Last update on December 20, 2018

Is your child already speaking the local lingo? Psychologist Kate Berger looks at why this is an issue deserving particular attention for expat families.

Having selected a school for their children, expat-parents might be feeling some sense of relief at this time of the year, but relief at having crossed the major hurdle of selecting a suitable school could be short-lived. The next and almost inevitable issue will have come up: learning the local language; a major consideration for parents as well as their offspring!

Whether you’ve enrolled your child in an international or local school, you will probably find that your child’s exposure to the local environment, in even the simplest of ways, means that he/she is beginning to pick up bits of the language without even trying.

Whether you are planning to stay in your new country of residence for only a short period, or indefinitely, are obvious considerations when deciding whether or not to learn the local language yourself.  However, your child won’t focus on such practical matters, and, by simply trying to make friends and “fit in,” he/she will likely pick up the language with much less effort than you do. Young children especially, lack certain complex social anxieties that sometimes inhibit adults. They are less embarrassed to make pronunciation/grammatical errors, and, typically, will be more willing to try to speak it even if they make mistakes.

Also, research shows that youngsters who have experience in moving from place to place are more adept at making new friends, diving into personal relationships in a more agile way than children who have not experienced a transient lifestyle. They are often able to quickly move into deeper levels of friendship — levels where it is alright to discuss personal opinions, and to disagree with peers. However, to be able to communicate at such a level, a good level of the non-native language is necessary and this spurs on the children to pick up the local lingo rapidly.

Aside from social reasons, children are more able to pick up any language more quickly than adults because they don’t have the sound and contextual associations with words that adults do, which makes it easier for them to pronounce new sounds and words.

Practical implications

Living abroad naturally means that your child will become socially involved with local children. When this happens, your child most likely will want to bring home his/her new friend for a play-date. It may become difficult for you to be able to effectively look after your child and play-mate if you cannot understand the language that they are speaking to each another. You can’t expect your child to be the constant translator in this situation because then the ‘play-time’ seems more like ‘work-time ’, and because you will likely miss things in translation, which can be a problem if it is something important like, “Sebastian feels sick and wants to go home!”.

Also think about local traditions. For instance, your child might learn about special local holidays in school and want to celebrate them at home with your family. Often, local language songs are involved, which you child may have learned at school, along with other traditional customs which you may not be aware of. This could make you experience feelings about a developing (cultural) distance between you and your child. For example, if you and your child have become quite close during the move abroad (and have leaned on each another for emotional support), now that he/she has learned these new customs and you haven’t, it could make you feel sad, insecure, and/or lonely because your child is–seemingly–moving ‘forward ’ without you.

Developmental implications

No matter where you are in the world, as a parent, your most important goals and responsibilities are to make your child feel happy and safe in his/her environment. Family dynamics, like trust, attachment, and love, become particularly important for expat families, as they rely on each other for comfort and security during transient times. For example, when making transitions and re-locating, even those with normally high levels of confidence can experience a lack of self-esteem. As they “start over” – culturally speaking- they have to re-learn norms, values, and re-establish a sense of self and purpose in their new environment. Expat children often (re)develop their own self-esteem and confidence during transitional times through their attachment to their parents (and/or primary care-givers). It is, therefore, critical that parents are willing to be involved in the transition process alongside their child in these situations. If there is a gap between your child’s language development and your own, this could strain certain aspects of your family’s support system.

While there is no denying that parents have a huge impact on their child’s development of self-esteem during times of mobility, it is also the case that a child has an influence on his/her parents’. This duality of influence between parents and children is interesting in the case of language acquisition in a non-native country.

The bottom line is that if you want to make the most of your time abroad, there are many benefits to becoming (at the very least) familiar with the native-tongue, and, by supporting your child’s new language learning and skills you are supporting them emotionally, socially, and giving them a helping hand to success!

Kate Berger / Expatica

Kate Berger, MSc Psychology, has a strong passion for helping expat children (and their families) make the most out of life in the Netherlands. Kate founded the Expat Kids Club in 2009 as a way to offer socio-emotional support for expat children who may be struggling with adjustment and acculturation to their non-native environment. See for more information.