Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Social Etiquette for a Bilingual

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a letter in the Social Q's column of the New York Times called "Misinterpreted." It was by a woman who speaks Spanish to her 15 month-old-son to teach him her language.

She, too, knows that young children pick up a language fast and that the sounds of the new language will be wired easily into their brain from the get go. As she says: "This way, our beautiful boy will know two languages." It's a dream that many parents share.

The dilemma

When the mother picks up her son from daycare, however, the teachers are unhappy when she speaks Spanish to her toddler and complain that they feel excluded.

This is definitely a dilemma in the US for someone speaking another language! And not just in the US. Intermarriage, dislocation, as well as travel have created the same problem on every continent.

There's a tug-of-war between wanting to speak another language to teach and practice it and irritating others by excluding them from the conversation. So what are the guidelines of good language behavior?

A delightful and thought-provoking article called "Language Etiquette. Say What?" [New York Times, 1997] gives some answers: "Try to speak the language of the country you are in. Be tolerant of those who don't speak your language. ... Do not talk about others assuming they won't understand. ... But use your own language in private conversations if you wish."

These are very good suggestions, but they're not really relevant to the situation of the mother who wants to make her son bilingual.

The dilemma has been an issue for me for most of my life. My first language is not English, I learned it as a young teen when my family moved to Canada. In addition to my native German, I spoke Dutch fluently and by that time had also started to learn French.

That means, I've had lots of opportunities to speak non-English languages with family and friends. My mother especially was set on creating a multilingual family, a tradition I have vigorously continued.

Be inclusive

So, I'll echo Philip Galanes' suggestion for the mother who wants her child to become bilingual, and elaborate a little:
- Be as inclusive as possible and approach the situation in a playful, humorous way.
- It's OK to speak Spanish to your son, but then tell the teachers the gist of what you said in English. 

Who knows, the teachers might pick up a little Spanish in the process and could then teach all the other kids a few phrases too! You could even consider handing them a list of fun and useful Spanish kid-friendly phrases to share around ...

In any case, I definitely agree with Philip's caveat: "It's not nice to exclude people". I encourage multilingual people to find ways to be as inclusive as possible.