Keeping languages in the family

How can expat parents encourage their kids to speak their mother tongue when it’s not their first language? For starters, don’t make them feel like they’re being given more homework.

Meet ‘the polyglots’

In every expat community, there will always be a cross-cultural family of polyglots that seemingly speak three or four languages fluently. The kids might, for example, speak German with their dad, Japanese with their mum, and English with classmates / friends. They might also pick up some of the local language (just to show off) and be studying a fourth (or is it a fifth?) language at school.

Where did we go wrong?

Long-term expats, whose own children don’t care for speaking their parents’ mother tongue, can feel a sense of failure when meeting ‘the Polyglots’. But it’s not always easy for parents to pass on a language when their young kids are growing up outside of their passport culture. Once a pre-teen has made an internal decision that their parents’ language(s) are not at the core of their cultural identity it’s also very challenging to turn the ship around.

Give them a motive

We’re often told that children are linguistic sponges but experts warn cursory exposure is not enough. Kids must be regularly exposed to understand it well. They must also use it often to be able to speak it comfortably. This is mental work and a child who doesn’t have a motive to speak a language will often avoid it. Children’s brains are already busy enough. And, let’s not forget, parents are tired too.

Revive flagging interest

Nonetheless, if you do wish to revive your child’s or children’s flagging interest in your mother tongue, you can consider the following advice from Sabine Little, a German linguist at the University of Sheffield. She argues that making the ‘heritage language’ yet another task imposed by parents can lead to rejection. Children need to forge their own emotional connection to the language and that’s going to be much easier if they enjoy the experience.

Informal and fun

For example, Sabine Little’s son gets more YouTube time, if watching in German, and he chooses when they speak German together. She also advises letting kids explore their parents’ mother tongue through apps and entertainment (music, film, cartoons, comic books, whatever they love). In short, keep it informal and fun. It’s all about winning hearts and minds. An interest cannot be forced. It must come from them.

Some of the above article is based on the Economist’s ‘Expats often struggle to pass on their languages’

This article was originally published for the thousands of expat partners that Global Connection supports around the globe. It is reproduced here in its original form.

Stay up to date

Sign up for our newsletter and always stay up-to-date on the latest articles.

Sign up for the newsletter