Children's author

When the going gets tough: raising bilingual children in a hostile environment

When the going gets tough: raising bilingual children in a hostile environment


You might share my fear when reading the news – what has become of once accepting and politically correct societies? You can’t have missed the changes. With the latest political developments, we are seeing a worrying increase in propaganda that speaks out against immigration and ostracises foreigners.

As we enter an increasingly hostile period in our social development, it will come as no surprise to any of us that raising bilingual children has suddenly become extra challenging. Now, more than ever, our bilingual children are at risk of ‘sticking out’; they will be linguistically and culturally conspicuous by virtue of their provenance. And whom amongst them wouldn’t feel out of place living in what appears to be an increasingly inward-looking society?

So, what’s to be done? It is our responsibility as carers to guide them through these difficult times and to ensure that they will not feel unsettled because of their bilingual identity. Here are five ways that could help you to help them acclimatise to the new reality we face:

Take a good look at yourself. If you are a U.K. resident, the results of the Brexit referendum might have come as a shock to you. Suddenly, you may not feel as welcome, no matter how many years you have been living in this, your adopted country. You may be experiencing a feeling of having been put ‘on the outside’ by others, whenever you encounter the words “immigrants” and “out” in political speeches, on the news, or even just overheard in conversation. You might be feeling anxious and worried; understandably so.

Like many of us at the moment, your feelings may be having an impact on your behaviour. If you are unhappy, anxious or short-tempered, you can be sure that your children will have noticed. Children are surprisingly perceptive; little things like your hesitation to speak a minority language in public can speak volumes to a child. And a change of attitude towards the people around you could also send signs to them that all is not well. The answer is to allow for your children’s presence in tricky public situations and to try to compensate, even though this may not feel natural to the way you usually behave. In private, try to make your home a relaxed haven of calm and normality; this way, everyone can feel safe and free to express themselves.

Spend more time with other bilingual families. This is a fantastic way of showing your children how normal it is to belong to more than one culture, or to speak more than one language. It is an excellent opportunity to get to know other family situations, to encourage each other, to exchange tips and ideas and to celebrate difference. Importantly, these meetings of international families are a way to show little ones how wonderful things can be when tolerance and open-mindedness co-exist. So, get the children playing together in an environment where communicating in more than one language is not only normal, but encouraged. The more time children spend with their bilingual, international peers, the better.

Talk. Take the time to talk to your children about what it means to be bilingual. Many children struggle with the idea of appearing different from their peers. For this reason, they may not be as keen as you would like them to be about learning a language spoken by none of their friends. Add a sprinkling of negative comments from other children and a few instances of peer xenophobic behaviour to the mix, and it’s unsurprising that soon, you could have an unhappy child unwilling to put the effort into learning multiple languages.

It is important therefore, to help them understand what they, personally, can gain from speaking more than one language. A good way to start this conversation could be for you to read to and with your children. Choose age-appropriate stories that use the topic as a key theme. ‘A Fish in Foreign Waters’, written for young children, for example, is the story of a bilingual fish who feels embarrassed to be different but, in the course of the book, makes an amazing discovery. By the end of her journey, this bilingual fish has realised how special and lucky she truly is. Discussing why and how this has been achieved for the little fish (and could be achieved for every one of us) is a great way to engage your child. Perhaps, help them create their own story. Watch how excited they become when they realise that, just like the little bilingual fish, they too can forge themselves a happy ending!

Positive examples. Surround yourself and your family with positive examples of linguistic internationality. Together, read fictional stories of multilingual or multicultural people that have made a difference to their worlds. Cartoon characters like Dora the Explorer and her cousin Diego offer affirmative representations of bilingual children. Choose bilingual heroes to help your children feel like one. And don’t stop at fiction – find stories in the non-fiction, everyday world to support your child, too. Stay on the lookout for ‘good news’ in the newspapers. Record documentary programmes. Find evidence of intercultural and multi-lingual success stories from real life and use them as a platform for a positive discussion.

Belonging to different cultures is so much fun! What traditions and holidays can your children adopt? What special food can they try to cook? Is there a special children’s character that they can read about? There are many ways to ‘live’ a multicultural life. For my children, doing this means two Christmas stockings, one from Santa Claus and one from the “Befana” on the Epiphany. It also means special cookies and dressing up in carnival… what’s not to love?

While helping your children through these tough times you must also remember that you can be part of the change. Get involved in promoting love and acceptance for different cultures and languages. Start in your little social circles, talk to your children’s teachers and get involved in school. Do make sure that you share your point of view and how your bilingual children see the world. Be out there. Speak your truth. Hopefully, together, we can contribute to making positive changes, and little by little, forge a new future for the younger bilingual generation.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *