Nov 272013

When grandparents have no common language with their grandchildren

We live in a time when an increasing number of people and families move from one part of the world to another, thereby crossing not only geographical but cultural and language borders. Quite often children grow up in a different country from their grandparents and it is not unusual that families find themselves with a language gap between the oldest and the youngest generation of the family.

Recently I have been discussing this topic both with grandparents and grandchildren who have experienced the situation first hand. Their stories have made me realise how profound an impact it can have on your life if you grow up not being able to communicate with your grandparents and part or most of your relatives. I wrote about the feelings children have about this in a previous post.

Of course grandparents can have a great bond with their grandchildren even if they do not share a common language. With babies this is easy and small children are also mostly happy to engage in games and play without the need of verbal communication.

However grandparents have told me that they miss the opportunity to read bedtime stories. Most of all they are sad that they cannot have the important heart-to-heart talks with their little loved ones. They would like to be there to lend an understanding ear when their grandchildren would like to share their small or big worries. The grandparents feel they would have the patience and time to listen to all the stories about what happened at school or what the children’s dreams and plans are. Sometimes it is also easier for children to speak with their grandparents than their parents about certain issue – but if the common language isn’t there this cannot happen.

If grandparents live far apart and the family can not to meet so often, thankfully there are ways of keeping in contact over the phone or online video calls. Again the contact is so much more difficult if there is a language barrier.

When these situations arise the parents find themselves translating between their children and their own parents. This works well to a certain extent, but it is still not the same as if the children and the grandparents could talk directly to each other. A translated message never has the exact same meaning and message as a directly spoken one.

There is a huge pressure on families mowing from one country to another. There are a lot of changes: a never-ending list of new challenges but also opportunities – it is an exciting time. The family would like to settle in well as soon as possible in their new environment. It is natural that the parents are eager for their children learn the new language. Sometimes maybe too eager in that they change to using the new country’s language. The parents themselves will not forget their home country language – they have spoken it long enough. This can however not be taken for granted for the children. Unless there is an on-going exposure to the language of their grandparents it might lose its importance and no longer stay an active language for the children. If this goes on for a few years or more the language skill is bound to deteriorate even more.

I understand that it is not always viable to keep the home country language alive, but if there is the slightest opportunity to do it, I recommend, from the bottom of my heart, that parents do their best to pass it on. The message from grandparents and grandchildren alike is the same: we want to be able to talk to each other.

Do you have any personal experience of such a situation and how have you dealt with it?

May the peace and power be with you.


© Rita Rosenback, 2013


  17 Responses to “When grandparents have no common language with their grandchildren”

  1. Really interesting, thank you!

    • Thank you – have you experienced this yourself or in your family?

      • Yes, my family is from Mexico, everyone speaks Spanish, one of my uncles married an American woman; for some reason they decided they wouldn’t speak Spanish to their kids (imagine that!).
        When my cousins grew up they couldn’t communicate their inner feelings to my grandparents, if you add the fact they lived far away from each other and back then there wasn’t Internet…
        A very sad story indeed.

  2. […] We live in a time when an increasing number of people and families move from one part of the world to another, thereby crossing not only geographical but cultural and language borders. Quite often …  […]

  3. Nice post! While grandparents are important, parents are even more so and unfortunately, it is often the grandparents who make raising bilingual children difficult. Of course,what you describe could be the reason for it, but parents and their languages come first!

    • Interesting point you make – would you mind expanding on it? In what way do you find grandparents making it more difficult to raise bilingual children? Of course it is the parents and the children who are at the core of the situation, that is a given. I wanted to bring this up, because grandparents do not often get heard in this context. I also wanted the post to maybe provoke some thoughts in those parents who choose to bring up a monolingual child because it is more convenient.

  4. […] is also important for the extended family bonds – the connection between your children and their grandparents will be so much closer if they share a common […]

  5. […] languages is to you. I have heard a young girl speaking about how excited she was about meeting her grandparents for the first time in her mother’s home country, and how frustrated she was about not being able […]

  6. […] be able to explain something to your granny, you have to share a common language with her – to me, children being able to communicate with their grandparents is one of the key […]

  7. […] It would of course be the “other” language that should be on the losing side – ask them how they would feel if it were their language that you would choose to drop… Remember that it is your decision as […]

  8. Can I give a different perspective? Even though I am not fluent and can speak only a little bit of my parents’ native tongue, I still felt a close connection to my grandmother who recently passed. Yea there many times that I needed someone to translate for both of us, especially when I had some difficulty in communicating through some parts, but that didn’t stop us from getting to know each other and our personal lives. We loved each other regardless. I didn’t find that it had tremendously separated us. Just want to point out that whatever cultural differences there are between two parties, there are many ways to create that bond, though language is one of the easiest ways, but it is not the only way. Do I feel any regrets? No, but I do feel fortunate and blessed to know her. So I would say, don’t put too much pressure, in fact even though if there is a language barrier, make it a fun thing to teach both grandparents and kids English plus the other langauge !

    • Thank you for your comment and I am so sorry for your loss. I do agree with you. I have seen this happen in my own extended family. A common language is not required for a close relationship – like the one you had with your grandmother. To have a common language does however make things easier, especially if you live far away from each other and can not meet in person that often. I love how you describe your connection with your grandmother, I can really feel your closeness – she has left you with many happy memories which you can cherish. Take care.

  9. I’m choosing to raise a monolingual child for the reason that I do not want the negatives of the specific culture to affect or influence my child’s life. I also don’t want my child coming home and speaking to me and me not being able to understand what he/she is saying. I am also moving far away from the particular family who force the culture on their family. I will later give my child the choice however, in early years of bonding, I want a common language as a foundation.

    • Thank you for your comment B – I am sorry to hear that you have had a negative experience from one side of your child’s family. A close bond to a child will always override the benefits of being bilingual. I am glad that you will offer him/her the chance to learn the language and get to know the other sided of his/her cultural heritage on his/her own terms later on in life. Wish you and your child all the best!

  10. Interesting,

    Though I agree learning the “mother tongue” is good, I don’t think it’s a life and death situation that I find so many people see it as. As someone has mentioned, it’s closeness and enjoyment with family that matters more than whether a person can speak the language or how well that person speaks it. Communication makes things simple, I agree, but more so it’s the words or actions that really have a deep meaning rather than how well/much you speak. I understand my parents’ language well and I don’t speak fluently (got flak for not being perfect in it and the comparision on how others are better turned me off from speaking), but I realize it just doesn’t matter cuz I still enjoy my time whenever I visit relatives not proficient in English. I wish a lot of people can see that rather than complaining and being frantic about their kids not speaking their native tongue, and think it’s the end. One downside I am noticing it is that some people are using language to define certain cultural aspects and as a tool to put people in boxes or determine who they are . Example is my friend who gets flamed and gets called names because she doesn’t speak Spanish well, and is not a true Hispanic for it (and they go for parent blaming). Though she enjoys her culture, she’s not comfortable in speaking Spanish and prefers English. Is that a bad thing? So I can understand B’s stance on this regarding the negatives, and I agree.

    For my children, if I were to have any, I’d def encourage to learn our origin’s language but will not force it upon them. And of course if I notice they are gaining an interest, I will make sure it is a positive experience for them, because I know first hand parents belittling/criticizing/or others making harsh comments not only is a turn off, but makes them hate their heritage culture and people as they get a negative impression on them.

    Giving another insight.

    • Thank you for your insight JJ

      Of course you are right that a common language is not necessary for a close relationship. I wrote this article a couple of years ago after talking to different grandparents who do not share a language with their grandchildren and this is how all felt, and I do think their opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. None of the grandparents I spoke to had ever put any pressure on their children to pass on the family language, but had just accepted the situation (and I certainly don’t mean that they should have put any pressure, family life is hard as it is)

      I also don’t think you can force a child to learn a language, it is by actively using it yourself, being a proud speaker of it and instilling an interest in the language that children grow up to want (and need) to speak the language.

      Every family’s story is different and we should respect each other’s choices. It is however also good to hear different view points.

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