Ways My Son is Developing His Third Culture

It’s happening.

I always knew the day would come when our American kids would begin to add Austrian culture into their identity, thus creating a “third culture”. Lucy’s a bit too young for this to be an obvious change, but it’s happening in Elliott and we see it in him every day.

Third Culture Kid

A popular term used to describe children who grow up in between two cultures is TCK or Third Culture Kid. Ruth van Reken of crossculturalkid.org and author of several third culture related books defines a TCK as “… a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” My kids are three and one, so they haven’t exactly spent much time in this culture that isn’t necessarily theirs though both have been in Austria since infancy. But for my three-year-old, Elliott, the cultural dance between American and Austrian culture has begun.

Elliott’s third culture stands out to us in a few ways:


As an American kid, Elliott has a unique experience with transportation. We don’t own a car (as nearly everyone in the U.S. does) and instead use Vienna’s public transportation system which is made up of buses, trains, and trams. We take the public bus to go to school rather than the designated yellow school bus as Will and I took when we were in grade school. He knows when we go to the city, that means we catch the bus to get to the U-Bahn. If we’re going to the office, we take the bus and a tram. If we’re going to the store, we take the bus or walk. This is a regular part of his daily life. It’s what he knows. You know what he doesn’t know?


Which is why, whenever we need to borrow or rent a car for a trip or an IKEA haul, he goes absolutely nuts with excitement. Last summer, we made the mistake of telling him our plans to rent a car for our trip with Oma and Opa an entire month before the trip took place. Not a day went by where he didn’t ask us about the car and if we were going and when and what color it would be and could it be red. It was constant. Public transportation may be a weird thing to zone in on when talking about a child’s identity, but there will be a year we go back to the U.S. for a visit and Elliott is totally thrown by the distinct lack of public transportation. The U.S. will represent where everyone drives, and Austria will represent where some drive, but most hop on the subway.

Public Interactions

This one is, of course, very much in process, but speaking honestly as a parent, it’s sometimes a tough and emotional aspect to observe. If you’ve not met Elliott but know the gist of who I am and how I act, then essentially, you know Elliott. He is me in a little boy’s body. He’s loud, extroverted, smiley, touchy, sensitive, and loves the people. I know many Austrians who share in these descriptors with us, the difference being: culturally, Austrians keep to themselves until a relationship is developed. Americans, however, tend to be much more “out there” with who they are and what they have to say.

A regular example used to compare American culture to Austrian culture is the difference in greetings. Americans, especially southern ones such as myself, say hello to anyone and everyone with a huge smile across their faces whereas Austrians may or may not greet a stranger, and if there is a greeting, it’s likely much more formal and much less smiley. I’ve had several years to tone down my greetings, but honestly, I kind of assumed Elliott would be more Austrian than American in this area and have been surprised by his lack of Austrianness. I’ve observed kids his age in a variety of public formats and though they certainly have their loud and misbehaving moments as Elliott does, I don’t see them eagerly greet everyone in their vicinity. One time, Elliott actually chased down two postmen to tell them hello and I love you.

When Elliott’s open, extroverted personality bursts forth, everyone tends to respond with kindness, but I can see this sort of… twinge of confusion on their faces. This was especially true at the birthday party Elliott and I went to several months ago. He spoke to his friends and their parents in English. He played and celebrated in English. He declared his love for most everyone there over and over again, in English. He got a lot of blank stares in return. He wasn’t left out and no one was mean, he just seemed so American in such an Austrian setting. It was hard to watch and resist the temptation to rescue him even though in reality, I was the one who felt awkward, left out, and misplaced.

I guess I’ve been taken aback by how quickly those fears of not wanting your kid to have socially negative experiences have entered into my parenting. And with his development of a third culture, I’m not sure what to expect which is scary. I know his German will eventually become second nature, I know he’ll find his crew. I just want him and his sister to feel at home here no matter what language they choose to speak among friends and strangers.



Speaking of language— this is a big one, and it’s also the more amusing of the third culture transitions. Elliott goes to an Austrian preschool Monday through Friday for around six hours each day. All of his teachers and classmates speak German, though the school does have a resident English-speaking teacher so the kids can begin to learn English before they head off to grade school. His teachers have told us he does speak German in class and understands everything they say, but he also has particular people with whom he only speaks English (like the English teacher) and a couple of friends whose mother tongue flip-flops between German and English. Though we personally haven’t witnessed Elliott speaking German, it is happening, and occasionally he brings it home and gifts us with a confusing retelling of his day or thought process.


We try to speak only English at home so our kids will grow up with a mother tongue (and also because our kids should not learn German from us) and Elliott does a great job at keeping us in line. Because Will and I have been learning and speaking German for the last six years, the language often slips into a conversation or a command like “Sit down, please.” Sometimes it’s easier to spit it out rather than untangle the two languages going on at once in our heads. But if Elliott hears it, he responds with a putout, “No, mama. Please don’t speak German!” I’m the worst at not mixing up my languages so I am regularly in trouble with him. He knows we speak English in this house, and that is how it’s supposed to be. He won’t even read German books with me. There are his German-speaking spaces (school, church, city) and his English-speaking spaces (home) and those spaces are not to converge.


But, whether he notices it or not, he does a good deal of mixing up the languages himself. Without getting too language class formal here, know that the German language throws verbs to the second and last position of sentences and all the other stuff gets jumbled up in the middle.


  • I want to eat a cookie —> Ich will einen Keks essen —> I want a cookie to eat
  • I will pick him up from Kindergarten at 2 o’clock —> Ich werde ihn um 14:00 Uhr vom KiGa abholen —> I will him at 2 o’clock from kindergarten pick up

Confusing, right? This is what’s going on in Elliott’s head after preschool, and because he’s been hearing, speaking, and thinking in this sentence structure all day, I mostly have no idea what he’s saying for the first five minutes or so when I pick him up. It’s like he’s created his own language that only he can understand.

Me: Did you have a good day?

Elliott: Ja, er, yes. I habe a soup to eat und, and, my friend is to me talking and we play a spiel, game, und, and, teacher say I can tomorrow some chocolate to have. She said that.

Me: …

And even after his brain has calmed down from its rapid ingesting of new vocabulary, he still confuses the two languages. His most frequent misuses are with words like ‘at’ and ‘on’ due to a couple of German verbs. The word for to look at is anschauen, and when used in a sentence (Schau mich an! Look at me!), it sounds like ‘on’. So when Elliott wants us to look at him or a toy, he says, “Look on me! Look on this train!” He does the same with at, off, and in. Basically, he throws a bunch of English words around and hopes they land in the right place. Much like I do with my German. It’s adorable and funny and very confusing to follow. But the day is coming where his German takes mine to town and he will be so embarrassed by me and for me and want me to never speak to his friends. Sounds like a good time.

Keep On Keepin’ On

These few examples are only a dose of what’s to come for Elliott, and little Lucy as well. It’s fascinating to watch them develop into fully functioning humans with thoughts and stories of their own, especially when those thoughts and stories include a sprinkling of Vienna’s language and culture. I don’t know what being a Third Culture Kid in Austria will mean or look like for my two. That makes me nervous with a hefty amount of typical parenting anxiety on the side.

But I do know this: This way of growing up is a special thing. If I’m going to be dedicated to the life we lead here, then I’m going to be doubly dedicated to supporting Elliott and Lucy through the third culture rough patches and celebrations, come as they may.


  1. Fascinating and so glad to set your new post. Thanks for sharing.
    He is going to pass you with German soon or already!

  2. Ah, such a fun post! I cannot imagine Elliot not fitting in, no matter what culture he happens to be in!

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