia Ottaviano -

Paati (grandma) joined us this past summer from India. It was her first visit to our home in the U.S since the kids. Paati can understand, read and write elementary English, while our six-something-year-old daughter can handle only minimal Tamil (the regional Indian language we speak). With no clairvoyance, my husband and I concluded that the lack of a medium of communication was going to deter and procrastinate the bonding between Paati and our children. We also somehow decided not to take on the task of translating or facilitating the process for either side. We simply shrugged it off as something that needed to self-resolve and waited for a protocol to emerge for sustenance sake. However, events transpired sooner than we anticipated. I guess it was the longing for company during those mundane summer afternoons that made both Paati and our little girl search for ways to communicate.
Our daughter was learning elementary Hindi (the more diffused Indian language) from a friend in the neighborhood. Paati was a Hindi teacher in her twenties. The two soon resorted to a tutor-student relationship under the umbrella of a third language. The relationship blossomed with occasional silent play and soon moved on to Paati experimenting with the American ways of greeting, while our little one began using the Indian head-nods. One day we heard our daughter neatly explain her favorite girlhood figure to Paati in her newly acquired Indian-accented English. Their communication later matured into small sentences sprinkled with English and Tamil. A milestone, I would still say.
Paati started browsing and later borrowing from the meager lot of children’s books in Hindi from our local library. She also passed down to her granddaughter Indian tales with a horde of talkative animals, goons and thieves during downtime on the couch and sometimes, as a bedtime ritual—all, in a concoction of Tamil, Hindi, English and even Malayalam (tracing back to her roots from another region in India). Tragedies and fantasies from the subcontinent were devoured by our little girl, and they left her wanting for more.
I also witnessed role reversals—our daughter paraphrased a story from her all-American picture book to Paati, while Paati gaped at the bright and colorful spreads of illustrations. Impressive moves in board games by Paati had our daughter invariably teaming up with her on game nights. For Paati, her granddaughter meant so much more to her than a companion in a strange land. She also relied on her, in our absence, to communicate with our toddler boy who had his own special set of gestures and words. The symbiosis nurtured multiple languages with spontaneity.
Paati left for India towards the end of the same summer. Although our children reverted to their preferred linguistic set-up at home, their familiar resistance to Tamil was much milder while Paati was around. My husband and I recollected how the kids had willingly tried to bridge the differences, and how they were more enthusiastic about embracing languages in an uncontrived setting. We felt reassured that with a more organic process, the language barrier was easier to bring down, with little need for an interpreter.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

A Different World: No Longer Brown in White America

Is it racist to not want to raise your kids in white America?

Around the World in One Semester

Welcome to our newest blogger--a world traveling, homeschooling mom--to the InCultureParent family!

How Bilingualism Can Fail in Multilingual Families

It’s easy to raise bilingual kids when you speak a second language, right? Wrong.


Meera Sriram has been reviewing and recommending diverse children’s literature for about ten years now. She loves to pass on a title or an author to a friend (or a stranger, for that matter). Picture books particularly appeal to the inner child in her. She moved to the U.S. at the turn of the millennium from India. After graduate studies and a brief stint as an electrical engineer, she decided to express herself in other creative ways, primarily through writing. She has co-authored four books for children, all published in India. Her writing interests include people and cultures, nature, and life’s everyday moments. She also runs an early literacy program for toddlers and preschoolers in her neighboring communities. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her husband and two kids. Curling up to read a good book with her children is something she looks forward to every day. She constantly fantasizes about a world with no boundaries over hot chai, to help her stay warm in foggy Northern California. More at

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsChaitali Rede   |  Saturday, 07 May 2011 at 8:31 am

    Well put Meera! Really loved the message!
    I also have noticed that whenever the kids visit India they don’t need the extra nudge to try and experiment the local language. Rohan could converse with my mom’s helper maid who spoke a different dialect in Marathi. Thank god for a human’s basic thirst for being felt included!

  2. CommentsVishal   |  Saturday, 07 May 2011 at 10:20 am

    Very well written Meera – as always. Strangely, we haven’t experienced this as yet but I can see the connection that can be made possible. This summer, our 7 year old will visit India – we hope to get her reaquainted with her grandparents and hopefully there is a lively bond and connection.

    Keep writing….chai always helps!

  3. Commentskanchanasadagopan   |  Thursday, 08 December 2011 at 8:11 pm

    HI Meera
    i read all your article
    i am proud to be your schoolmate friend

  4. CommentsAarti   |  Thursday, 13 June 2013 at 2:02 am

    Can you please recommend some Hindi children’s books or a resource list of Hindi books?
    Thank you!

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

A Children's Book for Raising Global Citizens

Every life is a story. It’s easier to understand someone when you know their story.

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!
[…] in their homes even if the US is an anomaly. Here are two articles on co-sleeping (click here and here) and one “Dear Abby” (click […...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
Hi...I am an Asian who was adopted and raised by Caucasian American missionaries in South America. I have two kids-my daughter is 16 and my son is 11. When I had my first baby I too was indoctrinate...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
This Karina, the Karina from the article. I'm now 13. It took this article was written 3 years ago and barely coming across it right now. I was originally trying to look for my folkloric pictures fo...
From How This Single Working Mom Raised a Trilingual Kid
Nice recipe, thank for shari...
From Vaisakhi Recipe: Sarson Ka Sag
I've been in Germany Ten years now, Lived in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, specifically Leonberg. In Frankfurt I was shocked by how unfriendly the People were, how aggressive their Drivers, but in Leonbe...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
At DreamAfrica, we are a streaming app for animations and films from around the world. We celebrate cultural representation in digital media and invite you to download and share our DreamAfrica appp...
From What We Are Not About
Imagine those people who work at your typical IT Department, yeah those weirdos with low EQ, no manners, no social skills; indeed those who kiss the bosses' ass when it's convenient, but get offend...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
I contacted the editor of this magazine (Stephanie) and she told me she'd inform Jan about this article. I have since changed my mind about going to Germany because of Merkel's policies, and this i...
From Are Germans Really Rude?

More Raising Bilingual Children