top of page

How to Deal with Negative Reactions from Others When Raising Bilingual/ Multilingual Kids

Updated: Jan 30



Table of Contents



The idea for today’s blog post comes from a recent email conversation I had with a reader.


About a month ago, a reader who’d read my book Bilingual Trilingual Parenting 101 got in touch with me with a lovely email, and we discussed quite a few topics in our correspondence.


She raised a very interesting question: how do I deal with negative reactions from other people?


Parents raising their children to be bilingual/ speak more than one language may face negative reactions from others, ranging from judgment to envy
Parents raising their children to be bilingual may face negative reactions from others, ranging from judgment to envy

I’ve addressed this in my book as well, but I thought I’d write this post to share with you some of the points I’ve made in it, in addition to some other thoughts I’ve had on this subject.


Let’s start with my reader’s specific concerns.


She lives in Germany and is raising her child to be trilingual in Spanish, Polish and German. Her child is fluent in all three languages at this stage.


In her email, she wanted to know what’s the best way to act around other families who are not raising their child to be bilingual or trilingual, especially if they speak the same language as you.


Envy and Awkwardness


This is linked to another concern that she has – she said that she sometimes senses a lot of envy from other families who may not have had as much success raising their children to be multilingual.





I can definitely relate to her concerns. I know first-hand that raising trilingual children can be a bit… To put it delicately, “socially awkward”.


This feeling can be especially acute when you’re around parents who speak your target languages, in our case, Chinese and Russian, but whose children only speak English.


Like the reader, I also feel a bit self-conscious in this kind of situation. Because naturally, you don’t want to make the other parent feel bad or inadequate in some way.


It can all feel a bit… awkward.





And there’s just no rule book setting out the etiquette for parents in our situation! For those of you who are interested in this topic, I've created a separate video and blog post about the "etiquette" of bilingual parenting and which language to use in public - do check it out!


A More Sinister Form of Negative Reaction


And sometimes, negative reactions towards multilingual families can take a much more sinister form.


A Polish mum from my children’s school, whose son speaks Polish at home, told me that she tends to speak to her son in English when they’re out and about because it, in her words, “looks better”, the implication being that she’s less likely to get “judged” if she speaks English in public.


Another Polish mum told me that people once gave her "dirty looks" for speaking to her daughter in Polish. And that was in a Waitrose store in London, for goodness’ sake! For those of you who’re not in the UK, Waitrose is a posh supermarket chain that mostly serves the affluent middle class.


More broadly, such incidents are certainly not limited to the UK. According to a Guardian news article, reports of people being berated or attacked in America while communicating in Spanish are on the rise.



Why Speaking Spanish is Becoming Dangerous in America - Negative Reactions Faced by Bilingual Families are Real
Why Speaking Spanish is Becoming Dangerous in America - Negative Reactions Faced by Bilingual Families are Real


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


But back to the point I was trying to make: sadly, even in the developed world today, racism and xenophobia can play a part in how people react to parents speaking to their children in “foreign” languages, or at least affect the perception of such parents, making them reluctant to speak their languages in public.


So, I’m really glad that my reader got in touch and raised these very important concerns. They really underline the wider social factors at play when raising bilingual or multilingual children. Now, let me share with you my own experience in terms of people’s reactions.


My Own Experience


I’ve been raising my kids to be trilingual for seven years as of January 2024.


Why not check out this video where I talk about how we raise our kids to be trilingual in English, Mandarin and Russian?





Very fortunately for us, we have never encountered any overtly negative reactions from people. If anything, people’s reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive!


That being said, a few people have made comments that perhaps suggest an element of “envy” – it's hard to say for sure, and I certainly don’t think that we’ve achieved something so remarkable that would arouse envy!


But let me give you an example.


I once met a Russian mum in our local playground. When she heard our children speaking Russian, she gave what I can only describe as a somewhat bitter smile and went on to explain that her child was totally bilingual before starting school, but gradually lost her Russian.


At the time, our kids were still in nursery.


The mum said repeatedly: “Just wait till your child starts school! You just wait and see!”


I imagine the reader who got in touch with me might have experienced something similar. And it’s not a nice feeling – the feeling that you’ve made someone feel bad about themselves and envious towards you, even though you haven’t actually done anything wrong!


In the next section, I’ll go through some strategies and methods to help parents deal with negative reactions from others.


Why People React Negatively – Three Main Reasons


In my book, I’ve analysed why people might behave negatively towards parents who are trying to raise bilingual or multilingual kids.


I have identified THREE main reasons.


Firstly, some people might just feel uncomfortable around others speaking a foreign language.


Some people simply feel uncomfortable around others speaking a "foreign" language - challenges and negative reactions faced by bilingual families
Some people simply feel uncomfortable around others speaking a "foreign" language

Secondly, some well-meaning people who’ve been influenced by certain misconceptions about bilingualism might have genuine concerns about the parents “confusing” their children with more than one language.


Thirdly, some people might just feel envious of what you’re doing.


So, what are some ways we can deal with such reactions? I’ll suggest some coping strategies and methods here.


Some Coping Strategies


In the case of people being concerned about you “confusing” your child, I think it’s usually best to acknowledge their concern and say something along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s not easy speaking X number of languages, but I think he/she is doing okay!


Then you can politely explain that your child needs to learn X language to communicate with relatives. Usually, people will back off and stop commenting on what you’re doing.


You can explain that your child needs to learn the target language to communicate with grandparents, for example
You can explain that your child needs to learn the target language to communicate with grandparents, for example


And to address my reader’s question about how best to behave around families who are not raising their kids to be bilingual for whatever reason and how to minimise envymy approach is to be very “humble” and low-key.


Ultimately, though, you simply cannot control how people feel about you. As long as you’re not actively boasting about your kids’ achievements, I don’t think we should worry too much about what people think, as that’s beyond our control.


However, if the negative reaction came from your child’s school or childcare setting, you need to find out if there are any genuine reasons for their concern.


If a teacher at your child's school raises concerns, you need to find out if these concerns may be valid
If a teacher at your child's school raises concerns, you need to find out if these concerns may be valid

Is your child lagging behind in terms of their social or academic development? If not, it’s fine to continue what you’re doing!


And when it comes to the racist, xenophobic side of things – I must admit I do not have much useful advice to give to parents in those situations, except to say that you must do what feels comfortable to you given your specific circumstances.


If that’s something that you’ve experienced yourself, please do share in the comments below, as it would be very interesting for me and for others to hear about your experience.


I hope today’s post was helpful in addressing concerns you might have about potential negative reactions from other people.


It’s an important topic, and I feel like it’s something that we do need to confront and discuss.


What do you think? Have you ever had negative comments from other people, and if so, how did you deal with them?

Comments


bottom of page