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[FIGT2021 Report] Language, Family and Identity: Parents Share Their Bilingual Education Journeys

11 Apr 2021 9:15 AM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

Families choose to raise their children bi- or multilingually, but the paths they take are unique to each. Blog Editor Ema Naito-Bhakdi reflects on the FIGT2021 session by Diana Limongi and Elizabeth Greninger on “How Languages Help Communities Embrace Differences.”

[FIGT2021 Report] Language, Family and Identity: Parents Share Their Bilingual Education Journeys

Reporting by Ema Naito-Bhakdi

I’m an adult third culture kid (ATCK) raising three cross-cultural kids (CCK) who speak four languages to varying degrees. So you can imagine the topic of raising multilingual kids is close to my heart and with what great interest I tuned in to the session with Diana Limongi and Elizabeth Greninger, who shared how their families set about to ensure their children grow up speaking multiple languages.

Diana: Bilingual parents passing down their language and cultures

Diana grew up bilingually with English at school, Spanish at home. Her situation was one that I could identify with. She lives in New York with her French spouse, and they are raising their children in three languages. Their hope is that their children would have the languages to build a strong connection with their Spanish- and French-speaking grandparents. 

Diana and her husband mostly use the popular “one person, one language” approach, where Diana speaks only in Spanish with their children, and her husband, only French. Diana’s Spanish-speaking parents live in the same building as the family, which gives the children daily exposure to Ecuadorian language and culture, and the children are attending a Spanish-English bilingual school. It seemed like a great and enviable setup.

Elizabeth: Monolingual parents raising their children bilingually

The possibility of exposing children to their heritage languages is a common issue for couples who already bring languages other than English to the mix. But Elizabeth and her spouse grew up monolingually in English.

When Elizabeth and her husband relocated to Mexico for work, they decided to immerse themselves in the Mexican community and to send their young children to a local Spanish-speaking school. That way, they figured, the children would grow up speaking Spanish natively and learning Mexican culture, while Elizabeth, an educator, would teach the children English at home. 

The nexus of language, identity, and family

The piece of Elizabeth’s story that made me wonder was how her children — native Spanish speakers whose parents come from English-speaking American backgrounds — will come to identify themselves as they enter adolescence, especially if they move away from Mexico at the end of the parents’ work assignment.

Clearly, Elizabeth is thinking about this. “We've tried to foster that American identity in our home so that [the children] recognize and realize that they are bicultural. And that even though they're living here in Mexico and embracing that in so many ways through their school and their community experiences, that they still have the identity of Americans,” she says.

The nexus of language, identity and family connection was something I’d been pondering since the TCKs of Asia had a forum on the hidden losses of language and intimacy in October 2020. It’s an issue that I’m grappling now with my own children.

Language isn’t just a skill, I’ve learned; it is a defining element of our relationship with our parents and families and our identities.

My entire relationship with my children so far has been built on the Japanese language, even though I don’t wholly identify as Japanese. So how do I open up my English-speaking self and world to my Japanese-speaking children? And how will speaking more English with their mom affect their own mixed-race, multinational, multilingual identities?

Of course, no family knows exactly how their children will come to see themselves when they grow up outside of their parents’ “home” culture, between multiple cultures and languages. 

I certainly have no clue. It’s a living experiment. And as with any parent, we try our best and hope for the best because we believe that the gift of language is the key to enriching our children’s lives.

A tough journey

The part of the session that I appreciated the most was Diana and Elizabeth acknowledging that this journey was tough. 

“Sometimes, because we grew up speaking the language, we think it'll be a piece of cake and then we realize, Oh, it's actually not. … So one of the challenges is definitely commitment: you have to have a plan and seek people that are in this journey, but also know that there are going to be ups and downs,” says Diana. 

Pointing out that we may also feel isolated on this journey, especially when living away from our home countries, Elizabeth reminds us: “It's like a marathon, it's not a sprint.”

I hope that they and many others like them, like us, will keep the exploration going, to unpack the link between languages, family, culture, and identity.

Because at the root, I join Diana and Elizabeth in the belief that growing multilingual families is a cause worth striving for.

In Elizabeth’s words:

We encourage you to be bold and brave in your decision to raise bilingual kids. There are certainly going to be challenges. … But we can attest to the rewards and the gifts that your family will receive by making this decision.

Adult TCK Ema has found her volunteering “home” on the FIGT Comms team as blog editor. Based in Bangkok, she is an independent scholarly editor who enjoys classical singing and blogging about raising three cross-cultural, multilingual kids.

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