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