Friday 13 November 2009

Secret Language (or the lack thereof)

There is a negative aspect to raising your children multilingually that is mostly overlooked. Today I want to finally bring this aspect to light. It has been neglected for too long! Now is the time to bring it up, whatever the consequences.

Don't get me wrong: I am all for multilingual children and I would not raise my children any other way. I adore their capabilities. I envy them for this gift.

Still, this one thing will always be there, and it will strike when you least need it!

So what is this terrible secret, this issue nobody dares to mention? It's simple: In multilingual families, parents have no secret language.

No way for the parents to talk about something secretly in front of the children. We can not just switch to another language and discuss, they will always understand! No matter how hard we try to say things in a complicated way or mixing words or using obscure grammar: they will crack the code and push us further out into the realm of "creative talking."

Say BK1 wants a cookie. I don't know whether she has had one already or whether anything else has happened that would lead to a "No" here. So I desperately try to read BMs body language. Does she look negative? What do her eyes say? Was that the "no way" stare? Or was it the "whatever..." gesture? Did she just sigh?

It usually comes down to one of us signaling the other one "you decide." Wouldn't it be nice to be able to actually talk about it right then?

And then again: maybe that's not too bad. It forces us to be open and honest with the kids, which I think might help them develop strong values.


  1. I have thought of that over the years. Well, sort of. We do not make a habit of talking about non-French speakers in French in front of them, but in certain situations, may make a quick "secret" comment. Sometimes, then, my first reaction when wanting to say something the kids can't understand is to say it in French. Then, I realize that doesn't work - they speak all languages I speak! ;) Like you said, this forces openness in the family and for spouses to just talk in private about certain things.

  2. Very interesting question, Jan. The Belgianite and I have been using English as our language and often felt sufficiently protected by it, to the extend of speaking about the kids in front of them thinking they did not undertsand...well, we found out the hard way they did understand, perhaps not the full depth of the issue, but they were aware we were talking about them. So we are now trying to be more careful.If we absolutely need to to communicate secrelty, we spell items. That, they haven't learnt yet!!

  3. Careful with the spelling, though!

    We used to do that a lot but it turns out that BK1 gets it now, even if we mix languages (for example use French spelling to spell an English word).

  4. We did the spelling for a while, but our 5 year old now reads and it is getting too dangerous. We see the wheels turning and he often figures it out!

    A friend of mine once told me about her parents supposed secret language. They were both native English speakers, but they met while on a student exchange in Germany, so they both spoke German as well. They never spoke German to the kids and only used it as their secret language, but I guess they used it often enough that my friend and her sister started to pick up on some of it, but never let on. As a result, they some new about some of their Christmas presents in advance and knew other things that the parents didn't really want to share with the kids.

    P.S. I just found your blog via Mummy Do That and I'm so glad I did. We speak English and German at home, live in a French-speaking area of Canada, and our son goes to a trilingual school (English, French and Spanish).

  5. Hi Annie,

    Same situation here regarding spelling, BK1 can now often guess words, even when not spelled in English. Funny that thing with your friend and German as a "secret language". That was turned right against the parents :)

    I have just taken a quick look at your blog, and I am thrilled to find that we have more than one point in common. Here we also do a great deal of breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping, gentle discipline (though I sometimes fail miserably at this...). And yay for the WHO code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes to be made law!


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