Mean Parents, Doing Hard Things, and Learning Foreign Languages as a Life Skill

All of us know that going to school can be tough—heavy backpacks to carry, loads of homework to do, enduring the awkward rituals of social interaction, and trying to stay awake during boring lectures are just a few of the familiar challenges. So why would anyone want to go to school in a language they don’t speak or understand? In some cases, such as that of my children, it might seem to be a sadistic trial imposed by mean parents on their unsuspecting offspring. When I got the chance to spend my sabbatical in Germany this year, I was delighted, in large part because I wanted my younger children (aged 9, 12, and 16) to attend German schools, even though they didn’t speak any German. We did a little weekly language study for the year or so before moving overseas, but it was hard for them to take it seriously at the time, so the first month of school came as quite a shock. Not understanding anything the teachers said was difficult, of course, but many other things were also unfamiliar, from the way class schedules were arranged (2-5 hours of various subjects strewn apparently at random across the week) to the kinds of pens people used (who knew that fountain pens with replaceable ink cartridges were a thing?). Only the youngest one cried on the first day of school (three times, as a matter of fact), but all three of them have had to tackle some hard things—like bicycling 3km each way to school every day after not having ridden a bike in ten years, taking French tests in German when you don’t speak either language, and trying to make friends with people who can’t understand your jokes (my 9-year-old, who has been in Spanish dual immersion elementary school since kindergarten, insists on telling people in Spanish that she doesn’t speak French).

Given that all of these things would have been easily avoidable if we had just stayed in Orem, the question remains as to why I was so eager to bring my kids to Germany and throw them into the deep end of foreign language learning. I knew going in that it would be hard for them, even though they were (mostly) willing to take on the challenge, so why would I deliberately put them in a situation that would inevitably be intimidating, frustrating, and disheartening at times? Naturally, one major reason was to help them learn a foreign language more thoroughly and immersively than they’d get the chance to in the US—even dual language immersion isn’t the same as being surrounded by people all the time who think in different syntactic patterns, using words that you didn’t know existed. The deeper you dive into a foreign language, the more you realize that it isn’t (just) a matter of finding straightforward equivalents to your native language, a sort of linguistic fill-in-the-blanks exercise (with the help of Google Translate). What happens instead is that you gradually learn to think differently, to conceptualize things that your native language isn’t capable of, and to stretch your mind around new ways of seeing the world, other people, and yourself.

Even more importantly, I wanted my children to have to do the hard things they’re doing precisely because they’re difficult and new and a little daunting. Whether or not my 12-year-old son ends up speaking German like a native, he will have gained valuable life skills from this experience, notably confidence in his own judgment and capacity for independent action. At this point, his favorite part of being in Germany is the freedom he has to ride his bike all over town, stop at Aldi and buy himself a couple of Laugenbrezeln and a bottle of Eistee (herbal, of course), and feel confident in his ability to navigate his world. This confidence can only be earned by climbing emotional mountains. My 9-year-old daughter went from cowering in the corner of Primary on her first Sunday to reading Matthew 7:24­­­–27 aloud in German in Sacrament Meeting a month later. Even though the version we had practiced reading turned out to be a different translation than the one they gave her to read, she pulled it off beautifully (and with excellent pronunciation too). Each of them has different capabilities and opportunities, so they need different challenges. My 16-year-old has taken to life in Germany like a fish to water, riding trains into the city by herself and exploring the wondrous array of chocolate cafés, thrift shops, little free libraries, and art supply stores that it has to offer. Her next step might be Interrailing with friends to a foreign country. Who knows?

Ultimately, this experience is also about me learning how to do hard things myself. I’ve spent the last couple of decades figuring out how to take care of my children, to protect them and teach them and guide them in the way I think they should go, but as they’re getting older, my responsibility for them is changing too. More and more, I need to learn to let them go, to let them launch themselves into the world and find their own way. Teaching at BYU, I have been surrounded by other people’s children, who are trying to navigate this world that our Heavenly Parents sent us to, knowing it would be hard for us. I’ve watched many of them stumble and fall along the way, getting up bruised and sometimes broken but usually somewhat wiser to try again. It can be heartbreaking to witness, but I know that giving our children and students the room they need to do hard things—and sometimes fail at them—is part of our job as professors, parents, and fellow travelers on the road of life. We can’t always give the people we love a soft landing, or shield them from difficult things, or else they’ll never learn to soar on their own.

This post was written by Julie Allen, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

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  1. […] a recent blog post, Julie Allen argued for the importance of foreign language learning. As she writes, when you learn […]

  2. Erin Jackson says:

    Julie, thank you for writing about this and for being brave for your children! This post inspired me to think about what opportunities I might be shielding my own children, and myself, from. You have broadened my perspective today. Safe travels!

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