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Bilingual "Etiquette"/ Social Dilemma: Which Language Should I Use in Public?

Updated: Feb 1





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If you’re raising your kids to speak more than one language, there must’ve been a time when you were out and about with your child, in the presence of other parents, and you found yourself wondering: “Which language should I use with my kids, when there are other people around?”


In this post, I’ll share with you my personal experience and advice for such situations.


Background & My Personal Experience


For those of you who are new to my blog, my husband and I have been raising my kids to be trilingual in Chinese, Russian and English in the UK since my son was born in 2016.





At the beginning of this journey, I did not really have a very consistent approach in terms of which language to use with the kids when we were in public.


While my husband and I were, broadly speaking, practising the One Parent One Language strategy, we weren’t always consistent in speaking to our kids exclusively in our languages, both at home and outside.


By age three, our son could understand all three languages very well, but would only respond to us in English.


Around that time, I met a French dad who was successfully raising his kids to be bilingual in French and English.


I asked him for his “secret”, so to speak, and he said that the very first thing we had to do was this: I had to speak to the kids exclusively in Chinese, even in public, when around other people! This is what he himself did with his kids.



Which language should multilingual families use in public?
Which language should bilingual/ trilingual/ multilingual families use in public?


At the time, I was slightly apprehensive about doing this… I’m not entirely sure why, but I guess part of me just thought that it would be “rude” to speak to my children in a language other people around us didn’t understand.


The French dad reassured me that in London, where we lived at the time, no one would care. And even if it bothered some people – so what?


And the truth is this:


To successfully raise bilingual, trilingual or multilingual children, you have to grow a thicker skin and learn not to worry too much about what other people think.


Possible Concerns: Will People Think I'm Rude?!


I know… It’s not always easy! Like many people, I used to worry a lot about what people would think.




Would people find it rude that we spoke to our kids in a language they didn’t understand?


Would people find the sound of our language offensive?


Would people think we were being pretentious in “flaunting” our linguistic abilities in public?


These concerns are absolutely normal. Unless you’re one of a small minority of highly self-confident and self-assured people, I would say it’s a given that these doubts would cross your mind at some point.


But four years on, I’ve now grown a much thicker skin, and I try not to worry too much about what others might think.



It’s because I’ve realised that that French dad was right – speaking to your children in your target language at all times, even in public, is the best way to help your child become fluent in that language.


It’s simply a matter of consistency. The more consistently you use the target language with your child, the more it enforces the NEED to use the language from your child’s perspective. If you frequently switch to English or whatever the majority language is where you are when speaking to your child, whenever you’re out in public, you effectively diminish the need to speak the language from the child’s point of view.


Potential Problems & Coping Strategies


At this point, you might want to ask: OK, I definitely see the benefit of doing this, but isn’t it just plain “bad manners” to speak to my child in a language that those around us don’t understand?


As I said before, I totally see where you’re coming from! Most of us want to be considerate and hate to be rude and to be judged for it.


But let me offer some coping strategies or techniques to help alleviate some of this potential “social awkwardness”.


Two Scenarios Involving Speaking in Public


Personally, I make a distinction between two types of public conversations:


Conversations that only involve me and my child/ children

VS

Conversations that involve a third party that doesn’t speak our target language, which in our case is Mandarin



In the first type of situation, where I’m talking to my children around other people, but where the conversation doesn’t directly involve a third party, I might say to the third party: “Sorry, I hope you don’t mind me speaking to my son in Chinese?”


Of course, if it’s someone we already know well, you don’t have to say that every time you hang out.


This way, at least, you’re showing awareness of basic manners as well as other people’s feelings and perceptions.


I think most reasonable people would be okay with it, but the truth is, you'll never please everyone.


However, as the "spotlight effect" proposed by psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky suggests, most people simply won't care.


(For those of you who are not familiar with the concept of the "spotlight effect", it is a psychological phenomenon where individuals tend to overestimate the extent to which others notice and pay attention to their behaviour, appearance, or actions. It stems from a tendency to believe that we are the centre of attention in social situations i.e. where WE are constantly under the "spotlight")


The Spotlight Effect: it's easy to think that everyone is judging our actions but in reality, no on really cares! So if you decide that speaking your target language in public is the right thing for your family, try not to worry too much about what others might think
The Spotlight Effect: it's easy to think that everyone is judging our actions but in reality, no on really cares!

In the second type of situation, where I’m talking to my children in public, and the conversation directly involves a third party, I do make a concession and switch to English to be polite.


For example, if my children and I were hanging out with another family, and the mum asked the children in English if they would like a biscuit, I would - in this situation – address my kids in English and say something like, “Would you like a biscuit? Don’t forget to say thank you!”


I think this is a realistic and reasonable compromise; of course, what you choose to do is entirely up to you, and you should absolutely do what feels comfortable to you.


Possible Safety Concerns?


At this point, however, we need to address a serious issue that may affect some multilingual families.


It’s something I’ve discussed in my other video about dealing with others’ negative reactions – sadly, families like us have to confront the fact that racism and xenophobia do still exist and may impact how multilingual families want to communicate in public.





According to a Guardian news article, reports of people being berated or attacked in America while communicating in Spanish are on the rise.


In 2020, the story of a mother and daughter being attacked in New York City for speaking Spanish gained prominent news coverage.


A Polish mum I personally know told me that she got "dirty looks" from other shoppers in an upscale supermarket in London for speaking to her daughter in Polish.



A Polish mum told me she got "dirty looks" from other shoppers in an upscale London supermarket while talking to her daughter in Polish - the challenges faced by bilingual families; racism; xenophobia
A Polish mum told me she got "dirty looks" from other shoppers in an upscale London supermarket while talking to her daughter in Polish


Others have told me that they feel more comfortable speaking English in public for fear of drawing unwanted attention to themselves.


I would love to be able to tell parents to simply ignore such fears and carry on speaking to their kids in their native language regardless.


But sadly, we live in a world where racism and xenophobia do genuinely exist.


So, if you’re among those parents who are facing such issues – I’m truly sorry about your situation, and you must do what you personally feel comfortable with, given your personal circumstances and wider social environment.


Summary


So, to sum up, my advice to parents raising bilingual, trilingual or multilingual children is to speak to your child in your target language, even in public, unless:


1) The conversation directly involves a third party;


2) Speaking in your target language might have safety implications.


Here, I just want to emphasise that what I’ve shared in this post is just my personal opinion, and what I feel is the most effective way to raise your child to be fluent in more than one language.


There is, of course, no right or wrong way to do things, and you have to do what feels right for your family and your circumstances.


Thank you for reading this post! Please share and comment – I’d love to hear from you, as always.


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