The life of a Third Culture Kid (TCK) can be fraught with the challenges of speaking one or more (often, minority) languages and straddling two or more cultures. When a family with a TCK finds itself moving across countries frequently, this adds more complexity to the family dynamic in terms of language and communication. Like many families out there, our family has had to respond to these complexities each time we have moved. And we have moved countries three times since our 8-and-a-half-year-old son Julien was born! We’ve had to make decisions about which school Julien would attend (German or English, public or private), whether we would keep using the same languages with him, and how we would traverse the communication minefield of having third parties—his friends, or our friends—present who didn’t speak our home languages.
When we had our first and only child back in 2011, we had decided definitively to use the One Parent One Language (OPOL) method, with my husband speaking in German, his native tongue, and me in Mandarin Chinese, my second language. It was an unconventional choice for someone like me, born and raised in Singapore, a postcolonial, multicultural city-state with 4 official languages. This is because Mandarin Chinese is but one of 3 state-sanctioned “ethnic mother tongues”, corresponding to the 75% ethnic Chinese population, with English being the language of government, business, and education. In effect, Mandarin and the other ethnic “mother tongues”, Bahasa Melayu (spoken by ethnic Malays), and Tamil (spoken by ethnic Indians), have been somewhat relegated to a secondary status with most people who were born after the 1970s speaking primarily in English.
Even though my parents are both Chinese Singaporeans, I am, in fact, a product of a bicultural upbringing. My mother’s parents, who were immigrants from Guangdong province in southern China, spoke only Cantonese—which became the very first language I spoke, having been raised by them from birth till age 3. My father’s parents had emigrated from Hainan island, also in southern China, and had spoken only Hainanese. My parents, having married outside their respective ethnic-language groups, communicated with each other in Mandarin, the language that would unify disparate immigrant Chinese groups in post-independence Singapore. My father spoke to my sister and me in Mandarin, and my mother—who is an English teacher—spoke to us in English. I retained my Cantonese, having had 16 years of contact with my maternal grandparents; but my sister, alas, could not speak any Cantonese and was unable to have much meaningful communication with our grandparents before they passed.
I write the above to set the backdrop to Julien’s multilingual journey. My own experience being trilingual from a very young age had been shaped by external forces: national, social, and familial. I grew up with a 3-way OPOL situation, and I thought nothing of it as it had been the reality for many third-generation families growing up in an immigrant society of many cultures and languages. Hence, when our child came along, I was more than a little convinced that OPOL would not only work on him, it was the only way that Julien would learn Mandarin and German in addition to English.
Singapore, age 0 to 2.5: Laying the groundwork
Julien spent his first two and a half years in Singapore, surrounded by our relatives and friends. He heard English, Mandarin, German, and a smattering of Cantonese and Hainanese when Grandma and Grandpa were speaking with their siblings or friends. But as parents, we stuck unwaveringly to OPOL, even though I didn’t understand much German and my husband didn’t speak any Mandarin. We continued to communicate with each other and with our friends in English, but it was almost always 100% in our respective German and Mandarin when it came to our little toddler. We filled our home with books and read to him every night in English, German, and Mandarin. Grandma—who took care of Julien while we were at work—spoke in English and Grandpa in Mandarin. Opa and Oma spoke in German during our weekly Skype calls and whenever we made cross-continental visits. At that time, I hadn’t joined any multilingual groups on Facebook and the friends I had who were in bicultural relationships hadn’t had any children yet. None of my Singaporean friends had decided to take the drastic decision as I had to speak only in Mandarin, since English was, for our generation, the lingua franca.
Looking back now, I had an amazing amount of self-belief and confidence in choosing to use OPOL, especially during the first 22 months with a toddler whose sole linguistic production until then had been “babababa” and “mamamama”! But by month 23 (and after several pediatric hearing checks that showed no auditory disability), Julien started uttering his first few words, and in a few weeks, his speech exploded. He was spewing phrases in German, English, and Mandarin, and he understood all three languages perfectly (we tested his receptive speech) when he was addressed in each of them. I was astounded, and more than a little relieved!
Belgium, age 2.5 to 4: The three languages separate
We moved to Brussels at about the time Julien started speaking in sentences, which were at times a mix of the languages, Chinese-English or German-English. I had gotten a posting to work there, and my husband soon found a job in Hamburg. We would spend the next year and a half in a quasi-separated situation, Julien and I living in Brussels and my husband visiting us on weekends. We continued with OPOL and placed Julien in an English preschool. We found a nanny to take care of him in the afternoons when school let out. Anna was from Poland, she spoke fluent English, and loved Julien to bits. Mandarin and German were still the minority home languages, but Julien had by then separated all three languages. He would address my husband or Oma and Opa in German, and then turn to address me in Mandarin. My mother-in-law used to joke that he looked like a 3-year-old UN translator!
In the most peculiar way, though, he would not speak any English when either of his parents or grandparents was present. I remember having a parent-teacher meeting at his preschool, and Julien refused to utter a single word in English; he would speak in Mandarin to me but clammed up when his teacher asked him a question. The same thing happened when Anna, his nanny, was in the same room with me or my husband. Julien would only speak to her (in English) if he felt certain that Mama and Papa were not within earshot. I was starting to get a little worried. Was it something that had gone wrong with our OPOL? Or were we witnessing some other psychological side effect, perhaps of seeing less of Papa and being torn away from his grandparents and life in Singapore? As for the community language in Brussels, Julien was impervious to French “lessons” which took place only one day a week at preschool, and he didn’t pick up any French even though he would sometimes hear me using it in daily life.
Malaysia age 4 to 6.5: Effectively Trilingual
By 2015, my husband and I made the difficult decision to pack up and move back to Asia. My husband had been offered a posting to Kuala Lumpur and I decided to quit my job so that our family could live physically together again. I was also getting antsy about Julien’s “selective mutism” whenever an English-speaking person was in our presence. He was 4 years old by then, and I had barely heard him speaking any English unless I snuck up secretly to eavesdrop when he spoke to his nanny, Anna. Anna and his teachers would reassure us every now and then that he spoke “English perfectly well”. Conversations as a family went something like this: Julien would say something in German to Papa, Papa would answer in English for Mama’s benefit, and Julien would continue in Mandarin with Mama, who would have to translate it to English for Papa. It was disconcerting, and quite inefficient, to say the least! I had a hunch that being separated from Papa, and having Mama at work 10 hours a day was having an impact on our young son. I didn’t have any way of knowing the reason for it even though we briefly saw a psychologist after moving to Malaysia, and to this day, I still don’t know the reason. I did later discover Francois Grosjean’s work on the Person-Language bond, and it explained a lot about Julien’s rigid adherence to one language with each parent or caregiver. It also explained why at the age of 40, I still only ever speak to my father in Mandarin and my mother in English!
In Kuala Lumpur, we continued with OPOL, and found him an excellent British international school that offered Chinese lessons as a foreign language. The community languages there were similar to Singapore: most people spoke English, but it was a country of multilinguals who spoke a combination of Malay, Tamil, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, other Chinese languages, as well as English. German and Mandarin remained the minority languages for Julien even though he got a little more exposure to Mandarin through his Chinese teachers at school. He continued to separate English very strictly from his communication with either of us, but he made plenty of friends at school and had a lovely Chinese friend who lived in the apartment block next to us with whom he spoke in Mandarin. Little by little, Julien started to let me hear him speaking in English, and even though he only ever answered me in Mandarin, he was gradually able to speak to someone else in English in my presence, albeit self-consciously. I think as Julien spent more time in Kuala Lumpur surrounded by friends, supportive teachers and most of all, a stable family life, he started to let go of some of the anxiety that the psychologist had observed in him when he was 4 years old. By the time he turned 6, Julien seemed like a different boy altogether. He was boisterous, confident, and talkative, and he did this in English, German, and Mandarin!
Germany age 6.5 to 8.5: The struggle for Mandarin Chinese
By late 2017, Julien was in his second year of primary school under the British system and we knew we would be moving to Germany in a matter of months. I had a decision to make, and that was whether I should use English with Julien as our primary language of communication. Two reasons spurred my decision: 1) we would be moving to a place where English would not be spoken in the community, or by our friends and family; and 2) Julien was 6 and a half years old and his vocabulary had become more sophisticated, making it a challenge for me to keep up conversations about school-related topics and even everyday topics—like black holes and the origins of the Universe, the dinosaur mass extinctions, and the existence of a conventional monotheistic God!—in Mandarin. I was hard-pressed to continue in Mandarin, but this would come at the expense of improving his English fluency and proficiency while in Germany. So, before we packed up our apartment and said our many goodbyes in Kuala Lumpur, I switched to using English most of the time with Julien. The first few weeks were awkward, as he continued to reply to me in Mandarin. But even as we got on the plane for our 12-hour journey to Frankfurt two months later, Julien was automatically using English with me. I felt a profound sense of relief but an even greater pang of regret. Within one year, Julien was speaking to me only in English, and would refuse to use Mandarin because “I can say it much easier in English, Mama!”
It’s now been almost two years in Koblenz, Germany. Julien integrated beautifully into his Grundschule (elementary school), even though he joined in the last semester of first grade. He had no communication difficulties in German, he made a couple of friends within the first week, and was going out on regular play dates after school. Nor did he have any issues related to school being done entirely in German, although he admitted to us that in the beginning he had to “concentrate a lot harder to understand the teacher”. At our last parent-teacher meeting this month, his teacher assured us that he was on an equal footing with most of his classmates where German language was concerned. Joining the local football club had cemented many of his new friendships and I find myself with a regular stream of boys coming through my backyard to play football when the fickle spring and fall weather is fine. He was once more reunited with his paternal grandparents: Opa and Oma, who live a mere stone’s throw away and who delight in having him over frequently.
As for Chinese, I took over the task of being Julien’s teacher, focusing my efforts on getting him to read and write in Chinese at that stage. Chinese became the minority language, as the tables turned once more, with German now the dominant language spoken by family, neighbours, classmates, and friends. As the months passed, Julien found it harder and harder to express himself to me in Mandarin, and understandably, to relate events that had happened at school in Mandarin. Speaking a language isn’t like riding a bike, you DO forget a lot if you don’t keep at it! I knew that the primary driver for keeping up a language is communication and interaction, and he was not getting enough of it here, especially not sufficiently from just the half hour or so of conversation with me every night before bed. So in addition to keeping up our nightly “Chinese reading time”, and our weekly video calls to my family in Singapore, I have also been on the lookout for a chance to connect with people who have a similar linguistic and cultural background to us. Koblenz is a tiny place by global standards, with a population of a mere 120,000, and it isn’t easy finding Chinese-speaking people here. But we have indeed found some lovely friends in our little corner of Germany who speak English and Mandarin, a small group of Malaysians also raising TCKs, who share a similar love for our native Southeast Asian cuisine!
The biggest challenge these days is making Chinese relevant for a 9 year old who doesn’t see any point in it. Not a day goes by where I don’t have personal doubts about this latest leg of our journey, but I am buoyed by the efforts of thousands of other families out there who are searching for ways, like I am, to surmount the difficulties that come with making a minority language a part of our children’s everyday lives. The coming together of these communities online, as well as the resources that are now available on the many bilingual blogs and websites are fantastic.
Last thoughts: What we’ve learnt on our multilingual journey
As our child grew up, his needs evolved with every passing year, along with his developing personality and growing self-confidence. As school-related vocabulary got increasingly complex, and as our social life became primarily conducted in German the past two years, I myself have had to adapt to our newest reality, learning German at a higher level and trying to maintain, for my child, an equal balance of input in English and Chinese. Julien has developed an intrinsic liking for reading, much to my relief, and so it takes care of the English input now that it has become a minority language. He loves “Tom Gates” and the “13th Storey Treehouse” series and recently started reading the “Wimpy Kid” series. Movies and television are always in English, and whenever his friends come over, I would have to show him how to change the Netflix language settings from English to German.
Our family’s experience has revealed the amazing plasticity and resilience of a child’s brain to external forces and profound life changes. The problems of selective “English mutism” we had in the early years got resolved with time and a lot of faith and patience on our part. The “person-language bond” truly applies to Julien, who still code switches when he speaks to a particular person in his family, in his peer group, or who might be using English or Mandarin. I believe that our consistency in sticking to our respective languages and our steadfast commitment to reading and communicating regularly with our child also had much to do with his multilingual success. Even without the TCK experience, I believe that every child of multicultural heritage has the potential to develop a good bilingual or multilingual ability, given the right conditions and social support.
Finally, speaking as a family that has uprooted itself from three countries, and settling now in our fourth, it seems very easy to leave past connections behind and allow the majority language to overtake all others when living in a largely monolingual society. Our experiences have brought home the fact that we have to work that much harder to bridge the distance to the friendships that were upended with every move we made. To this end, we have maintained our ties with friends from all over the world, welcoming those who drop in on us and visiting them from time to time. On our annual visits to Singapore, I make that extra trip to the Malaysian capital to reunite Julien with his friends. As distance—geographical and emotional—renders his previous friendships more ephemeral with each passing year, I am determined to hang on to them with whatever means available for as long as I can. Just as all of us traverse tens or thousands of miles alike to reunite with our families at the holidays, our friendships in foreign lands remind us that we can be profoundly connected to people with whom we do not share blood or kinship. It is also through having these complex and diverse friendships that span different languages and cultures that keep it “real” for Julien, who experiences for himself the practical value of speaking more than one language. Being multilingual might be perceived today as a viable skill or even a cognitive advantage (as so many studies of executive function have suggested), but for our family, it is part of who we are, and the stuff we are made of!