Dear Abby

Daughter in Law's Language Can Be a Bridge, Not a Barrier

DEAR ABBY: I'm writing in response to "The In-Laws in New Jersey" (April 26), who think their daughter-in-law is rude for speaking a foreign language to her parents and children in front of them. I'm disappointed you didn't point out the opportunity Carmella has to enrich the lives of her husband's parents.

The United States is one of the only first-world nations that does not require its children to learn more than one language, which has left many people feeling that anyone not speaking English is being "rude." Bilingual people can tell you that the pattern of speaking with family in the native language is deeply ingrained and is not easily broken. It isn't intended to exclude others. The in-laws are not out of line to ask Carmella to translate what she's saying, but they could use it as a chance to be a part of their grandchildren's language development.

I come from a bilingual family. My husband is monolingual. We're aware that not speaking English can make him feel isolated, so we do our best to translate to keep him in the loop. This approach has enabled him to start learning the language -- and he's coming along nicely. Multilingualism is an asset to society -- not a flaw. -- BILINGUAL AND PROUD, ALEXANDRIA, VA.

DEAR BILINGUAL: Thank you for the input. The "In-laws" had let Carmella know the private conversations made them uncomfortable, and I felt a little more sensitivity to their feelings was in order. However, the responses that have poured in offer varied perspectives. Read on for a sample:

DEAR ABBY: I doubt Carmella was speaking the foreign language to be rude. She may not even realize she's doing it. When you have spoken one language to your parents all your life, switching to another is awkward and unnatural. I speak Taiwanese to my parents, but English to all my friends. Your brain automatically changes languages without you even thinking about it. Carmella's in-laws should know she probably isn't doing it to exclude them, but is only doing something that is second nature. -- WAN-JEN IN UTAH

DEAR ABBY: I am a white, English-speaking, middle-aged woman living in a multiethnic, multi-language community. I can tell you firsthand that learning a few words in another language goes a long way toward community and family harmony. May I suggest the New Jersey in-laws show some polite interest and ask Carmella for help with basic greetings and courtesy terms such as "please," "thank you" and "How are you?" Perhaps they could also learn "I love you" in her language to share with their grandchildren. -- JANET IN IDAHO

DEAR ABBY: I am French, married to an Englishman who does not speak French. For the last 10 years, I have spoken only French to my children. When others are present, I always let them know I am not being impolite or trying to keep them out of the conversation. My kids are perfectly bilingual now, and in order to achieve such a goal you must be consistent. To me, preserving the richness of two cultures is more important than offending someone. But children should know they can translate for other people in the room when appropriate. -- SIMONE IN CALIFORNIA

DEAR ABBY: Having the ability to speak some English doesn't mean someone is always comfortable doing it at length or can express what they truly mean. Some colloquialisms, jokes and terms of endearment do not translate. If the in-laws accept that it's not all about them, they will soon realize that "family" can cross language barriers. -- HAPPY THE WAY THINGS ARE

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