Relationships and Bilingual Families

family holding hands

by guest blogger Christine Jernigan, Ph.D.

I recently wrote the book, Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children. In my interviews with parents, they frequently spoke of the language “bond” they shared with their children. Let’s look at this connection. What does speaking another language do for familial relations? How does it affect interactions? What does it mean to have a code language?

The Language Connection

Think about your speech in your native tongue. You speak different versions of the language depending on who you’re talking to. With your elderly neighbor, you use more formal language, using “yes” instead of “yeah.” If you spoke to your best friend the way you speak to this neighbor, she’d wonder why you were sounding so stilted. That’s because language also represents the kind of relationship you have with someone. Ever seen newlyweds speak their own lovey-dovey language? When you’re speaking a foreign language with your child, you have an even stronger bond because it is so different from the way others around you speak.

I’ll tell you about a family I interviewed. The father, Ralf, has spoken German for years to his daughter, Sara, now five years old. Ralf is German, but he’s married to an American and lives with his family in the US. He was trying to become an American citizen. After much preparation and waiting, Ralf was finally awarded citizenship. The day he came home from the awards ceremony, he spoke to Sara in English, instead of their usual German. He was just playing around when he said, “Okay, no more speaking German with Daddy, Sara. I’m American now!” (R.D., interview). Much to his surprise, she burst into tears. He had to console her for some time—in German!—reassuring her he was making a joke and that, of course, they would keep speaking German together. Even at a young age, Sara tied German to her relationship with her father. To abruptly abandon the language would mean cutting their special cord.

The Bond of Extra Time

Parents I interviewed say the relationship with their children is greatly enriched by the extra time they spend with them sharing the second language. I’ve found this to be true in my life, as well. I speak Portuguese to my children, a language I learned later in life. Being the main speaker of the language to my children has encouraged me to continually communicate with them. I strongly believe that the extra time and focused attention strengthens our attachment. As my children have grown, I’ve kept a journal of their language development. This journal entry is from when my kids were almost six and four:

“… raising the kids bilingual…pushes me to spend time with them, talking to them, not just doing around-the-house chores in silence and such. I get a reminder that I haven’t been vocal with them…[when] they struggle to find the word in Portuguese… Playing Uno and Go Fish has helped a lot… I think every mom struggles with…rarely get[ting] down on the floor to play because there are always bills to pay or phone calls to be returned or beds to make.” (journal, 1/26/2007)

Other parents agreed. They reported that being aware of speaking an L2 (new language) meant they interacted more with their children. This mom speaks French with her infant:

“I really feel I do a better job teaching my infant French instead of English. I talk more often if I am speaking French, because I am conscious of teaching a language.” (F.T., email interview)

Just Between Us

How great would it be to talk to your kids and have no one understand? I love being able to correct my kids without other people noticing. In this journal entry, my daughter was four and very stubborn about apologizing:

“Today Portuguese really came in handy. One thing I cannot get Sydney to do until she’s good and ready is apologize. Today she smarted off to my dad. I told her she needed to say she was sorry and could tell Diddy [Daddy] was waiting for an apology. She flatly refused and instead said, in Portuguese, “I want juice,” so I told her, “After you apologize.” She said she was sorry right then and there.” (journal, 5/19/2005)

Think back to times in your childhood when your parents corrected you in public. Perhaps you did something that embarrassed them. You made a rude comment that other people overheard, or you asked an inappropriate question about a stranger. Parents I interviewed said it’s much easier when no one picks up on the embarrassing things kids say. One mom states, “And sometimes Mary Kate says things inappropriate about people and you can explain in French. Once she was in a restroom and a lady passed gas and Mary Kate said, ‘She farted Mommy!’ [but] in French.” (J.F., interview)

In this case, the code language helped not only the mother, but also the stranger to not feel embarrassed. I’ve had many such situations, one when my daughter was just two:

“This morning…we were at the mall and Sydney saw a woman who was overweight with bushy black hair going everywhere. She yelled out and pointed at the woman saying, “Bruxa!” [Witch!]” (journal, 11/4/2004)

Of course, parents still have to explain to children why these comments are rude or hurtful, but since no one actually gets hurt in the moment, the intensity is dialed down.

Directly from the Source

I decided to ask my children directly if speaking Portuguese has changed our relationship. Their responses are below (translated from Portuguese):

Sydney (13 years old): We can talk to you when I don’t want other people to hear. Other kids can’t do that.

James (10 years old): If it’s just you, Sydney and me and we’re learning the language together, it’s like bonding. And when we go other places, I can talk just to you—if people are around, they can’t chime in. It’d be fun to have a code language with a friend.

In Closing

In closing, I’d like to offer a word of encouragement. When we as parents think of taking on bilingualism, we can quickly talk ourselves out of it. The many negatives jump to the forefront and can scare us off. But when you look at all the many benefits of bilingualism and then add to that a closer bond, a tighter connection, suddenly learning and sharing a foreign tongue looks worth the while. Join me on a wild and wonderful journey. And check in with me to let me know how it’s going:

Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children is available in paperback and ebook at

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