Will I be left out in my own home due to a language barrier with my kids?

December 15 2017 | bijouxandbits
Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
Will I be left out in my own home due to a language barrier with my kids?
La Jefa Mamá (The boss mama) tote bag from Rckstr Art
My boyfriend and I have been together for a long time and marriage is in the very near future as well as probable kids. I am white and my boyfriend is Hispanic, and he speaks both fluent English and Spanish. He has recently said that he wants his future children to learn Spanish. However, this makes me worried. Most of his immediate family speaks Spanish and they hardly include me in conversations. So I worry that if it happens now, it will only be 10x worse when it is in our household with the kids and my connection to them won't be as strong.

Disclaimer: I know everyone is going to say that I should give learning Spanish a try, however, I have a learning disability that is related to the English language which makes learning any other language next to impossible.

Thank you so much for any advice you could give! – S

We've actually tackled this issue from the other side a few years back, but it felt like the right time to revisit. It's such an amazing opportunity for your future children to grow up with multiple languages in the household. In the U.S. especially, it's vastly monolingual, and speaking a second language (or more) is a major advantage. Your fears are certainly understandable, but I think it's safe to focus on solutions that encourage them to be bilingual while also being respectful to you and your needs and fears.

We reached out to Facebook to see what advice we could crowdsource, and boy did our readers DELIVER. We got advice on how to communicate the problem, how to teach the children to accommodate your needs and theirs, and even about some emerging technologies that could help.

Here are the highlights that focus on making sure the kids get what they need and are able to communicate, and bond with you at the same time…

Express your concerns

Express your concerns with your partner! Have a talk and explain how uncomfortable and isolated being excluded from conversation makes you feel. I think being bilingual is extremely important, but so is making sure that everyone in the family feels safe and loved. If you both come at the issue from a place of love, with an intent to find a compromise (important discussions only happen in English, etc) you'll be able to find a great solution.
I also think it's good that you're planning on addressing your concerns before it becomes a formidable issue. – Raquela

You have to express and find a way to mitigate your feelings about being excluded, because insisting that your potential children be less educated and less connected to their family and heritage isn't really a viable or responsible option.

And that work of making you comfortable should be important to your partner, too. Have important conversations in English, and speak no names in Spanish conversations. I find myself uncomfortable knowing that people, possible me, are being talked about when I can't comprehend. – Sam

Work on it with the kids

It sounds like the problem is less with a language barrier and more with manners. If you and your partner instill in your eventual kid(s) that they shouldn’t exclude you from conversations by speaking in a language you can’t learn, it shouldn’t matter if they can speak one language or five. That might mean explaining that to your partner now, if he isn’t already aware of how you feel about his family speaking Spanish around you. And in the interim, make friends with a translation app so you can participate in their language development in your own way. – Samantha

When they're babes, have dad translate everything he says. It will be tough for a year or so when they speak to you in Spanish and you don't know what they want. Work hard to learn basic baby talk (hungry, tired, etc.). Once they can understand, explain to them about the learning disability and that mom still needs to know what's going on.

As they get older, have them translate for mommy. When you have a gaggle of speaking children, make it a game: each day a different kid is the official "translator of the day" and they get a special privilege that day for doing the extra work.

As soon as possible, make it very, very clear that it is 100% unacceptable to use Spanish as a way to circumvent mom (to hide something from her, or not translating an insult one of the other siblings may say to prevent them from getting in trouble). Make this a Very. Big. Deal. early on, akin to crossing the street without holding hands/multiple months of grounding as teens. Bonus, this system will probably allow you to pick up a basic grasp of Spanish, or at least be able to sense the tone of conversations even if you can't understand the words. – Ketevan

If your boyfriend sets a good example for the kids of how to be considerate in making sure no one is left out of a conversation, it can teach your kids be more aware in how they converse in other settings, too (for example, with Deaf friends or co-workers). – Erin

I know of a child who speaks French to one grandmother, Arabic to the other grandmother and English to their parents, even though everyone is bilingual and can understand him. You're child will learn to change languages when you enter the conversation. – Alyssa

Having your kids grow up bilingual will probably help to include you more! They will translate for you and/or insist that relatives speak English for you. You may also find that their acquiring Spanish expands your own abilities beyond where they are now without you even being aware of it while it's happening. A win all around for you and your in-laws. – Ella

In terms of language being used to be exclusive, I once heard a social worker say 'inclusive language please.' She just meant to include everyone in the conversation, but I thought it was a reasonably polite way to redirect (this was addressed to bilingual teenagers by the way). – Lisa

Watch for emerging technologies!

Try turning on a translation app on your phone! There are several out there that can hear what is being said and translate it into a different language for travelers, and I could see it being a useful tool for communicating. I do think that it would be beneficial for your children to be able to grow up bilingual, as it can be great for their communication skills in ANY language later on, and makes it easier on the brain to become multilingual later in life. – Trista

Learning new languages is a wonderful advantage, and if your children have that opportunity, they should definitely be encouraged to do so. Your concern about being isolated is understandable, and can probably be handled by using translators, which have been making wonderful advances, and by requesting to be included. This of course includes asking that they speak to you and about you in your presence in words you can understand. Communication is partly about respect; respecting the person you are speaking to demands that you try to communicate effectively.

In the meantime, this crowdfunded technology may be great for you.

This is a device I've been reading up on, as I've found myself wanting to communicate more effectively with people of other languages. Perhaps it can help you, as well. The technology has been progressing wonderfully. Perhaps this can be an option for you. – Michael

  1. Don't worry about the kids. They usually have absolutely no trouble to pick up and use multiple languages at once.

    We have two kids (7 and 4 yrs) and they are fluent in 2 really different languages (German and Romanian, from either parents side), and can switch across them mid conversation depending on who they talk with.
    They don't seem to have to even think about it. In addition they manage to talk English (and sometimes do it just for fun) since we talk a lot English too.
    Multiple doctors even told us to each talk with them in our own language, instead of trying to agree on one language and do it partially badly (for whom it is not native). There is no better time to learn languages than when you are a young kid.

    Of course for having family conversations with everyone included you will have to pick a language that everyone understands – This does not have to be the language the kids hear most of the time.

    Don't think of one language as their primary language. Make them fluent in both and maybe you pick up some pieces on the way – i know it's hard. There is never too many ways to be able to communicate with each other.

    3 agree
    • I once read a book where the author talked about her childhood in Japan. Her family, from Belgium i think, was living there because of her father's job. When her Japanese nanny was surprised to realize she could understand and speak Japanese, the author explained that she never knew there was such a big difference since she had never heard a language she didn't understand. There was language, and French or Japanese were just variations of the same thing.

      1 agrees
  2. I would say to encourage the kids to learn Spanish even if it does turn out that you sometimes feel "left out". It would be a shame for them to be limited and I would sacrifice some of that fear and discomfort (which might not actually pan out anyways) so that they can expand their own horizons.

    3 agree
  3. You speak only English with them, and your partner speak only Spanish with them. They will learn both, and probably speak each with the 'right' parent.
    As for extended family, have a conversation about how left out you feel 🙁 someone should at least translate for you so you can participate too.

    9 agree
    • I must second this comment. I hear the original poster's concerns of being left out. That should be addressed with your significant other. As it comes to future children being bilingual, my goddaughter is fluent in both English and Spanish because each parent exclusively speaks the respective language with her. Her mother (my cousin) is the exclusive English speaker, although she knows Spanish and doesn't have the same issue of exclusivity from her husband's Spanish-speaking family. I can say my goddaughter translates often without being prompted. When my cousin's husband tells my goddaughter to tell her mother something in the other room, my goddaughter will say it in English to her mother even though her father said it in Spanish. Its as though she instinctually knows what language to speak with what parent and other relative. I only share this in hopes that it gives some hope that it is actually positive that you don't speak Spanish with your potential kids.

      2 agree
  4. I lived in Hong Kong, I worked in construction as an Engineer, while most of the office staff spoke good English when we dealt with subcontractors and site staff English wasn't spoken by most. It took me a while to relax when Cantonese was being spoken, when I did there were English words that let me keep track and sometimes jump in and add to the discussion, prior to that I felt excluded and it would wind me up (and do a worse job).

    As a previous commenter mentioned, learn some basic words so at least you can know the basics.

    If his relations know English I would suggest being blunt in their company and let them know you feel excluded. I stopped saying it was OK when they dropped into Cantonese, that helped because it was asked beforehand and only when necessary for others understanding.

    1 agrees
  5. Growing up in a Hispanic family, my aunts were always giving my dad a hard time for not speaking Spanish around my brother and I. I picked up enough to know when my cousins were talking about me, but I never really learned Spanish until this year. Traveling to Spanish speaking countries made me realise just how much of my culture I had been missing by not learning sooner. Now, I understand why my aunts were so upset with my dad, and I feel cheated out of missing such a key piece of who I am.

    As others have said, the advantage of this in the future is that your kids will help translate. More importantly, they won't be cut off from this culture that makes up half of who they are.

    3 agree
  6. I think this might be a non-issue, at least with the kids. I was raised bilingual and never gave it second thought. Children will use either/both languages, probably some mix of them. They will want and need to be understood by you, their mom, so they will naturally make it happen by adapting to your language.

    If your in-laws are purposely excluding you, that is a whole other issue. I think you might need to start setting boundaries now, such as english in your house or someone designated translates for you. If they don’t make an effort, it will be less of a surprise down the line when you might have to refuse to accompany the kids when they go there. In-law issues, especially cultural differences like this, tend to get worse when you are both tugging in different directions over kids. I think you need to find out where sweetheart stands on this, and other things. If his mom and you clash, who will he support?

    3 agree
  7. Hello! I'm from the US and living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My Spanish speaking husband and I have an almost 3 year old son. I have a lot of foreign friends living here in the same situation. I have a few thoughts. First, your kids' English will always be super strong because they will be surrounded by it everywhere, except in the case of your husband and his family. They will hear English everywhere: school, from you, TV, friends, etc. etc. One of my main worries is that my son won't hear enough English to make him fluent. That might be a worry that your husband has that you can help him address. It breaks my heart to think that my son might not be fluent in the language that my entire family speaks. It's SOOO very important to me. That said, kids are like sponges and they will probably learn both languages with no problem whatsoever. But your husband and his family will need to talk to them in Spanish A LOT in order for that to be possible. Try putting yourself in his shoes and imagine if your children couldn't communicate with your parents or your grandparents (relatives from the homeland or whoever!). Since their English will always be the stronger language, as others have said, they will be able to help translate. And you WILL learn some Spanish… you might not get to the point of having conversations, but you will begin to understand a lot more words, just from being around them learning. It has happened with my husband and it's really fun! I totally get you, I worry about this stuff all the time too, but don't worry, it will all work itself out. You're MOM, they are going to want you included in everything, so you don't have to worry about being left out.

    1 agrees
  8. I am English and my wife is Dutch and we met when she came to my country for a job and stayed. In our home the dominant language is English and our whole relationship is in English. When we visit her family the language is mostly Dutch.

    My wife’s family mostly understand English fine but vary hugely in ability/confidence in speaking it. I can talk to them in English and they talk back in a mix or in my mother-in-law’s case only Dutch. I havn’t been able to find a Dutch class near me so have muddled along picking up words like Lekker which means yummy, but not really whole sentences. I know it seems like the simplest thing would be for my wife to constantly translate and for her to teach me but it really doesn’t work like that. Teaching a language is a special skill that requires more than just knowing that language, as is translation, especially simultaneous translation. It’s well worth adjusting expectations there!

    If we are in NL then I just accept that I won’t get everything. I can make good guesses and if I contribute something in English it can flip into English, but mostly, without even realizing it they will go Dutch as it were. I generally let it happen, it’s a huge part of my wife’s identity that she doesn’t get to experience much in her day to day life and it’s in no way a rejection or exclusion of me. At first I did struggle with it and it can still be hard at times, but my rule now is if we are visiting them I let them have their time together in their language which is part of who they are. When they are visiting us it’s naturally mostly English but I do make sure they all have time together while I’m doing something else to enjoy a good gab in the mother tongue. I don’t think this is unfair at all, after all my wife has our whole relationship in another language for my benefit, so it seems only fair! Also, while my wife’s English is amazing she can feel the same around my family once we really get going, she can’t always keep up and I won’t always spot it, despite my experience of the same thing! We have just had to accept this is how it is and it’s not anyone trying exclude anyone. We always make sure we have some nice quality alone time planned after family visits. Our wedding which was in the UK, was a logistical nightmare language wise but we reached a compromise in the end, we didn’t translate the ceremony (but had readings in both languages) but did translate all written stuff like invites, programmes etc, it was a lot of work!

    We don’t have kids so I’m not sure I have a right to give any opinions here but I will say that at first both me and my wife expected her to constantly translate but it’s really hard, I’d hesitate to put this burden on a child. It’s definitely worth considering your partners experience here, it’s not necessarily easy being the bilingual one at all. My best advice is really to find a way to make peace with the limitations that’s come with having families that speak different languages, one plus side is that you can’t get drawn into family arguments if you don’t speak the language!

    4 agree
  9. Not sure if this has already been suggested or not, but the letter writer could also attempt to learn some simple Spanish. There may even be programs or classes that could help a person with your disability. I'm sure that her in-laws and husband would appreciate her attempts to learn the language. And, it would help with future communication with the child(ren). There are also English/Spanish children's books and toys that the letter writer and her future husband could use with the future child. If she could also learn simple words or phrases, even that would help. Good luck.

    3 agree
  10. I come from a mixed marriage relationship and so does my husband. Because my father, a white man, had these same fears, my mother did not teach us children her native language, Hopi. We are all very sad about this. She is now 80 years old and full of regret because her language will die with her. She is the eldest daughter of a chief who was sent away to white boarding school in the early 1900's where it was punishable by physical means to get them to stop speaking their native tongue. Forbidding native languages being spoken in America is nothing new but it has wiped out so many cultures that once graced this beautiful land. Being bilingual is not only a huge advantage for opportunities when your children are grown, it will keep them connected to their roots, which so many people have lost due to language being forbidden. They will admire and respect you for this once they are old enough to understand the sacrifice you made for them.

    2 agree
  11. Tomorrow's kids are not the issue.

    Today's exclusion is.

    If BF and family were making good faith efforts to include or accommodate you but you felt left out anyway, then that would be your issue to suss out.

    However, it sounds like BF and family are excluding you, either wilfully or out of thoughtlessness. So you have a much different journey. You and he need a serious and mature talk about respect, accommodation, and support of (and for) you and your (dis)abilities BEFORE anybody gets married, let alone born. This is important, so having this talk in the office of a couples counselor might not be unreasonable.

    In the meantime, "ON ON GLAZE, POUR FAH FOUR" is phonetically close to "In English, please" for practical purposes. If your LD lets you learn to say that one phrase, it might be helpful.

    (Actual Spanish speakers are encouraged to correct my phonetics.)

    Good luck, sweet S!

    4 agree
    • That's closer to French, but still understandable! A few simple phrases are a great idea.

      Hello: hola (OH-la)
      How are you: Como estás (KO-mo ays-TAHS)
      I'm well: Estoy bien (ay-STOY bee-EN)
      Thank you: Gracias (GRAHS-ee-ahss)
      Goodbye: Adiós (ah-dee-OHS)
      In English, please: En inglés, por favor (ayn een-GLAYSS, por fah-VOR)

      1 agrees
      • Thanks for the correction! (Yeah, my French is showing. Pardonnez-moi.)

        Should we also add:
        "Nohn cum PREN day ESS pan YOHL"?
        (I don't understand Spanish?)

        Again, any corrections are welcome, although I don't think *perfect* pronunciation is necessary in LW's case — being understood is enough.

        Besides, pronunciations vary with dialect.

        3 agree
  12. I'm on the side of the letter writer here. Not saying the kids shouldn't learn Spanish (they should!), but using a language inside the home that a member of the family can't understand is deliberately exclusionary. I grew up with a BF who had two deaf parents. She and her middle sister had their hearing, and their younger brother was also deaf. In their house, you signed. End of story. You could talk along with the sign, of course, and they always did when non-deaf people were in the house, but using sign language 100% of the time was about respect. If my BF and her sister had refused to sign, their dad and little brother (who both couldn't read lips), would've been completely shut out. I could sign, but not fluently, and I used what I could in the house. My BF translated when I couldn't communicate effectively. Anyone who couldn't sign had their words translated–in full, all the time–by one of the girls or their mom (who could lip-read). No exceptions. It didn't limit those who could hear. It made the house a place where everyone felt safe, respected, and appreciated.

    2 agree
  13. Hello!
    This is similar to my current story. I was brought up bilingual with both parents understanding both languages. Now I have my own 4 year old son that speaks 3 languages, my mother tongue (fluently, also helps we live in my country and my husband speaks it albeit not fluently), my husband's mother tongue (fairly well as we spend about a month in his country each year, and which I do not understand), and English (our common language).
    I think that learning languages is a great gift you can give kids not just for what they can use them for later, but as windows to different cultures and world views. So it never occurred to me that my husband would not speak his native language to our son (although he did get some encouragement from me early on, when he said it felt like he was talking to himself almost). And yes, this means they have a secret language and that when visiting my in laws I get left out of some conversations, but I see this as his opportunity, not my loss.

Join the conversation

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

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.