Being expat

Bilingual teens and young adults (#IMLD 2015)


We can find many suggestions about how to support our children to become bilinguals* when they are toddlers, in preschool or primary school. But what happens when they are teenagers and young adults? Can we still support them with their family languages or other languages they’re learning along the way?

If culture was a house,

then language was the key to the front door,

to all the rooms inside

(Khaled Housseini)

Being bilingual and a teenager can be challenging, for both parents and children. Adolescence is a very intense period of physical and mental change, and all seems to revolve around finding an identity and fitting in with a group of friends.

How do teenagers juggle speaking two (or more) languages and belonging to two nationalities or cultures?

In my personal experience, talking two or more languages is not a problem per se during those years. Discovering literature in all the other languages I learned during my childhood and being able to really immerse into the cultures and the mindset of these cultures during holidays was (and still is!) very fascinating and enriching.

If we want our teenagers to stay  bilingual,

they need to know about the cultures

(Ute’s International Lounge)

What I found more challenging was the expectation locals would have. People would expect me to know what peers in that other culture and country would rave about.

My parents made sure that we would visit Germany once or twice per year for an extended period. They wanted to make sure that we could meet peers. Even if only for a few days we had the great opportunity to get to know the culture through peers’ eyes.

I recall that despite very easy beginnings – after all, we all spoke the same language! – we would soon discover that we have different expectations. Locals would expect us to understand their slang, jokes and to know what they were talking about (TV shows, what is “in” etc.).

I quickly realised that I didn’t share the same taste in food, music, literature. I wouldn’t know about the latest movies, spots, sport idols. I wouldn’t know the newest gossips and soon feel alienated and “different”. Knowing that I didn’t have to stay for a long time, made me yet enjoy those moments and appreciate the short but intense friendships.

Nowadays, thanks to internet etc., being in touch with cultures around the world is much easier. – We can all access informations in no time and get a virtual impression of the “other” culture.

Today, I encourage my children to watch news from the different countries we want them to be more familiar with. They know about the idols, they understand the (most of the) jokes and, up to now, do not feel alienated when they spend some days with peers in Germany or Switzerland twice per year. Even if my children are not teenagers yet, I know that peer pressure is very high and being the one who talks German (and Italian) to them, who explains the other culture to them is not going to suffice.

Some tips for parents who want to support their teens bilingualism and biculturalism:

  • bear in mind that teenagers rate peers higher than parents!
  • foster social networking: chatting via webcams is a great way to keep the other language alive. It is a great alternative to Saturday schools or parents teaching these languages at home!
  • be open minded when it comes to slang (and swearwords!). While growing up abroad, bilinguals will use the language in an “artificial context”. Allowing your child to use the slang their monolingual peers use, will help them fit in easier once you visit the country.
  • help them find resources to have access to the local slang.
  • make sure they know about the habits and values of peers in the other culture.
  • travel as often as you can to different places of your family languages and offer them opportunities to meet peers (by enrolling them in some local activities they like).
  • if you can’t travel that often and provide full language immersion, look out to other families that speak the same language where you live.
  • find penpals for your children – using social media may also be an option, but if you would like your children to improve their written skills in the other language(s), writing in the “old fashioned way” is advisable.

I wrote this post for our International Mother Language Day Campain on Facebook (cfr. #IMLD), where we published links about several topics related to raising the awareness of “mother (and father) languages” since January the 21rst.

(* I use the term of bilingual also for multilinguals.)

6 replies »

  1. Dear Ute,

    This is Peter. Thanks for the nice article. My friends and I are going to need them as there are now two kids growing up with two languages here.

    However, if you publish this on Facebook as well, please change the first word among your tips to ‘bear in mind’ instead of “bare”.

    Best regards,


    • Dear Peter,
      thank you so much for your comment and for pointing out my typo/mistake. I make some very strange ones (I’ll once analyze them 😉 )
      I hope you’ll find it still useful when your childern will be teenagers.
      With very kind regards,

      • Dear Ute,

        No, you don’t make very much or strange mistakes, and this ONE is also forgivable to you as you speak at least another 5 languages other than English. Am I right? I’d be happy to make just one mistake in such a text in any one of my languages that I “speak” besides Hungarian and English.

        As to the kids, you’ve misunderstood me: my son is an adult for a good while now, those I’ve referred to are those of my friends. They are still little, but as we are so close, and my son doesn’t have kids, I consider these two my grandchildren. The only language I can’t really talk to them is my mother tongue, but they understand a couple of phrases anyway. It’s an experience for me, really.

  2. When I was an adolescent in Colombia, I learned a tremendous amount from reading American magazines, listening to American music, going to the movies, and talking to friends who had recently returned from the US. We didn’t have TV, but nowadays American TV series can be watched anywhere in the world as well. I still felt like a square peg when I returned to the US for college, but it could have been worse.

    • Thank you, Roadkill Spatula, I think that when one considers repatriation or going to live in the passport country, much more than language is involved.
      Many parents think that if the children know the language (spoken and written) they will easily fit in, but this is not enough. Knowing about the slang, the habits, the preferences, taste in food, clothing etc. is equally important but often neglected. You had the chance to listen to American music, watch movies, read American magazines etc. This already helped you to emphasize with locals once you moved to America. May I ask where you moved to? If the place was more international or more mono-cultural?
      I know that the sense of alienation one can experience while repatriating can actually lead to refusing to talk one of the other languages one knows or has learned while living abroad. Just to fit in, children-teens-young adults would do everything necessary. And if this means to drop a language, they’d do…

      • I returned to the US to attend college at the University of Kansas. In the Spanish and Latin American Studies programs, there were many Hispanics and bilingual Americans, so I had plenty of people to talk with who identified with my background. It would have been tougher at a more monocultural school, I think.

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