When Relocation Adds a New Language to the Mix

I am now faced with another move 18 months into our Asian adventure, having not yet finished arguing with myself over how much to encourage (hyper-parent) my kids to learn Mandarin on top of our three family languages.
We are relocating to Bangkok. This opens up a whole world of new possibilities. First and foremost, it means I will be able to afford daily massages, as we will no longer be living hand to mouth. I can honestly say I have dreamt about that for the better part of 10 years. Much of Asia may be deemed cheap but Singapore is definitely not. If anything, it’s rapidly rising through the ranks of the most expensive cities in the world and has recently surpassed Hong Kong in this domain. Singapore is often called “Asia for Starters,” a totally apt description. While there are lots of things that make it so, one often overlooked fact is that English is the language of government, business and education.
Nothing screams “I’m not in Kansas anymore” than wave upon wave of unintelligible words knocking you over in confusion. I am not talking about the summer holiday in Tuscany where remnants of long-lost Latin and high school Spanish help you pick out the odd intention. I’m referring to sounds you’ve likely never heard before. And yes, many expats in Singapore will complain of the odd taxi driver who rattled off some Singlish they didn’t understand but seriously, that is not foreign language immersion; many of us live out of Tanglin Mall & Cold Storage; it is barely cultural immersion.
An old friend, who has been living in Shanghai for the last three years, congratulated me on our upcoming move to “real” Asia. With this move comes the introduction of a new language—Thai, which will topple our already unstable Franco-Spanglish trinity. To a certain extent, I can predict the impact of this. For my husband and me, this means putting French and Spanish respectively on the backburner while we try to acquire a working knowledge of Thai as quickly as possible. I am sure it will be hard. For my husband it will inevitably be frustrating since he has the added pressure of needing it for work in his 98% local Thai office. I don’t doubt it will be hilarious for many around us. Hopefully, we can remember to laugh at ourselves.
The real concern that keeps me up at night is how the language change will impact our children. At 16+ months, Baby C should be ok. She has mostly heard English, French and Tagalog, with some Spanish on the weekends from Papa. She will start attending a bilingual French-English nursery and any frustration she experiences will probably be manifested as screams and tantrums; I can write it off as age-related and teething, ridding myself of any guilt from inducing language confusion.
Not so with Miss P, who is nearing four. She’s a highly sensitive child who doesn’t like trying new things and is very easily frustrated when she can’t get it perfect right off the bat. Her English is growing stronger everyday. Following an 18-month hiatus, she’s finally re-sowing French words and expressions into our conversations. She also makes a good Spanish effort even though it seems clear to me she is struggling to understand quite a bit of it. After months of exposure and lessons at school, she has a newfound affection for her Mandarin teacher and hence the language. Now she will be switched from her English-Mandarin school and put into the French lycée. She will have lost her English-speaking amah (nanny), whom she loves and will likely be replaced with someone who only speaks Thai. Thai will be spoken everywhere. And Spanish will still struggle to keep its foothold in our lives.
I want my mother’s intuition to be wrong. I want my kids to be way more resilient than I imagine. I want P to remain unphased by these linguistic upheavals. I want to suffer and struggle on their behalf. And perhaps most importantly, I am gaining a better understanding of why some people chose not to give this “gift” of multilingualism.


  1. I so understand your feelings. Having lived in Germany for 11 months we are also facing a new move and new linguistic challenge. I also wish i could struggle for my little one. I wonder whether these changes are going to affect in a way we cannot plan. I wish i could hear from adults who have been in these situations while little. Anybody?

  2. Hmm. I suppose the best solution is, as you say, to remember to laugh at ourselves and just get on with it. There’s little point regretting things (for instance, the loss of Spanish you mention) that you can’t do much about. Best instead to see things in terms of opportunities (if you can) and make the most of them. On the other hand, if you are concerned about the consequences of too much instability, perhaps it’s worth thinking about whether relocating again and again is worthwhile, as you mention? Something (I guess) to bear in mind for the future.



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