One benefit of my kids growing up overseas is their rich experience of another culture. My kids absorb elements of the adopted country in an organic way. They often see the world with a different perspective from someone–even an adult–who hasn’t left their home country.
I love that my kids have adopted certain aspects from Egypt: They have favorite Egyptian foods. They wash their hands after eating, and believe tissues are reasonable as napkins at the table. My kids know how to say “thank you” to mean “no” if they don’t want something being offered. I love that three of my kids write and speak some Arabic and understand even more.
But wait, you might say, why just “some Arabic?” Haven’t your kids been growing up in Egypt?
Shouldn’t they be picking up the language smoothly and effortlessly like the sponges that children are?
Yes, they are sponges when they are immersed in the language or culture full-time.
FLUENCY: The Picture vs. The Reality
The reality for us? We speak mostly English at home. We attend an English-speaking church. They attend an English-speaking international school.
When my children were younger they attended a preschool where they were the only non-Egyptians. We also attended a Sunday school program at a large Arabic church. We all learned church songs in Arabic and followed the Bible story.
During that season, the kids enjoyed the interactions and even saw friends from soccer-training at church. Through these interactions, they developed a foundation for Arabic and Egyptian culture.
But just as kids learn quickly, with skills only occasionally used, they also tend to forget quickly.
Now at my kids’ school, they take Arabic class four days per week. They are reading and writing Arabic. They are speaking and understanding more all the time.
And they are not at a place of fluency. Neither am I.
Not Good Enough?
While I would like for my kids to be confident about communicating with locals, our experience so far has not provided for them to regularly be immersed in the language to the point of fluency.
And in that, sometimes I hear the message that maybe I’m not doing a good enough job at this cross-cultural thing.
In fact, a friend was criticized by a new member of her team who arrived in the country one day…and criticized her the next day. He couldn’t believe her child hadn’t attained fluency.
Reader, let’s not judge our fellow workers.
Let’s offer grace and seek to understand the situation of those on the field before we share criticism or offer instruction.
My Kids = My Success?
We need to remember to see our children as people, not as a marker of how successful we are cross-culturally.
Maybe your situation does not require your children to learn another language. But it’s possible you had expectations (or others had expectations of you) that your children would be immersed in the culture, surrounded by local children, loving their third-culture-kid identity.
Maybe, due to their school options or where you live or what your family needs to do in order to be healthy, those relationships and that cultural identification hasn’t completely happened for your children.
Some children will love learning the language and love speaking with locals. Some will not.
They may dive head-first into the culture and enjoy making that part of their identity. They might not.
When it comes to our children, it’s important to give them the tools to thrive, the encouragement to keep trying, and the flexibility and grace to find their place.
FLUENCY: CHOOSING TO STRETCH THEM
Since I recognize that interactions with the language and locals will not just “magically” happen for my kids, I make certain choices when possible.
When given the opportunity to play tennis with an American coach or an Egyptian coach, I’ll choose the Egyptian Arabic-speaking coach for my kids. If possible, I will find Arabic tutoring for my kids during summer break so they continue to develop their language skills.
What choices do you have available to get your kids into the local culture and language? Can they
- take group lessons–art, swimming, karate, science–with local kids they don’t meet at school?
- attend a family retreat or camp?
- participate in a church class for their age group?
- play with a local adult who speaks the local language and teaches local songs?
This might require extra work from you, parents. This might require a bit of pushing to get your kids on board.
I don’t think we should push our kids toward fluency beyond what they can reasonably handle. But I do think we make efforts to let our kids experience their host country in a non-touristy, daily-life kind of way.
Why Our Kids’ Adaptation Matters–Beyond Our Egos
The more natural and enjoyable experiences our children have with their host country, the more opportunity for them to identify with parts of the culture.
This creates ownership of the culture that helps to make them an ambassador for the local people of your host culture–becoming a voice about what is good and valuable about a foreign culture, strange and unknown, to their passport culture.
Your kids learn in a more natural way how to relate to different people. Maybe they’ll be able to move through different cultures and become like them in order to save some.
The bottom line: We give our children the opportunity and encouragement (and sometimes a little push) to be involved in the culture and language, learning more about their host country.
And we don’t use our children’s language or cultural fluency as the marker for our own success. That’s a part of their story. Not our merit badge.
Sarah serves in Egypt with her husband and four children. You can catch her blog here.