Wednesday 15 February 2012

Parental adventures in Multilingual-Land

In my family, both parents come from monolingual households and from (officially) monolingual countries, Sweden and Portugal. Both of us knew about other languages and other cultures long before we met, including from daily contact through schooling and more or less extended stays in other countries. Foreign sound and video bites were also routine on radio and TV. Adapting to a “foreigner” through marriage might then have looked like a straightforward addition to a seasoned roll of experiences.

Well, not really. Whatever experiences we’d had, of other countries and speakers of other languages, didn’t count as home. Home-bound Swedishness and Portugueseness turned out to be all-new to us – including to the natives of each culture. Puzzlements expressed by Why are you doing that, that way? ended up a distant second to Why am I doing this, this way? We confronted, daily, the simple truth that you can’t see yourself for what you are unless you become “foreign” to yourself.

The exotic feeling of otherness was first compounded by our use of English with each other. A few months into our marriage we realised that that wasn’t working at all: English was neither “ours” nor allowing us to be us. It was a language of work for both of us, and so a stilted, rather unwelcome guest to our home – more on which in a coming post. Neither did our lingua franca come complete with some cultura franca, to which either of us cold relate.

So we built our home around Swedish and Portuguese. This had an interesting side effect, by the way: as soon as we began understanding each other’s languages, we came to realise that we had in fact married quite different people than we had imagined. There is, as the saying goes, no place like home.

With our languages came our licences to use them as we were used to, in the ways that identified us and “our” people. Suddenly, there were no foreigners any longer in our respective family gatherings, because everyone could speak the same language. Granted, there were a few glitches along the way. When mingling with Portuguese relatives and friends, for example, Dad never ceased to be baffled at why he continuously got asked questions which were as continuously answered by the same or other relatives and friends, who all then reported to him that he was a marvellous conversationalist. He never got the time or the chance to even attempt to open his mouth. Mum, in turn, became unsettled at the long silences which come up in cosy Swedish family gatherings, suspecting that the lack of uninterrupted chattering at the dinner table was due to her presence. And what to say of where to place the male Swedish guest of honour to a dinner party in Portugal, or vice versa, who sits to the right of the hostess in a Portuguese home, but to her left in a Swedish one?

Small stuff, perhaps. But nevertheless the stuff of everyday habits which suddenly turn into daily surprises. You tend to want to blame someone, something, yourself, the others, your languages, their languages, for what fails to match your habits, forgetting that habits are just more or less tribal rituals which appear to be set in stone only through continued practice – more on which in a later post too. There is cultural novelty (or cultural clash, if we choose to honour the war metaphors which are favoured to discuss these things) whenever our necessarily local habits meet with other local habits.

So, question: did we become multicultural? It might be tempting to say that we did, also honouring the current fashionable aura surrounding multi-words. But that would be as meaningless as claiming that we had once been monocultural. I’d rather say that we adapted, as much as we did when we moved from kindergarten to high school, or from single to married life, or from Europe to Asia. We knew we were different (who isn’t, really?), and we didn’t mind either being so or being seen as such.

So, question: what happened when our children came along? The choice to use each of our languages with our little ones was not so much a deliberate choice as what we felt would come to feel natural to us. Baby talk, nursery rhymes, child-rearing practices, had first come to each of us in a single language, and so we did as we had had done to us. But we also played it by ear. We soon realised that it’s probably wise to avoid setting yourself the kind of New Year resolutions that you know you won’t keep and you know will give you a guilty conscience for that, when you embark on new adventures like becoming a parent. The next post explains what kind of surprises were waiting for us there too.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Making a home for new languages. Saturday 25th February 2012.


  1. Interesting thoughts! We found so many Swedes so fluent in English,( even the older generation) I am surprised to see Sweden thought of as a monolingual country.

    We're monolinguals who are purposely raising our child as a trilingual (and traveling the world to do that) so a very different journey.

    Like so many, my husband was raised by bilingual parents ( who were monolingual in Spanish until they started school) but they only spoke English in the home so raised their kids as English monolinguals.

  2. soultravelers3, you wrote:
    “I am surprised to see Sweden thought of as a monolingual country.”

    So am I! There’s a world of difference between official, national language policies and what goes on in real linguistic life among the “nationals”.

    Not only in Sweden either. You may have found out about similar situations in the countries you’re familiar with through your travels? Do let us know! Many thanks for this comment.


  3. Hi Madalena! I have just discovered your blog and have been devouring it for the last couple of hours.
    I am Lithuanian, my husband American, and our 3.5 year old daughter perfectly fluent in both Lithuanian and English so far. We live in the US, and my daughter stays at home with me, so has more exposure to Lithuanian. She is starting a preschool in a month, though. We have been happily strict about the OPOL rule until quite recently...
    One difficulty with it, we're experiencing, is probably quite common, e.g. when I get involved playing with a group of English-speaking kids, it only seems fair for me to speak in English with everyone, not excluding my daughter. However, it feels very unnatural and awkward talking directly to her in English...
    Another, a bigger worry of mine (and more of a comment to this particular post of yours - sorry for the previous off the topic deviation) is that we are not truly a multilingual family, as my husband doesn't speak nor understand Lithuanian. After a few short efforts to learn it, he gave up on it, claiming to be comfortable with only knowing some words and just getting a grasp of what I and my daughter are talking about. I have enormous worries about what happens when she's older (hence more complicated interaction between me and her), or when we have more children (hence sibling language, as I just read in one of your other posts) and if then my husband feels completely out of loop... Should I start only using English when the three of us are together? Right now I use a mix of Lithuanian and English, avoiding to talk directly to my daughter if I use English.
    Family holidays in Lithuania have become a huge burden for all of us, to an extent that I prefer to travel alone with my daughter.
    Do you have any thoughts on these issues, or advice for "half-multilingual" family as ours?

  4. Hi ‘Anonymous’ – since you chose to remain so,

    First of all, sorry about this belated response, your comment reached me only yesterday!

    You wrote:
    “strict about the OPOL rule”
    We started off OPOL-ing in my family, too, but soon realised this couldn’t work as a ‘strict’ rule, much for the reasons you say. Another reason is here:
    Numbers and languages
    So our parental languages became the default rule instead: we used (and still use) them with the children when there was no reason to switch to a different language.

    You asked:
    “Should I start only using English when the three of us are together?”
    I don’t see why you should do that. Your girl needs all the input in Lithuanian that she can possibly get, not least because you live in a place where English is mainstream. In addition, exposure to Lithuanian in this natural way may well assist your husband in developing his own skills in your language.

    I hope you will want to contact me privately, so we can continue this discussion. I’m sure this short reply doesn’t address all of your concerns.

    Thanks for this comment and your kind words about my work!



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