I have two grown-up children who were born in France but have lived the majority of their lives in the US. I grew up in the UK with a French mother, and am completely bilingual, as are my children. Their father is French and we spoke only French at home; as a result they grew up speaking French to each other and us and English to everyone else. Now that they are young adults, we see each other very infrequently.
My partner only speaks English and finds it very rude that we speak French together. My children feel that they really want the three of us (the two of them and myself) to connect as a family during the times we share, and that speaking English is a barrier to that. Do you have advice for explaining to each the other’s point of view?
Thank you for your question. The balancing act between speaking the language you feel is right and making sure no one feels excluded is always difficult in a family of both bilinguals and monolinguals. It is a very common (and understandable) reaction that a monolingual person feels that it is rude of bilinguals not to speak the language which everyone has in common (presuming there is one). It is difficult for a monolingual person to comprehend why you would NOT use the language everyone knows.
As a bilingual myself, I can however fully understand that you want to speak French with your children. I am in a very similar situation myself as far as language setup goes, but I am also extremely grateful that my second husband has decided to learn Swedish. I would not recommed suggesting learning French as a solution for your husband, though!
What we as bilinguals need to keep in mind is that we have a different view of language than monolinguals. For monolinguals there has only ever been one main language, it is THE language for them. Even if they have learnt a bit of another language or two at school, they still have never been able to reflect on what feelings they have towards their own language in quite the same way as bilinguals can, because there is nothing they can compare with. Neither have they experienced the situation of speaking a “wrong” language someone, i.e. one that both persons know but would never choose to speak with each other, because it is not what they are used to.
What I am trying to say is that we cannot expect a monolingual person to automatically understand the importance of the language choice for us, and only through discussion can we explain why we prefer to use a certain language. For a bilingual, language is not only a means of communication – it is much more than that. Language is a big part of not only our identity but also our relationships with others. With close family members, we often have specific words and phrases that are at the core of our communication and that conjure up memories and make us feel close. Using these words and phrases with the exact same meaning, but in another language, does not have the same impact. On the contrary, they can make us feel distant from each other. In a different language, words still carry the meaning, but not the feeling, the bond nor the memories. Using the same language that we have always done brings us together.
If, as in your case, you do not get to meet your children that often, the importance of speaking French is even greater for your bond during the short time you have together. I can only recommend that you bring this up with your partner before your children arrive and start the discussion with saying that you do understand where he is coming from and that you would like to find some sort of a compromise. Let him explain why it feels so rude (because I presume you still make sure to speak English when there is something you need to discuss together). Then explain to him what the choice of language means to you and your children, taking into account what I wrote earlier on.
If you cannot come up with a solution for when you are all together, would it be better to spend at least some of the time apart during your children’s visits? Would he be fine with doing something he really enjoys while you are spending time with your children? These are very personal matters and only you know the best way to approach this discussion. Much of course also depends on how well you and your partner generally communicate together.
Wishing you the best of luck and hope that you can find a way to be together without anyone feeling left out. Please do let me know how it all pans out.