Daddy doesn't speak the language
I Am A Mom, Raising Multilingual Children

When Dad Doesn’t Understand his Multilingual Children

I have to admit that my parents-in-law are very understanding. But even they get their doubts about the way we are raising our trilingual children. I think this is more due to a lack of knowledge about multilingualism than to an inherently negative stand on the topic. After all, they know French very well and they have experienced first-hand how much they benefited from speaking a second language. I also think that another reason is that they don’t speak Polish. My parents-in-law don’t have problems with me being Polish, but they are worried about not understanding or speaking Polish. 
 
One day, an argument on multilingualism ensued. My father-in-law expressed his doubts  whether it is such a good situation when a father doesn’t understand his children’s language. Of course, he imagined how he, as a father, would feel in such a situation: left out, isolated- in other words, not very well, I suppose. 
 
I am not the only person whose parents-in-law, or other extended family, have their doubts whether the children should be raised multilingually. Eowyn Crisfield, a French-speaking Canadian who lives in the Netherlands mentioned that her American parents-in-law said about her family: „They’re doing this French-Dutch-thing”. They were surprised why on Earth do the children have to speak French and Dutch when they already know English. 
 
Colin Baker, currently my favorite author on multilingualism, addresses this very problem. His advice is to explain that the child will have more benefits from being bilingual, and that the father will most likely manage the fact that he can’t understand everything his child says pretty well. I couldn’t agree more: explain, explain and explain some more. Of course, in-laws and other people are allowed and should be encouraged to ask questions (even though some of them are silly). But it’s always a good idea to make clear that you, as the parents, have the right to raise your children the way to see fit, including what languages are you going to speak to your children. 
 
Furthermore, I see from my own experience that in the early years, when the language is simple and used to describe very specific things, fathers can learn a language well enough to understand their children. My husband understands more and more Polish because children’s language is simple, and accompanied by gestures and repetitions. To put it in a nutshell, my husband is learning Polish together with K. His passive Polish is impressive, he understands everything. He also took a Polish language class to better understand his children.
 
Then, children learn very quickly to differentiate between who speaks what. K. very soon started addressing her father in German, then she started translating what we say. Now she speaks Polish with me and German with my husband. She also speaks Dutch with her siblings.
 
I think all daughters have secrets from their fathers. Daughters also keep secrets from their moms. This is normal and totally independent of the fact whether mom and dad speak the same language or not. And I think I like that. If I am lucky, Polish may become our secret language, which would give our kids a motivation to use it. Because, regardless of what my parents-in-law are saying, it is not German that is endangered, it’s Polish. And I will have to put a lot of work into making my children actively speak it . 
 
Coming back to the father-daughter relationship, the girls have a wonderful relationship with their father- and so does my son. I love watching them when they play or read books together. My eldest and my youngest both take so much after their father, it’s amazing! 
 
So, no, it is not a problem when the father doesn’t understand his children’s language. It is important for the child to understand the language of his or her father. It’s important for the child to have something that is just theirs but it shouldn’t be a problem. 

And if the father is worried that he doesn’t speak his kids’ language, well then maybe this is a good time for him to consider learning it.

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4 Comments

  • Reply Ute Limacher August 9, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Oh, so true! I’ve had a similar situation years ago – it would be too long to explain here – and I totally agree. I always considered such a trilingual situation where one parent doesn’t understand (or barely does understand) the language of the other parent like an opportunity for the father (or the mother) to learn the “other” language together with the child. What I was worried about was, that the worries of the family would be transmitted to the child and that this would cause some problems. But this – fortunately – didn’t happen 😉

  • Reply Countrified Hicks August 11, 2012 at 12:35 am

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    • Reply The European Mama August 11, 2012 at 8:38 am

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  • Reply Learning Polish Was the Greatest Gift for Me June 4, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    […] had to learn Polish. But he wanted to, and I remembered when my in-laws were scared that he wouldn’t understand his children and was very happy to help.   I found a Polish teacher, and in short time, we decided on […]

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