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Inspiring Interview with Corey Heller of “Multilingual Living”

Corey Heller and her family

Today I’m delighted to share an inspiring, in-depth interview with Corey Heller, the founder of Multilingual Living, “a place where families can find support, information and motivation in raising multilingual and multicultural children.” Corey, an American, lives with her German husband in Seattle, Washington where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 12, 10, and 8, in German and English.

Corey has been an important trailblazer in providing support to families seeking to raise multilingual children and I greatly admire the efforts she has made over the years. In this candid interview, conducted via email, she offers a personal glimpse of her own bilingual journey as well as a wealth of wise advice for parents. Thank you, Corey, for giving us all this insightful look at your life and your work.

1. Could you share the background behind Multilingual Living? What motivated you to create the site?
Although it may seem unbelievable now, back in 2001, when my first child was born, there were really no online resources for families raising children in more than one language, let alone communities focused on this topic. There were a few books out there, which were extremely helpful, but other than that, bilingual/multilingual families were pretty much on their own.

My goal with Multilingual Living was to change that landscape: to help create a source of information and resources for families around the world raising children in more than one language. I wanted to help dispel the ridiculous myths circulating about raising children bilingually so that families everywhere could do what they deep down knew was right for their families. I wanted to help establish an online community where families could connect, share their experiences and learn about multilingualism in the process.

“There is no one, specific recipe for us all to follow.”

2. How would you describe Multilingual Living? In what ways can it help parents seeking to raise bilingual/multilingual children?
I see Multilingual Living as a place for people to become inspired and motivated. One way of helping this happen is to provide research, information, real-life stories and support. The more we feel supported in our efforts, the more we can feel motivated.

I also want Multilingual Living to help families and individuals know that each of our family’s multilingualism is unique. There is no one, specific recipe for us all to follow. What works for one family may not work for another. One family may practice the One-Person-One-Language (OPOL) method with great success, another will try it and it doesn’t work at all.

For example, in my family we practice what could be termed the Minority-Language-At-Home (mL@H) method since both my husband and I speak German with our children at home. However, in the last few years I have noticed that I speak more and more English with my children simply because I lack the vocabulary in German to express what I have to say. This makes me sad since I would have hoped that I could communicate with my children in German on all topics forever. However, I am also learning to morph things in our family’s language landscape based on what works best for all of us and makes the most sense. I guess it is possible that we might end up more of an OPOL family down the road and I need to be okay with this (unless I want to do some intensive German practice to up my language skills which doesn’t seem to be happening).

I hope families out there will understand that this is the way it is meant to be: Test the waters and find out what works for you and your family right now. Stick with one plan for a while and then change it if it isn’t working for you. I hope that Multilingual Living can help us all find what we need for where we are at this moment and not make us feel that we are doing something wrong by not following someone else’s plan.

3. What does the future hold for Multilingual Living and your work in this field?
Ah, this is a good question. I have all kinds of plans and dreams and ideas for Multilingual Living but it all takes time and often money, both of which I lack. I quit a position in the languages department of a good-paying software job a few years ago to stay at home and homeschool my children (who are currently 8, 10 and 12). This was the best decision of my life but it also means that I rarely have time for a lot of things on my Multilingual Living list. I know a lot of bloggers whose kids head off to school and then for 6+ hours they dedicate themselves to their blog. I envy them because I don’t have that extended, quiet time ever (sometimes on the weekend for an hour or so). I wouldn’t trade my current situation for anything in the world since homeschooling my children is the greatest experience in the world. However, from time to time I do wish I had more time to implement my long list of ideas. How this will pan out in the future, I don’t know right now.

“The bits and pieces (or fluency!) of the language(s) we pass onto our children are worth a lot…”

4. Could you also share some of your personal story, as a parent of bilingual children? What strategies and routines have had the strongest impact on their language development?
My family’s situation is not exactly the norm. I grew up a monolingual English speaker until I went to high school where I learned French (and loved every second of it). In college I learned Ancient Greek and Latin as part of my Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology studies. My goal was to get a PhD, become a professor and travel the world from one excavation site to another (this didn’t quite pan out as I had planned).

As a sophomore in college, one of my professors suggested that I do a year abroad as part of the Education Abroad Program through my university. I had no idea how much that year would change my life! Since I didn’t really know any “living” foreign languages (my French had waned and it’s hard to find people today who speak Ancient Greek and Latin) I decided to try and spend a year abroad in Ireland which is where my great grandparents on both sides of my family came from (there are some Scottish roots in there as well). It all worked out and I spent a year in Galway, Ireland studying at the university there. I was in heaven! I had no idea that the world was so big and vast and expansive…and beautiful. I fell in love with everything and knew that I wanted to see more of the world.

During my first days in Galway, I met a wonderful German student at Mary Ryan’s Hostel. Who could have known then that he would end up my future husband! But that is exactly what happened. We spent the following years in Kiel, Germany and California finishing our degrees. During the two years that I lived in Germany, I took intensive German language courses and was admitted to the university in Kiel where I took Ancient History and Classics courses. Eventually we ended up here in Seattle, Washington doing graduate degree programs and never left.

My desire to speak German with my children started the day I took my first German language class in Kiel. I worked hard, very hard, to learn German and wasn’t about to give it up while living in the USA. Just because I may not be a native speaker doesn’t mean that I can’t pass on the language to my children on my own terms and as far as my ability will allow. I want other families out there to understand this and feel motivated and inspired to do the same! The bits and pieces (or fluency!) of the language(s) we pass onto our children are worth a lot, even if our language skills are less than perfect. It is better for me to pass on my less-than-perfect German to my children rather than none at all. My children know that what I do is a labor of love and they join with me in the journey.

“Laughter is necessary when it comes to family multilingualism!”

Corey and her daughterIn terms of our day-to-day, we don’t really have a specific list of rules or routines. We kind of go with the flow as makes most sense. However, that having been said, we do aim to stick with a Minority-Language-At-Home (mL@H) approach as much as possible and try to speak German as much as possible with one another. As I indicated above, as my children get older, my German language skills aren’t quite able to keep up so we switch to English much more than I would like these days.

What has worked really well for us is keeping things light and not taking it all too seriously. Laughter is necessary when it comes to family multilingualism! There is no way that I could have stuck with our family’s ups and downs with multilingualism for so long if I had made it a major effort and undertaking. Instead, we see language as a friend, laugh a lot and encourage one another to correct each other’s language mistakes. If I want my kids to speak more German, I remind them with a smile and a tickle and they do the same to me! We don’t reward the use of one language and punish the use of the other language. Both languages are part of our lives and are part of who we are. Just because English happens to the the community language here doesn’t mean that it is bad or its use to be condemned. I find that thinking to be very short-sighted. Instead, we encourage the use of German because we recognize that if we don’t use it as often as possible, then we won’t be able to communicate as fluidly with our family in Germany! Bilingualism in our family is borne from a desire to connect and communicate as fully as possible.

When my kids have a hard time explaining something to me or their father in German, we let them off the hook and encourage them to explain it in English. There is nothing worse than trying to explain something but to lack the words that match your feelings, or to be continually corrected to the point of frustration. Believe me, I know! Language is there for communication. If our children start feeling that language is more important than what they have to say, then we are heading down an unfortunate path which most likely won’t lead to where we want go. The key is knowing when to be strict and when to let go. This is the magic of multilingual parenting which can be the most difficult to master!

“Our children are living, breathing humans who interact with many people and situations in their lives. How they internalize all of the input around them is unique for each of them.”

5. What difficulties or frustrations have you experienced as a parent? How have you addressed these challenges?
The fact that my German skills aren’t what they used to be breaks my heart from time to time. I have been living in the USA for almost 20 years so it is inevitable that my German language skills will wane unless I make a concerted effort to keep them strong on a daily basis (and that may still not be enough). There is nothing to compare with living in a country where a language is spoken! This is my biggest frustration.

I had dreamed of homeschooling my children completely in German and now am facing the fact that this isn’t going to happen. Instead we are moving toward a situation where my children practice their German as lessons and then we chat in German as much as possible. We just can’t discuss the nuances of a book or the outcomes of a Physics experiment in German the same as we can in English. We just don’t possess the vocabulary. That all changes when my husband does homeschool lessons with the kids. Unfortunately, it isn’t the same amount of language exposure as what the kids get with me.

The other point of frustration was when I realized that my kids preferred speaking English with one another rather than German. This was many years ago and I have come to terms with this but it did make me feel sad and disappointed in myself. I felt that had I done more to support my children’s language skills they would have continued to speak German with one another. Eventually I realized that language nuances in a family are what they are. It may sound strange but it is actually kind of selfish to think that everything in our family’s multilingualism depends on us parents and that if we do things “right” then it will turn out a specific way. How arrogant! Our children are living, breathing humans who interact with many people and situations in their lives. How they internalize all of the input around them is unique for each of them. To think that we are our children’s sole influence is ridiculous! However, that having been said, we do have quite a bit of influence and input so just doing the best we can is worth it.

I have never been one to bribe or scold my children into using German. I feel that this is short-sighted and completely goes against the meaning of multilingualism: many languages. If I want my children to embrace all of who they are, then they need to feel comfortable with both of their languages and cultures. Neither are better than the other. When I feel that we aren’t speaking enough German, then I take it upon myself to simply expose my children to more German language and culture. It doesn’t have to always be fun and my children don’t always delight in what I come up with. But they understand that if we don’t work on our German then we won’t be able to hold onto our bilingualism.

“We need to remind ourselves that this is a marathon, not a sprint…”

6. What’s one thing you wish every parent knew about raising bilingual children?
It would be wonderful if multilingual families could find a balance between effort and fun. It seems that we get into trouble when we go to any extreme: being too strict or too lax. There needs to be a balance between the two if we want things to move smoothly. We need to remind ourselves that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and therefore we need to figure out what will work for us for more than just a few days, weeks, months. We need to think of what is sustainable over the course of years.

Parents also need to give themselves permission to modify things along the way. If something isn’t working, then make a change! Give the new situation some time to settle in (it may feel strange at first) and then modify it if it isn’t working well either. In fact, we usually have to modify things along the way simply due to the fact that our lives change from year to year. Our children get older, their language skills develop, we may have more or less time to spend with our children. Whatever may be the case in our families, we need to be able to modify and adapt. Understanding this ahead of time will make the process so much easier!

If we aren’t passing on our love for languages to our children, who will?

7. What other key advice could you offer to parents who hope to nurture good bilingual ability in their children?
Just go for it! Get started with something and modify it along the way! We aren’t perfect speakers of the target language? So what! Offer what we do have to offer. We feel silly speaking our language in front of others? Good that we can acknowledge this—and now do what we can to work through this so that we can speak the target language with our children as often as possible. Our spouse feels left out? Rather than throwing in the towel, talk with our spouse to come up with a solution! Using our language 100% of the time isn’t possible? Then we should do what we can do. 30% is better than 10% and 10% is better than 0%. Instead of comparing ourselves to our neighbor or friend who speaks the minority language to their children 100% of the time, we should pat ourselves on the back for what we do do!

I also think that we should make sure that our children have at least one strong language in which to communicate. If we are speaking our weaker language with our children, we need to make sure that we can have meaningful, deep and detailed conversations with our children in that language. Our children need to be able to express the nuances of their thoughts, feelings and perceptions with us in as much detail as possible. This is less of an issue when our children are young but as they get older, it is important that parents keep an eye on this and adjust as necessary. For example, I am no longer able to have these kinds of conversations with my children in German. My German language skills just aren’t up to par for this. So my children and I do this in English. If I were to hobble through such conversations in German with my children, I would be holding them back from being able to express themselves fully—language is there for expression first and foremost! They will be able to learn more vocabulary in German along the way but learning how to express themselves in general needs to be learned regardless of language.

This doesn’t mean that we quit speaking our weaker language all together! No way! It just means that we adapt and adjust. Maybe we go from 100% to 50%. Maybe we switch back and forth between languages as necessary based on situation, context and topic. Who knows what will be the solution for each of our families. The key is taking the time, being honest and having the patience to figure this all out on our own terms.

Ultimately, I believe it all comes down to this: If we aren’t passing on our love for languages to our children, who will? Even if our children can learn languages in school (which is fantastic!), it still isn’t the same as what we can pass on as parents in the comfort and warmth of our homes. When we share our languages with our children, we are sharing our love and caring. This trumps vocabulary and grammar every time and can’t be achieved in a language class in school. So if we have the chance to share our languages with our children, even just a little bit, we should. A few sentences spoken with love have more power than all the vocabulary lessons in the world.

How about you? Please share your thoughts or impressions after reading this interview with Corey Heller!

3 Responses

  1. Corey has been an inspiration to me in my parenting bilingual kids and as an entrepreneur creating songs and materials to bring language to life for families and caregivers of young kids.

    Thanks, Corey, for sharing more of yourself and your loving approach in this interview. I agree that a loving caregiver is the key to success with teaching language. So is joy, usefulness of the vocab taught, and finding ways to engage the whole body as kids learn. What a wonderful pursuit, to give kids the gift of many languages.

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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