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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

How does it feel like to raise multilingual children: The Puppet Master

Raising multilingual children can invoke different feelings in their parents. Sometimes you can feel like a mad professor who performs experiments on your children. Or maybe you feel like you have to advocate for your children all the time. This is how I am feeling right now: like a puppet master, a manipulator.

Sometimes I get the feeling that if I looked hard enough, I’ll be able to see them, the 3 strings attached to my children, and pointing at 3 different directions. At the end of every string, there is a certain language, a certain culture and certain expectations.

The first string leads to the majority culture and language: Dutch. When I meet Dutch people, their question is always whether my children speak Dutch. And they do, but they will never become fully “Dutch” (whatever that means). I agree that it is important that they speak it. However, society expects full integration, and this is hard for me to do because I know that just like many expat children, mine will never feel fully Dutch.

On the other side, there is my husband’s part of the family. I am always asked how the children’s German is. I get comments on their German. They are always concerned whether Klara’s and Julia’s German is good enough. The fact that their little cousin can already say several words doesn't help me much.

And as upsetting this picture is to me, and as much as it pains me to admit this, I am one of these forces, pulling into a certain direction, and forcing my agenda on my children. Because here I am, speaking Polish with my children, totally unmoved by the fact that nobody understands this language and that Polish people already have a bad reputation in the Netherlands. I have an agenda: I want my children to speak Polish. I am ready to spend a big amount of time with them, reading books and playing games, but Polish is always in my mind. Do they speak enough Polish? Am I doing this right? How not to let the pressure get at me? For others, Polish might not seem like a priority: after all, when the children start school, it will be harder and harder to make them speak it. So is it not better to concentrate on the languages that count?

This is hard, people, and sometimes I really want to give in. But Polish is the most natural way I can communicate with my children. It is the only way I still get to speak it consistently every day. And while I have more in common with other expats than with a Polish person who has never been abroad, I still see my being Polish as a big part of me.

But here is the thing. While I still see the importance of my children speaking other languages, and no one knows better than you, dear readers, that I am a huge believer in multilingual upbringing, I am still the mother of my children. This means that while I do my best to ensure their exposure to the many languages that we speak, Polish is my top priority. I want my children to speak, read and write in Polish. I want them to understand the conversations I have with my parents.

I know that we all want the best for our children. However, I am their mother. If I don’t take care of my own language, nobody will. Yes, I do have an agenda in raising my children. But I believe, very strongly, that it is a good agenda, one that will benefit everybody. And in order to be able to take good care of my children, I also need to consider my own interests. And speaking Polish with my children is one of them. 

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  1. Your post reminded me of this one a bit: http://wheregoinghavo.blogspot.nl/2011/09/raising-children-all-wrong.html.

    We are "only" raising our child with two languages (currently) but one of those languages is non native for us, his parents. It is tricky trying to work out how much we should interfere with his learning of Dutch. By trying to help him with our imperfect accents and grammer will we do more harm than good? So I can understand to a certain extent the pull you feel to support their language learning, but not to lose your mother tongue at the same time.

    There is a reason, I think, that they call it mother tongue. No matter what the language is, the language of love for everyone is the language their mother first spoke to them. For me that is English, but had it not been, had it been a less globally spoken language I would still want to use it with my child because it is my heritage, it is how I learnt to communicate love and that shouldn't be lost.

    1. As for the accent, many parents worry whether their accent is somehow "wrong", they child will make their mistakes and have their accents. My parents (non-native speakers of German) spoke German with me in Germany- on the street, and Polish at home.I went to a German daycare where I picked up "proper" German, and I knew my parents weren't native speakers of this language. If there is enough input in that language (daycare, friends, etc), the parent's accents and mistakes won't matter.

  2. Thanks, Emmy! The post you linked is so great, and I so agree: whatever we do as parents is wrong, wrong, wrong! I think I get worked up on this a little because I usually think that people know what they're doing and I don't have to agree with them. But because I have children, somehow everybody feels inclined to share their wisdom with me, instead of just letting me do my thing. It's very frustrating and it's good to know that other people feel the same way.

  3. Olga, you're doing the right thing and don't give anyone - not even relatives - the right to interfere. I mean it. You really know better. You've been raised bilingual. As you say: you're the mother and you want only the best for your children. And one of the best and most precious things that you can give to them, is your language. The language you feel is the one of your heart. Don't ever give up, ok? I understand your feeling about polish people having a bad reputation in the NL - I think we expats all made this experience - but, honestly: we can't change what people think. It's energy consuming even to try. But what you can do is to give your children the passion, the love for this language. Avoid people who tries to stop you. Nie daj się!

  4. Thank you, Ute, for your support. Yes, I know that multilingualism works and I know that I'm doing the right thing, but sometimes it's just so frustrating to have to deal with all these assumptions.

  5. Yes, as referenced above, I know exactly what you're talking about :) And if you think about it, we all have an agenda in raising our children, we all "force" our ideas on them just by being ourselves. For some it's a language and culture, for others it's religion or a love for science fiction or vegetarianism or a sports affiliation... So we're no different than other parents, at most we're simply more aware of what we're trying to pass on.

    It's something we all have to deal with to varying degrees. Unfortunately the people around us are usually on a different page and don't see the point in what we are trying to do. Doesn't make it not worth doing! You're doing a great job :)

    1. Yes, Melissa, you are right. Language is just one of the things we're forcing our children to do- and it's a good one! I't so hard when people aren't on the same page, even if we know that what we're doing is good for our children and good for us. After all, we usually let other people raise their children however they like, why wouldn't they do the same for us? And it's not like we're trying to judge or to make nasty comments, it's just about understanding.


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