Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grandparents and the Cost of Bilingualism

This post is part of the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, hosted this month by Mummy Do That!


One particularly geeky Christmas several years ago, the Slovak and I got each other dictionaries* for Christmas, totally by coincidence. I got him an Oxford dictionary for English speakers (i.e. not a translation dictionary) and he got me essentially the same thing in Czech. We were both pumped about our gifts and amused by our parallel thinking. When our parents asked us what we got each other for Christmas, though, both sides had the same reaction: fake smiles and “Oh, how…romantic”. So we explained that no, it’s a great gift, really, and they nodded doubtfully.

But it highlighted a critical element in our relationship with our families, one that takes on new dimensions now that we have a child. My family speaks only English. My husband’s family speaks Slovak and some Hungarian, learned as children and largely unused in later life. They never learned a language as an adult they way my husband and I have. Milestones that are significant to us are just white noise to them: I read a novel in my second language. I had a conversation with someone who didn’t know I was foreign. I taught a class in the second language. I came up with an awesome bilingual play on words that will lose all humor if I translate it. You know, that kind of thing.

They aren’t opposed to us speaking another language, but I think that on a basic level they don’t get it. It’s an experience they don’t share. They support us in our desire to raise our daughter speaking both her heritage languages, but it leads her somewhere they can’t follow. The same place her parents have gone before her. I think they feel this to some degree, but I know they don’t realize the extent of it.

I don’t mean that we adults need coddling for every accomplishment we make in our new world. We can share those things with others in similar circumstances. And how many of us have had that same experience, that we fit in best with other multilinguals, other third culture adults, regardless of language combinations? Learning a new language changes you, in predictable and unpredictable ways. The specific languages you speak shape who you are, the way you think about the world, the way you categorize things. The simple fact that you speak more than one shapes you as well, teaching you that not everyone thinks the same way. It doesn't change your whole personality, but it adds a side of you that is only really accessible in that language. A child raised multilingually grows up thinking all these things are natural and normal - what a wonderful gift to our children!

But now we are talking about a child and her grandparents. Grandparents who only understand part of what she can say and what she can do. Who have the persistent idea that her babble at 1.5 or 2 years old is actually fluent conversation in the other language, and feel left out that she doesn’t speak their language so well. Or, other times, thinking she can’t talk at all because they don’t recognize half her vocabulary and so don’t realize it’s there. Who can’t join in when she talks about her favorite song or cartoon character from the other language. It’s not exactly the end of the world, but it is there. Without learning the other language, they simply can’t be included in all aspects of her life. She, like her parents, is a whole person her grandparents don’t fully know, and they don’t know they don’t know it.

Don’t get me wrong: Baby K’s grandparents adore her and think she’s a genius, just like proper grandparents should. And I think this will improve some as she learns to communicate better in both languages and learns that you have to speak THIS way to Babka but THIS way to Grandmama. Of course, we are making every effort to make sure our child’s grandparents will be part of her life and that she will speak each of their languages fluently, which I suppose not all families do.** But it is still a little sad when they don’t respond to what she’s said because they don’t understand, and she doesn’t know why.

And for the rest of her life, there will be a part of her that her grandparents don’t know, and it is our fault, for moving between worlds the way we do, for not choosing just one, and for creating a sweet American-Slovak child who moves between worlds, too, who thinks everyone has a Mama and an Apo (not a Daddy) and who lives in a country far, far away.

I may not regret it enough to change any of my decisions (oh, never), but I do recognize the cost. I do.

* We have a whole shelf of dictionaries at home: English-Czech, English-Slovak, Slovak-French, English-Spanish, all sorts of combinations. In the end it turns out we never use any of them because it is too easy to turn to the other and just ask. Or I like to use the dictionary function at for a fast and dirty thesaurus.

** Actually, I know not all families do. My father-in-law has a son from his first marriage who lives in America and whose only son does not understand Slovak. So I think my in-laws are quite happy with us for teaching our child Slovak, and with me for not stealing their son away to my country. When we had been married a few years and I STILL hadn’t stolen him away from them, I think they relaxed a little about having a foreign daughter-in-law, haha.


  1. Lovely, lovely! I am so happy to have found your blog. This post is so very touching and as you know, I can relate so very well. I have come to the conclusion that my husband and I will never feel that sense of 100 percent belonging that I remember from my monolingual and monocultural childhood. Course, maybe we all grow out of it along the way? Either way, lovely post and you reminded me to get my act together to find out more about the Blogging Carnival! :-) Your bilingual cohort at Multilingual Living, Corey

  2. Thanks! I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks along these lines occasionally.

    My husband and I have also definitely become accustomed to not quite belonging in any country. I think it's a good thing, though - keeps us from being complacent. Makes us awesome. It's certainly a unique perspective. And it brings us in contact with some amazing people in similar circumstances!

    It does come with the occasional cost, though.

  3. Hi,

    Just popped over here from the 'xculturalfamily' community on Livejournal.

    I made the decision not to have children a number of years ago but this blog reminds me of one of the resaons it could have been nice!
    (I decided, in the end, that linguistic and social theory testing was not sufficient reason to have a child, especially when you love kids but are not parent material!)

    I'm really, really enjoying reading your blog, though, as I'm a linguaphile, in addition to having moved to and married into a family from another culture.

    Please keep posting!

  4. But ultimately your lives and those of your children are not for your parents. Your parents have lived their lives with circumstances and choices which shouldn't leave you feeling guilty or apologetic. Yes, your children will have 2 languages, 2 cultures and a richer experience for it - it is their advantage, not their grandparents' disadvantage.

  5. graeco-celt - thanks for stopping by, please stick around! I agree that linguistic and social engineering experiments are not enough reason to have a child...but if you're having one ANYWAY...then it's a great opportunity for an experiment or two!

    TongueTwister - I know what you mean. This is not exactly a logical or a quantifiable topic, as no emotional topic is. The knowledge that our lives are not for our parents is what gives me the strength to walk away from them after every visit, even though I know it gets harder for them every time. That is just the reality of living far from your family.

    The advantages to our multilingual, multicultural lifestyle are certainly great on every level, and I would not suggest limiting myself (where I live, who I love) by any means. But I also think it's fair to acknowledge that my decisions affect those around me, albeit indirectly, and that it isn't all sunshine and roses for everyone. Mostly sunshine and roses, yes. But not all.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment!


  6. Well put, thanks for the posting!

  7. That was a really thought provoking and interesting post.

    I'm off now to mull over some aspects that so far had not occurred to me. In a mix of English and Italian ( :

  8. Love this post! I'm trying to raise my son bilingually as a non-native speaker coming from monolingual parents on both sides, and my husband is monolingual as well. My husband has been supportive from the first, but both my families have not understood at all why I would want to do this, what real benefit it serves to understand a second language and culture. I can't really make them understand if they don't! We've already gotten hurt comments like, "What's he saying? I can't understand it," when really, his German is much more sporadic than his English, and he's old enough (3 tomorrow) that they could ask him to translate.

    And I remember being very disappointed when I was making out our baby registry and put a bunch of German children's books on there and they were all steadfastly ignored, or when I went to a bookstore last year with my mother and we got an armful of children's books – she paid for the English ones as a gift and left me to pay for the German. It's not a huge deal, but it does show that they don't really get it, and that they don't really support it. Beyond thinking their grandson's now a genius, of course! They do that. :)

  9. Thanks all for the kind comments. :)

    Lauren - I'm sorry your family isn't more supportive. I try to remind myself of all the reasons it is hard for them, but it is still hard to avoid feeling hurt or irritated at certain comments, isn't it? Hard not to get defensive. I guess it must help to focus on the part where they love him and think he's a genius. :) The English books as a gift and German books ignored is exactly the sort of thing I can see my MIL doing. She wouldn't mean it BADLY, but there it is.

    I think people give us a free pass because we're from two different languages already, so any question of why are we doing this is easily answered with, "My wife is American/My husband is Slovak", and the person instantly agrees that of course we have to teach our kids both languages. I bet it is harder to avoid the criticism/lack of understanding if you don't have the family background making multilingualism "necessary". Do you think that is so?

    I can imagine my family freaking right out if I announced I wanted to speak Czech to my baby, living in America, no Czech daddy. I'm sure they would think it was really weird. Not that that would STOP me, mind...

    Anyway, thanks for the comment and happy birthday to hobo boy *grin*

  10. Melissa, you express this beautifully. Since my husband and I are both Americans, I had never thought about this issue from your perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    Lauren, your bookstore anecdote makes me sad!



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