It takes perseverance, consistency, conviction, planning and time to parent bilingual* children. And if you are struggling at times, rest assured that you are not alone. It is not easy even when we can rely on the support of the people around us and have resources readily available. Things get more complicated when there is a lack of understanding and strong resistance from our closest environment – partners, relatives, friends, teachers, healthcare professionals, etc. It is a common issue that comes up in the families we work with and one that could cause a lot of overwhelm and stress. It makes caregivers second-guess their decisions and spend many a sleepless night worrying about their choices, often leaving them feeling defeated and needing to constantly justify their choices.
People have myriad reasons, conscious or unconscious, to disagree with our bilingual parenting choices and to resist them. I have recently talked to Eowyn about her experiences and she has worked with families over the years where, for example, the grandparents were adamantly resistant to the mother using her own language. By resisting we fight “against something […], or refusing to accept” it; we try to hinder or undermine the progress – knowingly or unknowingly. We usually resist things that we don’t know – the less natural something feels, the more threatened we might be. We fear the unknown; we cannot predict it or control it, so we end up simply rejecting it. It’s human nature. That is why educating the people around us is an excellent starting point at winning them over. All the while sticking to our language plan and keeping an open mind.
Beliefs, such as “oh, your child would be very confused”, they would “have a speech delay” or would “only be unnecessarily stressed” if you raised them bilingually, for instance, are right at the top of the greatest hits list. They often originate from a lack of knowledge about the topic. Others go much deeper and touch on the issue of values. One such belief is that certain languages (and cultures) are more valuable than others and, therefore, are more worth passing on. Absurd, isn’t it?! But it could be rather emotionally taxing for the minority-language caregiver to assert themselves and persevere in such an environment. It is tough, especially if the people who resist the most are the ones you’d expect to have your back.
Below are five simple but potent strategies that will help you approach and tackle the resistance to your bilingual parenting choices.
- Be clear about your Whys
Choosing to raise a child bilingually is a very personal decision – one that would affect your family life, relationships, ways everyone appears in the world and interacts with others. It can have a profound effect on the inter- and intrapersonal relationships of everyone involved. Therefore, you need to be absolutely clear why you are doing it. Figure out your reasons – write a pros and cons list, stick post-its on your fridge, write it on your phone or set reminders every so often to remind you what they are. But be clear about your intentions; knowing the answers to the Whys will provide you with the fundament, the true purpose, which would make standing your ground so much easier.
2. Read up on the topic
A lot of resistance comes from a lack of in-depth knowledge. Anecdotes, random stories on social media or beliefs based on assumptions are so omnipresent that it is hard to convince people otherwise. Misinformation and lack of correct information is unfortunately a common occurrence nowadays. The good news is that you can change the narrative. Educate yourself about the topic of bilingualism and language development in bilingual children. You don’t have to read a bunch of scientific articles – just grab a couple of books from reputable researchers / authors and dig in. Find with scientific support for your plan, and share that knowledge. Simply pass it on and explain how it can help. Share your resources too.
3. Create a safe space for discussions
Initiate conversations and create a ‘safe’ space where exchange can happen in a non-judgemental way. Invite your family member(s) or friend(s) to share why they disagree with your choices and what their reasoning is. Be understanding and open, but firm in sharing your knowledge and logic without diminishing the other’s arguments. The more we talk about an uncomfortable issue, the less intimidating and more familiar it becomes. Keep in mind that resistance often comes from a place of insecurity and a lack of knowledge. Be receptive and understanding; ask them what bilingualism means for them. Talk about the benefits and consider the long-term perspective – your child’s socio-emotional development and being included in the home culture by speaking the language – communicating with your part of the family or reading in that language, for example. Maintaining ties to the roots because “nothing might be sadder than, for example, ‘losing’ half your family”
4. Include them in the conversation
Having someone speak in a different language around you could be alienating and intimidating. I have often heard young people being talked down to on a crowded morning train for speaking their home language rather than the societal language in public so that everyone can understand. If a stranger could feel left out, imagine what it might do to a family where a close family member can’t partake in the conversation. It might create overt and covert tensions as well. Try and include people in the conversation if possible. Translate for them and make them feel involved. Ask your child to translate whenever plausible, making sure the family language dynamic is inclusive.
5. Introduce people to your culture and include them in celebrations
Usually it is not ‘just’ the language but the whole ‘mystery’ that veils a foreign culture. People don’t understand customs and/or celebrations and are often afraid or embarrassed to ask for clarifications. It is unfamiliar and perhaps formidable, so be proactive and involve them – translate, include them in celebrations explaining beforehand and along the way, what the cultural aspects and mentality behind it are, how that is mirrored in the language, etc. That approach definitely helped me learn a bit more about my own culture too – where certain customs and traditions come from, what the symbolism behind them is, etc.
Again, the choice to raise your child(ren) bilingually is a very personal one. And bringing everyone else around you on board is about knowledge sharing, having a solid plan, understanding and inclusion, even when the other person is not particularly open or flexible. After all, there will always be people who disagree with our parenting choices – be it about when to introduce solids, when to have a child start daycare or whether to raise them bilingually or not. Think about your family and what would be best for them. Consider a long-term outlook and always promote what is best for your children. They always come first! Knowing Why you are doing it, having a solid plan how to do it and championing your cause is the key to success.
- Baker, C. (2014) A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. 4th edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
- Crisfield, E. (2021) Bilingual families. A practical language planning guide. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
* ‘bilingual’ refers to both bilingual and multilingual children / families / upbringing
 Harding-Esch, E., Riley, Ph. (2010: 88) The Bilingual Family. A Handbook for Parents. 7th edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
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