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May 142017
 

Questions about raising a trilingual child and balancing the exposure to three languages

Question

Dear Rita,

first of all, I’m VERY happy I’ve stumbled across this website! It’s really interesting to read other parents’ stories and your replies, and great to see so many people are in similar situations.

This is our trilingual situation: My wife is Iranian, I am German, but I grew up speaking German and English in Swaziland, southern Africa, and lived in London for ten years (and still go back and forth for work). My wife grew up in Germany and went through the educational system in German, but only spoke Farsi at home and is also fluent in English, having lived in Dubai and in London with me.

What is my problem or question, you might think? 🙂 Well, it would be a classic trilingual OPOL situation if we still lived in London (Farsi/German at home, English in the community), but we recently moved back to Germany. My wife and I mostly speak German, sometimes switching to English when it feels easier to express certain things.
I sing and write songs in English for a living, and have only been reading, watching movies and listening to music in English for the last 16 years. My connection with English (even though it’s technically speaking not my mother tongue) is so deeply rooted and a huge part of who I am, so I don’t feel comfortable letting it go, only because we moved back to Germany and everyone speaks German here. We’re also often in situations where the common language is English and might well move back to London in a few years.

Our current plan is for my wife to speak Farsi when she’s with our daughter, I would speak English when I’m with her, and also read English bed time stories and sing English songs with and for her (like I already do now even before her birth). We’d also continue to watch movies etc. in English, which we’ve always done together. We would mainly speak German when we’re together, sometimes English, and would still sometimes address her in “our” language Farsi or English even when it’s the three of us.

I already speak some Farsi and am keen to keep learning, so I don’t have a problem with my wife speaking Farsi even though I don’t understand everything. (I’m used to it when we’re with her side of the family anyway! Haha.) My parents would speak German, my parents-in-law would speak Farsi. And we already have a confirmed spot in a bilingual daycare nearby (German/English).

1. What do you think about this plan?

2. How can we deal with her replying to us in the majority language German instead of Farsi or English because she will soon find out we both speak German?

3. Is it OK for us to also switch to speaking German with her when we’re with other people or will this be confusing?

4. Is it OK for me to still speak German with my parents (and others) in front of her but address her in English or what would you recommend?

5. Would you even recommend that I drop English and keep it bilingual with a she-will-learn-English-at-some-point-anyway approach even though it is a big part of me and my life?

6. Is there anything else we should keep in mind?

Thank you for your advice!
Kind regards,
Mo

Answer

Dear Mo

Thank you for your lovely message and wonderful description of your family’s language situation. Your daughter is lucky to grow up in an environment where she can become trilingual early on in her life.

(I numbered your questions to make the response easier to follow:)

1. Your plan is that you speak English with your daughter, your wife Farsi and your little girl will learn German from listening to you and your wife, from your parents and once she goes to daycare. Her maternal grandparents will be supporting with the Farsi exposure, and she will attend bilingual daycare in German and English.

This sounds like a great setup and I am pleased to hear that you have already thought about the situation where your wife will speak Farsi with your daughter, a language which you know only little of. Your positive attitude to knowing more Farsi is the perfect ground for learning it alongside your daughter. What I would recommend is that both you and your wife stick to your respective languages when speaking directly with your daughter – even when the three of you are together. When you do not understand something, agree to ask each other for a translation. You will soon realise that much of the conversation can be understood from the context and you will also be learning at the same time.

2. Just because your daughter finds out that you speak German does not mean she will automatically start to respond to you in the language. Establishing clear routines about who speaks what from the very start is the best guarantee of maintaining the chosen family languages. Children tend to switch to the majority language if they find it much easier to speak and especially if they are used to their parents readily switching to the majority language with them. If it were to happen with your daughter, I would recommend you to continue speaking your respective languages and try to find out what lies behind the unwillingness to speak either English or Farsi. See this article for more ideas: 4 reasons why your bilingual child answers in the “wrong” language.

3. Children do not get confused by their parents switching between different languages. This is perfectly normal behaviour from a bilingual person. However, the more you do switch to German with her, the more used she gets to speaking the language with both of you. As she will also hear you speak German with each other at home I would try to maintain English/Farsi with your daughter even when others are around. Again, translate when it feels necessary.

4. Likewise, it is fine (and recommended) that even when you speak German with your parents you should switch to English when you address your daughter (and your wife should stick to Farsi). Maintaining this consistent routine is the best safeguard for her continued use of English and Farsi. It would be good to chat about this setup with your parents in advance to pre-empt any worries they may have about not understanding their granddaughter. Ensure them that she will learn German as well and that you look forward to their support in passing on German.

5. I can see that English is a very important language to you, so no, I would not recommend that you drop it. I do not think you would be happy to decide to speak only German with your daughter. Should you move back to London in a couple of years’ time, the language dynamics would change and your daughter’s German exposure would significantly reduce, unless you find her a German nursery or school place. If you were to move, you might want to consider switching to German for at least some of the time to help her maintain the language. I would also start using German as a home language. Again, it will depend on how much other exposure she will get to German.

6. In addition to keeping an eye on enough English exposure if you stay in Germany and German exposure if you decide to move back to the U.K., you also need make sure that your daughter gets enough exposure to Farsi. This is particularly important when your daughter spends more time outside the home as she starts to attend full time daycare or school. Most of the Farsi exposure will come from your wife, so prepare by getting Farsi books and finding songs and children’ programs in Farsi. Whenever possible, arrange for other Farsi speakers for her to spend time with – your parents-in-law will be of great help here. If they do not live close by so you can frequently visit them, arrange regular video calls to stay in touch.

Please do let us know how you get on with raising your daughter to be trilingual and speak all your family languages. Feel free to ask any further questions through the comments.

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

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