8 things to say to a bilingual


Bildschirmfoto 2012-08-27 um 11.53.00This post is somehow a response in a dialogical way, to the brilliant post by Rita Rosenback “7 things you should not say to a bilingual child“.

I did experience some of the 7 things she listed up and I totally agree with her that “children can be (very) sensitive about almost anything to do with themselves”, no matter if monolingual, bilingual, multilingual. It’s just a fact. I think that also young adults and some adults feel annoyed by the kind of questions she mentions. Therefore I decided to figure out questions that would not bother a bilingual or multilingual, indipendently if it’s a child or an adult.

1. “Did you live in all the places you know the language from?”

Multilinguals are often also multicultural and they usually grow up very open minded. Therefore questions like “Where do you come from?” seem too restrictive and some consider them really alienating. Multilinguals often possess more than one passport and have lived in more than one place. Or at least they visit their passport countries on a regular basis. But they don’t need to have lived in all the places they know the language from. – “Did you live in all the places you know the language from?” always gives us the possibility to either answer it by a simple “yes” or “no”, or to start a broader discussion about where the languages are spoken around the world, how many people talk them or why we didn’t or did live in the places they’re the national language.

2. “How would you say [fill in the blank] in [one of the languages the person talks]?”

People often are very curious to hear a child (or a grown up!) talking the other languages. Especially if it are more “exotic” ones for them. It’s not unusual to be asked to tell something in that other language. The only thing others don’t consider is that it’s difficult to “just say something in the other language”. What exactly do thy want to hear? Therefore, suggesting a sentence like “Hello, how are you?” or “Hi, my name is X and I come from Y” or a more complex one, helps the multilingual to not just be struck dump… – The positive side effect of this kind of questions is that we can point out the syntactical, lexical, phonetical differences among the languages we know. And this is something most bilinguals or multilinguals like doing.

3. “It’s amazing how you can switch from one language to the other!”

I know that this might sound a bit too much, but many multilingual children get to hear that they surely are not as proficient in language A as in language B (and C, D etc.) and that their tendency to switch from one language to the other is a sign of weakness or that they don’t master the languages yet. – Against all those clichés or false myths: code switching is actually a sign of great mastery of both languages, people should recognize it as a sign of mastery!

4. “You’re such a great example to (other) children!”

When children grow up multilingual they usually not only switch languages frequently but they also change from one cultural group to the other, adapting and embracing diversity. This is a very positive side effect and it is worth to be recognized because it gives those children a very open mindset. They usually don’t judge others by the language they speak or by the culture they come from, they tend to be much more curious and accepting. And this is, in this time of increasingly more global living families, an important asset that should be praised. – The same applies, of course, to adults!

5. “When did you learn all those languages?”

This is actually a question I’ve been asked a few times and I really liked it for two reasons: first, because I felt like the other person is really interested in the languages I speak, and second, because it gave me the possibility to tell more about myself. The conversation was not as superficial as it sometimes can be with monolinguals, or multilinguals who speak other languages than ourselves. In fact, one person who asked me this was a multilingual herself and we ended up talking about how difficult or easy it is to learn certain languages at some point of our life, and about when to start to learn an imparented language or when even it would be appropriate not to.

6. “Which language was easier to learn for you and why, except for those you learned naturally?”

This is a very intelligent question and it reflects that the other person is aware of the different level of difficulty in learning a language. Some are completely different from the mothertongue or one of the “family-tongues” (i.e. languages spoken within one family) but this doesn’t mean that they are more difficult to learn. Sometimes it’s even easier to learn a language from a completely different language-family than one that is imparented with one we already know.

And the second part of the question shows that the person is aware of the different ways someone can acquire (=naturally learning) and learn (=at school) a language.

7. “Do you speak all those languages on a regular basis?”

Being bilingual or multilingual is hard work. Keeping up with all the languages we learned and using them actively on a regular basis is not very easy. First, our parents need to provide inputs for us in all the languages we’re supposed to become proficient for social, emotional or very practical reasons. And then, once we’re adults, we need to find people who speak all our languages in order to keep them active and we need to find situations where to practice those languages. This is the challenge of a lifetime for people who want to stay bilingual or multilingual. – Personally, I couldn’t imagine to live in a strictly monolingual culture, it would be too hard for me to give up one of my languages…

8. “Do you have one (or more) dominant languages?”

This kind of question is obviously not very common. Surely nobody would ask this to a child. It is a question that linguists or people who know about linguistics would ask. We all have one or more dominant languages, also depending on the social context we’re living in: if we need more than one language in order to interact with our environment, those will probably be our most dominant languages. We still know the others too, but if we don’t practice them regularly, they’ll become more passive, secondary. – By asking this kind of question, people can get an idea about our linguistic situation and our preferences.

And what really should be avoided….

Even though I usually avoid telling what not to do and prefer giving positive advice about what to do, there are some really inappropriate things people can say to a bilingual or multilingual person that I would shortly mention here.

First of all, one should always avoid to be judgmental.

Rita mentioned several questions that could be interpreted in different ways, depending on who asks them: “you have hardly any accent”, for example. Some people might really be honestly thinking that you don’t have any accent, i.e. you really speak like a native. Others would say this just because they really think you have one… – But accents are not a sign of weakness or of not being proficient in a language. They just are our very personal “finger-print” and surely shouldn’t be criticized.

In general, a bilingual or multilingual person shouldn’t be corrected in the presence of others. Rita mentioned “You said that wrong!” as one of the many things one should avoid saying to a bilingual child and I can only agree. This shouldn’t be said to anyone. If someone really makes a mistake, remodelling is the key: “You mean [and say the sentence in the correct way, or like you think it should be said…]”.

One other thing that should be avoided is to compare to siblings, friends, partners, spouses etc.. We all pick up languages and speak them in our own very personal way. We all have preferences when it comes to languages and this is as natural as having an accent or having blond or brown hair etc..

One last thing: never ask which language they prefer the most. Every time people asked me this, I felt like they asked me to decide if I loved my father or my mother the most. This is just impossible!

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14 responses to “8 things to say to a bilingual

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Ute! It is a very good counter-weight to mine. We do after all want the communication to flow so it is good to give questions that you can and should ask a bilingual.

    The addition of “Which language do you like the most?” as another no-go is spot on – it would be like choosing between your kids!

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  2. “One last thing: never ask which language they prefer the most. Every time people asked me this, I felt like they asked me to decide if I loved my father or my mother the most.”
    I always feel the same, not only for the language but for cultures as well!

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    • Yes, the cultures and all that is connected to the feeling of belonging. Once I said I can’t decide, one is my left arm, the other my right arm… The mother who asked me this then answered: “Well, you could still live without arms…” I was petrified. I was 12 at that time and couldn’t understand why she would possibly say this.

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  3. This post speaks to me! Great thoughtful questions! On the other hand, my children love to answer the question about which language they prefer and they definitely have preferences! ! (Which tend to evolve over time!) Great post, Ute!

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    • Thank you, Maria. I’m really glad it spoke to you. I agree with you that having a prefered language is quite common among multilinguals – it’s often the dominant language, right? – and it surely changes over time. Maybe it also depends on the context this kind of question is asked.
      If we’re asked to decide among the dominant languages or our family-languages and we’re asked in front of our parents, we would feel uncomfortable to pick one. Or if we understand by the way the question is asked, that the other person already has a preference and we don’t like this kind of intrinsic judgement, we may not want to answer. If the question is asked by a “neutral” person, i.e. not a teacher, a family member or someone who clearly expects us to answer it in a certain way, we can be more natural in our response. I usually answered with “both” (i.e. Italian and German) but when the person would insist on asking me to pick only one, I would explain that it depended on the people I had to talk to etc. – Therefore I think the answer to such a question surely evolves over time but it also depends on the situation and the way it’s asked.
      Thank you very much for pointing this out to me and for making me ponder about this.

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  4. Great post, Ute! Even though I am not a multilingual since birth and acquired the languages I speak later in life, I have the same feelings about these “good” and “bad” questions. The most difficult question for me to answer is what country I lived in I like the most. I feel I belong to all 4 of them!

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    • Thank you, Galina. I’m sure every bilingual will experience these situations where others ask just odd questions. I lately got asked one and re-directed the person to one of these 8 questions and we ended up talking about linguistics and raising bilingual children. Sometimes people just don’t know what to say and end up asking the “wrong” things unintentionally.
      Choosing one country over another is as difficult as choosing the language, right? I totally agree. Every country I lived in or I felt that I belong, is important for me and somehow part of me like the language I speak. And in my opinion the two strings come together: we belong to these places to the same extent as we belong to their languages (or they belong to us?).

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  5. I love these questions. They come from a point of wanting to learn something from the person, rather than idle curiosity of a spectacle. These questions seem more humble and put these kids’ multilingual abilities in their proper place–one of admiration.

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  6. Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    “code switching is actually a sign of great mastery of both languages, people should recognize it as a sign of mastery!”

    That is very waar. Ik understand waar het here over gaat.

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  7. Personally I hate question #2. People put you on the spot and being an introvert, I hate it. If it just hello, goodbye, thnk you or something simple, it is fine. But being bilingual does not mean you are a great translator.

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    • Annabelle, I know, question 2 is indeed a challenge for many bilinguals. Saying “hello” or “goodbye” are great options for introverts, thank you. You say that bilinguals are not per se “great translators”, and I agree. But they have access to two or more language systems and it makes it easier for them to translate spontaneously compared to someone who doesn’t know one of the languages. I remember that my parents would rather ask me and my sister than look up a word in the dictionary. I used to reply that I’m not a “walking dictionary”, but I now notice that I’m doing the same thing with my children who, funnily, like it. They often discuss about nuances and synonyms, trying to find out which translation fits better. But you’re right. Introverts may not like this kind of question and I think they would be entitled to refuse to answer. – Thanks for pointing this out!

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