Being bilingual in a monolingual world.

My linguistic resolution for this summer was to speak more French with my kids. Two weeks left in the summer, and how is that going? The answer, unfortunately, is not so well… What I have learned this summer, after spending five weeks in North American (half in the US and half in Canada) is that it isn’t as easy to be bilingual in a monolingual world. Now, I kind of knew that already. I talk about it in my seminars, and I discuss it often with families in Family Language Plan sessions. But really, you need to experience it to believe it. We have the great benefit of living in a thoroughly multilingual environment. We are surrounded by expats and immigrants from all over the world, and the Dutch aren’t exactly slouches at learning other languages either. Being in places where English is was a real eye-opener for me.
Firstly, it was much harder to use a language that excludes when you are the only one doing so. Here at home, I use French all the time in front of people who don’t speak French, and English in front of people who don’t speak much English. I do what I need to communicate with my kids in the language I feel is “right” for any situation. In a monolingual environment it feels very different to be the only people doing something different. I often started something in French and then veered towards English out of discomfort or guilt. Even though I know that I have nothing to feel bad about, it still seems “rude” in such an English-dominant environment.
Secondly, my kids were much more prone to respond to me in English, no matter what language I chose to use with them. Obviously, on some level, they were feeling the same pressure to conform to the majority language as I was. Or else they were just taking the chance to be linguistically lazy…
The bottom line is that families making the choice for bilingualism in a monolingual environment are doing a hard job. Kudos to all of you trying to make it work – I wish you much success and I’d love to hear your stories.

7 thoughts on “Being bilingual in a monolingual world.

  1. nomadmomdiary says:

    Oh Eowyn – it is such a relief to see that you sometimes struggle with this bilingual journey we are all undertaking. My husband used to complain about this all the time, as the non-English, non-Dutch speaker and now I feel the same challenge as the non-English speaker in a very English world. I honestly think about you, your advice and support and your cheerleader mentality in pushing all of us parents to keep on trekking down the bilingual way, anytime I tense up and think of going the “easier” route. When all else fails, I remind myself about just how cool it is that my kids speak another language – and that maybe that just might make them better than everyone else. And those two things combined together help to keep my moving on my way. Good luck to you!

    • eacrisfield says:

      Thanks Lynn. It’s not an easy journey, even for me! (Or maybe especially for me, as I know too much sometimes…). Last night I was doing a family language plan with a couple, and the subject of “my plan” came up, and I had to admit that my “plan” has changed a few times over years, and will likely change again as circumstances change – it’s an ongoing challenge for all mobile, multilingual families. Looking forward to hearing how you are doing with your new normal.

  2. Karen says:

    I live in a small town in Italy where very few people speak English, and it took me a couple of years to feel comfortable speaking English to my daughter in public. I persisted because I knew how important it was, but it was hard to do, especially because I’m a shy person and I hate having any sort of attention directed at me. Even now, though speaking my language to her has become natural, I sometimes tell her to speak Italian to me when we go into a shop I’ve never frequented before. She never complies, as she’s very strict about her languages!

  3. Angela says:

    Our family has recently relocated to the San Diego area after living in Germany for the past three years where our son had an opportunity to attend a bilingual German-Spanish daycare beginning at 15 months old. I appreciate this forum to connect with other parents striving to raise their children bilingual especially now that we are back in the United States where monolingualism and the mentalities that go along with that prevail. We are fortunate that San Diego is an area that has many language immersion programs/schools to promote second language learning. I look forward to staying connected with parents and educators with like minded goals as this journey of bilingualism is not an easy one! Reading the comments encourage me to keep my children on this path.


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