Mixing two cultures together in a family seems like easy arithmetic: 1+1= 2, right? However the reality for many so-called bicultural children is that they often feel like two halves that don’t even equal a whole. They can feel simultaneously connected to and yet alienated from the two cultures that make up their identity, leaving them feeling confused and incomplete. As parents or aspiring parents, intercultural couples shouldn’t assume that it will be easy for their children to straddle two identities. Here are some things you can do to make sure your kids feel like a “double” and not like a “half”.
Keep strong ties with family and communities of both cultures
If international travel is involved here, this can be difficult, but it is absolutely worthwhile. Yours and your spouse’s parents are the gateways for your child to feel connected to their cultures. If your families love and accept them, then that means your cultures love and accept them too. Encourage your relatives to teach your child about your family history, traditions, and recipes. It may also be worthwhile to raise your child where you will have access to a community of people of the same culture. Little things like being able to shop at ethnic grocery stores or being able to attend a language school will go a long way to helping your child feel connected. They may even be lucky enough to find other bicultural kids who can understand and share in their experience.
Learn more about exposing your child to both cultures here…
Teach your child your language
What a loaded commandment! It seems like an obvious thing to say, but the reality is that teaching a child an extra language proves too difficult for many parents. They fear that learning two languages will retard the ability of the child to learn in the language she is using at school. There are also frightening anecdotes about children who don’t begin to speak until very late, or worse, mix up their languages into a confusing soup that no one understands.
Given these difficulties, many parents will feel like giving up or decide that it isn’t important. But many bicultural children feel like not speaking the language of half their family is emblematic of their feeling of disconnect. Especially if their looks or name make people assume they must be a native speaker of a language, their inability to speak can be a constant source of consternation and embarrassment. Many try to learn the language later in life, and the sheer difficulty of it makes them rue their parents for not trying harder. My Japanese/American friend even goes to the trouble of accosting intercultural couples she meets at parties. “Please!” she implores, “teach your kids both languages!”
The keys to teaching a child multiple language seems to be two-fold: consistency and exposure. Whether you decide to have each parent speak a different language to the child, or to speak one language exclusively at home and the other outside the home, you should decide on a plan and stick to it. Children need to be exposed to a language for about 30% of their waking time for it to take hold, so both parents spending time with the child is also very important.
Parents would also do well not to panic if a child seems to be speaking later or mixing languages. Research shows that by the age of 5 children develop the vocabulary in both languages to be fully conversant in each.
Learn more about teaching your kids to be bilingual here…
Your kids might be teased or isolated from their peers for being different. They might even start to resist identifying with one half of their culture in order to fit in better with the other. As a parent, this may hurt your feelings, but remember that your child is probably just going through a phase. Remind your kids from an early age how lucky they are to be made up of two cultures, two languages, and two families. Make them feel proud to be “double”, instead of embarrassed to be “half”. And be proud of yourselves too! Raising a family is just another aspect of being an intercultural couple that requires extra attention, communication, and work on your part!
Do you have a story about being raised bilingual or bicultural, or are you struggling to make it work? Share your stories and questions at [email protected] !