The emotional load of multilingual parenting (by Dr Sabine Little)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Sabine Little, our guest blogger this week, works and researches at the University of Sheffield, UK. She can be contacted at, Twitter @sabinelittle.

In my research, I work with multilingual families, exploring emotional and pragmatic attachments to heritage languages (Little, 2017), and heritage language maintenance, in general. My conversations with families are often tinged with exhaustion and guilt – parents worry that they are not doing enough to maintain the heritage language, that they don’t have access to the right resources, or that they are simply doing it “wrong”. I uncovered, like other researchers before me (Okita, 2002; Czubinska, 2017), the emotional load of multilingual parenting. What intrigued me was why some parents felt compelled – despite this emotional load, despite inter-marital arguments, and ongoing fights with their children – to insist on speaking the heritage language to their children, whereas others were happy to adopt a more laid-back approach. At times, I felt a disconnect – our own son, Toby, at age 4 (having just started Reception school in the UK), declared that he would like to ‘take a year out’ of speaking German, while he was learning to read and write in English – and I agreed. I agreed, even when, after that one year, he asked to take another year out, because he didn’t feel confident in reading and writing in English yet. For two years, German all but disappeared from our lives – and I thought it would be gone forever.

When, at age 6, he declared himself ‘ready’, I was delighted, of course, but also worried, since he seemed to be under the impression that he would just carry on with the same language skills he had before. Of course, he didn’t. His German had atrophied to almost nothing. Around that same time, I was doing research with multilingual families, and my son asked whether we could ‘do research together’. When I asked him what he meant, his response led us to submitting for ethical approval a 2.5 year auto-ethnographic study, with both of us as co-researchers. For two-and-a-half years, we kept notes of ‘resurrecting German’ – the language side, the frustration, the struggles, the collaboration, the successes. But we did more than that. About two days after each language-related entry, we returned to the research notes and questioned our emotional responses. Why were we getting frustrated? How did my son want to be corrected? What led us to give up sometimes, and persist at other times?

Over the course of these two-and-a-half years, I got to know my son rather well; and he got to see and understand a side of his mother which, I assume, many children don’t see—the insecure side. The am I doing this right side. The I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know how to help you side. But also the I know this works, and I know it’s really frustrating now, but I *know* it will get better, can you just trust me for a little bit side. And because we kept track of the language progress, he could see that he was getting better. Our conversations meant that my son felt in control of his ‘zombie German’ (resurrected, you see?), and we felt we were ‘in it together’, but we also had time to explore our emotional attitudes towards the language.

When I encouraged families to have similar conversations, many of them found them helpful, although a child rejecting ‘your’ language still feels personal. So, the metaphor of Great Aunt Edna’s Vase was born (Little, 2019) – what if you weren’t trying to pass on your language, part of your identity, but an item? What if you received such an item, from a relative, and you knew it meant a lot to them…but maybe not to you? Great Aunt Edna’s Vase was one way to facilitate family conversation about the emotional load linked to the heritage language.

At the same time, I was working to continue my previous work, creating a quiz linked to my framework of emotional and pragmatic attitudes. This quiz gives multilingual parents the opportunity to explore their own needs, but also to articulate them to others. One mother told me about how she and her husband both completed it, then used it to compare notes and to try to understand each other’s position. This was exactly what it was intended for, and I am delighted! The quiz can be found here: – as well as helping families, it is a research project in and of itself, looking to gather a large amount of data on multilingual parents’ pragmatic and emotional needs, so please do fill it in and share it!

Where is my son’s German at now? He’s not the best at grammar, especially the cases catch him out. In his reading, he’s about two years behind from what he reads in English. But he, completely without input from me, decided to switch Fortnite to German, and to write a few sentences a day to improve his writing. Above all, he *wants* to learn German. We haven’t found the holy grail of multilingual parenting, and I am fully aware that our approach might not work for all families. However, as we consider the emotional load of multilingual parenting, it is important that we don’t forget the emotional load for children, too, and maybe, if we keep talking to each other, they might just be our strongest allies in maintaining the heritage language.

Sabine and Toby at the “Ethnography with a twist” conference in Jyväskylä, Finland, presenting their research (February 2019)

NB: Sabine’s and Toby’s joint research article is currently under review.


Czubinska, G. (2017). Migration as an unconscious search for identity: Some reflections on language, difference and belonging. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 33(2), 159–176. doi: 10.1111/bjp.12286

Little, S. (2019). Great Aunt Edna’s vase – Metaphor use in working with heritage language families. The Family Journal. doi: 10.1177/1066480719833417 – For Green Open Access, see here.

Little, S. (2017). Whose heritage? What inheritance?: Conceptualising family

language identities. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. doi: 10.1080/13670050.2017.1348463 (Open Access)

Okita, T. (2002). Invisible work: Bilingualism, language choice, and childrearing in intermarried families. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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