When Family Languages are in Conflict

A different language is a different vision of life.

  • Federico Fellini

The vast majority of families I have worked with over the years have been in agreement about the decision to raise their children as bilingual/multilingual. Usually they come to me for family language planning advice because they want to “get it right” and ensure that their children are able to use both languages of the parents, and other languages (school, community) as well. But every once in a while, I work with a family in a situation of language conflict; they can not agree on language goals or priorities for their children.

Sometimes, it’s a direct consequence of a divorce/separation which leaves the parents in disagreement about language priorities. As many things become contentious as a family dissolves, so too can bilingualism, and language choice become a serious issue. This is often the case when one parent feels that their language is “more important” than the other parent’s language, and needs to be the priority. Juggling two or more languages in a family home is often challenging, but stretching two or more languages across shared custody adds an additional level of difficulty.

I’ve also worked with intact families struggling with language issues, where one parent is not supportive of the other parent’s language choices. This is particularly hard to deal with as it also impacts the children’s views on language. It can be extremely divisive when parents do not understand or value each other’s language priorities. In these cases, it is often that one parent wants to use a dialect or minor language in place of a “more important” language, and that choice is not supported or encouraged by the partner or extended family, who feel there is no reason for the choice.

And finally, I’ve worked with families in which one parent simply does not like the language of the other, or doesn’t being “shut out” because they don’t understand the other language. This leads to pressure to shift towards monolingualism in the family, to alleviate the discomfort the monolingual parent feels when confronted with conversations they can not understand.  Again, this creates tension in the family that the children can feel, and they may often then choose to stop using the disputed language, in an attempt to “keep the peace”.

In all these cases, the red thread is generally language status. In multilingual families, there are often differing views about the status – high or low – of each language, and this is linked to the perception of usefulness. If a parent determines the usefulness of their partner’s language as being low, they are more inclined, in some cases, to consider that language a hindrance, rather than a benefit for their children and family. I see this most commonly when the father speaks a high-status or majority language, and the mother speaks a low-status or minority language, and in these cases the children very often end up losing the mother’s language, which is at the least detrimental to their bilingual potential, and at worst, detrimental to the parent-child relationship.

In all cases, when we choose to marry someone who speaks a different language than we do, and we choose to have children with them, we have a duty to support our partner in their language choices, and make a family language plan that addresses the need for each language. This means that language choice must be respected, and supported, regardless of personal opinion or personal comfort level with other languages. The language we choose to use – need to use – with our children is highly personal and strongly linked to our own backgrounds and families. Each parent must be given the opportunity to choose the language that they feel best able to parent in, and that choice should come from the heart, and not from the head, or from someone else’s judgement. This holds true as well after separation/divorce; families need to plan for the children to continue to grow in both parents’ languages, to ensure they remain connected to the part of their identity that is linked to that language/culture.

In all bilingual families, it’s important to start from a place of mutual respect and support, and the understanding that the languages of both parents are equally important for children, regardless of the immediate or eventual usefulness of the language.

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