How does moving to another country affect a child’s identity and languages?

 

Question

Dear Rita and the Multilingual Parenting Team,

Thank you so much for this invaluable resource! I came across it today after a long discussion with my wife about our one-year-old son and our future plans, and wondered if it would be possible to help us out. I’ve read several other topics regarding trilingual children, but none of them quite cover our exact situation.

For context: I am English, my wife is Ukrainian. We lived straddled between Cyprus and Ukraine for the first year of our son’s life, but now I have a job trial in Germany and I am keen to move over there. I speak English fluently, and studied German and Russian at university: my German is the stronger, but given my exposure to Russian daily, it’s catching up. My wife speaks Russian and Ukrainian, and studied English and German at university. Her English is excellent; her German is the weakest of all of our languages. We generally speak a mixture of English and Russian at home, predominantly English. I speak to my son in English, and she speaks to him in Russian and occasionally Ukrainian.

I’m keen to move to Germany, but my wife is worried: she’s concerned that if we move, our son (and any future children) will have German as their ‘dominant’ language: he will speak German at kindergarten, school, with his friends etc., and my wife is worried that he will lose his sense of identity (i.e. rather than feeling like a child of British-Ukrainian parents, he will feel German), and that she won’t be able to understand his mentality because he’ll essentially grow up culturally German, and different to both her and myself.

I don’t share her fears; I think it will be a great thing if he were to learn English, German, Russian (and possibly Ukrainian) and be fluent in each. It matters very little to me which language he will ‘prefer’ to speak in, as long as he CAN speak at least English and Russian to enable him to communicate with our respective families – German would be, for me, a wonderful bonus.

Do you have any advice that might allay my wife’s fears? How do we, in our situation, ensure that all languages get equal exposure and that our son grows up learning all three? Do you agree with the idea that our son might grow up distinctly different to the two of us because he’ll grow up in a different country to us? 

I appreciate the time taken to read this message, and would hugely appreciate your advice in this matter as it’s getting close to crunch time. I may have a job in Germany soon, while my wife doesn’t know if she’s ready to have a German child, and there has been no shortage of tears.

Thank you very much, and I look forward to a possible response.

Best wishes,
Mark

Answer

Dear Mark,

Thank you very much for this question. I completely understand your wife’s’ concern about German becoming your son’s dominant language if you move to Germany and he attends German daycare and schools. You don’t mention where you are going to move to: if the environment is more local or international, if there are possibilities for your son to attend a bilingual or international school, or a local school with a high percentage of children coming from other countries.

A more international environment would surely help him not to feel the only one being “different” and could help foster his heritage cultures and languages. If English and Russian will be supported by daycare, school, and your friends and colleagues, and if he finds some peers who share these languages, it shouldn’t be a problem to maintain these languages.

Raising a child with multiple languages and transmitting values and beliefs from different cultures is not easy, but many families do it, and in Germany you shouldn’t have problems to find resources to do so, i.e. books, audio material, videos, playgroups in the other languages etc. You could already try to find out if there are expat groups or international groups that talk Ukrainian or Russian in the area you are moving to. There might also already be playgroups your son could go to.

If your son will attend a German daycare and school, it will become his dominant language, also the societal language will be German. It will cost you a bit more energy to maintain the other languages too, but it is feasible.

When it comes to language preferences, we parents can’t predict what our children will like or dislike. I have three children who growing up abroad and each one of them has different language preferences. They are all multilingual, and so are I and my husband, and I’m happy that we can find 2-3 languages we all love speaking with each other.

You are asking about “equal exposure” in all the languages. Again, it depends on where you will live and what your everyday routine will look like. There will always be one or two languages that are more dominant, this is very normal and shouldn’t make you worry. Please always consider the long-term plan. I suppose this is that your son will become fluent (speak, read and write?) in all the languages. If he learns to read and write in one language first, this doesn’t mean that he will always lack behind in the other ones. It will only mean that he will need more energy to keep up with them all.

Your son will grow up differently from you and your wife already because he is not your peer. Even if he would grow up in one of your passport countries, many things have changed since you went to daycare and school, and if you would live in another town, the situation would already be slightly different. I often make the comparison between city and countryside, north and south, east and west: there are some huge differences in every country already at this level. Of course, your son will have a different childhood than you and your wife had, and he will grow up in another country.

I grew up abroad, in a different country to my parents country of origin, and my children are growing up in yet another country, so even if their experience of growing up as “foreigners” is similar to mine, they will grow up in another culture. It is a very interesting and enriching experience on so many levels! Research says that children who grow up abroad are more open minded and flexible, they are very good at languages and at understanding other cultures and mindsets.

In fact, your child will be growing up not only with several languages but also with a broader set of values and beliefs. You and your wife will find out what aspects of German culture you want to adopt and what not, your son might have other ideas about this and I’m sure it will be an interesting journey to discover this together as a family. Maybe there are some aspects of German culture that you dislike or don’t want your child to adopt: it could be a solution to make this clear from the beginning for you and your wife.

Please keep in mind that adjusting to a new place and culture doesn’t mean that we must fully integrate and adopt all values, beliefs, traditions and behaviours. We always have the option to choose what is acceptable for us. To make a simple example, if you don’t like the Weisswurst (typical in Bavaria), you don’t need to eat it. There are many options: you may prefer a Brezen instead. And what applies to food applies to all the other domains of life in that country.  Your son won’t become German only by growing up there. He might adapt and adopt a certain Germanness, but you and your wife will too.

I had the impression by reading your message that your wife is scared of your son becoming too German because of this culture being not one she wants her son to grow up in. If I am right about this, you may want to ask your wife if she would have the same concerns if the country wouldn’t be Germany but, for example, France or Italy?

I hope I managed to answer your questions for the moment. I would like to know your answers to mine so that I can help you become clearer about these aspects too. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

I wish you and your family all the best in taking the right decision for you, your wife and your son.

With best regards,
Ute

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold Ute Limacher-Riebold is a multilingual writer, blogger, language trainer, consultant and coach for internationally living families. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism. She is a lifelong expat (or ATCK) and has lived in Italy, Switzerland and France, now living in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual children. She is a language consultant and coach at Ute's International Lounge  and blogs at Expat-Since-Birth, Expat living in The Hague about multilingualism, Third Culture Kids, how to embrace expat life and European cultures. – She is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman.

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