Being expat

Third generation of international children

Are you raising your children abroad? Are you trying (almost) everything to transmit your cultural heritage and your mothertongue?

When our children are second – or third, fourth etc – generation of international children, transmitting cultural heritage and language becomes a real challenge.

If your child is first international generation, i.e. you grew up in your home country

At the beginning you’ll think that talking more than the famous 20% of waking hours in your family language with your child will make him or her become a “perfectly balanced bilingual”. During the first years you will try to do your best to support your child’s bilingualism. You’ll organise playgroups, provide all sorts of books, audiobooks, videos etc. to make this language as interesting as possible.

When your child starts going to a school, you’ll opt either for a school in your family language (if this is possible) or a school where lessons are taught in another language, either the local one or a third one.

If your child attends school in your family language, he will hear and interact in your family language every day, but he will “only” learn vocabulary in the situations he experiences at school, i.e. during school hours and at recess. No slang will be learnt (unless other children at school know it and use it) because most of the schools wouldn’t allow the use of slang. This may not present any problem for the first school years, but when children realize that they don’t understand peers in their home countries or the countries their family language is spoken, they will feel excluded, alienated, not belonging.

Your child will grow up in a linguistic bubble. He won’t learn how to “live in that language” in every day situations and he’ll automatically build a selective vocabulary.

If you send your child to a school in another language, this other language will become more important than the family language as soon as your child makes the first friends in school. He will try to fit in, talk like his peers and therefore automatically consider the family language as less important, less “cool” and less interesting.

At this point you’ll realize that you need to make your family language more attractive. You try to link the language use to interesting topics and make it exciting for your child. You’ll notice that if your child has classmates who also talk the same family language as you do at home, and you invite those childern for a playdate, they will prefer the school language while playing together. You’ll try to intervene and set strict rules, which may work for a few years, but at some point, once you’re not in the same room, they’ll switch to the language they prefer. – You may or may not be ok with it, but that’s what happens naturally.

What can you do to make and keep the family language attractive? You’ll try to spend as much time as possible – usually almost all holidays! – in the country the language is spoken. Maybe with family, i.e cousins, occasional friends etc. And you’ll observe that after a few days or weeks your children will improve their language skills. They’ll learn the jargon, use the language in many different contexts you can’t usually provide at home. They experience full immersion and will literally dig into the other language and culture.

If you want to make sure that your child learns to interact in your family language in as many contexts as possible, you will need to provide opportunities for your child to use your language in diverse situations: in a shop, at the supermarket, in a train/bus/tram/plane, at a museum, cinema, with people on the street, at the beach… You will try to make your child experience a variety of “real life” situations, hoping that he learns that the same word can have multiple meanings depending on the contexts.

This will help your child increase his or her vocabulary, become more confident and competent.

Children need interactions with peers who speak the same language – preferably with monolinguals – in order to be more motivated.

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If your child is second (or third) international generation, i.e. you grew up abroad already

If you already grew up using your family language in a restricted context (i.e. only at home or at home and at school) and you raise your children in the same family language, you will notice that you’ll make more effort than other parents who grew up in their home country, to support your child become fluent in your mother-(or father-) tongue. You will know about the benefits of using more than one language on a regular basis and being “perfectly fluent” in one language doesn’t seem so important anymore.

I realize this every time I talk with my German friends who seem not having any of the issues with their children like the one I have with mine to make them talk German at home. It may be because my children know that I speak several languages and they love talking other languages with me too, but we never talk one and only one language in our family.

My children speak a second-generation-German. They always try to blend in when on holidays in Germany and fortunately they have no language barriers. They are very outgoing and make friends easily. They read German books, know German songs and can converse in German, but I notice a big difference between them and German children whose parents grew up in Germany. They are not as confident talking German as these children. – Does this bother me? Not really. Why? Because my linguistic goal is for them to be able to speak, read and write German in an eloquent way, but it doesn’t need to be perfect.

When you raise your child in your mothertongue and you already grew up abroad, you will probably be a bilingual or multilingual. You will be aware that every situation where your child can talk your language and feel special and even proud to use that language is very valuable. You know that in order to keep them talking that language, they need to be praised for their effort. Why? Because if they talk that language they choose to do it. They don’t always need to choose that language because they share other languages with the people they normally talk to. So, whenever they have the opportunty to talk your family language, they need to be supported. I know by my own experience that if you get told that the language to talk sounds “funny” or strange, this can affect you so much that you avoid talking it – especially if this “someone” is a grown up, a teacher or someone you admire and you already feel that this language is difficult for some reason.

We all know that maintaining our mothertongue not only serves to transmit our heritage to our children and to build a bridge to our (extended) family, but also to build their confidence and help them find their identity. If their efforts are not acknowledged, they can easily feel frustrated and excluded. Therefore our second or third generation international children need all the support they can get from co-nationals to maintain their heritage language.

Related articles: What happens to second generation international children.

4 replies »

  1. I don’t really relate to your urgent need to have your children speak and write–and live–the “family language” to perfection. Why is that necessary? I was raised in the States, my wife in the UK and our son was born and raised in Spain and went to Spanish schools and university. He speaks and writes better Spanish than English. That said, he speaks English just fine with some minor mistakes. Neither he nor we feel bad because he doesn’t speak the queen’s English. He’s a bi-lingual, bi-cultural person. He lives his own, authentic reality. Fair enough, no?

    • Mike, my need is not “urgent” and my goal is not that my children speak the family language to perfection. This was never my goal. I changed the text a bit where I think my message was not clear enough and lead you to assume I have higher expectations for my children.
      Anyways, we all have certain expectations when it comes to our family languages. Usually we want our children to be able to speak the family language(s) and maybe be able read and write in that language(s). If you acquire or learn a language while living abroad, most probably you will not attain the same level of fluency (oral and written) as a child who is exposed to the same language in a monolingual setting. This becomes even more visible in children whose parents already grew up abroad and don’t have such high expectations for one language: they tendentially put more effort in their children to become multilinguals!
      My experience in my praxice is that many parents – mainly those who grew up in their home country and now raise there first generation of international children – have quite high linguistic expectations for their children. Sometimes these expectations are very unrealistic: a child that grows up abroad can not use the language in as many contexts as someone who grows in a monolingual context.
      I don’t feel bad that my children are not as fluent as peers in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. My children are multi-lingual and multi-cultural, like myself and I consider this as a great asset. And, yes, we live our own authentic reality, like you say.

  2. Great post! I’ve been very interested in seeing how my British Asian friends manage in the UK after I lived for many years in Bangladesh. My friends who are of Bangladeshi origin, their parents having moved to the UK from the country, often cannot speak much or any Bangla at all and certainly usually can’t read it. I think that’s a great shame. As much as anythng it traps them in a bubble which isn’t quite British yet isn’t Bangladeshi either.

    It seems strange to me that my daughter – white and very obvious British in many ways – can read,write and speak Bangla better than most of my Bangladeshi origin British friends. I don’t know if this is common in Europe or if it is just the curse of the British ‘Island mentality’.

  3. Thank you, Ken, for pointing this out. It is not a “curse of the British Island mentality”, but quite common for those who speak a minority language abroad. If that language is not supported in the place you grow up in, it is very difficult to convince children to acquire, learn and perfectionate the language. You can observe this also in second generation Italian immigrants who left Italy in the 50ies and went to live in Switzerland and Germany, for example. They may understand and speak Italian, maybe also read and write it (if they were taught!), but have a limited vocabulary (the typical “house or kitchen vocabulary”, because spoken only with parents at home and not in a community). – It is, indeed, a second generation problem and I’m very aware that my children are already the third generation growing up abroad. We’re fortunate that I’m a linguist/language teacher/passionate about languages, because this helps us all to acquire/learn the languages in a fun way, but I see so many other families struggling with this. I’ve been asked recently if I could teach children the slang they would be acquiring naturally if living in Italy.
    I think children who grow up abroad live in a linguistic bubble and talk a language that is not the one they would talk with peers if they would live in the country the language is spoken.

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