Pin It
Monday, May 9th, 2011

Issues with Living Multilingually

By

My two “pet issues” with living multilingually are closely related.

 
Issue number one is “multilingual schizophrenia.” I don’t know whether there is an official term for it, so this is my term. I feel slightly different depending on what language I speak, almost as if my personality changes a little bit when I switch languages.

 
Issue number two is “language forgetting,” or in my case “mother-tongue forgetting.” I live abroad and I only speak my native German with my children on a regular basis. They are young–not the ideal partners for sophisticated exchanges, at least not yet… I also do not read half as much as I did before. And most of what I read is in English.

 
More than the Sum

 
Put those two together and you get more than you bargained for.

 
I am pretty sure we change all the time. There are probably stages in our life when we go through more pronounced changes, like when we leave school, start our first job or move to a different place. None of those match going abroad, though, in terms of how we can feel it happening.

 
Two reasons come to mind: the sheer overwhelming experience of being thrown into a new culture make the change feel more substantial even though it might not be as radical as, say, starting a first job after university. Culture is very fundamental to who we are. Going abroad takes away a strong foundation that we probably took for granted.

 
Example: look at the confusion on the face of Germans when they learn that “Dagobert Duck” is called something totally different in English. They will inevitably ask “But Donald Duck? He is called Donald Duck, right?” and there will be a mixture of hope and utter disbelief in their voice, almost like you just shattered everything and the next thing is that gravity will stop working.

 
Secondly, speaking a new language makes the change very tangible. There you are, talking and not sounding like yourself. It’s actually pretty difficult at first, at least for those of us who didn’t grow up multilingually.

 
You are making an effort, you are translating while you speak. You can hear every word you speak, every syllable. That is unusual, because when you speak your native language you’re not aware of it. You find yourself judging your own efforts while you make them. And you might obviously fall short, right? I mean this is not like you speak usually, is it? You can be slick and eloquent! But you’re speaking an unfamiliar language now and it is a long way to fluency…what else do you need to drive home the fact that there is a change going on.

 
And then, gradually, you feel your mother tongue fade. You are becoming this person that speaks another language! That’s a big “wow” moment and also more than just a tad scary. You are turning into someone else.

 
So, here is my warning: do not live abroad! You will forget who you are! It’s a terrible thing!

© 2011 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:


Many Languages, One America: 25 Proud Bilingual Children

These kids make clear what language the U.S. speaks.

Primary School Privilege

Time outs due to whistling versus school's out due to poverty

Are French Kids Better Behaved Because They are Spanked?

Should spanking be part of your parenting toolkit to have well behaved kids?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


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 Comment
  1. CommentsExpat Life Explained | InCultureParent   |  Tuesday, 12 July 2011 at 3:05 pm

    […] was obviously joking when I told you not to live abroad. Living abroad is probably the second most amazing thing I have done in my life. Right after […]









Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

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



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!

What Cultural Norms Around Bare Feet Taught This Mother in Guatemala

Her baby's bare feet ended up being a lesson on poverty and privilege.
Hi Kim! I am so glad that this article was useful for you and made you feel validated as a parent. It's not often in this judgmental world of parenting we get that, right?! That's the main reason...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
I love reading your work. I can olny imagine what it would be like to have such beautiful customs and true community. I understand why it is so very very important to keep these traditions alive. Be...
From No Kids Allowed: How Kenyan Weddings are Changing
Your mother in-law seems somewhat reasonable. Many Chinese Mother In-laws are not. In their scenario, they would be number 1 to the child and you would be number two. Many want to have a bond closer...
From How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
I think Konstantina is actually responding to what is probably more familiar/praised/or preferred socially as well. I was an English teacher in Poland with a distinct accent. I struggled to get Engl...
From Should I Worry about My Child’s Accent in Her Foreign Language?
Noor Kids' title "First Time Fasting" is another great rea...
From 6 Favorite Children’s Books about Ramadan
This article was shared in a community I run to connect globetrotting parents and everyone LOVED it. You should join us! We all relate to your experience. Many of us, including me, are in the same b...
From Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get
Please help: I Love my wife and my son. I am also EXTREMELY involved as a dad. I had to move to china ( in a tiny tiny town) where I am the only foreigner so that my wife can take over the family bu...
From How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
Thanks for writing this!! My baby is 7 months, and I love having her sleep in my room. I don't mention it too often to people who have had kids because they seem a little judgy on it. So tonight I...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
Honestly, it looks like the author married into a very backward and old fashioned family. Not stimulating children's curiosity, differences between boys and girls, and women slaving in the house, wh...
From French versus Italian Parenting in One Multicultural Family

More from Our Bloggers