Should our bilingual family drop a language?
Perhaps you’ve invested in bilingual nannies, books, and fancy gadgets to help your child learn another language. But something has changed. Despite pouring so much heart and soul into raising bilingual kids, you’re wondering: “Should my family drop this language?”
Over the past 8 years, our family has faced this question multiple times. Initially, we started with 1 language (English). Then we increased to 2 (English and Korean); scaled back to 1 (English); went up to 2 again (English and Chinese); then maxed out at 3 (English, Chinese, Korean). Although we’ve been holding steady at 2 languages (English and Chinese), we’ve had to adjust our plans along the way.
Consider this: The Risks of Overnurturing with Multilingual Parenting
Maybe your family has moved to a new city. The grandparents aren’t around. Your child has different au pair. The local bilingual immersion school has closed.
Or you’re just not feeling right about this.
Is speaking the minority language still worth the effort?
Often, language attrition happens naturally with life changes. Other times, it’s a conscious choice.
Even if you’re fluently multilingual, raising bilingual kids can be a complicated beast. Many parents have confessed to me that the day-to-day downsides overshadow the benefits of being bilingual.
Sunk-cost effect: why it’s so hard to drop a language
Do you have toys in your home that your child never plays with? Gifts and heirlooms that you never use? Unfinished projects that are no longer relevant?
The sunk-cost fallacy can show up in any part of life. Language is no exception. When we hold onto things and experiences because of previously invested time, money, and energy, this mindset can get in the way of letting go and moving forward.
Compared to decluttering a playroom or other physical objects, language can be extra hard to “Marie Kondo”. Learning how to speak, read, and write a language requires dedication and perseverance. Plus, language may be a significant part of your family’s identity.
If you’re thinking about making a language transition, remember that the language will always be a part of you – even if it’s dormant for a while.
Confronting the all-or-nothing myth
Of course, we shouldn’t give up at the first sign of setback. And fluency should not be the only goal.
In fact, bilingual families range from a spectrum of fluency. Kids may understand a language but prefer to speak another; and likewise, grandparents may understand a language but feel more comfortable speaking another.
Even a small amount of language exposure can serve as seeds for future learning.
Why your bilingual family might want to drop a language
Some families can troubleshoot challenges, but others may not have the bandwidth for this. While encouraging bilingualism is an important, we also need to respect that each family has different circumstances and relationships.
You may need time to grieve the loss. And you also deserve grace to explore a new path that better suits your family.
Which of the following resonates most with your bilingual family?
Your child needs only one language
On the surface, this reason might seem straightforward. Your child lives and goes to school with people who don’t speak a certain language. So your child doesn’t need it, right?
If you’re struggling with this decision, language learning is likely more than a practical skill for your family. Instead, the minority language may be a special connection to friends, relatives, or heritage.
Beyond day-to-day communication, does speaking a second language fulfill a deeper, emotional need? How does this compare with everything your family is current juggling?
This is a good time to re-evaluate your “why”.
You’re struggling to find resources
Access to bilingual books, music, shows, and other resources depends on the language and location.
For example, English, Chinese, and Spanish, are the most commonly spoken languages in the United States. As such, bilingual resources in these languages are generally more readily available, like Chinese reading pens and Spanish music sound books. In addition, bilingual immersion schools and fluent nannies are more likely to be part of big cities.
On the other hand, kid-friendly resources in languages like Korean, Hindi, and Swahili are much more challenging to find, especially in small towns.
You’re going over the family budget
For popular languages, free multilingual audiobooks can help lower education expenses. Also, shows like “Emily’s Wonderlab” on Netflix and movies like “Frozen” and “Wall-E” on Disney Plus have been translated into Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, and other languages.
But learning a second or third language can still get expensive. If you and your spouse are not fluent, consider the cost of outsourcing to tutors, tuition, child care, travel, and/or multimedia resources.
Your family is too busy
As kids get older, the schedule can fill up quickly with school, music, sports, playdates, homework, and other activities.
Even if your child has time, you or your partner might have demanding jobs and long work days.
Downtime is also is important to protect. Unstructured breaks are crucial for long-term mental and physical health, and dropping a language can free up a lot of time.
You’re family is feeling disconnected
Everyone has different communication styles, and both partners should feel supported and welcomed.
For some partners, understanding every word and conversation at home is not necessary. On the other hand, feeling “left out” is common, too. This can get tricky if a partner discourages the unfamiliar language, which in turn can lead to resentment.
Finally, your child’s experience matters. Children of immigrant parents often feel disconnected from peers who don’t share the minority language. Bonding in the minority language can be difficult when cultural gaps are wide.
In addition, trauma from bullying and painful social encounters can cause a child to avoid the minority language altogether.
You’re beyond exhausted
Many families would agree that parenting in one language is overwhelming enough. When you’re burned out, switching languages may feel like mental gymnastics.
Each additional language may feel like doubling or tripling the weight of each responsibility.
Dear bilingual families, it’s okay to drop a language
If learning a second, third, or fourth language brings more burden than joy, listen to your gut.
Drop the language.
Give yourself room to breathe and pause. Your family may be heading into a new chapter. A season filled with more time, energy, and peace for each other.
Chances are, the language will still be around if and when your family is ready to try again.
Goodbye. 再见/再見 (Zàijiàn). 안녕히 계세요. Adios! Au revoir!
What about your family? Have you dropped a language or are you considering?
Please share your experience and what motivated you to make this decision!