Bilingualism and Emotional Competency

Category: Third Culture Kids

Attiya_25I was speaking in a class of 10th graders at an English-speaking international school in South Korea and we were discussing the importance of developmental years as the determiner of “normal” behavior. As we talked, our discussion began to focus on language. I asked the class of about 25 of mixed nationalities how many spoke more than one language. All but one did. Then I asked the question, “How many of you speak English better than your parents?” Roughly 80% answered in the affirmative. I then asked how many felt their emotions more in English than in the language of their family. Well over half the class felt their emotional language was English. I would like to say that it shocked me to hear that so many students did not share their family’s emotional language but in my experience, this is not a rare occurrence.

I recall asking a bilingual 9th grader several years ago: “What language do you play in?” “German”, he told me. I asked, “What language to you speak at home?” “English” he said. “Well, what language do you get sick in?” “English.” Then I asked, "What language do you get angry in?" "German! " “Not English, ever?” “Nope” he said. “I could never yell at my mom or dad.” I asked if he knew how to get angry in English. He thought about it for a moment and replied, “no, not really”.

So is this a big deal? Actually, I believe it is.

Oh I am a firm believer in kids learning as many languages as they can. Here are just a few benefits of being bilingual:

  1. Bilinguals think more creatively and are more flexible in their thinking.
    Journal of Creative Communication: the Bilingual Mind and Linguistic Creativity

  2. Bilingualism helps children with their reading skills, communication and understanding even the most ephemeral ideas at a young age.
    7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child, N. Steiner

  3. Bilingualism is a bridge between cultures. Most bilinguals have broader worldview because of their ability to understand culture more deeply and are more culturally tolerant.
    Two-way Bilingual education: Students Learning Through Two Languages , Donna Christian, University of California, Berkley

  4. Tendency to do better academically because of how the brain functions.
    American Sociological Review Vol.84. No 2, April, 1999

  5. Bilinguals often find better career opportunities. In a “flat“ world the advantage of speaking two or more languages cannot be overstated.

Capture-1The facts speak for themselves. In today’s world being bilingual is not just a nice thing. It has almost become a necessity. However, in my opinion, bilingualism cannot come at the cost of emotional competency in the language spoken by the family.

Sadly, I know many Adult Third Culture Kids who have lost emotional language ability with parents and extended family. When you look below the surface, you’ll find that it is not only their experiential issues that are so different. Often the TCK himself does not have the words, the emotional vocabulary to understand or be understood by his or her own family members.

Language is so often tied to identity. It can give the speaker a significant sense of belonging with a socio-linguistic group. Conversely, if the family language is not cultivated on an emotional level, it can strip the speaker of deep meaningful relationship and on some level, of part of their identity.

So what should be done? How can the family’s emotional language be maintained?

For TCKs:

  • Diligently work on emotional competency in all of your heart languages.
  • Intentionally seeks ways to verbally express your emotions in the language of your family
  • Allow for emotional expression to be different from one culture to another, remembering that competency is more than vocabulary. It also cultural.

For Parents:

  • Maintain open emotional communication with your child
  • Help your child to appropriately communicate emotional language to extended family
  • Actively learn your child’s emotional language and accept that it is the language of his heart.

For Educators:

  • Encourage your students to maintain their family language
  • Periodically ask your students how particular emotions are expressed in their cultures and language
  • Be aware of emotional transference to you and away from family. Remember these students are someone else’s children.

Over to you! What do you see as some of the advantages of keeping up the family’s emotional language? How have you helped children in your care maintain their family’s language?

For you bilinguals, are you able to express your thoughts and feelings in your family’s language? How has keeping up your emotional language helped you through transition, at family gatherings and in your family relationships?


Photo 1 by Khalid Ahmadzai, used with permission.
Photo 2 courtesy of

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