A Parent’s Language Lament
We stood outside the barber shop, discussing my son’s upcoming hair cut. Questions asked, advice given. Finally ready, we braved the shop. Everything went smoothly, and the haircut was acceptable to all. You may be surprised to learn who was asking for advice. I had been questioning my son about the haircut he wanted and how to express it in Slovak, the language of our adopted country, Slovakia. He had patiently corrected my mistakes (“No, don’t use that word for bangs—it’s only for little kids!”) and told me I would do fine.
One of the unique aspects of global worker life is that children inevitably become more fluent in the adopted language than their parents. My children were correcting my Slovak grammar by the time they were 7 years old. They witnessed my limitations long before either of us were ready for it. I had heard about this phenomenon in our pre-field training, but never imagined the crazy situations which would result.
Early in our time overseas, my son came home upset about unfair treatment from a friend. I agreed to help him set things right, my mother’s heart rushing to the rescue. The only catch was that I did not have adequate vocabulary to deal with the problem, and being upset only made things worse. As I confronted his friend, I resorted to asking my son how to say each sentence before turning and repeating it to his friend. Apparently my determination paid off in spite of my bumbling efforts—the issue was resolved and the boys’ friendship endured.
Years later, my then 14-year-old son needed a paper to document a credential for his high school application. We took off on a wild-goose chase trying to locate the office where we could obtain the document. The directions we had been given were very vague (as usual), and we entered a number of buildings where we got either no help or additional vague directions which seemed to lead nowhere. My Slovak was better by this time, but I could not grasp, much less communicate, what office we were looking for—no one seemed to have heard of any such office. As we entered each building, I asked my son if he wanted to ask for the directions, since he knew what we were looking for and had received the initial instructions. Each time he refused, I swallowed my pride and tried once again. God was gracious (as usual), and we eventually found the right office and received the coveted paper which helped him gain acceptance to the school of his choice.
You may wonder why my kids were willing to watch me stumble through these situations rather than take over and do the talking for me. That certainly would have been the most efficient way to accomplish the task. I learned, however, that efficiency was not the main issue to my children. Although they were more comfortable culturally and linguistically in our adopted country, they were still the children and I the parent. They needed me to be in charge, to take care of them. A global worker mom who grew up as an MK helped me to understand this dynamic. Her parents had struggled with their adopted language and decided that they would speak it as a family so they could learn from their daughter, who was fluent. This role reversal was too emotionally difficult for her, and she could not handle acting as teacher to her parents.
In each of the situations I have recounted, the issue was not just getting the job done, but reinforcing the sense of security my children had in being cared for by their mother. I am thankful for God’s faithfulness. He enabled my husband and me to care for our children through many adventures in the 12 years we lived in Slovakia. Although they still wince at my Slovak grammar, I believe my relationship with my kids is stronger for the struggle they saw me willingly shoulder in order to help them navigate life.