I would like to ask about trilingualism. I’m Italian, my partner Japanese and we live in NYC where we have a 2-month-old daughter. I speak Italian to her and my wife speaks Japanese. Our common language is English because she knows no Italian and I speak no Japanese. We want to speak our native languages to our daughter because my wife’s English is not so good, and I am very fluent but I have an accent. Most of all we would like to give our daughter the gift of speaking three languages.
What kind of problems may we encounter in the process? Please give us a few pieces of advice or refer us to some interesting article on this subject.
Valerio and Eriko
Hi Valerio and Eriko,
I have good news for you! You are probably in the ideal situation for your daughter to become trilingual. If you stay consistent with One Parent One Language and remain living in the US, your daughter will automatically pick up English as she starts school. Many children don’t start learning their third language until Kindergarten if they come from a non-English-speaking home. However, I’d recommend that she at least starts half-day preschool around three as this makes the transition to Kindergarten much easier. It will also set her up for success academically as she won’t have to be concerned with learning the language along with the content.
Using English as your language of communication between the two of you should not pose a problem as long as you are consistent in not responding to English from your daughter. My wife and I speak Turkish as the common language at home, but my daughter has never once used Turkish with me even though it’s her strongest language and, at the age of three, she clearly knows I’m fluent.
You won’t really see any difficulties arise in the process until around the age of five when her English will probably take dominance as that’s what she’ll spend all school day in. To offset this, it’s important to expose her to as much language as possible both before that age and when you’re with her. Intentionally exposing her to different vocabulary and structures and altering the language you use in the home to increase that exposure. For example, I purposefully take my daughter on trips to numerous places I may not otherwise go just to change our speech topics. I also try to chat with her about topics I might not normally chat with her about at home. I also purposefully use different structures and accents as much as I can to build that exposure. Finally, I use a lot of movies and CDs.
I also recommend to always be talking. A long car ride – amazing opportunity to talk a lot. Working on a project, have her next to you and constantly talk through what you’re doing and thinking. It takes work, but you want to fill every moment with language.
Finally, reading is very important. You will have to teach her to read in each language for her to really continue building extensive vocabulary and structures as she progresses through school. Some expat communities have weekend language schools for these things, but I can tell you that an hour or two a week at a school won’t do much. It’s really got to come from continuous exposure in the home to provide enough hours of input. She’ll probably need to focus the most on Japanese due to the three alphabets and the comparatively difficulty of kanji. Italian is very easy to learn to read and write as a native speaker since it’s phonetic, so I’d proportion time appropriately.
As long as you are consistent with One Parent One Language and avoid allowing her to speak with you in English, I foresee no major difficulties with her learning all through. To encourage a higher level of fluency above and beyond just casual conversational language for the home, you’ll want to build in the above advice.
All the best to you and your family!