Language Dilemmas in a Multilingual Family

Language has always fascinated me. Getting to know a culture and its complex, subliminal messages…the soul of a people comes only with an understanding of that society’s language.
That is why I chose Foreign Languages as my major in college and studied German for a year and half, dreaming of a career as a United Nations translator/interpreter. After I married a Sudanese and had my four children, this fascination with linguistics turned into a persistent dilemma for me. What language to concentrate on?
My husband and I used English and Arabic from the moment we met. He spoke no Serbo-Croat at all. I was educated in English and it came to me as easily as my mother tongue. Having the children in the U.S. made it more complicated as they started attending preschool then school and were surrounded entirely by their American friends, culture and community.
On visits to our respective home countries, we received little help in teaching the children our native languages. My husband’s family in Sudan is fluent in English and on summer vacations to Croatia and Serbia, other relatives saw our arrival as a chance to improve their own knowledge of English!
My mom, who is Croatian and studied Russian in school way back in socialist ex-Yugoslavia, speaks flowing Arabic to my children with an adorable Eastern European accent peppered with Croatian and English phrases. Overwhelmed with learning Arabic, fighting the sandstorms, scorpions and snakes on our farm as well as learning to be a Sudanese daughter-in-law, learning fluent English didn’t seem like a priority. My Sudanese stepfather spoke fluent Serbo-Croat, the language they communicated in, since he studied in Croatia for six years.
Growing up in Sudan, we all spoke Serbo-Croat at home, but I would also speak Arabic and English to my stepdad, and English and Arabic with my extensive Sudanese family and friends from school. With the half-Sudanese half-ex-Yugoslavian community, I conversed in a mix of all three.
After my two half-Sudanese siblings were born, we naturally formed an exclusive blend of all three languages, and it’s hilarious how we use them all in one sentence most of the time. We easily bounce back and forth from this language to that, according to the strength of the message we need to convey.
My two sons are only moderate speakers of my language, due to some form of young men’s rebellion I suppose. Or due to them being born in the U.S., raised in the Arabian Gulf and educated in English. They study Arabic in school and are fluent, and have taken a few years of French as well.
But as much as I tried, I could not motivate them to sit down and write the alphabet or focus strongly on Serbo-Croat like my girls. My older daughter, in particular, sought out books and worked with my mom every summer on her Croatian. In college, she studied Spanish and can communicate fairly well. The youngest gets her lessons in Croatian from her grandma through visits to the Croatian piazza or while gardening, observing nature, watching Croatian TV channels, shopping and while sharing endless concoctions of delicious Croatian gelato on summer vacations.
I am pleased that she has also recently started a Serbian part-time language and cultural program in Dubai, prompted by the large Serbian community here. This way she will at least learn the nuances of her Serbian/Montenegrin grandfather’s heritage, as well as the mysterious Cyrillic alphabet. The other three have not been so lucky, even though Cyrillic is the norm for communication in Serbia. All children in ex-Yugoslavia were taught both Latin and Cyrillic in school—something that I am now grateful for.
Throughout my 24 years of marriage, my knowledge of both English and Arabic has sadly been a deterrent to my children learning my mother tongue fluently.
Often, as I happily converse in Arabic with the Arabic-speaking community I am simultaneously annoyed by my fluency because everyone tends to forget that I am not Arab. My immersion growing up in Sudan has caused my unbiased accepting of the language. It has led to some great opportunities like my job as a legal and medical Arabic/English/ Serbo-Croat interpreter in Oregon. It has led to an automatic acceptance by my Arabic-speaking friends and family, and an emotional attachment to their culture.
When the kids were all little, I used to speak to them in Serbo-Croatian with some English thrown in. After they went to school a funny thing happened. They assumed everyone knew the word for elephant, bird, fish or body parts. To their astonishment they found that it wasn’t so and that other kids had no idea what they were saying.
I guess we are a strange family. All bits and pieces put together and my deduction is that I am to blame for most of it. My husband is one thing and one thing only. He doesn’t agonize about navigating the difficulties of language and culture.
I envy him sometimes. He has no identity issues and even his exposure to life in the U.S. didn’t confuse him in ways that it did the rest of us.
Just this morning as I was getting my 10-year-old ready for school, she made this African-American expression her sister taught her, something that always makes us giggle uncontrollably…with arms extended she propelled her shoulders forward and said with an ‘attitude’, “What!?” At that moment, her mannerism was so entirely African that I laughed thinking of how people are frequently startled to hear her father is African/Arab due to her predominant Caucasian features and straight hair. Clearly, her African genes are undeniably, proudly there.
In our home, filled with diversity, multiculture, expatism and sprinkled with a liberal dose of confusion, we start the morning in Serbo-Croat, plunge into English in the car, only to finish with Arabic before the kids have even been dropped to school.
So from my house to yours, I wish you “Bye” for now. Or Zdravo, Bok, Maa Sallama, Tschuss and as my Spanish-speaking daughter might add…Adios!


  1. Growing up in Argentina into an (migrant) milticultural family, none of my parents taught usany of the family languages!
    My father spoke no Spanish at all (Argentina’s official language) until he was 6 or 7 and went to school (an English school as all German property – including schools – were confiscated by the Argentinean government after the declaration of war on Germany by the end of World War II)
    My mother’s parents were a mix of Italian and Spanish citizens (by the time they inmigrated to Argentina, other languages were used in dayly life: Catalonian and probably Piedmontese, a Northern Italian dialect / language)
    None of these languages were passed on to us. I consider this a real pitty! Not only languages are passed on to kids, but the whole cultures, many of which in the meantime has slowly disappeared in Europe. As the Magdeburg Dialect (Mundart) that an aunt to my father’s spoke fluently and my grandmother spoke aside German. Or the Faldut dialect from Ulldecona which is under great preassure from standard Catalonian.


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