Language and other woes of raising third-culture child

Kids born to mixed parents in the diaspora have identity issues

In Summary

• Two different nationalities birthed a son in a third country. Story of my life

A mother hugs her son
A mother hugs her son

Have you heard of the term third-culture kids? Many children being raised in the world right now are third-culture kids. Thanks to easy migration, intermarrying and living abroad for a ‘better life’, most parents have ended up raising a whole generation of third-culture kids.

Third-culture kids are individuals (albeit adults in the present) who were raised in a cultural environment that is completely different from either parent or their land of birth or nationality. These kids spend most of their developmental years in a different culture and integrate those cultural influences in their everyday life.

My child is Kenyan and spent the first year of his life in Kenya. His father is not. My husband and I come from very different backgrounds and only share English as our common mode of communication. By default, my son has picked up English as his first language, no matter how much I try to speak Kiswahili to him. I’m at a loss most times as I naturally default back to English in my speech.

The country we reside in maintains strict rules of speaking the language and living within a certain acceptable culture. Although my son has limited exposure to the outside world now, soon he will start school and be indoctrinated into the system and enforced into the new culture.

As a foreigner learning the language myself, I know just how much memorising a new language slowly erases your ability to think in your native language. With my son being at that young age, I know that within the next year, he will have adopted the host language as his default language.

It’s scary to think about losing one’s identity. It’s scarier thinking of him living in an environment he cannot fully embrace. For the sake of his schoolgoing years and for the years we reside in a foreign land, it is unfortunate to me but necessary for him to be immersed in this third culture.

In all honesty, I fear for his rebellious teenage years, where he believes he is of the land, but the natives will always see him as a foreigner. He will love Kenyan food but add the bland foods of this land to his palate. He will speak English and mix it in with the local language when he cannot think straight. Not to mention the two words of Kiswahili thrown into the mix.

He will be in every aspect more familiar to the culture here than to that of his origin. But which is his origin? His motherland? His fatherland? Who gets to determine which culture is more appropriate than the other?

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