Can a Non-Native Parent Express Feelings in the Minority Language?

Two weeks ago, I came across a Spanish post on raising kids in English,  which proclaimed in its headline that “I love you” in English is not the same as ”I love you” in Spanish, and argued why you should not speak in English to your kids if you are not a native. Though the whole content of the article and its assertive tone irritated me greatly, this statement dictating the language you should express your emotions in made me leap in anger. Who is anyone to dictate your way to express your feelings? Feelings are PERSONAL. No one can judge another’s ability to express them.

It is not the first time I come across this assertion, often made by language professionals (translators, and a Spanish ESL teacher in this case,…). However, as a non-native mum, I would like to put at ease the mind of fellow non-native parents. Only YOU feel your words and your bond with your child. Do not let strangers to this relationship dictate your behaviour and curb your abilities. As far as I am concerned, as a non-native mum raising bilingual, here are the reasons I can list for believing that, yes, we non-natives can express emotions in the minority language (ml) to our little ones:

  1. Feelings do not need words – Since when does a melody need lyrics? Who has not listened to Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and not recognised the movements of tension as the storm rises, followed by the renewed happiness upon the return of the good weather? Yet, not a single lyric has been sung.  Because emotions are FELT before being “labelled”. When your child trips and is hurt, he or she does not need words to label his/her emotions nor yours. With your hug, s/he will feel your love and empathy.
  2. The range of emotions is not the privilege of natives – Indeed, an educated non-native can have just as much knowledge of emotion-based vocabulary as a non-educated native. And nobody will judge the latter as a bad parent for lacking breadth of vocabulary.
  3. Learning to express feelings is just another thing to add to our “to learn” list – But it does not mean it is not doable. And given the importance of the topic, a lot of parents will make it a priority on that minority language homework diary.
  4. A non-native parent will usually make the extra effort – a committed non-native parent will go the extra mile to learn to voice emotions in the minority language because communication is the very reason s/he decided to raise bilingual in the first place. And given they have communication at heart, they will probably be more sensitive to the discussion than some native parents who, through their mastery of the ml, might not always provide that same degree of thought to the choice of words.
  5. Language is something acquired over time – Whether it is your mother tongue or second language, there is always something new to learn.
  6. Emotions are personal – We all express our emotions differently, and this is why only our closest relatives often are the only one to truly understand us. Emotions show through actions, attitude, personality. And our children will pick on these to understand our feelings.
  7. Language use is personal – Some non-native parents will revert to their mother tongue to express their emotions, because they feel more comfortable. Others will stick to the minority language. It is a very personal choice that should not be judged.

Am I missing out other reasons? Please share them in the comments section so as to reassure non-native bilingual parents and give another perspective to this recurring topic.

9 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you’re broaching this subject. The experts that say you can’t express feelings in another language are incorrect from my personal experience. When I say “te amo” (I love you) to our child, I can tell when they say it back to me in a heartfelt way that my feelings were expressed and appreciated. Another bilingual person once shared her worry that her second language Spanish could be a maternal language for her. I told her my truth, it can become a maternal language. -Rebecca

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience Rebecca! I am through with just hearing self-made experts’ opinion on this, let’s hear more of the experience of everyday non-native parents like you! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yesterday, I told my child what the “experts” say about non-native speakers expressing feelings. They laughed and said the experts were really silly. Seems our child knows they are loved. No arguing with that!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your comments about this article. I raise three kids 2 and 4 years old. I’m not a native English, but I speak English to them. I consider you can express your feelings and emotions with other non native language. And that’s true, I try to make an effort and struggle to cope with my English limits, but that is part of learning process. Sometimes I can say that word that I know in English, but you develop other resources and other expression to show what you want to express.

    Like

    1. I am glad to hear this post struck a chord in you Luís. :). Yes, we might start with language limitations but from my personal experience I find that over the years things get easier. 🙂

      Like

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